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Why disaster risk reduction is more important than ever

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By Katharine Vincent:

A cross the world, the events of 2020 and the coronavirus pandemic have shown us first-hand the importance of disaster risk reduction. In the United States much has been made of the fact that former president Barack Obama created an infrastructure for dealing with a possible pandemic, but Donald Trump rejected the science and dismantled it—with deadly effects.

Sadly, this is not a unique example. Disaster risk reduction often bears the brunt of budget cuts and austerity measures. This is because its nature – reducing potential future losses – does not always stand up well against other priorities with immediate and easily visible impacts.

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We know this situation well in Malawi, where disaster risk reduction does not receive a budget line. Instead what is budgeted is contingency for emergency response measures after a disaster.

Risk reduction is better than response

Only planning for disaster response is, of course, less than ideal. Ask any farmer whether they would prefer to lose their harvest to drought and rely on a food parcel of assistance, or receive timely climate information and support for climate-smart agricultural practices that enables them to maintain harvest through dry conditions. As well as unnecessary financial losses, the psychosocial impacts are significant.

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Fortunately, disaster risk reduction does not have to be expensive. Many examples of disaster risk reduction are “win-win”, namely that they return a benefit regardless of whether or not a disaster strikes. Improving access to climate and early warning information is a “win-win” example – meaning that it reduces disaster risk but also provides benefits for communities and businesses even if a disaster does not occur.

“Win-win” disaster risk reduction will benefit Malawians even if disasters do not occur

If smallholder farmers in Malawi had better access to weather information for the coming season, they could make better decisions about what varieties to plant, and when to plant and harvest. This would increase the likelihood of a decent harvest, and food security.

Improving climate information and early warning is one example of disaster risk reduction where farmers do not necessarily need to have capital to act on the information. There are some decisions that they can take relating to timing of planting that can capitalise on that knowledge to reduce risk of harvest loss.

Another “win-win” method of disaster risk reduction is conservation farming. Conservation farming has been shown to be highly effective at reducing risk in dry conditions – as the application of mulch to the soil maintains soil moisture and reduces reliance on rain.

“In the wake of the 2015-16 El Nino event and associated drought, we found that farmers who used crop residues as a mulch on fields to retain soil moisture were able to get better harvests than those who didn’t,” said Professor Andy Dougill, from the University of Leeds, who led a study with Lilongwe University of Agriculture and Natural Resources.

Investing in disaster risk reduction is cost-effective

As well as the moral imperative, there is strong economic evidence that money invested in disaster risk reduction is better spent than trying to deal with the consequences. This has been coined the “triple dividend” of resilience. The first dividend refers to avoided losses, such as saving of lives and reduction of damage. The second dividend refers to the development potential that is unlocked through risk reduction efforts, for example as households are able to invest in their livelihoods and save and build assets, secure in the knowledge that they don’t need to maintain such a big safety net to respond to risk. The third dividend refers to co-benefits that result in development gains. Both the second and the third dividends mean that benefits arise out of the disaster risk reduction even if the disaster does not occur. This then contributes to disaster risk reduction having significant economic benefits.

A new briefing note from the UK Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office-funded Building Resilience and Adapting to Climate Change programme with the Civil Society Network on Climate Change compiles the evidence on this “triple dividend” approach, showing that benefit to cost ratios can give return from 3 to 1 to 50 to 1 – essentially meaning that every dollar spent results in benefit of $3 to $50.

In neighbouring Zambia, for example, drought typically costs S$8.5 million annually in drought loss. Recent analysis by the UN Office for Disaster Risk Reduction shows that the cost of losses falls to less than a million dollars when drought-tolerant or early-maturing varieties are used.

A study on a smaller scale, conducted a decade ago by Tearfund in Mzimba district, shows that $24 of net benefits were realised from every dollar of investment in climate-smart agriculture interventions (which included alternative crop types and seed varieties, training in soil water conservation and contingency planning). In addition to the first dividend of overcoming food insecurity, second and third dividends arose from better incomes enabling saving and investment in healthy diets and education; and improvements to soil fertility.

How can Malawi reduce disaster risk?

The arguments for disaster risk reduction are clear. Malawi’s new government has the opportunity to step up and make this a political and budgeting priority. Most fundamentally, it is important to pass the new Disaster Risk Management Bill into law – to create the legal framework for focusing efforts on risk reduction. Lawmakers must also put aside budget for reducing disaster risk, not just for responding to disasters after they have happened. This is the best use of public funds.

An example of a current opportunity to include disaster risk reduction in policy is the newly announced Affordable Input Programme. Alongside the various attempts in the country to improve the availability of seasonal weather and climate information, one option would be to ensure that inputs under the programme encourage the type of farming that reduces risk.

This would take some work to match the diversity of farming conditions with the diversity of weather conditions, but it is one example of how an existing policy could be readily adapted to enable communities to reduce disaster risk from droughts and floods, and ultimately be more resilient.

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