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Malawi's potential to reduce disaster risk

Floods Malawi credit Red Cross Climate Centre

13 October 2020 was the thirty-first International Day of Disaster Risk Reduction – a day nominated by the United Nations to promote a global culture of disaster risk reduction. The coronavirus pandemic of 2020 has highlighted just how important disaster risk reduction is. But for Malawi, coronavirus is the latest in a long line of disasters that the country has experienced, says Katharine Vincent of the BRACC Knowledge and Policy Hub.

Frequent disasters are costly and undermine development progress

So common are disasters in Malawi that, when the coronavirus pandemic led to the declaration of a state of disaster in March, it marked the fifth year out of the last six that such declarations had been made. In 2015 it was for major floods, which affected nearly 3 million people and caused $300 million of losses. This was followed in 2016 by a drought, this time affecting nearly a third of Malawi’s 18 million citizens. 2017 brought an outbreak of the highly invasive fall army worm insect that led to significant crop loss and threatened food security. 2018 was the lone disaster free year, before flooding associated with the passage of tropical cyclone Idai affected nearly a million people in 2019.

The consequence of repeated occurrence of disasters is that Malawi rarely has sufficient time to recover from one event before the next one strikes. The compound effects have been widely recognised and government has highlighted the need to “break the cycle” and overcome the threats to lives and livelihoods. Malawi is a signatory of the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction – the global framework adopted in 2015 that commits to a proactive approach to reducing disaster risk before the disasters occur, rather than just planning for response.

Promising moves in disaster governance

The target for promotion in the Sendai Framework in 2020 is target E, to “substantially increase the number of countries with national and local disaster risk reduction strategies by 2020” – and hence the theme for International Day for Disaster Risk Reduction 2020 is “good disaster risk governance”. Malawi is making positive steps in this regard. Their national Disaster Risk Management Policy was adopted in 2015 and a draft Disaster Risk Management Bill is under consideration. When announcing appointments in July after the election, the new government has also made a promising move by appointing a Commissioner for Disaster Management Affairs for the first time (previously the Department of Disaster Management Affairs did not have its own permanent secretary level civil servant).

Whilst Malawi has made promising moves in disaster governance, this now needs to be backed up with the financial commitment necessary to manage and reduce existing levels of risk and avoid the creation of new risk. Severe domestic fiscal constraints means that disaster risk reduction does not have its own line in the national budget – instead what is budgeted is contingency for response after a disaster has occurred.

Capitalising on the benefits of investing in disaster risk reduction

Only planning for disaster response is, of course, less than ideal. Ask any farmer whether they would prefer to lose their harvest to drought and rely on a food parcel of assistance, or receive timely climate information and support for climate-smart agricultural practices that enables them to maintain harvest through dry conditions. As well as unnecessary financial losses, the psychosocial impacts are significant. 

Scaling this up, the economy-wide effects of always reacting are extremely costly – not just in terms of compensation for actual losses, but because the risk of loss impedes long-term investment which is required for economic growth. Fortunately, disaster risk reduction does not have to be expensive and, in fact, is extremely cost-effective. This is partly because many examples of disaster risk reduction are “win-win”, meaning that they bring about tangible benefits regardless of whether or not a disaster strikes. Improving access to climate and early warning information is a “win-win” example – meaning that it reduces disaster risk but also provides benefits for communities and businesses even if a disaster does not occur.

A recent review shows that benefit-cost ratios for resilience investments can give returns from 3 to 1 to 50 to 1 – meaning that every dollar spent on disaster risk reduction can yield benefits of between $3 and $50. 2020 has shown the consequences of not investing in disaster risk reduction – having seen the devastating consequences in several developed countries where epidemic and pandemic risk reduction measures had been dismantled. Now, more than ever, we should be putting in place – and reaping the benefits of – disaster risk reduction. With already-promising signs on governance, we look forward to the new government backing that up with increased investment in resilience building interventions.

Further reading: Why invest in resilience? A policy brief by the Building Resilience and Adapting to Climate Change (BRACC) programme in Malawi and Civil Society Network on Climate Change - Malawi.