11/17/2012 08:49 EST | Updated 01/16/2013 05:12 EST

Living With Risk and Learning from Disaster Post-Sandy

Each year, according to the United Nations, more than 200 million people are affected by "natural hazards" like floods, droughts, cyclones, earthquakes or fires.

Whether these disasters take place in wealthier nations, like Canada or the United States, or in poorer and developing ones, like Haiti, they produce equally sobering and tragic effects. These include the loss of homes; devastation of entire communities; costly disruptions to local business or livelihoods; suspension of people's daily routines; limited or no access to clean water or food; emotional and psychological trauma and, of course, the loss of human life.

Hurricane Sandy certainly got our attention. Billions of dollars (and counting) in damages. Communities crippled and left in the cold without electricity. Nearly 200 lives lost.

Sadly, with the stark realities of climate change and frequency of extreme weather events, this likely won't be the last natural disaster we experience or witness in our lifetime or even this decade. So, what are we to do about that?

For humanitarian agencies, confronting disasters is our way of life. We respond immediately when disasters strike with food, water, shelter, medicines and other means of support needed to save and protect human life.

These efforts are made all the more possible when news headlines and pictures of ravaged communities or hungry children become a catalyst for hundreds, thousands, and millions of dollars in donations to support relief efforts. There is no question about it -- this generous outpouring of support does indeed save lives.

But what about the work that needs to happen in communities before a disaster occurs in order to reduce -- or even prevent -- its devastating effects?

Former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan once said, "Hazards only become disasters when people's lives and livelihoods are swept away...we must reduce the impact of disasters by building sustainable communities that have the long-term capacity to live with risk."

Annan's words strike at the heart of that other side of humanitarian work -- also known as disaster risk reduction. In fact, while humanitarian agencies and communities have gotten better at responding to emergencies and saving lives, the lesser known fact is that risk reduction is part and parcel of this work. It's not often considered front-page news though, meaning it gets less attention and donor investments than emergency relief efforts after a disaster strikes.

But Hurricane Sandy is a reminder to us all that disaster risk reduction matters and can take on a number of forms. Like developing and putting into practice effective early warning systems so people can prepare and move to safer ground within 12-72 hours of a disaster. Cuba has followed this practice. When Hurricane Charley hit the country in 2004, up to 70,000 houses were damaged and four people died. The number of deaths could have been higher had people not been warned. When Hurricane Ivan hit that same year, two million people were evacuated and there were no deaths.

Children are often the most vulnerable in emergency and disaster situations, so at Plan we've worked hard to make child protection, and the voices and ideas of young people themselves, an integral part of our risk reduction work. For example, in Colombia, a high-risk nation for natural disasters, Plan has been supporting youth to develop disaster preparedness plans for their own communities. Part of this includes having youth meet with their community leaders to identify and address risky infrastructure and systems like poor sanitation and drainage systems, or homes built on flood plains. (See this slideshow: Children Get Hands-on with Disaster Preparedness)

Risk reduction is also about engaging the local knowledge and experiences of people who live in areas that are more prone to extreme weather events, and working with these communities to build up their own resiliency. There are unique lessons to be had from people and countries that have lived through disaster.

They are not just victims but also trailblazers who can apply lessons learned from one disaster to ensure better preparedness for the next time. For example, with support from Plan, many African farmers have been able to manage through back-to-back seasons of erratic rains and prolonged droughts through smart farming techniques, better and more effective grain storage systems, and other disaster preparedness and back-up processes.

At the core of these and other humanitarian approaches to risk reduction is the clear understanding that the degree to which people can recover from disaster depends heavily on a number of socio-economic, environmental, or even political conditions at play in their lives before disasters occur. Certainly people in poorer and wealthier economies or situations will recover differently, but it's not necessarily, nor simply, a matter of 'better versus worse.'

The fact is disasters and any emergencies will occur. Their impact however is something we can control to a considerable degree. There are lessons to be learned from some of the poorest countries in the world. Assessing risks, mitigating dangers, and small preparations all help in saving lives and reducing damage. The cost of prevention? Not much compared to its alternative.