But they are very much a reality of the present. As of writing, floods in Louisiana have threatened at least 100,000 homes in the Baton Rouge region, potentially leading to $20 billion in damages. Hurricanes Katrina and Sandy cost another $200 billion. Since 2005, disaster losses in the U.S. have reached nearly half a trillion dollars. You could buy all NFL franchises, Major League Baseball, the NBA, the NHL and NASCAR—twice over.

A global concern

The U.S. is of course not alone in facing this challenge. From 2005-2014, disasters cost the global economy at least $ 1.4 trillion, a staggering sum. Developing countries have a harder time resisting and bouncing back from the social and economic impact caused by these shocks. Decades of investments in development, education and jobs can all be washed away by a flood or a hurricane. Hoping to be closer to eradicating poverty or ensuring universal child education, you go back to square one—actually: minus one, because reconstruction is expensive.

“It is cheaper and easier to build a fence at the top of the cliff than to park an ambulance at the bottom.”

It doesn’t have to be this way. While we cannot stop a storm or earthquake from happening, we can reduce the likelihood and severity of impact. It is cheaper and easier to build a fence at the top of the cliff than to park an ambulance at the bottom.

Making strides

At UNDP, the UN’s global development agency, we have seen tangible examples of success. Our partners in Uzbekistan, the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia or the Philippines have developed early warning mobile apps and passed laws that restrict building zones, saving many lives.

In March 2015, the international community met in Japan to adopt the Sendai Framework, an international agreement to prevent disasters and commit to building back better. We possess the science to predict the annual storm season and we can identify earthquake zones; we should not be defeated by surprise or accept unnecessary losses, when the technology, the knowledge and the resources are there to prevent and prepare. Sustainable development has to be risk-informed.