Economic Recovery after Natural Disasters

By Deraniyagala, Sonali | UN Chronicle, May 2016 | Go to article overview

Economic Recovery after Natural Disasters


Deraniyagala, Sonali, UN Chronicle


Natural disasters shatter lives. I know. In 2004, the Indian Ocean tsunami shattered mine.

They also wreck communities and, sometimes, even entire countries. Sudden cataclysmic disasters such as earthquakes, tsunamis, hurricanes and floods cause devastation on impact. Slow-onset disasters such as droughts inflict persistent damage over time.

The loss of life in recent events alone is staggering. Some 250,000 were killed across several countries in the 2004 tsunami. An estimated 140,000 lives were lost in the 2010 earthquake in Haiti. In Myanmar, 120,000 perished when Cyclone Nargis hit in 2008. The Kashmir earthquake in Pakistan in 2005 and the Sichuan earthquake in China in 2008 each killed more than 85,000. The earthquake and tsunami that hit Japan in 2011 resulted in the death of 18,000 people. Extreme drought was one cause of 230,000 deaths in Somalia between 2010 and 2012. Every one of those lives was precious--individual, intricate, human. The glare of numbers sometimes blinds us to this.

The scale of these catastrophes makes it impossibly difficult to cope and recover in their aftermath. Survivors and affected communities are left reeling from the loss of lives and livelihoods. Nations and Governments confront the giant task of restoring and rebuilding destroyed assets--both economic and social.

But clarity in our understanding of the challenges of post-disaster economic development is imperative. Globally, our exposure to the perils of these events is likely to increase in the future. Climate change is predicted to intensify the severity of extreme weather events. In addition, the number of us living in hazard-prone contexts will only increase as we move to cities that have inadequate disaster prevention or to geographical areas (flood plains, steep hillsides) that are especially vulnerable to hazards.

THE ECONOMIC LOSSES FROM DISASTERS

The destructive effects of natural disasters are felt more in poorer countries than in more prosperous ones. While both rich and poor nations are subject to natural hazards, most of the 3.3 million disaster-related deaths over the last 40 years occurred in poor countries. For instance, the magnitude 7.0 earthquake in Haiti in 2010 resulted in an estimated 140.000 deaths and ruinous economic losses, while the magnitude 9.1 earthquake in Chile in the same year killed 500 people and had a relatively small negative impact on the national economy.

The economic damage caused by disasters varies. Capital assets and infrastructure such as housing, schools, factories and equipment, roads, dams and bridges are lost. Human capital is depleted due to the loss of life, the loss of skilled workers and the destruction of education infrastructure that disrupts schooling. A country's natural resources may also be affected--hurricanes destroy forests, hurricanes and droughts decrease soil fertility. Recurrent natural disasters can result in "adaptive behaviour" by individuals and communities that brings on further economic loss. Farmers may invest less to increase productivity of their land in drought-prone areas for fear of their investment being lost.

THE POOR ARE DISPROPORTIONATELY AFFECTED

The poor are the hardest hit by natural disasters. Mortality rates are typically highest among those with the lowest incomes. They are more likely to live in hazard-prone areas or to have fragile housing. When Cyclone Nargis struck the Irrawaddy Delta in Myanmar in 2008, one in two families had their homes completely destroyed by wind and flooding. In Haiti, mortality from the earthquake of 2010 was highest among the urban poor of Port-au-Prince, who lived in poorly constructed, crowded housing.

The poor also suffer disproportionately from the loss of economic assets. Natural disasters destroy farms, livestock, workshops and equipment. Families maybe forced to sell off assets to meet basic needs--rural families in drought-stricken regions often sell cattle to purchase food. …

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