Anyone who thinks we can just walk away from a crisis like the famine in Africa because these things are too overwhelming and commonplace should think again. Put bluntly, natural disasters have the world by the throat and the grip is tightening.

What do I mean? Well, the number and cost of disasters worldwide is soaring. This year 235 natural disasters caused around $82 billion damage, double the tab of only two years ago and part of $1 trillion in devastation over this decade.

With changing weather patterns and more people living in fragile areas, roughly 250 million people are currently affected by natural disasters — droughts, floods, earthquakes — every year and that number could rise to 375 million annually by 2015, some studies predict.

So, cries for help are not going to conveniently go away. In fact, they are going to get much louder, more insistent.

Unless, perhaps, we launch a global effort to make us better prepared for these sorts of catastrophic emergencies.

I know there's a lot of despair out there that insists "We've tried everything but the same places are always being hit."


Somalis lining up in a refugee camp in Mogadishu in July 2011 in a teeming downpour. Severe drought and food shortages are affecting millions in the Horn of Africa. But when the rains come, no one catches it. (Mohamed Sheikh Nor/Associated Press)

The flaw in that argument is that we have not yet tried everything — not even the most obvious course of all.

We have not dedicated a portion of global aid development to risk reduction. We have not set out to help fragile societies in disaster-prone areas become more resilient, so they can survive without so much urgent outside help.

It's not a new idea, merely one overlooked by governments.

We're falling behind

A case in point: This spring a British parliamentary study of that country's emergency response was harshly critical of its efforts to help reduce disaster risks, rather than just respond to the devastation.

We are "caught in a race between the growing size of the humanitarian challenge, and our ability to cope," wrote the review committee's chairman, Paddy Ashdown, a one-time party leader and former UN high representative.

"It is not a race, bluntly, that we think we are currently winning."

This report could be echoed in every Western capital. We're not coping. We're falling behind.

Essentially, what the Ashdown committee and others like it are saying is that Western governments should dedicate between four and 10 per cent of their foreign aid budgets to what's being called risk reduction, particularly for recipient countries where disasters are a regular occurrence.

This would be aid designed to help farmers diversify crops, stock up on food and water and develop disaster plans on a local scale. It would also prod aid-dependent governments to take more initiatives of this sort themselves.

In East Africa, for example, herding nomads need more pasture areas and water rights to save their herds when the rains stop coming; at the same time small farmers need crops that will survive droughts and also be marketable.

Add in some stockpiling of food and medical supplies and it could be easier for people to stay in their homes during such droughts and avoid the often-deadly treks to overcrowded refugee camps.

Water is critical

While it is hard to overlook the fact that war and anarchy in Somalia have made this crisis infinitely worse, when it comes to the Horn of Africa, all countries there need more resilience. Water is critical.

Even here, though, modest changes, such as a new irrigation pump, or new methods of collecting and storing water during the annual heavy rainfalls, can make a big difference.

A simple example. When the rains do fall, much water is simply lost. Village huts have thatch roofs, which just allow rain to seep through and wash away. Tin roofs, with eaves, would dramatically improve every family's collection ability.

In Ethiopia, Canadian aid organizations such as Oxfam Canada and CHF (Canadian Hunger Foundation), working alongside Ethiopia's own relief departments, have made some gains making local areas more resilient.

These projects help improve overall development and also energize the villagers, especially women who run much of the farming and marketing.

Not surprisingly, locals often have great ideas to better prepare for the kinds of disasters they've had to struggle with all their lives.

$6.50 a year

There are, of course, many other problem areas across the globe. Hundreds of millions of very poor humans live by flood and tsunami-prone oceans or near deserts.

Their lives would be made safer if risk reduction became a new focus of aid and community awareness.

It makes sense in every way. It costs just under $6.50 per capita annually to build up the needed resilience, according to the International Red Cross.

That's still billions of dollars, given the many people on the planet in such dire straits. But in emergency operations, by comparison, you need $250 for three or four months of assistance for just one person and the number of people needing help in the Horn of Africa alone is approaching 15 million.

In 2008, global humanitarian assistance from governments was $12.8 billion. Yet only 0.7 per cent of that help was allotted to the prevention of disasters, according to OECD figures. That's pitiful given the obvious and growing need.

The more studies you read of global aid efforts, the more you see that almost everyone thinks disaster preparedness is a good idea, but it's an idea that keeps sinking out of sight.

The British study, like others, calls for a near revolution in communications — among governments, the UN and other international agencies, as well as aid groups and private interests — to get us focused on prevention before a crisis occurs.

If we could do that we might just see a more stable world, one able to handle natural challenges better with less last-minute panic. If we cannot do that then we will be hearing not only more cries for help, but also more growing howls of despair.