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Disaster prevention aid a wise investment

Peter Walton from Australian Red Cross explains why investment in risk reduction pays off when disasters like Cyclone Pam strike.

Wednesday March 18, 2015

Vanuatu Red Cross
A Red Cross disaster management team carries out a post-cyclone assessment. Photo: Vanuatu Red Cross

First published in the Adelaide Advertiser on 18 March.

It's been a brutal week for Vanuatu and Tuvalu, just as it has for remote Australian communities while an incredible four cyclones caused havoc in our backyard.  

With each hour, we learn more about the horror Cyclone Pam has wreaked in Vanuatu. More than 100,000 lives have been shattered, and people urgently need food, safe water, shelter and basic necessities. In the country's outer islands, which in many places bore the full brunt of the ferocious Category Five storm, the situation is bleak.  

From the northern tip to the far south of the country, people are left without homes and livelihoods. Assessments from Tanna Island and Shepherd Islands indicate near-total destruction of homes, schools, buildings and crops.  

People living in remote Pacific islands rely largely on subsistence farming for survival. Cyclones like Pam ruin the crops that feed people and destroy infrastructure that has taken years to build. Most frightening of all, with many airstrips still inaccessible, injured and sick people have no way to get professional medical help until rescue planes or boats arrive.  

It may be hard for many Australians to imagine such devastation - but I think we should try. Waking up to a world where your house and livelihood has been destroyed, where your children no longer have a school, where there are no shops left to buy essentials. Where you have no idea where your next meal or even safe drinking water may come from. All of this in a setting where this is the daunting reality for almost everyone you know. How do you begin to recover?  

Red Cross was at work well before the cyclone struck, getting as many people as possible safely into evacuation centres and sending radio warnings to provinces outside the capital. And we've been working tirelessly ever since: providing first aid to the injured; distributing water, blankets and tarpaulins for shelter; and comforting terrified and grieving families. On the outer islands, Red Cross volunteers with first aid training may be the only medical help available right now.  

We're amazed by the generosity of the Australian people who have already responded to our Cyclone Pam Appeal. Your support will help provide safe drinking water and sanitation facilities, preventing diseases from spreading. It will also ensure families have blankets and other essentials. It will provide emergency shelter from the ongoing rain and wind. Just as important as anything else, it will help people protect themselves from the next cyclone - we are still in the cyclone season.  

The more we invest in in preparing well for disasters, the less we need to spend on disaster response and the more lives we can save. Typhoon Haiyan claimed more than 7,000 lives in the Philippines in 2013. Yet when another potentially destructive storm, Typhoon Hagupit, passed over similar areas just over a  year later, the death toll was much lower, at 27 people. The main difference? Philippine authorities and humanitarian agencies had strengthened emergency plans and worked together to evacuate at least a million people to safe shelters.  

Disaster preparation makes sound economic sense as well. According to the Australian Business Roundtable for Disaster Resilience & Safer Communities, a national investment in disaster resilience and preventative activities can reduce the cost of disaster response by more than 50 per cent. And a cost-benefit analysis of Red Cross community-based programs found that for every dollar spent on disaster risk reduction we could save at least 15 dollars in response.  More importantly, however, we would save lives.  

As Vanuatu begins the long road of recovery, let's put more effort into building safer homes, villages and cities. Let's help train and equip local emergency services so they can respond first and save more lives. Let's invest in better disaster warning systems and in families knowing how to protect their homes and possessions.  

With investments in aid shrinking, the most vulnerable people in our region need the Australian community more than ever. Not just to pick up the pieces when disaster strikes, but to safeguard their loved ones and homes from emergencies yet to come.  

Peter Walton is Head of International Programs at Australian Red Cross.