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UN: global risks call for unified solutions

September 16, 2022
topics: Natural disaster
by: Ekpali Saint
located in: Nigeria, USA
tags: climate action, climate change, flooding, natural disasters, Nigeria, United Nations, USA

A recent United Nations report states that the natural disasters of the past year share underlying root-causes, drivers and impacts, and calls for sustainable, globally coordinated solutions and interventions to meet upcoming risks.   

The Interconnected Disaster Risks report analyses 10 disasters that took place in 2021 and 2022 from around the world, mainly to identify their causes and figure out ways to avert similar catastrophes in the future. The disasters include the British Columbia heatwave, Haiti earthquake, Hurricane Ida, Lagos floods, Mediterranean wildfires, Southern Madagascar food insecurity, Taiwan drought, Tonga Volcano eruption, vanishing Vaquita, and wandering elephants. 

“The report wants to show people how disasters around the world are interconnected," Dr. Jack O’Connor, senior expert at the United Nations University Institute for Environment and Human Security the lead author of the report, told FairPlanet. The report argues there are direct links between the causes of different disasters across regions.

“For Lagos, there are few interconnections with other cases in the report that we highlighted, [such as the] city not being prepared for climate extremes and infrastructure being vulnerable," Dr. O’Connor said.

"This also was the case in New York City. New York is not immune and New York infrastructure is also not prepared. So there is a connection of unprepared infrastructure.” 

The frequency of severe weather events caused by identifiable human activity is increasing disasters worldwide. For instance, natural disasters increased from 39 incidents in 1960 to 396 in 2019 and displaced 25 million people in 2019 alone, with flooding identified as the most common ecological threat, according to a 2020 ecological threat register. 

The impact of these disasters is enormous. According to the Interconnected Disaster Risk report, disasters in the past year alone took around 10,000 human lives and cost over $280 billion in damage worldwide.

‘Interconnected solutions’

The report's authors argue that proposed solutions and interventions must factor in the multifaceted nature of disasters and address their interconnected root-causes.

Highlighting this point, Dr. O’Connor referenced the example of New York City and Lagos, both of which grapple with infrastructure problems.

"If both places are struggling with heavy rains [and] if you are able to address the root cause of urbanisation and ecosystem loss, and design green infrastructure and restore the ecosystem to bring nature back into the equation," he said, "this could be tools to help cities cope with extreme rainfall."

O’Connor added that embedding nature’s processes into solutions could contribute significantly in reducing hazards and disasters around the world.

According to the report, "solutions that let nature work include prescribed burning to prevent megafires (Mediterranean wildfires), restoring forest ecosystems to stabilize the soil and prevent land degradation (Haiti earthquake, Taiwan drought, Southern Madagascar food insecurity), or regenerating urban streams and rivers and applying risk-aware urban planning to reduce flood risk (Hurricane Ida)."

'Government is not interested'

The report also advocates for a strong early-warning system that could prevent or reduce various disaster risks, arguing that such an enhanced system would have reduced fatalities in the disasters that hit the world this past year. 

But such a system on its own might be insufficient in certain countries. In Nigeria, for instance, an early warning system will not be enough without proper planning and action from the government, Charles Oyibo, an environmental scientist and lecturer at the Niger Delta University on Wilberforce Island, told FairPlanet. 

Oyibo pointed out that in a city like Lagos, to which people people come from rural areas in the hope of accessing better economic opportunities, an early warning system won’t be enough to mitigate disaster impacts, and would need to be utilised in conjunction with practical measures and plans for those in the flood-prone areas.

“Every other solution that was recommended [in the report] is ideal and apt, except the early warning,"he said. "The early warning is there, but what will people do? Even if you warn the people, the [Nigerian] economy is grounded already and people can barely feed."

"When you are displaced, it’s more of a crisis situation to you than normal," Oyibo added. "There are no relief centers to take people to and the government is not concerned. It is only when it happens that they [government] will send relief materials to the same community knowing that the community has been displaced. So the government is not interested in resettling people temporarily. [Whether] you warn or you don’t warn, I don’t see the difference."

Meanwhile, Dr. O’Connor maintains the Nigerian government cannot claim to be unprepared, given that flooding is a recurring problem in Lagos. He stressed that designing and implementing solutions could prevent flooding in the future.

“Lagos is not prepared for climate extremes," he said.

"Lagos receives flooding every year and actions to take care of this are perhaps not making as much progress as they need to. Government cannot claim anymore to be unprepared," he added, warning that "Lagos is experiencing annual flooding [and] it has been getting worse. But it is better to prepare for that sooner rather than after." 

'Not just Lagos'

The report further states that hazards, such as hurricanes and earthquakes, do not need to turn into disasters. This is because people's location, lifestyle and ability to respond would determine whether a hazard becomes a disaster or not.

For instance, the report notes that although New York has faced devastating hurricanes in the past, Hurricane Ida was different. The storm brought heavy rains, which led to severe flooding that caught New York's aging urban infrastructure unprepared.

The disaster resulted in a total of 95 recorded deaths in the United States, and eleven of the 13 New York City deaths from flash flooding took place in illegal basement apartments where mostly undocumented immigrants lived (in lieu of safer options).

This inequality of opportunity, the report argues, drives people’s vulnerability to hazards. Before a disaster strikes, such vulnerable people are left with meager options to manage their risk, and often prioritise meeting their basic needs over efforts towards reducing disaster risk.

"In terms of the population, it comes back to the root cause of inequality," Dr. O’Connor said. "It’s not just Lagos, but big cities around the world are growing in population, as people from the outside move there with hope for a better life because rural areas are not providing as many opportunities for livelihoods, and they are also getting hit hard by climate change impact."

"If you want to address the growing population," he added, "you need to find ways to first improve conditions of people outside the city so they [are not] primarily motivated to move to cities. You will still have people move in, but you are making sure they move in a safe way."

Reflecting on the report, Dr. O’Connor claims the past year’s disasters could have been prevented, or at least their impacts could be reduced if the right kind of solutions had been implemented. 

For him, the way out of this predicament is simple: "put all solutions together in a package and get everyone in the room."

Image by Kelly Sikkema.

Article written by:
PHOTO
Ekpali Saint
Author
Nigeria USA
A girl carries her young brother on her back as they walk through a flooded canal after a heavy rainfall in Lagos, on 13 September, 2020.
© NurPhoto
Cars sit abandoned on the flooded Major Deegan Expressway following a night of extremely heavy rain from the remnants of Hurricane Ida on 2 September, 2021 in the Bronx borough of New York City.
© Spencer Platt
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