Climate Action

The world is facing more disasters. This is how data can help us reduce that risk

U.S. Army Sgt. Delton Reynolds, left, a flight engineer with Joint Task Force - Leeward Islands, joins a chain with local residents and members of the Jamaican Defence Force to unload relief supplies from a CH-47 Chinook helicopter at Wotten Waven, Dominica, Oct. 3, 2017. The aircraft delivered rice and kitchen sets from the U.S. Agency for International Development to the community. At the request of USAID, JTF-LI has deployed aircraft and service members to assist in delivering relief supplies to Dominica in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria. The task force is a U.S. military unit composed of Marines, Soldiers, Sailors and Airmen, and represents U.S. Southern Command’s primary response to the hurricanes that have affected the eastern Caribbean. (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Sgt. Ian Leones)

No country is immune ... close to 100% of the population of Dominica was displaced by Hurricane Maria in 2017. Image: Ian Leones/US Dept of Defense

Alexandra Bilak
Director, Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre
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Risk is an everyday feature of our lives. How we react to it, who pays and who benefits, reveals much about our societies and their values. The risk of disaster can never be fully removed, but it can be managed and reduced, and its assessment – based first on data and then on analysis – is the first step towards engaging responsibly with it.

Every year since 1989, 13 October has been the International Day for Disaster Reduction; this year the UN General Assembly has renamed it as the International Day for Disaster Risk Reduction.

As we mark this new day, the world must collectively acknowledge its failure to reduce the number of disasters it faces. There are now more disasters taking place in the world: according to the Centre for Research on the Epidemiology of Disasters, there were 313 disasters in 2018, up from 100 in 1980 and 60 in 2000. But the world must limit the risks which allow disasters to happen and prepare itself for when they do occur.

Have you read?

However much we do or don’t own our level of responsibility for disasters, disasters do move the public consciousness because they physically move people, largely within their own countries’ borders.

At least 265 million people have been internally displaced by disaster since the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre (IDMC) began capturing this form of data in 2008 – that’s 24 million people per year on average. The figure is, in fact, larger given that we have only been able to quantify drought-induced displacement since 2017.

In the first half of 2019, the IDMC reports, nearly 4 million people worldwide were uprooted by conflict and 7 million by disasters. For the whole of 2018, the figures were 11 and 17 million respectively. Cyclone Fani alone drove almost 3.5 million people from their homes in India and Bangladesh in May of this year.

Total annual new displacements since 2003 (Conflict and violence) and 2008 (Disasters)
Total annual new displacements since 2003 (Conflict and violence) and 2008 (Disasters) Image: IDMC

No country is immune from disaster displacement. The IDMC has recorded it in 190 countries and in 2018, with more than a million displaced people, the US was behind only India, China and the Philippines. Sometimes it makes headlines – close to 100% of the population of Dominica was displaced by Hurricane Maria in 2017. More often, it doesn’t: in the last month, flooding forced 2,000 people from their homes in both Senegal and South Sudan and just three in tiny Tobago.

Given the impact of climate change and the increasing number of people living in hazard-prone areas, we can only expect the number of people displaced to increase in the future. Based on a decade of historical data and given what we know about the seasonality of weather-related disasters, we estimate the number of people likely to be displaced by year-end to be around 22 million, making 2019 an above-average year.

Number of IDPs and refugees
Number of IDPs and refugees Image: IDMC for IDP data; UNHCR and UNRWA for refugee data (2018 figures not yet available)
We know the risk, but what should we do about it?

Firstly, we should collect more data that looks to the future and reduces risk.

The IDMC’s disaster displacement risk model estimates risk for multiple hazards for more than 200 countries and territories. The snapshot it provides identifies hotspots where urgent action is required. Not surprisingly, the countries most at risk are those which have recorded the most displacement in the last decade. India, China, Bangladesh, Vietnam and the Philippines are most at risk, but so is the US.

Disaster-related new displacements by hazard category
Disaster-related new displacements by hazard category Image: IDMC

Meanwhile, the quest for accurate, timely and usable data is unending. The IDMC’s report, Disaster Displacement: A global review, published in May 2019, identifies the critical gaps and suggests how to fill them. Countries must know categorically how many people are evacuated or displaced before, during and after a disaster.

Secondly, we should make good use of that smarter data.

Compare and contrast two responses to recent cyclones, one based on data and preparedness and the other not. Cyclone Fani in May 2019 took “only” 80 lives and many of the 3.4 million displaced people were evacuees moved to safety in a pre-planned operation. Contrastingly, Cyclone Idai in March 2019 killed more than 750 people in Mozambique and displaced almost half-a-million people into areas which had no capacity to receive them.

Planning is everything. Data charts risk and risk spurs planning

This year, the International Day for Disaster Reduction highlights Target D of the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction, which aims to reduce disaster damage to critical infrastructure and the disruption of basic services. The truth is that we do not yet fully understand how infrastructure failures generate displacement, nor how displacement places additional strain on lifeline infrastructure and basic services.

A first step to guiding more investment towards resilient infrastructure is to quantify the economic damage that disaster can cause, including the cost of disaster displacement. An IDMC report on the direct economic impact of internal displacement calculated a global total of $13 billion a year. It carried out detailed estimates on major disaster displacement situations and in each country the cost of providing humanitarian assistance to basic services and infrastructure was found to be significant.

The Haiti earthquake of 2010 resulted in direct costs of $170 million a year until 2017, equivalent to 2.6% of pre-crisis GDP annually. Displacement associated with Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines in 2013 incurred an estimated cost of $816 million in just six months. In Somalia, displacement related to droughts and floods in 2017-2018 resulted in a cumulative cost of $519 million or 5% of pre-disaster GDP.

The task for governments is to use this data to diminish risk – this seemingly small word with large ramifications. On this year’s International Day for Disaster Risk Reduction, we salute the fact that risk has been put into the title of the day, in order for it to be taken out of the equation.

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