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OPINION November 26, 2019

To Outpace Climate and Disaster Risk, Romania Is Counting on Innovation

Heading to work in Bucharest, I often feel like I’m driving through a modern day renaissance city. With its bustling technology sector, Romania has achieved one of the highest rates of economic growth in the European Union for almost a decade. However, the country also leads the EU region in another category – disaster risk.

Over the last century, Romania has experienced 13 major earthquakes, which claimed the lives of over 2,600 people and affected more than 400,000 others. In 1977, more than 35,000 families were left homeless in a catastrophic earthquake that caused over EUR 1.8 billion in losses in 55 seconds. Today, Bucharest still retains the highest seismic risk profile among all EU capital cities.

The country also suffers the most flood events in the EU, with flood losses surpassing earthquake losses by up to 20 times in Romania’s rural regions. And, in the midst of calamities like these, 23 percent of Romania’s population lived in poverty as of 2016, with many more living at risk of poverty or social exclusion (35 percent in 2017).

We must recognize that, in Romania and elsewhere, the challenges of disaster risk and sustainable development are intrinsically linked.

We already know that impacts from disasters are not shared equally – one euro in losses for the poor has a larger impact on well-being than for wealthier Romanians, and those closer to the poverty line take longer to recover in the wake of a disaster.

We also know that disasters can roll back hard-won development gains. An upcoming World Bank study on socioeconomic resilience to disasters in Romania found that, today, up to 7 percent of Bucharest’s population (164,000 people) would be immediately pushed into poverty if the region was hit by a moderate earthquake.

Moreover, climate change is increasing the frequency and severity of extreme weather events from wildfires to droughts and flash floods, meaning setbacks like these could threaten sustainable growth in Romania without risk-informed and inclusive policy interventions. In fact, Bucharest ranks third for fastest warming temperatures among the European Union’s 58 largest cities – a sobering reality given Europe’s recent rash of deadly heatwaves.

Simply put, these risks are much too high for the nearly 20 million residents that call Romania home. But what can policy makers do to ensure that Romania stays on the path towards inclusive growth and shared prosperity?

One starting point is to improve access to actionable data. Enhancing the way risk information is gathered, analyzed, and communicated is critical to building effective disaster risk management. And for the country that has been called ‘The Silicon Valley of Transylvania’, this means turning to the potential of technology – often spearheaded by an energized civil society.

One promising example of this kind of innovation comes from MKBT: Make Better, a civic-minded local development advisory group, which gathered crowdsourced data to identify more than 8,000 residents living in buildings that are in severe danger of seismic collapse. Code for Romania, a local tech community, is developing a new app which will enable the government to better channel resources and coordinate volunteers in the event of a major earthquake or other disaster to build a culture of safety and reliance.

At the country level, the Romanian Government is partnering with the World Bank and the European Union to roll-out forward-looking disaster risk management policies. For example, the development of a new national multi-hazard risk assessment (Ro-Risk) will inform risk-reduction investments across ministries and help decision-makers better understand the economic and financial impacts of disasters. The World Bank is also supporting the modernization of emergency infrastructure across the country by ensuring that more than 3,000 first responders can rely on safer and resilient response facilities at any time. And at the municipal level, the World Bank has recently started to provide technical assistance to the City of Bucharest to streamline the performance of the city’s Seismic Risk Reduction Program.

Later this month, over 350 experts from Europe and across the world are gathering in Bucharest for the 2019 Understanding Risk Europe Conference to further explore how technology and innovation can help create more resilient societies, highlighting the government’s commitment to make Romania a pioneer in modern disaster risk management.

While natural hazards are an inevitable part of Romania’s future, its government and civic organizations are working together to harness new tools and bold approaches to make the country safer and prosperous – an effort that should inspire us all.