The survival of humanity is at threat – this is the ominous warning issued by the UN on Wednesday. Launching its biennial assessment report on how the world is dealing with disasters, the UN has warned that global warming, pollution and epidemics pose increasingly complex risks that threaten the future of humankind. The warning is a stark one. The agency has warned that how we have dealt with disasters in the past can no longer be a guide for how to deal with disasters in the future. There are a range of new threats to human life, which have been amplified by air pollution, disease, drought and climate change. Moreover, one disaster can produce another, such as mudslides after wildfires, or disease outbreak after floods. Extreme weather events have doubled in the last two decades. These have made it difficult for low and middle-income countries to maintain development trajectories, as well as causing billions in economic loss. Poorly planned urbanisation, environmental degradation and population growth have negatively impacted the ability of the rich and poor to withstand major climate-related disasters.
The UN has noted that it is important to change how we live, how we engage with each other, and how we engage with the planet. If not, the world faces catastrophe. Based on data from the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre, the UN has reported 1,600 disasters in 2018 alone, which include monsoon floods in India as well as wildfires in the US. These disasters have displaced 17.2 million people, including short-term evacuations. In the last one decade, more than 265 million people have been left homeless by disasters. This is more than three times those forced out of their homes by conflict and violence.
These numbers are shockingly high. While conflict and violence still make it into policy debates, it is the threat from natural and climate-related disasters that finds itself relegated to the background. There is little appetite to radically disrupt the current economic order. Out of 197 UN member states, only 116 are contributing to the database to monitor how risk reduction targets are being met. The UN believes that achieving the Sustainable Development Goals would be one way to mitigate the effects for future disasters, but it has also called for more investment to avert disasters and protect the most vulnerable populations. Development aid to put in place early warning systems and grow hardier crops remains miniscule compared to the amount spent on disaster response. Only around $5.2 billion was spent in 12 years to reduce disaster risk, which amounted to only 3.8 percent of total humanitarian spending. Instead of acting in advance, governments prefer to spend once a catastrophe has occurred. This is the wrong approach. We would do well to set our priorities differently.