Past experience of Disaster Risk Management can help Mauritius in tackling the COVID-19 crisis

    Philippe Boullé

    Former director, United Nations Secretariat for the International Strategy for Disaster Reduction 

    The effects of COVID-19 extend far beyond the health sector. The pandemic has resulted in a worldwide multi-sectoral catastrophe with unprecedented human, societal and economic impacts. It has considerably affected Mauritius.

    This major crisis therefore provides us with a rare opportunity to sit and think in order to take stock of our societal and economic achievements of the past, anticipate future positive and negative developments, and define new directions for our future actions.

    Measures taken by the Mauritian authorities and by doctors and hospitals to deal with the Covid-19 epidemic have been successful in stifling the development of the virus. Through its speedy action in implementing confinement measures and ensuring their strict application, preventing access to the island for all visitors, and quarantining passengers landing in Mauritius before all flights were stopped, the government halted the loss of lives and preserved the health of the population. The easement of confinement and actions taken to resume normal life and activities in the country continue to be monitored by the government.

    However, the measures taken to reach this health priority goal resulted in almost a full closure of economic and social activity in the country, a hard price to pay.  It may now be time to consider the medium to long-term path we should take to ensure that Mauritius flourishes again at home and on the international scene. At this juncture we have only assumptions, no certainties about the future course to follow.

    At this juncture we have only assumptions, no certainties about the future course to follow.

    At the time of writing this paper, it appears that the question arises as to whether the post-COVID-19 situation should simply be a continuation of pre-Covid normal activities, or whether on the contrary a completely new institutional set up should be created as a break from the current liberal pattern of the economy. Many interesting proposals have been made recently in support of one or the other of these options. The immediate goal of putting back Mauritius into full gear is a necessity agreed by all.

    In this context, it may be necessary to remind ourselves of a simple truth, i.e. we are where we are today because we have been shattered by a major catastrophic event. One key priority for the future must therefore be that we should not be caught in such a situation again. I therefore wish to highlight the importance of fully taking into account, as a priority for our future policies, a sector of the economy that is often neglected: overall disaster risk reduction, often referred to as “integrated risk management”. We have the possibility to build on past experiences of disaster management that have proved successful in the Mauritian context. The COVID 19 crisis has exposed the total spectrum of the country’s vulnerabilities, both natural and man-made, and reminded us that our economic and social development base is very vulnerable to all sorts of deadly external shocks. We have just had the demonstration that one single unexpected catastrophic event is having a very damaging impact on sectors of the economy, especially tourism and air transport. We cannot afford other such events in the near future. It would be a tragedy if we were to attempt to rebuild our society at this present moment while ignoring the need to fully integrate into our national policies the overarching dimension of protection and safeguard against natural, climatic and man-made disasters.

    Disaster Risk Reduction (DRR) means that we need to have our minds bent upon anticipating the occurrence and likely consequences of potential hazards and technological events long before they are likely to happen.

    Mauritius is familiar with Disaster Risk Reduction (DRR), which is completely neutral in terms of political or economic affiliation, and is based on the overall concept of risk. DRR means that we need to have our minds bent upon anticipating the occurrence and likely consequences of potential hazards and technological events long before they are likely to happen, so that through preventive  action we may stop them from turning into disasters, or – if ever the case arises – mitigate their impact through preparedness and rescue operations. This is indeed an ambitious task, especially as we know that zero risk does not exist. However, there are so many cases in history of disasters that could have been avoided when it was known that they were likely to happen that in my view we have no other option than to invest fully in this ambitious task.

    I will provide only one illustration, perhaps an extreme case, relating to a long-ago disaster that occurred in 1902, at Montagne Pelée, Martinique. On 8 May 1902, a volcanic eruption completely destroyed the largest city of the island in a few minutes, killing its 30 000 inhabitants. Twenty merchant ships were sunk.  The eruption had been forecasted as imminent, but the governor of the island refused to evacuate the population, and ships were not allowed to leave the port. A similar eruption in 1929 did not result in any victims since the population of the north of the island had been evacuated.

    There are alas a very large number of potential risks of disasters, which we have not yet identified and which could be just as disruptive as COVID-19.

    Prevention against natural disasters has made considerable progress over the past fifty years, including the establishment of the DRR world programme (2015-2030) which is organized around  four strategic objectives:  a) understanding disaster risk, b) strengthening disaster risk governance to manage disaster risk, c) investing in disaster risk for resilience, including in health infrastructure,  and d) enhancing disaster preparedness (including early warning) to “build back better” in recovery, rehabilitation and reconstruction. In this context it should be noted that Mauritius hosted the African Union Conference on the implementation of the Sendai framework [1] for DRR in December 2016.

    At the operational level, DRR focuses, inter alia, on a detailed assessment with specific guidelines of the damage that a given catastrophic event would create if it occurred, both in human and financial terms. It may conduct national vulnerability and risk assessments, also covering ecosystems. In this way, the country concerned is able to resort by anticipation to prevention, risk financing and risk transfer measures (for example, transferring the financial risk to insurance companies, engaging in parametric crop insurance).

    DRR uses a very rigorous methodology for its activities, based on the most recent practical applications of science and technology which draw fully on the numerical revolution and BIG DATA analysis. Many Mauritian civil servants were introduced to this methodology when in 2013, the IOC ISLANDS Project initiated its programme of financial protection of the population and the economy against disasters (IFPP) in partnership with the World Bank and UNISDR [2]. Given its short time span (3 years) the programme covered only natural and climatic disasters in the IOC region, but the methodology is applicable to all risks, whether financial, medical, or in areas such as cybersecurity or State security. Unfortunately, because of the unavailability of funding from overseas sources, the programme has ceased to operate. This is to be regretted, since there is a permanent need to refresh and upgrade technological knowledge to keep pace with new developments. The COVID crisis indeed revives the need for extended and upgraded capacity in this field.

    The IFPP programme resulted in detailed country surveys of IOC islands embodying very accurate probabilistic risk profiles for climatic and natural events, and clear data on the financial impact of such events in each country in budgetary terms. These surveys have provided governments with important guidelines for budgeting financial needs relating to disasters, in addition of course to the ongoing cooperation they have with the World Bank.

    Despite its small size and resulting dependence on the outside world, Mauritius is a resilient country, very resourceful and fully capable of being self-sufficient in many areas of the economy.

    A 77-page report was produced for Mauritius, prepared in full cooperation with the Mauritian ministries involved, including the Ministry of Finance. This report has not been widely circulated but it is a goldmine with regard to the assessment of the financial dimension of disaster costs in the country. It contains detailed statistical and geographical data on disaster risk and vulnerable population groups. For example, it estimates that, in the case of Mauritius, the Average Annual Loss (AAL) for tropical cyclonic wind reaches the figure of USD 96-91 million, with a Probable Maximum Loss (PML) of USD 1,726 million for a 100-year return period.

    In short, the Mauritius government is well-armed concerning the overall disaster risk situation in the country and it has all needed information on how to proceed concerning the measures to be taken. The problem is the degree of priority that will be given to the issue of disaster risk at the political level, and this is a matter to be decided upon by the government itself.

    I should add however that the IFPP data, figures and probabilistic risk profiles date from 2015 and were calculated to be valid for 5 years. It is therefore important to update the data, acquire improved technological information and possibly engage in further research on the subject. Perhaps this is a task that could be entrusted to universities in Mauritius and in other islands which would benefit from the extensive existing material. It should be noted that all software designed for the DRR approach, including mathematical models with probabilistic programmes and the CAPRA (Probability Risk Assessment Platform) methodology, are “open source”, i.e. are freely available on the net.

    Despite its small size and resulting dependence on the outside world, Mauritius is a resilient country, very resourceful and fully capable of being self-sufficient in many areas of the economy.  It is to be hoped that this reminder of the DRR approach to integrated risk management may help decision makers in Mauritius to assess the important place DRR should be given in the national economy and in protecting the country from further catastrophic shocks. There is an urgent need to anticipate future major threats to the population and the economy, perhaps by considering setting up an Institute for Risk. At the present time, it is of the utmost importance to be consistent and rigorous in the evaluation of the damage caused to the country as a result of COVID 19.  Let us not forget the famous words of Mayor Bloomberg when New York City was flooded: “We cannot manage what we cannot measure”.


    [1] The Sendai Framework for Action 2015-2030 was adopted by United Nations member states at the Third  UN International Conference  for Disaster Risk Reduction held in Japan in March 2015. It provides the operational programme for Disaster risk reduction (DRR). It covers the whole chain of risk from prevention to response, including disaster preparedness and reconstruction.

    [2] UNISDR, Indian Ocean Commission, 2015,ISLANDS Programme for financial protection against climatic and natural disasters, Indian Ocean Commission.

    Charles Telfair Centre is an independent nonpartisan not for profit organisation and does not take specific positions. All views, positions, and conclusions expressed in our publications are solely those of the author(s).

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