Nature and Biodiversity

How can we reduce the impact of climate disasters? 

Jones Fire, Big Fall Creek Road, Lowell, United States.

Wildfires have hit the headlines again this year. Image: Marcus Kauffman/Unsplash

David Malpass
Président, Groupe de la Banque mondiale
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Future of the Environment

  • David Malpass, President of the World Bank, looks at how we can mitigate the impacts of climate disasters.
  • Private companies and investors can support adaptation and resilience, investing, for example, in hurricane-proof houses, efficient irrigation, resilient microgrids.
  • With commitment from governments, multilateral lenders like the Bank Group, and the private sector, the solutions are achievable.

Climate-related disasters are frequent and severe, but there is encouraging evidence that we can prepare for and manage them. If we look back to South Asia’s Cyclone Bhola in 1970 or Hurricane Katrina in the United States in 2005, we see disasters that cost thousands of lives and inflicted damage in the billions. By comparison, some recent storms – Cyclone Fani in 2019 and last month’s Hurricane Ida – have hit communities hard but caused far less damage to lives and economies.

While no two disasters are the same, we can do more today to increase preparedness, reduce impacts, and support a resilient recovery. Key actions can make a difference for the people and communities that are in the eye of natural disasters.

The poorer a community is, the more vulnerable it is to natural hazards and climate change. Today, disasters push 26 million people into poverty each year. For farm families with limited savings, a flood or drought that ruins crops is economically devastating. And this is both in the short term – with lost income reducing access to food and other necessities – and the longer term, as effects on education and health limit children’s horizons for a lifetime.

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Inclusive development and poverty reduction are essential to protecting the poor from disasters. Improving access to financial, technical, and institutional resources will make them better able to respond to climate change. In fact, development progress could reduce by half the number of people that climate change will push into poverty by 2030.

Adaptation is a struggle for households and for the small firms that power local economies in developing economies. They have incentives to adapt – families and entrepreneurs know what climate disruption means for supplies, clients, and outputs. But they need support to prepare, guidance on investments, as well as financing, especially where solutions have high upfront costs.

"While no two disasters are the same, we can do more today to increase preparedness, reduce impacts, and support a resilient recovery. Key actions can make a difference for the people and communities that are in the eye of natural disasters."

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How has the World Economic Forum helped initiate a more effective response to natural disasters and humanitarian crises?

Private companies and investors can support adaptation and resilience, investing, for example, in hurricane-proof houses, efficient irrigation, resilient micro-grids, and supply chains and logistics that limit the disruption when disasters hit. And they could innovate more: today, only 0.5 per cent of global patents are advancing climate adaptation and resilience. The key is to prepare national plans with market assessments that can crowd in the private sector.

Adaptation helps communities cope when disasters strike, recover quickly, and avoid long-term consequences. Early warning systems can save lives and deliver benefits that exceed their cost by factors of at least 4 to 10. Social protection systems can deliver quick support after a natural disaster and also assist in crises such as droughts in Kenya and Ethiopia.

Governments can adapt urban and land-use plans to long-term climate risks and avoid locking people and investments into high-risk areas. This will make public investments, assets, and services more resilient. Today, developing countries lose some $390 billion a year when disasters knock out power and water and disrupt transport. But with better data and governance, infrastructure services could become more reliable. Building resilience into new infrastructure assets would increase upfront costs by only around 3 per cent, whereas each dollar invested would avert $4 in losses on average.

The World Bank Group’s adaptation finance, which includes IDA grants and zero or low-interest loans for the poorest countries, focuses on tangible outcomes. In Niger, better land management brought a 62 per cent increase in crop yields. In Mozambique, where our earlier investments helped reduce damage from cyclones, we are helping rebuild with resilient roads and transport links. Protecting the environment also supports nature-based solutions. For instance, coral reefs and mangroves offer natural barriers against storms, and preserving them brings climate mitigation and economic benefits. Bank-funded coastal zone projects are expanding mangroves in India and helping six countries in West Africa restore wetlands and limit coastal erosion.

Climate impacts must also be managed at the macroeconomic level. In many countries, they will affect tax revenues, the trade balance, and capital flows. The impacts across sectors require strategic planning at the highest levels. One win-win intervention is to build an economy’s overall resilience, by diversifying its economic structures, export composition, and tax base.

The solutions outlined here – protecting the poorest, buffering local economies, investing in resilience, and preparing for macro-level impacts – require major investments. But with commitment from governments, multilateral lenders like the Bank Group, and the private sector, they are achievable.

We cannot prevent disasters, and climate change makes them an imminent threat. But together we can lessen their impact, especially for the poorest and most vulnerable people.

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