Combating natural disasters is a shared responsibility
The year 2022 was particularly tragic in terms of natural disasters. In March, a powerful earthquake hit the northeast coast of Japan, destroying about 19,000 homes. This was followed by a devastating earthquake in Afghanistan last June that killed over 1,000 and demolished hundreds of homes, the worst in the country in 20 years.
For a poor nation such as Afghanistan, which has been in conflict for more than four decades, the latest catastrophe was unbearable. Historic floods in Pakistan took about 2,000 lives, with damages reaching about $15 billion. Hurricane Ian in Florida in late September caused $12 billion in property losses.
The most devastating incident of 2023 has been the quakes in Turkiye, the worst in its recent history with a death toll of about 45,000, infrastructure destroyed, and property worth about $35 billion lost.
Every year about 60,000 people die worldwide from natural hazards and disasters including earthquakes, floods, storms, droughts and heatwaves. The damages run to billions of dollars. Natural disasters cannot be prevented, but there are ways to manage or mitigate their impact.
Over the past few decades, significant efforts have been made globally to mitigate natural disasters to save lives and reduce the damages when they hit. These mainly include the establishment of early warning systems and disaster management agencies. But there are limitations to our response to natural hazards,given their unpredictability. Research on seismology shows there are hotspots where the probability of earthquakes is significantly higher, but these fault zones extend so far and wide that probability estimation for earthquake locations becomes impossible. Faced with the ferocity of nature, there is not much we can do about an earthquake other than prepare for the worst.
Many governments have building codes to reduce the harm caused by quakes. They are better established and more efficient in developed countries than in less developed nations; imagine the havoc that would be wreaked by frequent quakes in California without its stringent building design and construction requirements. Similarly, Japan would have been worse off without its earthquake resistant building regulations.
However, when southeast Afghanistan was hit by a powerful earthquake, few knew if this area was among those identified as a potential earthquake hotspot. Being proactive about earthquakes, especially in terms of investing in design of structures, is valuable and always rewards investment.
Not all natural disasters are as unpredictable as earthquakes. A fair amount of knowledge exists about the frequency and occurrence of floods and storms, depending on how good the relevant national or local institutions are. The United States Geological Survey provides flood maps for the entire US, and the Federal Emergency Management Agency helps the country to prepare for emergencies such as floods and storms,and to respond when they do occur. These agencies also frequently collaborate beyond the US and make linkages worldwide. This is in the spirit of the international obligations of national institutions as globalization advocates.
The more robust a country’s institutions are to manage disasters, the less severe are impacts on human lives and damage to physical infrastructure. Despite the high unpredictability of natural catastrophes, building, strengthening and promoting international, regional, national and local institutions for disasterpreparedness, mitigation, knowledge sharing and transboundary cooperation should be on top of the global efforts to combat natural disasters.
• Ajmal Shams is vice president of the Afghanistan Social Democratic Party. He was a deputy minister in the former government of Afghanistan. Twitter: @ajmshams