Natural disasters hit the poor the hardest, empowering women can help fix that

Flooding from Typhoon Ondoy (Ketsana), Philippines 2009. Photo: AusAID

Each year natural disasters force as many as 26 million people back into poverty, according to a new report from the World Bank, posing a formidable challenge in the fight to end poverty. But new research shows that there is a way to help the world’s poor deal with disasters – empower women.

“Women are generally the environmental managers – getting food, water, fire supplies – when a disaster affects the ability to do that the burden falls on them,” Kelly Austin, a sociologist at Lehigh University, told Humanosphere.

Austin and Laura McKinney from Tulane University evaluated data from 86 developing countries to see what helps reduce the impact of climate-related disasters: floods, storms and droughts. The economic empowerment of women had the strongest connection to improved outcomes. Illness, injury, homelessness and death are lower in countries where women are better off.

“What was most surprising was the strength of the women’s empowerment measure and its impact on disaster vulnerability,” said Austin.

Disasters hit the poor the hardest and have long-lasting effects, according to the World Bank. They do more damage to the incomes of the poor who are also less likely to benefit from government assistance to recover.

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“Severe climate shocks threaten to roll back decades of progress against poverty,” said World Bank head Jim Yong Kim, in a statement. “Building resilience to disasters not only makes economic sense, it is a moral imperative.”

The new World Bank research has an important new twist. The cost of falling consumption caused by disasters is greater than the physical damage. In other words, people’s wallet’s take the biggest hit. A slow recovery means returning to normal is delayed, which harms the ability to make money.

“Countries are enduring a growing number of unexpected shocks as a result of climate change,” said Stephane Hallegatte, lead economist for the Global Facility for Disaster Reduction and Recovery and lead author of the report. “Poor people need social and financial protection from disasters that cannot be avoided. With risk policies in place that we know to be effective, we have the opportunity to prevent millions of people from falling into poverty.”

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The word resilience has emerged as favorite for the World Bank and other major institutions in recent years. It is peppered throughout the conclusions of the report. The term is used to call for investments in preventive efforts to help the world’s poor bounce back when they encounter a disaster.

Broad solutions come back to the idea of lifting people out of poverty. Austin and McKinney’s work shows that women need to be a greater part of the discussion. Empowering women happens through increasing access to banking and supporting land ownership, said Austin. It also means including women in the decisions that affect them and their families.

“Women continue to be excluded from policymaking,” said Austin. “Here is a clear example where women are needed to be involved in climate-change policy. When you improve the health and well-being of those at the bottom everyone’s health and well-being improves.”

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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.