Disasters didn’t have to displace 19.3 million people in 2014

Tacloban, Philippines after Typhoon Haiyan. (credit: Direct Relief/flickr)

Natural disasters forced more than 19 million people to flee their homes in 2014. Worse yet, the risk of being displaced by a disaster is 60 percent greater than it was roughly 40 years ago. But don’t blame mother nature, the blame lies with us, according to the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre (IDMC) of the Norwegian Refugee Council.

In a new report, the IDMC determines the impact of disasters around the world. Weather was responsible for 17.5 million people displaced while earthquakes and other geophysical hazards displaced 1.7 million. The majority of displacements took place in Asia, specifically China, India and the Philippines. In Africa – a bright spot in the report – displacements from natural disasters were three times lower than the average in 2008.

It’s easy to blame the planet for the problems, but IDMC says it is humans who shoulder the responsibility.

“The millions of lives devastated by disasters is more often a consequence of bad man-made structures and policies, than the forces of mother nature,” said Jan Egeland, secretary general of Norwegian Refugee Council, in a news release. “A flood is not in itself a disaster, the catastrophic consequences happen when people are neither prepared nor protected when it hits.”

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Overall displacements by disasters were down in 2014 from previous years. An average of 26.5 million people were displaced on an annual basis since 2008. With the increasing effects of climate change on natural disasters, there is an expectation that things could get worse.

That can change if efforts are undertaken to better prepare for potential disasters and the emission of greenhouse gases that contribute to climate change are reduced. One of the recommendations made by IMDC is to no longer view displacements as solely a humanitarian issue. Given the varying things that contribute to the displacements, the solutions must come under governments and communities. As was seen in the wake of Typhoons Rammasun and Hagupit in the Philippines, local communities are already the first to respond to their own disasters.

“If communities are strengthened and ready beforehand, with solid infrastructure, early warning systems, and other such measures, displacement can be used as a short term coping strategy, or at best be avoided altogether,” said William Lacy Swing, director general of International Organization for Migration, in a news release.

Given the wide impact of disasters on the world, it makes sense for the issue to be among the 169 targets in the sustainable development goals. But it is not. Discussions took place to make the reduction of refugees and internally displaced people a target in the goals that will replace the Millennium Development Goals at the end of this year. Such a target did not make the final cut.

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But all is not lost. The development buzzword du jour, resilience, makes an appearance in the document and provides an opening for displacements. But that may be a bit of a stretch.

“No matter how and where displacement features in the SDGs, it should be recognized as a global issue requiring a particular focus,” according to the report.

In some places it is a well recognized issue. The Philippines made small improvements after the devastation caused by Typhoon Haiyan in late 2013. The two major typhoons that struck the country in 2014 displaced nearly 5 million people, but communities were in a slightly better position to deal with the weather and its effects.

Some places are getting better, but it may not be keeping pace with a warming planet.

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About Author

Tom Murphy

Tom Murphy is a New Hampshire-based reporter for Humanosphere. Before joining Humanosphere, Tom founded and edited the aid blog A View From the Cave. His work has appeared in Foreign Policy, the Huffington Post, the Guardian, GlobalPost and Christian Science Monitor. He tweets at @viewfromthecave. Contact him at tmurphy[at]humanosphere.org.