Every year, more than 200 million people are affected by natural disasters. Many will bear the brunt of recurring floods, storms or droughts, and the majority of them will be women and girls. Most of those affected by recurring disasters survive. In fact, in all but the poorest and most poorly run countries, deaths resulting from weather-related disasters are on the decline.
What is not on the decline is our exposure to risk and the high price that we pay in terms of lost jobs, destroyed or damaged homes and disruption to education, health services and transport infrastructure.
Just as the most expensive hospital is the one that collapses during an earthquake, so the most expensive disaster-management plan is the one that fails to tackle the root causes of recurring disasters. A combination of inept urban planning and ignorance of the true economic cost of such events can all too easily allow valuable community assets to be swept away.
There are two approaches to building resilience to disasters. The most visible is the structural approach, which invests money wisely in flood protection, drainage, preservation of wetlands and forests, and remedial action — based on sound risk assessment — to protect valuable infrastructure.
The other, non-structural approach focuses on early warning systems, public policy, legislation, insurance, knowledge, education, training and community participation. It should also focus on issues that make particular groups of people vulnerable because of their gender, age, religion or poverty.
Ignoring the female voice in a disaster context is foolish in the extreme. We know that some of the most powerful recovery programs in the wake of disasters are driven by women who have survived the worst.
Countries that do not actively promote the full participation of women in education, politics, and the workforce will struggle more than most when it comes to reducing risk and adapting to climate change. Gender equality is thus an essential element of our work in building resilience to disasters and reducing the risk to lives, jobs and property. It is also, literally, a matter of life and death if women and girls are not empowered to participate fully in disaster management and planning.
This year, on the International Day for Disaster Reduction, we want to shine a light on women and girls, and to recognize what they are already doing to build their communities’ resilience in places where gender is not a barrier to their full participation in public life. We need to appreciate what women and girls are achieving by putting their experience and knowledge to good use in designing disaster plans and identifying areas for improvement in urban planning and early warning systems.
More than 100 million women and girls are affected by disasters each year. They all have a right to be equipped for survival, and they all have a right to contribute to keeping their communities safe from harm.
We need more women volunteering at the community level, and we need more women in senior positions as disaster managers. A world in which exposure to disaster is growing exponentially — and causing ever-higher economic losses — needs all the female help that it can get.
Margareta Wahlstrom is the UN secretary-general’s special representative for disaster risk reduction and head of the UN Office for Disaster Risk Reduction. The International Day for Disaster Reduction is observed each year on Oct. 13.