Sir John Beddington says governments must act in face of climate change, more older people and rapid urbanisation
Ageing populations and urbanisation could leave the world's poorest countries increasingly vulnerable to natural disasters, the UK's chief scientific adviser warned on Tuesday.
"Vulnerability will go soaring," said Sir John Beddington. "Extreme events will happen every five years instead of every 20. Vulnerability will come from changing climate, demography and most people living in cities."
Sir John spoke after the release of a government report, Reducing risks of future disaster, which calls for risk reduction to be routinely built into urban infrastructure, ecosystem protection and mobile telephone regulation, for example. Such measures would help reduce the cost of disasters, which has outstripped international aid over the past 20 years and led to the loss of 1.3 million lives and caused $2 trillion of damage.
Between 2010 and 2040, the number of people over 65 in less developed countries is projected to nearly triple, from 325 million to 948 million. In emergencies, older people are a vulnerable group, although they may have skills and experience that enable them to cope.
Eight out of the 10 most populous cities in the world are at risk of being severely affected by an earthquake, and six out of 10 are vulnerable to storm surge and tsunami waves. The urban population in developing countries is projected to rise by 65 million a year from 2.6 billion in 2010 to around 4.7 billion in 2040.
"The speed of urbanisation in developing countries means that the future vulnerability and exposure of cities will be disproportionately important. Urban design and planning that both improves the quality of life for residents and makes expanding cities resilient to natural hazards is therefore a key priority," said the report.
Earthquakes in megacities pose a major threat, as does flooding for many cities in coastal areas. Despite advances in forecasting, preparing for earthquakes will be a challenge as both their timing and severity are difficult to forecast.
Nevertheless, scientific advances in the understanding of natural disasters can be expected to continue in the next decades. How fast and how far such improvements will take place is uncertain, said the report, but if progress continues at the current rate, there will be increasingly reliable forecasts identifying the timing and location of some future natural hazards.
"Together progress in these areas will improve the forecasting of disaster risk and provide opportunities for effective disaster risk reduction, provided that those who need to take action have ready access to the information," said the report.
It recommended governments emulate the approach of the insurance industry in using science-based risk models to take a wide range of data from a wide range of sources to calculate where risks come from and what weight to put on them.
"Natural disasters hit those in the developing world particularly hard. But the developed world is not immune, as we saw with Hurricane Sandy in the US and the Caribbean last month," said Justine Greening, the secretary for international development. "Resilience is about boosting a country's ability to deal with disasters – whether it is helping people in earthquake zones build to withstand shocks or helping poor farmers to grow drought-resistant crops. Reducing the impact of natural disasters saves money, lives and livelihoods, especially in developing countries."
Only 1% of overseas development aid was spent on disaster risk reduction from 2000 to 2009. The report is part of the government's response to Lord Ashdown's Humanitarian Emergency Response Review commissioned by the Department for International Development, released last year.