When it comes to natural disasters, and their very un-natural impact on poor people, prevention is better than cure. Yet this lesson seems incredibly hard to turn into practice, because however good the early warning system in the run-up to disasters like the current crisis in East Africa, the money to head off future suffering often doesn’t start flowing until the images of human suffering hit the TV screens.
This is all the more frustrating because as a new paper by Oxfam’s humanitarian policy adviser, Debbie Hillier, argues, we know far more than we used to about how to do this preventive work (known in the deadening jargon of development as DRR – disaster risk reduction) and just how much more cost effective it is than waiting for disaster to strike before reacting. Whilst it is too simplistic to give an overarching cost benefit ratio (often quoted as 1:4 or 1:7), studies have shown time and time again that good prevention saves lives and money. Protecting livestock is much cheaper than rebuilding them once they have been decimated by drought: in the Afar region of Ethiopia, restocking sheep and goats cost 6.5 times more than supplementary feeding, and restocking cattle cost 14 times more. According to the International Federation of the Red Cross, it costs around £3.50 person per year to build up resilience, compared to £150 per person for relief assistance for just three or four months.
DRR also ensures that aid and government investments remain effective. All aid – whether humanitarian, development, recovery/reconstruction – should be resilient to disasters. Otherwise, hospitals, schools, roads and water points (as well as livelihoods) can be damaged or washed away when a natural hazard strikes. Between 1997 and 2007, Ethiopia lost on average US$1.1bn to drought every year, almost eclipsing the US$1.3bn per year in international assistance to tackle poverty and emergencies over the same period, and exceeding the amount Ethiopia invested in agriculture, a sector clearly crucial to ending food shortages.
So how can the current emergency response in East Africa reduce risk?
Water resource management. In Ethiopia, some communities that received emergency aid in previous droughts no longer require it thanks to DRR. A small-scale irrigation project in Liban district of Guji zone pumped water from a major river to enable pastoralist households to produce grain both for their own consumption and to sell on local markets. Women report that they no longer worry about milk and food shortages for their children and family. In contrast to last year and neighbours outside the scheme, the community no longer needs food aid and livestock have not migrated, because there is enough crop residue for them to eat.
Work programmes. Where cash or food-for-work programmes are being implemented, the public works should boost DRR, by focussing on vital communal assets such as improving rangelands or water harvesting.
Food availability. Where markets are working, providing support to traders to bring in essential food and strengthen delivery networks is an essential complementary activity to distributing cash in exchange for work. Part of Oxfam’s work in the current crisis has been to persuade traders to return to the worst hit areas to get markets functioning again.
Herd mobility. Emergency responses should support mobility where possible, for example, by providing mobile services such as healthcare or drinking water provision, thereby promoting the sustainability of pastoralist livelihoods. A conflict-sensitive approach may also be required to ensure responses reach all vulnerable sections of the community and are negotiated with traditional leaders and across clans.
Veterinary services. Vaccination and other animal health interventions are important to prevent death and disease in the herd and strengthen livestock resistance to drought. Humanitarian response should use and strengthen private sector actors in developing long-term, sustainable veterinary services.
Supporting existing community structures. Emergency interventions should work with and strengthen local organisations and community leaders, who are best placed to identify the most vulnerable and deliver aid where it is needed.
Preparation for predicted floods. Rains are expected from this month and with them come a significant risk of flash floods and disease. It is vital to undertake contingency planning for public health and veterinary services alongside the pre-positioning of essential supplies to prevent outbreaks of water-borne disease amongst people and vector-borne diseases in animals.
But DRR is not just about overhauling responses to the emergency. In East Africa, recovery plans must stretch to late 2012 and beyond. More fundamentally, the way we do long-term development work must also change. Looking at recent history, it is clear that any 3-5 year rural development programme in East Africa will be subject to at least one drought, and yet too often drought is treated as an exogenous shock that sits in the risks column of the programme proposal. And as it typically takes 6 months to get approval for a change to a EuropeAid proposal, it is almost impossible to reallocate development funding once committed. Instead, drought should be brought into the programme design from the start, allowing sufficient flexibility to change plans when drought hits. So for example, if a programme is training teachers, it should also assess whether the school has sufficient water supplies or could provide extra school meals during the hunger season or drought.
The arguments for investing far more are persuasive, but contrast with dismal global DRR expenditure of just US$835m in 2009 – a mere 0.5 per cent of total official aid. Spending in those countries now afflicted by drought and hunger shows similar patterns. A helpful first step would be to make humanitarian funding more long-term and flexible – it often has to be spent within 12 months. We know what to do, so let’s start doing it.
An edited version of this post appeared on the Guardian’s Poverty Matters blog on Friday
And here’s a nice ten minute World Bank video on DRR