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Leading article: Natural disasters demand a radical new response

The world's system of dealing with earthquakes and floods is outdated

Monday 29 March 2010 00:00 BST

The number of natural disasters in the world has shot up over the past two decades. Scientists argue over the extent to which climate change is responsible for this phenomenon but no one can seriously deny such disasters are increasing in scale and frequency, nor that in tandem with a rapid rise in population and the growing concentration of people in cities, the number of people affected by disasters can also be expected to rise.

A gloomy thought, but one best tackled head on if the consequences are not to be gloomier still, which is why we should welcome the initiative launched today by the International Development minister, Gareth Thomas, on changing the way we respond to natural disasters.

Mr Thomas notes that we, primarily meaning wealthy Western nations, need to greatly increase the funds we make available to the UN's Central Emergency Response Fund, the Cerf, and at the same time chivvy our prosperous neighbours, some of whom are paying almost nothing, into making a more proportionate contribution. We can take pride in the fact that so far Britain has been the largest single contributor to the fund, although we should bear in mind that countries with populations a fraction of the size of ours, such as Holland, Norway and Sweden, are not very far behind. France, meanwhile, has given far less than its tiny neighbour Luxembourg, while America has given only slightly more than Belgium, though this lacklustre sum is due rise under the Obama administration.

The backdrop to Mr Thomas's call is a recent Oxfam report which warns that the world needs to prepare itself for an almost two-fold rise in the number of people likely to be severely affected at any one time by natural disasters, from about 250 million today to roughly 375 million in about five years' time.

Succumbing to compassion fatigue – as well to growing doubts in some people's minds about the whole argument on climate change – many will dismiss this as another apocalyptic scare story that won't come true. This would be a mistake. As Oxfam's report rightly noted, the term natural disaster is going to have to be broadened in future to encompass not only the kind of quakes, flood and droughts with which we are familiar but also inevitable conflicts between growing populations over declining resources.

The recent carnage in central Nigeria – ostensibly between Christians and Muslims but also a battle for access to land of declining quality – is a disturbing portent of a thousand conflicts to come over land and water. Our recent experience of disaster response and disaster management in Haiti, meanwhile, should serve to remind everyone that rapid action and preventive action undertaken by global bodies like the Emergency Response Fund costs far less in the long term than unco-ordinated and poorly targeted aid, or aid that trickles in late.

Mr Thomas is right to point out that while money is crucial, improved co-ordination of global responses to disasters is equally important, which is why a UN summit to agree on a framework for collective action on the future of humanitarian support would be a good idea.

It all sounds a tall order, and hard to sell to the public at a time of relative economic hardship. But it is worth pointing out that overhauling and radically increasing the capacity of bodies like Cerf to meet the scale of tomorrow's disasters will cost a fraction of the money that we have spent on bailing out banks, and will undoubtedly save millions of lives.

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