El Niño is a harsh reminder that trade is essential for disaster planning

Many countries are intensifying preparations for mega-disasters such as tropical cyclones, floods and wildfires following the recent warning from the United Nations’ World Meteorological Organization of the imminent return of a potentially devastating El Niño weather system.

Trade facilitation has a significant role to play in such anticipatory action. There is, after all, little point in mobilizing international aid if it ends up getting stuck at a border due to outdated, manual procedures and unnecessary red tape.

Countries should act now to ensure critical imports of food, medical goods and construction equipment reach people as quickly as possible.

When it comes to improving resilience against near-certain adverse events, trade facilitation has many advantages: It may require little infrastructural investment. It is highly targeted. And it can be implemented quickly.

Most countries regard the multilateral World Trade Organization Trade Facilitation Agreement as a roadmap for broader trade reform to drive inclusive economic growth and have already committed to implementing it in full. It makes sense that reducing bottlenecks to trade can also expedite the cross-border passage of critical goods, enhancing aid efficiency and speeding up economic recovery. 

But developing countries and least-developed countries will need help. The Trade Facilitation Agreement signatories also recognized that many WTO members would require assistance in meeting their obligations. Capacity-building must also underpin disaster preparedness.

Beyond this potential El Niño event, extreme weather events can rapidly develop into broader disasters in unprepared countries, with devastating effects on health, food security, living conditions, infrastructure, economic activity and the environment. 

Between 1980 and the middle of 2023, in the United States alone, billion-dollar disasters from natural hazards cost nearly $2.6 trillion. Worldwide, the figure is many times higher. Based on the last El Niño (2014-16), anticipated disasters will wreak disproportionate havoc on developing countries and least developing countries still struggling to recover from the COVID-19 pandemic amid spiraling inflation.   

At the time, the UN World Food Program estimated that a previous El Niño event had negatively affected 60 million people, with Southern Africa the hardest hit region. However, the damage was certainly not confined to this area. Other parts of Africa also suffered droughts, floods and famine conditions. Likewise, Central America and Haiti endured drought and consequent famine, while floods took a heavy toll on South America and the Asia Pacific region, including Indonesia, Papua New Guinea and The Philippines. There was also a record number of tropical cyclones — 16 in 2015 alone.

Trade facilitation may not generate many headlines, but the WTO estimates that simplifying, modernizing and harmonizing import, export, and transit processes is one of the most effective ways of growing trade and employment, driving inclusive economic growth and reducing global poverty.

The reforms that make trade simpler, faster and more cost-effective can better prepare countries to deal with adverse events such as natural disasters. For example, digitalizing manual procedures that have often changed little over the decades would help keep aid flowing in the aftermath of a disaster. Streamlining clearance procedures would ensure important commodities reach the intended recipients as soon as possible rather than languishing at ports.  

Preemptive, ongoing community engagement involving national and international public and private sector stakeholders is a prerequisite for success. When disaster strikes, it is often too late. Preparedness should be woven into trade facilitation efforts worldwide.   

This is not just theoretical. In Madagascar in February 2022, the National Center for Disaster Preparedness at Columbia University — where one of us is the director — worked with the Global Alliance for Trade Facilitation — where one of us is the development manager for business action projects — and the World Customs Organization (WCO) to organize an event designed to simulate the impact of new operating procedures to expedite imports of vaccines and protective medical equipment during an emergency.

The new procedures, part of the WCO’s COVID-19 Project, funded by the government of Japan, were designed to streamline the clearance and regularization of relief goods in cases of natural disasters and other disruptions.

The simulation was quickly overtaken by reality as Tropical Cyclone Batsirai, a Category 4 hurricane, swept toward the island, killing dozens of people, displacing tens of thousands and devastating agricultural land already hit hard by endemic drought. Afterward, stakeholders agreed the new import processes were a significant plus and agreed on collaboration toward further improvement. It should also encourage other countries to follow suit.

Trade facilitation is not a panacea but the ability to move critical goods across borders to help vulnerable populations in times of crisis must be part of preparing for the inevitable. Regardless of El Niño, many countries can anticipate natural adverse events to increase in frequency and ferocity.

Building resilience in this way extends to post-disaster recovery. All too often the news cycle concentrates on the immediate aftermath, but populations bear the negative economic and social consequences for years and decades to come. As well as streamlining imports, trade facilitation is vital in enabling countries to limit the disruption to economic activity which, in turn, better prepares them to cope with future adverse events.

 Jeff Schlegelmilch is the director of the National Center for Disaster Preparedness at the Columbia Climate School. He is also the co-author of the forthcoming book, “Catastrophic Incentives: Why our approaches to disasters keep falling short.” Christopher Holden is the development manager for Business Action Projects at the Global Alliance for Trade Facilitation.

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