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Extreme Poor Hit Hardest by Natural Disasters

A man (L) paddles a makeshift raft as residents walks past a partially submerged car on a flooded street in Yuyao, Zhejiang province, Oct.11, 2013.
A new report says hundreds of millions of extremely poor people could be at the mercy of natural disasters in the coming years

It says unless they are better prepared to face droughts and floods, extreme poverty cannot be eliminated. Extreme poverty is defined as living on less than one dollar and 25 cents a day – and there are growing calls to eliminate it by 2030. It could become one of the new goals to replace the Millennium Development Goals, which expire in 2015.

In a new report, Britain’s Overseas Development Institute (ODI) says ending extreme poverty is unlikely until governments “come to terms with the increased risk of natural disasters in some of the poorest parts of the world.”

The report, titled The Geography of Poverty, Disasters and Climate Extremes in 2030, says hundreds of millions of extremely poor people could be at the mercy of natural disasters in the coming years. It says unless they are better prepared to face droughts and floods, extreme poverty cannot be eliminated.

One of the authors of the report is ODI’s head of Climate Change, Dr. Tom Mitchell. Dr. Mitchell says there is a “very close overlap” between poverty and the countries most exposed to natural hazards. “And now this shouldn’t really come as a surprise,” he notes, “because we know that the poorest and most vulnerable people get hit hardest by extreme events.”

The report says 11 countries are most at risk of disaster-induced poverty: Bangladesh, DRC, Ethiopia, Kenya, Madagascar, Nepal, Nigeria, Pakistan, Sudan, South Sudan and Uganda. Ten other countries have high proportions of people in poverty, plus high hazard exposure and insufficient risk management. But the report singles out India for special mention.

In 2030, experts anticipate that a significant number of poor people—perhaps 100 million—will still live in India. In addition, the country will be extremely exposed to natural hazards.

“It’s got very good central capacity to manage the problem,” Dr. Mitchell said, “but at state level—some of which are as big as countries by themselves—the capacity is much more variable. And so earlier in the year we saw floods in Uttarakhand that killed in excess of 5,000 people, highlighting that you can get it right in one state for one hazard, but there are a whole bunch of other things that need to be dealt with.”

It’s not that the extreme poor are unlucky to live in areas most prone to disaster. As Mitchell points out, natural disasters do not discriminate.

“It’s actually people who discriminate and governments who discriminate. So what you find is that the poorest and most vulnerable people are living in the most exposed areas – whether in informal settlements on the edge of cities or in remote rural areas with poor access to early warnings or to infrastructure. And in that regard they are in an acute position in terms of their exposure, and they have very little assets to cope,” he said.

They also have no insurance to cover the loss of their property and belongings. And expectations that governments help the poorest and most vulnerable cope with disasters are rarely met.

“What you tend to find,” Mitchell said, “is that where there are government programs they focus predominantly on big cities or high value infrastructure that might be important to foreign business interests. Very, very rarely do they focus on the poorest and most vulnerable regions, even though they may be also some of the most exposed to natural hazard.”

He says countries most in need are getting very little international aid for preparedness and risk reduction—less than $2 million USD per year each.

To governments that don’t take the report’s findings seriously, Mitchell says disaster risk management needs to be at the heard of policies if the governments wish to end extreme poverty and protect economic growth.

“Otherwise, if you look at it completely rationally, you’re going to be losing more,” Mitchell said. “More people are going to be affected. And actually not taking this seriously is going to be bad for business.”

The Overseas Development Institute report recommends making natural disaster risk management a cornerstone of efforts to reduce poverty. Those efforts, it says, should “focus on saving livelihoods as well as lives.”

But much more money would be needed. The report estimates that for every $100 of official development assistance only $.40 is spent on reducing disaster risk.