Stay or go? As weather gets wilder, states urged to prepare for displacement

  • By Megan Rowling
  • 16/05/2019

Typhoon survivors stand at the entrance of a toppled house that has become a makeshift shelter in Tacloban city in central Philippines December 15, 2013. REUTERS/Erik De Castro

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GENEVA - Warned that Typhoon Haiyan would slam into the coastal part of the Philippine town of Dulag in November 2013, Leah C. Caminong's family rented a room 300 metres back from the shoreline where they planned to ride out the storm.

Little did Caminong know the roof of that building would be ripped off by the powerful winds too, and she would be forced to move her sick mother again to a half-built department store nearby, joined by others whose shelter had also been destroyed.

The next day they moved back to their home, patched up with tarpaulins, along with more than 20 relatives. Several months later, Caminong's mother died, partly because they could not access the right medical care for her after the disaster.

Evacuation shelters should be strong enough to withstand higher winds, Caminong - who in 2015 began working as a municipal officer to prevent and manage disasters - told an international conference in Geneva this week.

"They need to be resilient places where people should be safe," the 29-year-old added, urging governments also to collect data on households so they can provide for special needs, such as disabilities, in an emergency.

Figures released by the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre (IDMC) in Geneva on Thursday showed disasters had caused an average of 24 million new displacements each year since 2008, more than three times the number for conflict and violence.

In a report, the IDMC said extreme weather accounted for more than 87 percent of all disaster displacement, warning the problem was likely to get worse.

"The impacts of climate change and the increasing concentration of populations in areas exposed to storms and floods mean that ever more people are at risk of being displaced," the report noted.

PREVENTION

On the same day, the U.N. Office for Disaster Risk Reduction (UNDRR) released a guide for governmentsto put in place policies and measures to avoid people being uprooted by disasters, and to manage the process well when they are.

Walter Kaelin, a Swiss human rights lawyer who is an expert on the issue, said assisting those made homeless by disasters was "a heavy burden on countries".

"It would be much, much better to prevent such displacement," he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

The first step is to work out which areas are most at risk, the UNDRR manual said, and then to reduce the threat by improving the quality of housing, services and infrastructure.

Mmaphaka Tau, deputy director general of South Africa's National Disaster Management Centre, said his country planned to implement the guide's recommendations with the help of aid agencies, as a basis to make communities more resilient.

"We are increasingly challenged by displacement," he told the launch.

In South Africa, it is municipalities that are on the frontline, as people forced from their homes often move to other overcrowded, risk-prone settlements with sub-standard housing situated near waste dumps or on flood plains, Tau said.

Poverty and violence make it harder to stop that vicious cycle, but the national government wants to identify and share good practices at the local level, he added.

'NOT FATE'

In its report, the IDMC said many displacements triggered by wild weather were pre-emptive evacuations organised by authorities, especially in Asia - which often save lives.

This month, India and Bangladesh moved about 3.8 million people out of harm's way before Cyclone Fani battered the South Asian nations, limiting the death toll to tens of people.

But while such displacements can last just a couple of days and have positive results, IDMC report co-author Justin Ginnetti said there was a lack of data on what happened to those who could not return home after disasters like storms and floods.

It was a month before student Nur Safitri Lasibani, who ran up the mountain after a powerful earthquake hit Indonesia's Sulawesi island last September to escape the ensuing tsunami, went back to her village to let her parents know she was safe.

With communications down, Nur - who lost four relatives in the disaster - lived for several weeks in a tent with friends in Palu city. They set up a kitchen serving food to struggling families, while she studied in a makeshift classroom.

The 23-year-old told the Geneva conference that shelters for displaced people must have decent facilities including electricity, rubbish disposal and separate toilets for men and women.

The spaces must also be designed to prevent sexual abuse, while government offices should quickly reissue identification documents people have lost but need to access aid, she added.

"So many social disasters come after the natural disasters happen," she said. "So much violence against women and children in the camps and sexual harassment, so many people lost their jobs... and livelihoods."

Kaelin said governments had made progress in understanding the need to do better at dealing with disaster displacement - but much of that remained on paper.

He urged them to include appropriate policies in the disaster risk plans they committed to submit by 2020 under the Sendai Framework, a global pact on disasters agreed in 2015.

The tools to reduce the risk of people being uprooted exist, as do guidelines to protect those who are forced to move - and they must now be put into action, he said.

"While hazards may be natural, disaster displacement is not always a fate we have to accept," he said.

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