The Natural Disaster Response Divide

While much of the domestic dialogue surrounding climate change focuses on curbing pollution and transitioning to clean sources of energy, this debate fails to address another concern critical to the issue of climate change — preparing for the inevitable consequences of a changing climate. This aspect is frequently absent from the debate. Even farther removed from the discussion are the specific vulnerabilities facing developing countries like increases in water shortages, prolonged droughts, more severe storms, floods and disease.

The horrifying aftermath from Haiti’s earthquake is a stark example of the vulnerability of poor nations to sudden shifts in their natural environment. For this reason, developing countries lacking infrastructure and adequate response mechanisms are defenseless against the growing threats of a changing climate. While no weather event can be directly attributed to climate change, climate change is, however, generating systemic conditions for more intense weather patterns. Earthquakes and extreme weather are different and unrelated natural disasters, but the aftermath and scale are often indistinguishable.

Since the earthquake, money and aid have flowed into Haiti. Through day and night news coverage, Americans have witnessed the tragedy and despair that result from combining poverty and natural disaster. Due to weak infrastructure and public services, lifesaving supplies were stuck on the tarmac and unable to reach many areas of the country. Haitian rescue crews are nonexistent which required other countries to deploy teams. These delays left survivors trapped for days, drastically diminishing their chances for survival. Even weeks after the earthquake, delivering supplies is still problematic.

Unfortunately the scene playing out in Haiti is the awful reality of many poor developing countries. The fact is, poverty stricken states lack the ability to respond to natural disasters. The deficit of resources and capable government structures result in devastation and massive loss of life. Even with assistance, governments often lack the ability to distribute it appropriately and efficiently. In addition to inadequate infrastructure and institutional government capacity, low incomes, meager assets and limited or no access to insurance among citizens is a systemic problem of impoverished states, weakening preparation and reconstruction prospects.

The 2007/2008 United Nations Human Development Report highlights the disproportionate impact of climate related disasters on the poor. According to the report, the overwhelming majority of those affected by climate related disasters live in the developing world. From 2000-2004, some 262 million people were annually affected by climate disasters, 98% of which were from developing countries. In the developing world during this same period, one in 19 people were annually affected by a climate disaster. The comparable figure for the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) countries–the vast majority of which are classified as high-income economies–was 1 in 1,500 individuals affected. As climate change raises the frequency of more extreme weather, vulnerability will increase among populations least capable of coping.

With proper foresight and planning, America and wealthy nations have the ability to prepare for an altered climate. It may be expensive but with proper preparation the United States will escape outcomes like the aftermath of Haiti and hopefully avoid repeating the mistakes of Katrina. However, the developing world is not so fortunate. If climate pollution continues to rise, they will bear the harshest cost of a changing environment, and the current images from Haiti may become a frequent and familiar scene of the world’s poor.

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