As firefighters and volunteers battle blazes that continue around much of south-east Australia, heartbreaking stories are emerging from towns in Tasmania, Victoria and NSW, where people have seen their homes and communities destroyed by flames.
Bushfires are, sadly, a part of life in our country. But we are not alone in feeling nature’s fury.
According to the most recent Red Cross World Disasters Report 2012, natural events claimed more than 31,000 lives in 2011 and cost more than $350 billion in damages around the world.
In many regions, disasters are increasing in frequency and intensity. Disasters destroy lives and communities.
The number of reported weather-related disasters in some of the world’s poorest countries has, on average, more than trebled over the past three decades, threatening to overwhelm the world’s ability to respond. This trend is unlikely to reverse, particularly given the world’s continued failure to tackle climate change.
The negative impact in poor countries is especially severe with limited capacity to withstand shocks and stresses and to build strong, hopeful and resilient lives.
But the good news is we are getting better at preparing for disasters and reducing their impact.
When a powerful 8.8 magnitude earthquake struck Chile in 2010, the death toll and damage was significantly less than the 7.0 quake that devastated Haiti the same year. This was because of Chile’s investment in early-warning systems, evacuation planning and earthquake-proofing of buildings.
The 1991 cyclone in Bangladesh killed 140,000 people, 90 per cent of these deaths were women. In comparison, when Cyclone Sidr struck densely populated parts of the country in 2007, there were, tragically, still deaths but they were far fewer, numbering 3400, with around two-thirds being women.
While any death is too many, the stark difference in loss of life is because of investment in disaster risk reduction measures at national and community levels.
In other words, work to disaster-proof vulnerable communities can help save lives.
It is promising to see Australia’s strong support of this work.
Between 2010 and 2011, Australia increased its spending on disaster risk reduction activities in developing countries from $59 million to more than $102 million. In July last year, it announced a further $100 million package to help developing countries reduce their vulnerability to natural disasters.
While Australia has been setting a positive example, global disaster risk reduction work is still incredibly underfunded. Just one dollar out of every 100 dollars spent on development aid is allocated to reducing disaster risk.
One of the main impediments to increased spending in disaster risk reduction is a lack of political will – particularly in poorer countries – to prioritise this work. Activities to reduce the risk of disasters can be seen as costly and often without political benefits.
The recent diversion of $375 million from Australia’s overseas aid program to support asylum seekers in Australia means that Australia’s increased investment in disaster risk reduction may suffer setbacks.
So far, the Australian Government has promised that only core payments to non-government agencies and funding for groups critical to humanitarian crises will not be affected.
Globally, one dollar invested in reducing the risk of disaster has been found to save seven dollars in response and recovery costs after a disaster. Investment in risk reduction will protect homes from being destroyed or washed away. It will reduce the risk of crop losses – people’s source of food and income. And, most importantly, it will help to save lives.
By Alexia Huxley, acting Executive Director, Oxfam Australia
This opinion editorial was first published in the Adelaide Advertiser on 10 January 2013.