Disaster data is a disaster, but not for long (part 2)
A conversation with Julio Serje – UNISDR data scientist
Part 2 of 4
Whitespace: You mentioned poverty as a factor. Are there other factors involved? And do you think that disasters are increasing due to climate change or the fact that we’re building more along coastlines? What’s the exposure equation and how does that play into it?
Julio Serje: I think it’s all of the above. I would probably add that bad planning is a huge factor in this. Which is associated with a lack of resources in countries. On the one hand, you have chronic poverty in a given population, which is one big factor because people in poverty have very limited choices of investment in better housing and better building locations. But it’s also a question of planning. In many countries there are no resources to actually plan, execute, and enforce urban plans that assist citizens in managing the risk.
Again, this is a problem that has to be seen at all scales and as a problem of development. This exposure is because of population growth. The more people we are, the more space we have to occupy and the more possibilities that we build in the wrong places.
I’ve seen people living in cardboard houses, where moving to a risk-prone area and into a real house is a huge improvement. How can you blame them? It’s very difficult. (Julio Serje)
This happens even in fully-developed countries. When you see floods in Europe, the US, and East Asia, you see that as our population has increased, we tend to expand into riskier zones. And for commercial reasons, we still make wrong decisions. We build on coastlines because there’s a good view or because it’s a posh neighborhood, or whatever. But then you are still developing in the wrong places. It’s very challenging, I believe, to follow all the rules and all the recommendations and go against social pressure, which is very difficult to manage.
Now, in poor countries, the problem is exponential because it’s a combination of the poverty of people that have no resources to invest in their own safety and their own security, and the lack of resources in poor countries that do not allow countries to act.
I remember in one of my first missions to Africa when I came and I started speaking with some people about risk reduction. There was some guy that was deeply skeptical about what we were saying. He said, “Look, what you’re saying sounds very nice, but actually I do not think we can do many things that you are proposing because, for us, it’s more important right now to put in place the water system that people urgently need, or the school that the community needs. Investing in risk reduction, or to even thinking about retrofitting buildings and so on … we just don’t have the money.”
Since then, we’ve shifted the dialogue in a great manner to say, “Look, if you cannot invest in risk, at least whatever you do, try to think twice to make it safer before you do it.” And here we come to the whole story about risk-proofing public investment, which is now starting to permeate the awareness of politicians. The question is, how can countries with low resources do adequate planning and development in a smart way so that what they do is not creating new risks?
I believe that in many cases it’s an unsolvable problem. You use the land that you have or you don’t. It’s hard to develop a city by restricting yourself to places that are safe. The cities make calls like this. They say, “Look, we will have to develop this area of the city. It has risks, but we will be able to provide water, to build the sewage, roads, etc., because it’s the only place we have resources to do so.”
The truth is that we’re making progress. There’s more and more political pressure on governments, and now there are signs that tell us that we’re getting better at managing risk. I’m not trying to paint a too pessimistic picture. There are many organizations, communities, governments, and people that are working on disaster risk reduction. It’s not perfect, but, we’re getting there. (Julio Serje)
Whitespace: Since we’re on the topic of economic development, other people have written about this and have pointed to the fact that there are structural silos in place between disaster and risk reduction issues, versus development issues, versus climate issues … when in fact they’re all interlinked. Yet still, in the international community and in national government administrations, people behave as if they’re separate topics.
Julio Serje: Yes, and there is still a big big problem which is the issue of acceptable risk, not only from the public sector, but also from the private sector and from the citizens themselves. What is the level of risk that you would accept? Let’s assume you live in poverty and are given the opportunity to finally have a roof and a place to shelter your family. Even if there is a high-risk component, many citizens would say, “Yes, I will go for it even if it’s risky.”
It’s the same with governments. Governments take risky decisions because they know that risk is still a probability. For politicians, it’s a bet. “I will build this new development and I will look good. And if in the next 10 years nothing terrible happens, I will be retired by then anyway, so it’s not my problem when disaster strikes.”
And in some cases it’s understandable. I’ve seen people living in cardboard houses, where moving to a risk-prone area and into a real house is a huge improvement. How can you blame them? It’s very difficult.
Whitespace: Where does the private sector come into all of this?
Julio Serje: The private sector, interestingly enough, also thinks about risk and they invest in risky zones with eyes wide open. They factor in risk as a contingency and they even purposely build in risk areas because from the investment point of view it is profitable.
Whitespace: Sounds gloomy. Are things going to get worse before they get better?
Julio Serje: The truth is that we’re making progress. There’s more and more political pressure on governments, and now there are signs that tell us that we’re getting better at managing risk. I’m not trying to paint a too pessimistic picture. There are many organizations, communities, governments, and people that are working on disaster risk reduction. It’s not perfect, but, we’re getting there.
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