In 2021/2022, the world yet again witnessed catastrophic disasters happening around the globe, from record-breaking heat to floods, extreme droughts, wildfires and earthquakes. From Europe to Asia, America to Africa, nowhere is immune.
In the past year alone, disasters took around 10,000 human lives and cost over $280 billion in damage worldwide. Nature also continues to be under grave threat, as species are pushed from their habitats or towards extinction, the true costs of which are much harder to estimate.
Hazards, such as hurricanes and earthquakes, do not need to turn into disasters. Where and how people live, as well as their ability to respond, largely determine whether a hazard becomes a disaster.
For example, this report analyses the disaster of Hurricane Ida, where the majority of those who died lived in illegal basement apartments in a flood-prone area of New York. These forms of accommodation are often sought by vulnerable people who do not have access to other types of housing; for example, undocumented immigrants or people who struggle to pay regular rental prices.
Hazards, such as hurricanes and earthquakes, do not need to turn into disasters.
Where and how people live, as well as their ability to respond, largely determine whether a hazard becomes a disaster.
At the same time, those vulnerable populations are in the weakest position to buffer themselves against the impacts of a disaster because they can, for example, neither afford to purchase insurance nor have the economic means to bounce back once a hazard strikes. The same applies to nature, where a healthy ecosystem can absorb the force of a storm or a flood better than a damaged one. The disasters seen in 2021/2022 could have been either avoided altogether or their impacts significantly reduced if the right kind of solutions had been in place to prevent or better manage them.
The 2021/2022 edition of the Interconnected Disaster Risks report analyses 10 disasters from around the world which were selected for their notoriety and representation of a larger global issue that has changed or will change lives across the world, and identifies solutions that can help to prevent or better manage them in the future.
The 10 selected disasters for 2021/2022 are:
In summer 2021, air temperatures in Canada broke records multiple days in a row as a powerful heatwave spread over the Pacific Northwest, registering over 600 heat-related deaths and setting an all-time high-temperature record for the country at 49.6°C (121.3°F).
On 14 August 2021, Haiti was hit by a magnitude 7.2 earthquake with an epicentre in the Canal du Sud (120 km west of the capital, Port-au-Prince). The earthquake killed over 2,200 people and injured more than 12,000.
On 1 September 2021, remnants of Hurricane Ida, the costliest disaster of 2021, brought historic rainfall to New York City, triggering the city’s first-ever flash flood alerts as water flooded streets, subway stations and apartments.
Lagos faces increasingly severe annual flooding, exacerbated by sea level rise and subsidence. In 2021, floods again submerged vehicles and houses, displacing thousands from their homes.
In summer 2021, drought and low humidity combined with record-breaking heat of up to 48.8°C (119.8°F) led to fire outbreaks across the Mediterranean countries, killing more than 100 people and burning more than 620,000 ha of land in July and August
Southern Madagascar’s worst drought in 40 years led to severe stress on vegetation, triggering a drastic decline in rice, maize and cassava production. By December 2021, more than 1.6 million people were estimated to have been suffering high levels of food insecurity.
During the 2020-2021 typhoon season, for the first time in 56 years, no typhoon made landfall on Taiwan, leading to one of the worst droughts in the island’s history. As reservoirs fell below 5% capacity, more than one million households and businesses had to ration water.
On 15 January 2022, the Hunga-Tonga-Hunga-Ha'apai volcano eruption was felt across the Pacific Ocean and beyond, releasing energy equivalent to hundreds of Hiroshima nuclear explosions and creating supersonic air pressure waves that were observed from space.
The vaquita is a species of porpoise on the brink of extinction with less than 10 individuals estimated to be left in the wild. Although not commercially targeted, the vaquita is collateral damage in an ongoing conflict between fishers, government and international illegal trade.
From March 2020 to September 2021, a herd of approximately 15 Asian elephants left their home in Xishuangbanna National Nature Reserve. Along their journey, the herd broke into homes, damaged buildings and infrastructure, and destroyed crops, totaling estimated damage of over $1 million.
To understand the underlying conditions that created the disasters in the first place, it is necessary to look below the surface and identify the drivers that cause disasters to develop, such as deforestation or urbanization. For example, deforestation leads to soil erosion, where a lack of trees and roots means that there is no protection from wind and rain, and the soil is easily washed or blown away. This creates the ideal conditions for multiple disasters, such as the devastating landslides during the Haiti earthquake, the formation of sandstorms in southern Madagascar and the sedimentation of water reservoirs in Taiwan.
Deforestation leads to soil erosion
This creates the ideal conditions for multiple disasters, such as landslides, sandstorms, and drought.
An even deeper analysis reveals that many drivers are formed by shared root causes, such as our economic or political systems. Deforestation as a driver, for example, can be traced back to the tendency to pursue economic interests without regard for environmental externalities, a root cause defined as “Undervaluing environmental costs.”
These shared root causes and drivers of the disasters from 2021/2022 illustrate how seemingly disconnected disasters link back to the same sources but reveal themselves differently. The good news is that just as the disasters are interconnected, so are the solutions.
One type of solution can prevent or reduce a number of different disaster risks. For example, enhancing early warning systems would have reduced fatalities during the British Columbia heatwave, the Tonga volcano’s tsunami and the flooding in Lagos. Similarly, consuming sustainably can not only reduce the strain on ecosystems we depend on for protection from hazards like the flooding seen in Lagos and New York but also preserve valuable food and water resources in times of scarcity, highlighted by the Vanishing vaquita and Taiwan drought, respectively.
Innovations can include the use of adaptive design, such as floating architecture, that can help reduce the vulnerability of homes to increasing flooding (as seen in the Lagos floods). Preventive techniques that are both effective and beneficial to farmers, such as beehive fences, have successfully been used in Kenya to prevent elephants from entering cropland while at the same time providing honey and improving crop pollination.
Solutions that let nature work include prescribed burning to prevent megafires (Mediterranean wildfires), restoring forest ecosystems to stabilize the soil and prevent land degradation (Haiti earthquake, Taiwan drought, Southern Madagascar food insecurity), or regenerating urban streams and rivers and applying risk-aware urban planning to reduce flood risk (Hurricane Ida). These are measures that harness nature's processes to reduce hazards.
Solutions that let nature work harness nature's processes to reduce hazards.
Solutions in these categories not only can be applied to different types of disasters but also are at their most powerful when implemented in a “solution package,” where multiple solutions work together to address the different elements of each interconnected disaster. For example, a solution package to address the looming extinction of the vaquita is to work together with local fisher communities to co-manage conservation areas, to innovate and implement more sustainable fishing methods, to raise awareness for sustainable consumption and to enforce regulations to prevent harmful overfishing and illegal trade. This solution package has a better chance of addressing the problem than if any of the solutions are implemented in isolation.
While the only way to prevent disasters in the future is through the design and implementation of solutions, it is also important to note that solutions cannot take place in a vacuum and have implementation barriers and trade-offs. These trade-offs can for example be environmental. In the case of the British Columbia heatwave, increased access to air conditioning would have reduced heat-related issues, but conventional air conditioning increases greenhouse gas emissions. Trade-offs can also be societal, as in the case of the Wandering elephants, where the creation of habitat corridors or protected areas for Asian elephants would benefit the elephants but might result in a loss of land for people living in those areas. Only by thinking of the interconnectivity of our actions can these trade-offs be properly understood and sustainable solutions found.
Sustainable solutions consider the interconnectedness of disaster risks across time and space and work together to address different elements of disasters with a long-term perspective.
Different groups are also differently affected by different types of disasters, and any solution package needs to have a special focus on the most vulnerable. For example, children under the age of five are especially vulnerable to the long-term and lasting impacts of food insecurity affecting communities in southern Madagascar, whereas during the heatwave in British Columbia, people over the age of 50 were twice as likely to suffer from heat-related health issues as younger generations. The impacts of the volcanic eruption in Tonga left especially women without income as many of them depend on remittances from abroad, which could not be transmitted due to the interruption of the only undersea cable servicing Tonga. In the very young nation of Nigeria, where almost half of the entire population is under 14 years of age, future generations will suffer from the consequences of today's sand mining.
Not all solutions will be convenient for everyone. The redistribution of resources among generations (Lagos flooding), countries (Haiti earthquake) and groups of people with different vulnerabilities (Hurricane Ida), or requesting the inclusion of stakeholders who are rarely heard (Vanishing vaquita) will mean that some will need to share their resources more broadly than they currently do. Other solutions are yet to be designed and will require a new way of thinking.
As climate change is here to stay and its impacts are increasingly felt, the challenges for disaster risk reduction will only grow in the future and be intensified by the impacts of loss of nature and vanishing biodiversity. Solutions are already being implemented around the world to address risks, but interconnectivity is not yet placed at the heart of solution design and implementation.
Nevertheless, the research on this is clear. Without investing and scaling up smart solutions, the disasters of 2021/2022 are just the beginning of a new normal. The responsibility to make changes rests with all parts of society: the private sector, governments, regional and local decision makers, but also with us as individuals. All of our actions have consequences for all of us. In an interconnected world, we are all part of the solution.