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Time to rethink our approach to disasters

It's time to rethink disaster management, says Red Cross CEO Judy Slatyer. We spend too much on meeting needs today and nowhere near enough on saving lives tomorrow.

Thursday October 13, 2016

Disaster recovery
Everyone - from families to businesses to governments - can take practical steps to prepare for disasters and reduce our risks. Photo: Australian Red Cross/Rodney Dekker

An edited version of this article first appeared in The Daily Telegraph, 13/10/16.

No matter where we live, disasters affect us all. Even as we're cleaning up the debris from howling wind storms and sudden floods in our own backyards, many Australians have been spared the worst.  

On our TVs, we've been seeing tragic images of Hurricane Matthew's fury. In Haiti, Cuba and the United States, thousands are in mourning after losing loved ones in the wake of the hurricane.  

According to the Red Cross World Disasters Report 2016, released today, disasters killed 32,550 people in 2015, affected 108 million more and cost the world $92.5 billion.   

As a global community, we don't cope with disasters very well. We spend too much on clean up and recovery because we spend nowhere near enough on prevention or mitigation.  

Last year's natural disasters cost Australia at least $9 billion, according to research commissioned by the Australian Business Roundtable for Disaster Resilience and Safer Communities. That's expected to double by 2030 and reach $33 billion per year by 2050.  

Yet we spent barely $50 million to prepare for these disasters, even though we could see them coming.  

This trend is reflected around the world. The World Disasters Report states that just one out of eight dollars allocated to disaster management is spent on reducing and preventing risks. This makes no sense when global economic losses from extreme weather events now reach $197-263 billion dollars annually.  

Let's rebalance our budgets so we can prevent needs tomorrow instead of just meeting needs today. This won't just keep costs down. It will save lives, prevent needless suffering, protect economies, maintain livelihoods and keep people out of poverty.  

The Australian Business Roundtable research found that every dollar spent on disaster risk reduction saves three to eight dollars in the costs of recovery. The Productivity Commission has also called for an increase in disaster mitigation measures.  

The World Disasters Report takes this a step further, arguing that investing in resilience is the best way to save lives and money.  

'Resilience' can be tricky to define precisely. In essence, it's what helps people adapt to, cope with and recover from adversity. It can be as personal as a family emergency plan, or as large-scale as a citywide approach to building. It includes disaster mitigation (building flood levees or forest fire management, for example) but goes further to encompass public health, community education, psychological wellbeing, economic stability and recovery.  

The evidence is stacking up that it's a wise investment, whatever form it takes.

We've just seen how pre-emptive evacuations across the United States helped keep the death toll down when Hurricane Matthew hit. The World Disasters Report cites many more examples: from flood mitigation strategies in Somalia to safety net programs in Kenya preventing poverty in drought.  

It's time to ramp up our efforts in Australia. In line with the Productivity Commission's 2015 report, Australian Red Cross is calling for a significant national increase in investment in disaster risk reduction and community resilience. This should apply for Australian communities as well as our overseas aid program.  

In The Guardian last week, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull said: "We need to spend more in advance so that we have to spend less after the rainfall events or the bushfire events that occur so it's important to invest in mitigation, in advance."  

We all have a part to play in this investment.  

We know, for example, that measures like building flood levies, reinforcing bridges, identifying hazards and strengthening community networks can greatly reduce the impact of disasters. We're asking all levels of government to prioritise these measures.  

Businesses would benefit from understanding how disasters will affect their operations, investing in reducing risks and providing incentives to their customers to do the same.

Emergency management agencies, including Red Cross, have an important role to play. We need to help all Australians make informed decisions about their risks and what they can do to build resilience.  

Every family can find its own way to prepare for emergencies: identifying what they value most and how to protect it, building social connections, staying informed and making a plan. Red Cross has a simple, four-step plan to help people protect what they value most.  

Working together is the key to success. We need more initiatives like the Australian Business Roundtable, in which leaders from major businesses work together with Red Cross to make communities safer.  

Meanwhile, let's keep talking about disaster preparation and resilience. Preparing for a flood, fire or hazard should be embedded in our culture, as commonplace as wearing a seat belt in a car.  

Our overseas aid program needs a similar approach, because disasters set back sustainable development. We could invest much more in practical ways to protect lives, homes and families: from disaster drills and evacuation plans, to public health, weather-resistant housing and livelihoods. Most importantly, we need locally-generated ideas to make communities safer and better able to cope with adversity.  

Natural disasters are increasing in scale and frequency, compounded by a changing climate. Without smarter ways to reduce risk, they'll soon cost far more than our country can bear. Let's invest, today, in a safer future for tomorrow.  

Judy Slatyer is CEO of Australian Red Cross.