Dr. Volkmar Schön
Christoph Unger
Prof. Peter Höppe

Floods, drought, storms – are we prepared?

Dialogue forum on 3 March 2015

Frequency and intensity of natural disasters are increasing. The protection of people has become all the more important. In what ways must disaster prevention be improved to reduce risks? Do we need a different kind of crisis management? Possible answers to this question were discussed at the third Dialogue Forum 2015 by Dr. Volkmar Schön, Vice-President of the German Red Cross (DRK), Christoph Unger, President of the Federal Office for Civil Protection and Disaster Assistance (BBK) and Prof. Peter Höppe of Munich Re.

Munich Re's NatCatSERVICE, the most comprehensive database covering all the natural disasters of the past decades, shows how the risk situation has changed worldwide. "Since 1980, the number of natural disasters has increased from about 300 per year to almost 1000," explained Peter Höppe who heads the Geo Risks Research/Corporate Climate Centre at Munich Re. Storms and floods, each accounting for approximately 40 per cent, cause the most damage. "The main risk, therefore, comes from the atmosphere." And while geophysical events such as earthquakes remain relatively constant, the growing trend in weather-related disasters is unmistakable. "This is an indication that changes in the atmosphere like the increasing CO2 emissions have changed the hazard situation."

Growing intensity
The losses are distributed across the entire globe, with focal points not only in Southeast Asia but also in Europe and North America. At the same time, the events have increased in intensity. The heat wave in 2003 with 70,000 victims, for example, was one of the deadliest natural disasters in Europe in the past centuries. Hurricane Katrina, which swept over New Orleans in August 2005, left behind the highest economic and insured loss resulting from a weather-related disaster worldwide. And Super Typhoon Haiyan in November 2013, with gusts of up to 380 km/h, proved to be one of the strongest tropical cyclones of all time. Whereas industrialised nations must in particular bear heavy financial losses, poorer nations – as defined by the World Bank – are affected quite differently: in these countries, lives are at threat. They account for 84 per cent of all deaths from natural disasters around the world.

The fact that the number of victims has fallen in recent years may be a sign that prevention works. The example of Hamburg demonstrates how much can be achieved with the right measures and the requisite resources: no major damage has occurred again in the city since the devastating storm surge in 1962, even though higher water levels were measured during nine floods since then.

Working with local partners
Volkmar Schön from the German Red Cross explained how disaster risk management can be successfully provided at international level: "It requires an integrative approach that links the state and civil society players more effectively and takes the different self-protection capabilities of the local people into account." Given the growing risk, the DRC is convinced that first becoming active when disaster has struck is not enough. The key is to already be working beforehand with local partners who actually manage and implement the project on the ground. The residents must also be integrated. "The prevention projects must be adapted to the respective culture," insisted the DRC vice-president. And where prevention alone is not enough, as in Bangladesh, the people must be given possibilities for reaching safety in the event of a disaster. Schön complained that not enough use is made of early warning systems. "In 2011, during the famine in the Horn of Africa, there were already signs long beforehand that the drought was growing stronger." But too little was done. Extensive donation appeals only began to have success when the great famine followed in the wake of the drought.

In Germany, where natural disasters occur relatively rarely, the population is often unprepared. This last became apparent during the Elbe and Danube floods of 2013. Indirect damages are a cause of particular concern. "The BBK believes that an extensive and prolonged power outage in our technological society would have more grievous consequences than the damage from a natural disaster itself," pointed out Christopher Unger, President of the authority. Even though Germany has an efficient civil protection, for which many countries envy us. This applies especially to the voluntary system with its approximately 1.7 million helpers, such as fire fighters. However, the piecemeal system with its exact division of powers between the federal, state and local levels quickly reaches its limits when forced to act for longer periods of time. Unger therefore called for better cooperation between the different levels.

Preparing for all eventualities
The demographic development is also problematic. "There are regions in our republic in which the voluntary fire brigades can no longer find enough new recruits." And the restructuring of Germany's armed forces also has consequences. "Today it is more difficult than before to organise armoured recovery vehicles to fight forest fires," explained the civil protection expert. In addition to a comprehensive and rapid alert system - increasingly via internet and mobile phone - Unger considers it important that people again take more responsibility in the event of a disaster. "The expectation that help is available at all times may quickly prove to be a mistake in the case of major events."  In principal, everyone should be prepared for all eventualities. "This includes keeping enough food and water in store to last for about two weeks."

But how can we help the poorest countries to protect themselves better in the event of a disaster? The joint UN Hyogo Framework for Action, HFA, has created important stimuli. The resolution was passed in 2005, the follow-up conference will be held in the third week of March 2015, in Sendai, Japan. It will bring together those responsible for civil protection worldwide to discuss measures for risk reduction. The problem is that the agreements are not mandatory. The countries must not meet any specific requirements. "The idealogical goals do not cause disputes. But when it comes to the question of who is to provide funds to what extent, the consensus quickly dissolves," remarked Schön. The DRC therefore uses part of the donation money for disaster risk management as well as for long-term prevention projects.

Insurance as an effective tool
Another possible approach is to develop an insurance solution for the most vulnerable people in the developing countries. "This would put them in a position to quickly get back on their feet again after extreme events", advised Höppe. Even if we spend enormous sums for disaster preparedness, not all damage can be avoided. Natural disasters can never be fully controlled. The developed countries should subsidise a basic insurance because they bear a degree of responsibility for the increasing frequency of weather-related natural disasters due to their extensive CO2 emissions in the past. "We're close to putting such a system into effect. This will be discussed at Schloss Elmau in July of this year at the G7 summit as one of the top issues", Höppe reported.

This shows that even though disaster prevention has made great progress, there is still plenty to do. If the trend of recent decades continues, we must reckon with major events more frequently in the future.

The next dialogue forum, entitled “Poor rich world – fair opportunities for all?”, will take place on 14 April 2015.

CB, 09 March 2015