Thursday, January 14, 2010

Haiti: Poverty at the core of Haiti's disasters

United Nations Radio - Earthquakes like the one that hit the capital of Haiti, are hard to predict, but that does not mean we cannot be prepared for them, says the Director of the UN International Strategy for Disaster Reduction. Many poor countries have made advances in disaster preparedness, including Bangladesh, Cuba and Mozambique, and Salvano Briceňo told UN Radio's Patrick Maigua in Geneva, Haiti should join them.

Briceno: The major problem of course is that Haiti is extremely poor and it's poverty that is at the core of all of these disasters. An earthquake like this or a hurricane like the ones that have hit Haiti, do not cause the same damage in other countries, even very close countries like Cuba, Jamaica, Dominican Republic. They are also hit by hurricanes every year and they don't have casualties, while Haiti has thousands of casualties usually when a big hurricane hits. So it is mainly the vulnerability of Haiti.

Maigua: What do you think will be the immediate needs in Haiti after this disaster?

Briceno: The main need of course is rescuing and searching for people that are trapped and to get as many survivors as possible. But immediately, Haiti has to give a priority to risk reduction, to reducing risk. This has to be in the legislation, in the policies. It's not just relief. The problem is that once the relief operations pass, governments tend to forget and then to just want to prepare for the relief of the next disaster, and not to reduce the risk, so reducing risk has to be made a priority by the President, by all the ministers and by the donor countries. Haiti is a country that has a small population, a small size. It should be much simpler to deal with it than other larger countries in Asia, Africa or Latin America that have similar problems.

Maigua: When a disaster such as this happens in a poor country, reconstruction after always involves the construction of very poor houses.

Briceno: This is precisely one of the great challenges, and we have a major programme. We're actually having a meeting on that in Japan, in Kobe, in this moment, in this week. They are dealing with the recovery efforts after major catastrophes. The challenge is to recover and reconstruct with risk reduction approach, in other words building-back-better. There is a lot of money that is going to be poured into Haiti, as it happens there is every time after a disaster. But that money, instead of used to give people just any house, or just any livelihood, they should be done with risk reduction approach. It can be done. Educating the people and training them and giving them the resources to understand the risk. People understand very well when they are explained what the risk is. This is not the first poor country that is dealing with this. We have Bangla desh that has dealt with this, is one of the poorest countries in the world and they have reduced mortality enormously by just making people aware of the risk. Cuba, Jamaica, Vietnam, Mozambique - there are many poor countries that already have reduced risk by just getting people more aware, improving the early warning systems, dealing with the material construction and building codes, but enforcing them and making people aware of them. Cause it's not the government that has to enforce the codes, it's the people, when you buy a house, when you - same way that we all take care of a car, when we buy it, that the brakes work. Nobody's going to buy a car without brakes. When people buy houses they must be aware that the house can withstand an earthquake or a hurricane or a fire or other hazard. So this awareness about the risk is essential, but of course early warning systems also - the whole preparedness programmes, people need to be prepared to respond to these disasters, not just wait till the government or an aid agency will come and help them. The first aid in any of these disasters comes from each individual themselves, the family, the neighbours. So organizing that community-based-preparedness programmes is another major effort of reducing risk.

Maigua: The tsunami warning system seems to have become very effective. Is it possible to have an early warning system for earthquakes?

Briceno: With earthquakes it's much more difficult, of course, because earthquakes happen very quickly and the impact is felt immediately, so it's not like earthquakes that take some time to reach the coast. By the way, I should say that the tsunami alert system in the Caribbean worked very well for this earthquake. There was a tsunami alert given immediately, just a few minutes after the earthquake and all the countries around: Cuba, the United States, the Dominican Republic got prepared for a tsunami. So the tsunami alert worked in this case. It just happened that there was no big tsunami, only some 20 centimetres in some places, which is really nothing. So, it is a different type of impact. The best awareness about earthquakes, the best warning system is for people to be aware of the construction of their houses, of the schools where they send their children, and, above everything, the hospitals. It is very sad to see one of the main hospitals in Haiti was totally destroyed - a children's hospital - and that creates a bigger disaster because then people die because of lack of attention, not just because of the earthquake itself. So giving priority to hospitals, schools to protect the children, and that everybody is aware of their houses and offices and buildings in general. As I said, it's the poorly-built buildings that kill people, not the earthquake.

Salvano Briceňo heads the UN International Strategy for Disaster Reduction.

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