"The sea won't rise any further. God promised Noah he'd never do it again."
The World Disasters Report 2014 challenges governments and disaster management agencies to factor culture and human behaviour into their disaster management planning. Without this, disaster risk reduction projects will fail because they ignore how people really relate to risk.
The World Disasters Report is an annual, highly-respected publication from the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC). Each year the report presents the latest thinking on disaster management, as well as global disaster statistics.
Download the complete World Disasters Report 2014.
Disasters in 2013: the stats
Last year there were 529 disasters around the world, affecting 100 million people. Incredibly, that was the best year of the last decade, disaster-wise.
- There were 337 natural disasters and 192 technological disasters.
- The number of disasters and people affected in 2013 are the lowest of the decade.
- The two deadliest disasters were Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines, which claimed 7,968 lives and the June monsoon floods in India, which caused 6,054 deaths.
- 87 per cent of people affected by disasters in 2013 live in Asia.
- In the last 20 years, disasters have killed 1.3 million people, affected 4.4 billion people and cost $1.9 trillion in damage.
What does culture have to do with risk?
"A religious figure convinced a million people that if they got up in the middle of the night and washed with salt water while reading from the Bible, they would be protected from Ebola."
Every community, whether poor or prosperous, has a set of belief systems, cultural attitudes and hierarchies. These influence and define how people perceive, analyse and act upon risks.
The report asks, for example, what should be done when people blame a flood on an angry goddess (River Kosi, India, in 2008) or a volcanic eruption on a mountain god (Mount Merapi). In Tuvalu, opposition to climate change arises from the belief that a major flood would not recur because of God's promise to Noah that it would not happen again.
The current Ebola outbreak in West Africa demonstrates that efforts to stop the deadly disease will fail if we do not address misperceptions and cultural beliefs about how it is spread and treated.
What should disaster agencies do?
Why is a shaman like a meteorologist? They both help people make sense of uncertain weather.
Hundreds of millions of people live in dangerous places - the sides of volcanoes, earthquake fault zones and coasts exposed to storms and tsunamis - because these places enable them to make a living.
Disaster management agencies need to recognise why people live with risks, how they view and explain them, and where this may differ from our expectations. We need to recognise that a 'community' is actually made up of different - and often opposing social groups - and not treat them as a single entity. Additionally, rebuilding after a disaster must take into account the value of local building cultures, as well as traditional skills and materials.