Poverty and the impact of disasters

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The last month or so has produced impassioned reactions to the catastrophic effects of Cyclone Idai across the southern African countries of Mozambique, Zimbabwe, Malawi and Madagascar. The cyclone brought strong winds and caused severe flooding across five days of acute devastation. It led to the deaths of at least 1078 people, with hundreds of thousands displaced and about 3 million people affected overall.

Infrastructural damage from the cyclone across the four countries is estimated at over 1 billion dollars — a truly devastating impact on already impoverished countries. In addition to this impact on vital infrastructure — including hospitals and schools, more than a million acres of crops are reported damaged. As it was almost harvest season in this part of Africa, this devastation means not just lost investment in time and human labour, but also portends widespread food shortages and lost income from cash crops.

As the work of relief, recovery and reconstruction continues across the region, this short article hopes to contribute to the discussion by considering the particular question of vulnerability production. If as the science tells us, high impact weather events are going to be more frequent, and that an increasing number of these events are going to have a particularly severe impact on human societies, we ask the question, who is particularly exposed to the worst effects of these extreme weather events?

The fallout from the devastation wrought by Cyclone Idai revealed a differentiated impact of the storm. Although the high velocity winds and flooding had a widespread catastrophic effect, the majority of victims of the tropical storm were the poor, and the rural. Strikingly, even though the city of Beira was almost completely destroyed by the storm, the effects of the cyclone were reported as being much more devastating for the dispersed, poorly connected residents of rural Mozambique and Zimbabwe.

It was not just that rural residents were disconnected from and under-served by the early warning systems that would have led to evacuation to safer terrrain. In rural districts, the poor quality of the built environment, and the absence of well-constructed, well-located sanctuary meant that many residents would have had little recourse to safe refuge even had they been adequately warned.

In the aftermath of the cyclone, extended exposure to the elements and to the risk of cholera and other water-borne diseases continues to underline how poverty, as much as the weather event itself, explains the incidence of death, injury and socioeconomic devastation. It is particularly with sudden onset events such as tropical storms, cyclones, and the flash flooding that they produce, that we see poverty and under-development as important factors in understanding disaster impact. With narrow windows for governments and other actors to intervene on behalf of those living at the economic margins of society, it is important to insist that extreme weather events need not inevitably lead to disasters. Rather it is the nature of protections afforded to the most vulnerable that determine the degree of impact, and the potential for resilience in the face of extreme weather events like Idai. More than anything, it is the individual economic status of many victims doomed them to a particularly dire experience of the weather event.

Thinking through the idea of the earth as our shared home, as articulated in the papal encyclical Laudato Si!, (which is subtitled One Care for Our Common Home) we propose that attention to climate change needs to be anchored in, and continue the reparative efforts of social justice work. Thus, and as is evident across the JENA network, responsible climate change work needs to prioritise attention to the multi-dimensional social and economic effects that work in tandem with environmental forces to define exposure to climate risk. In addition to investments in early warning technologies, and advanced rescue work, our efforts to ‘build back better’ must emphasise poverty eradication and the cultivation of resilience through advancements in healthcare, and agricultural and economic production as fundamental pillars of disaster risk reduction across Africa.

Article by  Basil Ibrahim