Disasters do happen, but are Pacific countries pointed in the right direction?

Geographically, the Pacific Island Countries (PICs) fall within one of the most disaster-prone regions on earth. And the region’s combined population of almost 10 million people is vulnerable to natural hazards which include floods, droughts, tropical cyclones, earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, and tsunamis. While most PICs depend largely on development relief assistance from international donors and on re-adjustments to domestic budgets, much of the focus has continued to be on post-disaster management rather than on disaster risk management.

In the case of international donors, apart from post-disaster relief assistance, the emphasis of development programmes thus far appears to have been more towards disaster awareness programmes aimed at minimising the impact on the poorer and more vulnerable sectors of Pacific society. Increasingly, the question is being asked: Should the PICs be satisfied with the “fire engine” and “ambulance” approach to post- natural disasters/hazards in the region or should they also begin serious discussion with donors on the issue of disaster/hazard risk management through a more economical “regional insurance scheme”?

Work in this area has already commenced in a programme initiated in 2007 by the Secretariat of the Pacific Community (SPC)/Applied Geoscience and Technology Division (SOPAC), the World Bank, and the Asian Development Bank. According to a World Bank report on the initiative, the average annual direct losses caused by disasters in the Pacific region are estimated at US$284 million. “Since 1950, natural disasters have affected approximately 9.2 million people in the Pacific region, causing 9,811 reported deaths.

This has cost the PICs around US$3.2 billion (in nominal terms) in associated damage,” the report said. “The consequences of natural disasters are especially dire for the poor who tend to live in higher risk areas, and typically have fewer options in terms of protection or risk mitigation. Population pressure, compounded by the effects of climate change, is likely to increase this vulnerability,” the report went on to say.

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