Infinite Observations

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Wladimir Kruythoff

Wladimir Kruythoff

Founder & CEO Infinite Observations

Disaster, Adaptation, Mitigation and Resilience Part 1: Politics, Economy, Disaster and Development of Natural, Health and Man Made Catastrophes (Including Climate Change)

Good Governance

Caribbean governments and policy makers are benefited from better planning and preparation long before the onset of a disaster, monitoring prior to and in the immediate aftermath of a national emergency and appropriate management during the long term recovery phase of health  crises or  hydrometeorological (climate-related) hazards. Hurricane propensity in the Atlantic basin, for example,  as a consequence of GHG and aerosol emissions as well as rising SST, should shape  investment incentives of governments and private actors in taking resolute action to mitigate economic direct losses and social disruption. Tropical cyclone damage will continue to be costly only if those wielding political power presume that existing safety measures are sufficient while in reality the precautionary arrangements that have been taken are inadequate and failed in the onset of a natural catastrophe resulting in the worst case scenarios in the aftermath of events triggered by natural (or man made) forces. Although modern science has cannot impede extreme catastrophic events, measures can be employed to prevent and or mitigate their consequences. Three dominant factors predispose a system to disaster damage: (1) the magnitude or intensity of the natural phenomenon, (2) the economic wealth (or infrastructure) and human  capacity accumulated in a region exposed to the natural hazard and (3) adaptation and mitigation measures or vulnerability (fragility), resistance and/or robustness towards the impact of natural or man made disaster. For example, better understanding of hazards related to changes in the atmospheric and oceanographic general circulation models or patterns (AOGCM), i.e. global warming as a result of the doubling of carbon dioxide, El Niño (ENSO), rising sea-levels and temperatures, etc., allows for more appropriate disaster mitigation and effective risk management that in turn leads to better information on the impact and costs of disasters that can be translated into explicit policy and post disaster financing.

Structural Mitigation

Unfortunately, many SIDS lack straightforward disaster policy on financing, eventhough , for example, hurricane disaster propensity is high. The overall development budget of island nations are usually stretched and expenditure for long term disaster mitigation and preparedness is a difficult political strategy to maintain and widely known to have a low priority in the face of existing economic needs. Spending for disaster measures is generally lower than is economically justified or lacking. Nonetheless, governments can adopt strategies for reducing high disaster losses, i.e. by intervening to prohibit home-owners and private firms, who are usually inclined to underinvest in disaster prevention and mitigation policies, from residing or operating in risk prone zones, coastline, waterfronts and flood plains, or they can implement (non-prohibitively expensive) building codes, land-use planning, other regulatory instruments and/or directly influence the design quality of the infrastructural development (roads, ports or harbors, airports, hospitals, power lines etc.) in order to minimize damage in the event of a natural hazard. There is a broad consensus of opinion that over the long term, improved preparedness and mitigation measures are better investments of limited national resources and  prevention of macroeconomic disruptions that can impact an entire nation. Furthermore, large natural disasters are primarily a problem of development, but fundamentally not a problem for sustainable development.

Non-structural Mitigation

Due to the relatively high costs of physical infrastructure investments, social infrastructure (or a social approach to mitigation) expenditure can be an alternative, i.e. community capacity building, institutional strengthening of the society by raising the awareness of communities that are exposed to the hazard of hurricanes and present options for mitigation. Followed by the private sector being more engaged in community recovery and development in the aftermath of natural disaster. Programs can be organised to enhance community resilience in regions where communities are at risk to natural disaster and in the immediate aftermath of of a natural or man made disaster these programs can be centered around the evacuation of  vulnerable households, provide emergency shelter, clear streets of debris and repair damaged  houses even before the government gets involved in emergency response and rehabilitation.

Economic Political Policy and Disaster

Governments of Caribbean islands must become more pro-active and take the initiative to explicitly explore long term development options for post disaster re-construction and rehabilitation, which are in the social interest of a nation or region and will increase political support in the long term depending on the probability of re-occurrence and expected intensity of a certain type of natural, health and man made hazards, i.e. insurance, borrowing, reallocation,  etc. Instead of assuming or solely rely on notion that external financial and re-construction assistance will be readily available from ex-colonial nations or depend on post disaster reallocations to meet recovery costs. Such approaches to disaster relief amounts to poor judgement and shortsighted planning. However, island nations are coming to the realization that development assistance from (former) colonial powers is not without demands and information on, planning and preparation for disaster are the only means that will persuade policymakers to abandon existing practices and adopt more sustainable methods and actions. Investments in mitigation infrastructure have to be viewed in terms of probability and cost-benefit analyses. When the long term reward is avoiding considerable human and economic loss at low cost, then the investment in mitigation infrastructure is indisputable.

National and international political rivalry can lead to inaction in the aftermath of a natural disaster. Following hurricane Irma in 2017 political tension between Sint Maarten and the Netherlands led to antagonism within and the coalition government on the island that distorted decision making, development policy and the subsequent delay of disaster rehabilitation and funds from the Trust Fund via The World Bank and NRPB. Even up to this day, in the midst of the  2020 hurricane season, hurricane shelters, elementary and secondary schools and many projects that are vital to the longterm economic growth of the island have not been initiated. Puerto Rico, which had already been facing a recession before it was effected by hurricanes Irma and when  hurricane Maria made landfall, had been struggling to secure adequate relief funds from the  government of United States. Billions of dollars in the form of a loan have been approved by the  United States Congress but was being withheld. The situation is very much the same for many  islands in the region. The entire Caribbean Region of about almost 24 million people represents the  3rd largest export market in Latin America, behind only Mexico and Brazil, with imports totaling over $18 billion of U.S. manufactured goods in 2016. US policies have suppressed regimes, out of strategic security interests and cut off international trade with governments, i.e. Cuba, out of fair of the spread of communism, and imposed unequal bi- or unilateral trade agreements, i.e. WTO (World Trade Organization), NAFTA (North American Free Trade Agreement), FTAA (Free Trade Area of the Americas) that are based on reciprocal (non-preferential) trade, with Caribbean islands.

Governments, the electoral process, and disaster relief agencies are often promoted as altruistic (or acting benevolently) by maximizing public welfare and that individuals with economic and political power will put aside personal self-interests for the “public good”. However, evidence put forward that is consistent with research findings suggest that governments seek short-term political incentives by engaging in projects that are entirely pointless in terms of hazard adaptation or mitigation, disaster declaration and the level of disaster funding (usually being too little) are both politically motivated and not acting entirely on behalf of individuals and communities effected by natural, health or man made  catastrophes. Political instability, a more acute situation than political rivalry can lead to failure of development policy. Haiti, is an extreme example, where political crisis and national economic collapse have led to unimaginable poverty, environmental degradation and left the entire population vulnerable and exposed increasing hazards.

This article is the first part in the series “Disaster, Adaptation, Mitigation and Resilience” by Infinite Observations.

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