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Leader comment: Disasters are seldom entirely natural

15 September 2023

WHEN the political parties next attempt to persuade the British public to vote for them, we wonder how high up their lists of policies they will place disaster preparation? For too long the second half of the adage “hope for the best, plan for the worst” has been absent, as successive governments have subscribed to the just-in-time supply-chain concept, diverting the funding needed to meet various contingencies into more immediate causes. Setting aside domestic disasters, the vulnerability of many of the world’s population suggests that more emergency funding will be needed in future, assuming that the British electorate rejects efforts to make it completely insular in outlook.

In this past week alone, there have been the earthquake in Morocco and the flooding in Libya, each requiring faster emergency aid than is currently available, and long-term investment in rebuilding. The International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies produces an annual World Disasters Report, which routinely logs between 300 and 400 disasters. Last year, it warned of an increasing number of “overlapping and compounding hazards”, not just globally but within individual countries. These are typically a natural disaster followed closely by an outbreak of infection. The Federation warns that “when disasters overlap or occur in close succession, the impacts can be magnified”, and so demand yet more funding if they are to be remedied without severe loss of life.

The Federation’s 2022 report focused largely on the Covid pandemic, and thus it emphasised the medical wisdom that prevention is better than cure: “The most effective way to handle many disasters is to prevent them from happening in the first place.” It is now recognised — and nowhere more apparently than in Libya — that disasters, if not caused by humans, are often exacerbated by them. The political and security breakdowns in Libya, a country that now constitutes little more than a series of fiefdoms, led directly to the withdrawal of funds for public infrastructure that appear to have contributed to the collapse of the dams that devastated Derga. Governments around the world need to realise that the focus of disaster prevention needs to be on political structures as much as natural ones.

The Old Testament prophets were clear in the connection between the behaviour of the people of God and their natural surroundings. In this week’s Morning Prayer lectionary, Zechariah upbraids the people for making their hearts as hard as adamant “lest they should hear the law”. As a consequence, “the land was desolate after them . . . for they laid the pleasant land desolate” or, in another translation, changed “a country of delights into a desert”. This is the judgment under which the whole of humanity stands.

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