October 13 marks International Day for Disaster Risk Reduction. This day celebrates how people and communities around the world are reducing their exposure to disasters and is an initiative of the United Nations. This year the focus is on the relation of economic loss from disaster to the global gross domestic product (GDP) with a view to reducing such loss.

In 2017, in less than 24 hours, Hurricane Maria set back development in Dominica by destroying 226% of the country’s 2016 GDP. The housing, utilities, agriculture, commerce and tourism sectors accounted for most of the damage and losses. These were calculated at US$1.313 billion. Hurricane Irma, some days before, had destroyed 95% of the housing on Barbuda and 91% of the housing on St. Maarten. In the latter, real GDP shrank by 4.1% as the productive sector tries to recover. Less common, but equally severe are earthquakes and tsunamis which take minutes to destroy infrastructure and livelihoods.

In the Caribbean the various Red Cross National Societies have embarked on projects to reduce disaster risk in their native islands. In Grenada, Jamaica and the Dominican Republic there is the Resilient Islands project which is a four-year initiative to protect islands against the impacts of climate change by promoting the use of coastal habitats to reduce risks. It also seeks to help governments, partners and communities implement sustainable development plans that prioritize nature. Community early warning systems are being established in Barbados, Bahamas, Belize and Dominica and there is the ongoing assessment and evaluation of national early warning systems in Antigua and Barbuda, St. Vincent and the Grenadines, St. Lucia as well as in Dominica and the Dominican Republic. The Shelter programme in Dominica has seen the construction of more resilient roofs as well as women trained in carpentry. Meanwhile the fishermen of Barbuda now have upgraded equipment including GPS and have also been trained in first aid through the Livelihood programme.

Severe hazards will occur, but disasters can be prevented. Enforcing mandatory building codes, mitigation works and funding for regular maintenance can prevent disasters. Sustainable development can be achieved when government and the private sector ensure that investment decisions are informed by hazard risk analysis. This is the most cost-effective way to reduce risk. Investment in disaster risk reduction generally represents a large saving in terms of avoided losses and reconstruction costs. The cost benefit ratios range from 3:1 to 15:1 or higher in some cases. Reducing economic losses from disasters will save lives.

“Each year disasters cost the global economy $520 billion but for every dollar invested in preparedness, approximately $4 is saved on the cost of response and recovery. It is for this reason that we advocate for financial commitments to accompany public policy on disaster risk reduction. It is therefore imperative that Small Island Developing States, whose carbon footprint is very small but who are most impacted by climate change, invest in disaster reduction for resilience.” Walter Cotte, Director of the Americas Region of the International Federation of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies.

The UN General Assembly called for the International Day for Disaster Reduction in 1989 as a way to promote a global culture of risk-awareness and disaster reduction. That includes disaster prevention, mitigation and preparedness. It was originally celebrated on the second Wednesday of October (Resolution 44/236, 22 December 1989), but after two decades the UN General Assembly formally designated 13 October as the annual date (Resolution 64/200, 21 December 2009).