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Preparing for Disaster in Your Digital Environment

Florida Ere is a single mother of six in Turkwel, Turkana, Kenya. She is a subsistence farmer who depends on the fruits of her labour to feed herself and her children. But every year, Florida must contend with natural hazards, such as seasonal flooding, which threaten her livelihood and endanger her prosperity.

Florida is typical of the 4 billion people around the world, most living in developing countries, who were affected by climate-related disasters in the last 20 years. She is also one of 1.3 billion people on the planet dependent on degrading agricultural land – and like many in Kenya, her community is likely to bear a disproportionate brunt of the climate crisis.

She is, however, also one of the millions around the world benefitting from programmes supporting risk-informed development and early warning and preparedness. In multiple countries, UNDP is pioneering digital systems to enhance access to data – to help at-risk communities build resilience to shocks and crises, and to better prepare for disasters.

Florida’s community set up a simple system that utilized radio alerts and signal flags to alert farmers about impending inclement weather. However, despite its ingenuity, this approach was often unreliable, and not everyone received punctual flood warnings. Working with the United Nations Environment Programme, UNDP and the Climwarn project created a web-based early warning system that monitors weather hazards, vulnerability and risk, and automatically issues warnings via SMS. This helps the community use data to understand its own systemic risk – and provides a more sophisticated and reliable early warning system. We are working to emulate, expand and improve upon this model in other countries.

A Kenyan farmer inspects her tea tree crop. Many Kenyan farmers depend on degrading agricultural land and are likely to be disproportionately harmed by the climate crisis.

UNDP Kenya/Joyous Begisen

Another system receiving UNDP support is the Mosul dam Emergency Preparedness in Iraq project, currently protecting more than 5 million people along the Tigris River against dam failure. Quantifying disaster risk for those living in the Tigris River Basin was a challenge, but the project was able to digitize the data onto one system, making it much easier to identify the communities most vulnerable to disaster. These insights have allowed the authorities to issue more accurate flood warning messages – and the information also feeds into local development policies. The existence of this integrated system turned out to be invaluable with the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. As the data was already in place, the system could quickly, simply and affordably be repurposed to send vital SMS messages to more than 2 million geographically-targeted at-risk populations.

In 2021, we commemorate International Day for Disaster Risk Reduction in the midst of a global pandemic. COVID-19 has revealed the need for an all-of-society focus on disaster risk reduction and laid bare many shortcomings, not least by exposing governance failures despite repeated warnings. This is an ominous sign – especially in light of the looming global climate crisis, which will increase the frequency and severity of natural hazards across the world and may render current strategies for disaster risk reduction and climate change adaptation obsolete in many countries.

In 2018, 108 million people required humanitarian help as a result of storms, floods, droughts and wildfires. Climate change modelling suggests this number will increase by 50 per cent by 2030. WHO says that by 2030 there will be an additional 250,000 deaths per year from malnutrition, malaria, diarrhoea and heat stress because of climate change. Embracing new technology and a risk-informed approach is vital as we move forward.

Mosul Dam one of the largest in the Arab region. Should it fail, it is feared that over 500,000 lives could be lost. UNDP has supported the Government of Iraq to establish an emergency alert system to warn populations along the flood path.

UNDP Iraq/Zubair Murshed

I am pleased to say that looking to the future, with UNDP support, many new programmes are indeed stepping up to this challenge and looking to increase the use of digital technology in everyday work. For example, the DX4Resilience initiative is improving data collection and analysis of the most vulnerable, with digital solutions across Indonesia, Nepal, Philippines and Sri Lanka. Since about half the world remains unconnected or poorly connected, and a lack of connection disproportionately affects vulnerable groups living in high-risk areas, this programme takes into consideration issues related to access, ability and local languages, and ensures vulnerable groups are empowered by the solutions developed. We need more solutions like this.

This International Day for Disaster Risk Reduction, it is worth remembering that in the last two decades, disasters claimed approximately 1.23 million lives, an average of 60,000 per annum. They also cost more than US$2.97 trillion in economic loss worldwide. Insured losses from natural disasters reached $42 billion in the first six months of 2021 alone, a 10-year high.

Disasters exacerbate poverty and disproportionately harm the poor. We urgently need better international cooperation for developing countries to reduce their disaster risk – and more approaches that use digital solutions to improve risk-informed development, early warning and preparedness.

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