Like Putting the World on a Four-Pack-a-Day Habit

Dart-Throwing Chimp Jay Ulfelder makes a reasonable(ish) point that the hype about disaster overload this year is based on not-enough-data, so claims that it’s unprecedented are shaky. That’s right, as far as it goes: it’s always possible to overegg these things, and perhaps that’s a trap I fall into.

But if this Campaign is guilty of not looking at the past with enough depth, Herr Doktor Chimp may have a blindspot in the opposite direction: it’s the future when the Age of Disaster Overload looks really dire.

The IPCC has been telling us unambiguously for some time that we’re putting the whole world on the disaster-risk equivalent of a four-pack-a-day smoking habit.

 The IPCC’s latest leaked report would make this point clearly, if we hadn’t all gotten so desensitized to IPCC reports already. Whatever you want to say about the prevalence of disasters right now – and nobody’s denying that prevalence is high – what’s unmistakable is that disaster risk is rising, and virtually certain to keep rising at an accelerating rate for decades to come.

All sorts of well established risk factors for disaster impact are unmistakably on the rise. Desertification and land degradation, overpopulation, prevalence of major storms, prevalence of drought and flood, coastal erosion, slum-urbalization, falling water tables, population pressures on marginal agro-ecologies, these risk factors build on one another in intractable ways.

The outcome goes beyond violence and conflict. Disasters come in all different shapes and sizes, and maniacs-wielding-kalashnikovs is just one flavour. Plenty more are either “natural” (which, of course, increasingly is just a longer-time-span take on “man-made”) or lie at the intersection between the natural and the political, with weak institutions failing to help vulnerable populations to adapt to new circumstances.

Disasters that “start out natural” can turn into violent political conflicts, as has arguably already happened in Somalia and Syria. And the strategies people use to cope with political disorder can fuel the kind of environmental degradation that magnifies the impact of extreme climate events. In fact, the whole conventional separation between “natural” and “man-made” disasters is analytically suspect, not just because the same set of risk factors can lead to both types of disaster, but also because disasters of one kind can end up exacerbating risks for the other kind. 

Here the public health analogy is useful. Epidemiologists know you can never really pin one person’s heart attack or diabetes to his or her smoking habits. But you can say, with startlingly high levels of statistical precision, that if a population as a whole smokes more, its all-causes mortality rate will rise in a determinate, predictable way.

In part, that’s because diabetes and heart disease build on one another. Smoking is a major risk factor for both. And we know that diabetes itself is a risk factor for heart disease and that heart disease, once it takes hold, complicates the treatment of diabetes. 

The IPCC has been telling us unambiguously for some time that we’re putting the whole world on the disaster-risk equivalent of a four-pack-a-day smoking habit.

We can’t say, with any real certainty, which bits of the world will suffer which types of disasters as a result, or when. We don’t know where exactly the wars will be, where we’ll have slow-onset famines and where we’ll have complete CAR-style state implosions.

But we can say that each of those things is likely to happen more often, as will previously extremely-rare events like Haiyan-style monster storms as well as a whole new breed of never-before-dealt-with disasters arising from rising sea levels. And we can be fairly confident in predicting that in more and more cases, disasters of one type will compound disasters of another in ways likely to swamp efforts at adaptation. 

So let’s keep the big picture clearly in focus here. Can we really say whether 2014 is the most disastrous year ever? Not at all. But we can be pretty darn certain that over the next several generations, the level of disaster impacts that seems extraordinary now will seem “routine” at best and, more likely, will come to look like “the good old days”.

Now, if you knew for a fact that over the next several decades, your entire population would start smoking more and more, year after year, indefinitely, with no end in sight…wouldn’t you want to review your hospital infrastructure? Your cardiologist training programmes? Your entire response infrastructure?

But here’s the kicker: the humanitarian infrastructure the world has built for itself to deal with disasters – the WFP and the UNHCR and UNICEF and the big NGOs – are already totally overwhelmed and unable to cope with the disasters we have now, let alone 20 years from now. WFP alone is billions short of its funding target, and hundreds of thousands are now on starvation rations as a result.

What worries me is that donor countries just don’t seem to be getting that message at all. The collective penny hasn’t dropped. Western politicians don’t appear to have any clue that we have a dangerously undersized humanitarian sector dealing with risks certain to balloon.

The EU Commissioner for Humanitarian Response, Kristalina Georgieva, has called the extreme overstretch the Humanitarian sector faces in 2014 “the new normal.” If only! The phrase suggests a chronic but at least stable underfund, a kind of equilibrium of the intolerable. This dangerously soft-balls the real situation, where humanitarian spending is growing geometrically while humanitarian need is growing exponentially.  

So let’s think twice before shrugging off the disaster crush of 2014. This isn’t a blip. It’s an amuse-bouche. 

3 thoughts on “Like Putting the World on a Four-Pack-a-Day Habit”

  1. Great post! The only thing I would add is that the likelihood of political collapse/insurgencies a la IS will increasingly overlap with disasters, for the reasons noted. This will make it even more difficult and costly to respond to “natural” disasters than it has been in the past. In much of the Senegal-Somalia Sahelian band, national governments were effectively passive bystanders to whatever the donors and donor-funded disaster experts were doing. Now instead you have active armed groups, whether criminal or anarcho-Islamist, which raises costs not to mention endangering the humanitarian response staff. It’s no coincidence that fatalities in the humanitarian community hit a high along with the disasters.

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