UN Photo/Mark Garten
When an extreme environmental hazard strikes, infrastructure can be a deciding factor in whether or not the situation becomes a disaster. Roads, for example, can provide access to quickly supply relief aid to affected communities; but if roads are destroyed, entire regions can be cut off from support.
The World Risk Report 2016, published on 25 August by the UNU Institute for Environment and Human Security (UNU-EHS) and Bündnis Entwicklung Hilft, analyses the role that infrastructure plays in shaping a country’s disaster risk. The World Risk Index, calculated by the University of Stuttgart, is an integral part of the report as it ranks 171 countries according to their risk of becoming a victim of a disaster as a result of natural hazards such as floods, cyclones, or earthquakes.
“We need to look at both the opportunities and risks of critical infrastructure”, states Dr Matthias Garschagen, Scientific Director of the World Risk Report. “Sufficient and well-built infrastructure, such as high-quality power and transportation networks, can limit the impacts that natural hazards can cause both in terms of loss of life and economic damage. At the same time, the breakdown of nodal points in infrastructure, such as airports or power plants, can also cause impacts that reach far beyond the actual extent of the hazard. The international community must increase investments into critical infrastructure before disaster strikes. We currently focus too much on short-term relief after disasters, and pay too little attention to ensuring that resilient infrastructure is in place before hazards occur.”
Proper development and maintenance of critical infrastructure needs to be understood as a core component of disaster risk reduction. Particularly in emerging economies and developing countries, however, infrastructure is frequently of insufficient quality, which contributes to a country’s vulnerability, especially with regards to coping with a disaster situation. In Africa, for example, there are only 65 kilometers of paved roads per 100,000 inhabitants, compared with 832 kilometers in Europe or 552 kilometers in the Americas. This means that there are fewer redundancies in transportation routes and, consequently, fewer alternatives if the main road to an affected area becomes impassable.
Critical infrastructure, meaning infrastructure that is of key importance for the functioning of a society at large, is very susceptible to cascading effects. Different sectors of critical infrastructure often depend on each other, and therefore the system as a whole is more susceptible to crises. The collapse of a power supply, which happened during Hurricane Sandy in 2012, for example, can hinder disaster logistics that heavily depend on information and communication technologies. So even if roads or bridges have not been destroyed, their usability can be diminished if other infrastructure elements are compromised.
This year’s World Risk Index has been updated with a special focus on fresh data available in the subcategories of “public infrastructure” and “environmental status/ecosystem protection”. A major component of each country’s World Risk Index score is its exposure to natural hazards, referring to the percentage of population living within the reach of potential hazards such as floods, storms, earthquakes, tsunamis, droughts, and sea-level rise.
Exposure, however, is not the only part of the World Risk Index. The index also analyses a country’s vulnerability, which is the country’s predisposition to suffer harm when hit by a natural hazard.
Vulnerability is the aggregate of three components of susceptibility (or fragility) within the system as well as the short-term coping and long-term adaptive capacities to deal with hazards. Of the top 15 countries with the highest vulnerability in this year’s index, 13 are located in Africa (the exceptions being Haiti and Afghanistan). These countries face a high damage potential when hit by a natural hazard due to, for example, inadequate health care provision, sanitation, and secure habitation.
A country’s specific risk is determined by multiplying its exposure by its vulnerability. Risk is at its highest where a high level of exposure to natural hazards coincides with very vulnerable societies. On the other hand, low societal susceptibility and a high capacity to deal with hazard exposure can, to an extent, mitigate and limit the disaster risk, even in exposed countries.
Netherlands, for example, is a country with a very high hazards exposure (rank 12), meaning that almost one third of its population is exposed to floods, storms, sea-level rise, or other hazards. At the same time, it is among the countries with the lowest vulnerability (rank 162 out of 171), due to its very low susceptibility and very high short-term coping and long-term adaptive capacities. In terms of the overall risk, Netherlands therefore ranks 49, despite its much higher exposure ranking.
In contrast, Bangladesh has a similar exposure level (rank 10) but ranks near the top (5) on the overall risk index. This is because the high hazard exposure in Bangladesh is coupled with a high vulnerability, composed of high susceptibility (rank 45) and a severe lack of both short-term coping capacity (rank 21) and long-term adaptive capacity (rank 28).
The 2016 World Risk Index ranks the Pacific island states of Vanuatu and Tonga as 1 and 2, respectively, meaning that they have the highest levels of risk. Global hotspot regions, meanwhile, are in Oceania, Southeast Asia, Central America, and the Southern Sahel.
The World Bank estimates that up to an additional US$1.5 trillion annually will be necessary through 2020 to help low- and medium-income countries establish adequate levels of infrastructure. The greatest needs are investments in electricity, water, and transport infrastructure.
“Remote areas are in particular need of targeted infrastructure investments”, says Dr Garschagen. “They often are poorly connected by roads or alternative transportation options, and at the same time are affected by high levels of poverty and poor access to markets and social services. Precisely these remote areas are given too little attention on the political agenda of regional and national governments; by improving both the material and institutional factors in remote areas, their long-term adaptive capacity towards natural hazards could be increased significantly.”