Thursday, February 10, 2011

Disasters: UN Keen to Reinforce Disaster Reduction Strategies

By Richard Johnson
Courtesy IDN-InDepth NewsReport

GENEVA (IDN) - Poverty, rapid urbanization and the impact of climate change resulted in 950 disasters in 2010, making it one of the deadliest years in more than a generation. Some 300,000 people were killed by earthquakes in Haiti, Chile and China, floods in Pakistan and Europe, wildfires in Russia and the United States as well as cyclones and tropical storms in Asia. In terms of money the overall losses amounted to about US$130 billion.

These alarming facts drew the focus of the UN General Assembly's first-ever debate on disaster risk reduction on February 9, 2011 in New York, organized under the auspices of the office of UN General Assembly President Joseph Deiss, with support from the UN International Strategy for Disaster Reduction (UNISDR).

The one-day-long high-level discussion came only weeks after devastating floods and severe cyclone wreaked havoc on Australia, and torrential rains and mudslides killed hundreds in Brazil.

Outcomes from the thematic debate, opened by UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, will inform, among others, the third session of the biennial Global Platform for Disaster Risk Reduction, which will convene from May 8 to May15, 2011 in Geneva, Switzerland.

Noting that 2011 may prove to be just as costly as the previous year, with severe floods in Australia and Brazil showing that no country or city, rich or poor, is immune to disaster, Ban stressed that all too often, poorer countries suffer disproportionately and have the biggest challenges in recovering.

"Children are among the most vulnerable," he declared. "Thousands died last year as earthquake, flood or hurricane reduced their schools to rubble. These deaths could have been prevented. Lives can be saved by advance planning -- and by building schools, homes, hospitals, communities and cities to withstand hazards. Such measures to reduce risk will grow ever more important as our climate changes and extreme events become more frequent and intense."

Ban cited Australia as an example of the importance of investing in disaster risk reduction. The state of Queensland escaped relatively unscathed from one of the largest cyclones to hit the country in living memory, partly due to luck since the densest population areas were spared, but also thanks to the "key role" played by planning and preparedness.

He also highlighted the UN global disaster risk reduction campaign that is already focusing on safer schools, hospitals and cities, with nearly 600 towns and cities from all regions committing to a 10-point checklist for making them more resilient.

"But so much more needs to be done" he stressed. "It will require courage, vision and leadership, and will need everyone’s participation and investment."

General Assembly President Deiss also underscored the enormous toll natural disasters can exact from developing countries. "Disaster risk reduction is crucial for protecting progress made towards the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) and for achieving sustainable development," he said, referring to the targets that seek eliminate extreme poverty and hunger, maternal and infant mortality and lack of access to medical care and education, all by 2015.

"By wiping out major development gains, such as school buildings, hospitals and energy grids, disasters perpetuate a cycle of underdevelopment, poverty and disempowerment."

Reducing vulnerabilities to natural hazards requires committed efforts by all stakeholders, from local governments and international financial institutions to civil society and the private sector, he added, citing rapid urbanization, ecosystem degradation and weak infrastructure among the factors further heightening vulnerability. In the last decade, the urban population in developing countries has risen by 77 per cent to nearly 2.6 billion people.

Special Representative of the UN Secretary-General for Disaster Risk Reduction, Margareta Wahlström stressed the importance of early warning systems in reducing death tolls over the past 20 years, though not economic losses. "The number of lives lost proportionally over these last decades to what it used to be keeps going down, so early warning and preparedness work," she told a news conference held on the sidelines of the Assembly meeting.

She cited the Caribbean for "the development of much better early warning systems, very good planning for the hurricane season, where the public information starts rolling out," where Governments and community organizations are prepared to evacuate people. "And that's why we see much fewer lives lost, but the economic losses are going up," she added.

The meeting was also attended by city mayors such as Mawardy Nurdin from Banda Aceh, in the Indonesian province of Aceh which was devastated by the Indian Ocean tsunami in 2004 that killed scores of thousands of people there and in a dozen other countries that were hit by the mammoth waves.

Many speakers referred to the 'Hyogo Framework for Action: 2005-2015: Building the resilience of nations and communities to disasters (HFA)', which was adopted in January 2005, a month after the tsunami, by 168 countries attending the UN World Conference on Disaster Reduction in Kobe, in the Hyogo prefecture of Japan.

The 10-year plan calls for putting disaster risk reduction at the centre of national policies, strengthening the capacity of disaster-prone countries to address risk, and investing heavily in disaster preparedness.

In fact a high level of disaster risk awareness, preparedness and planning helped prevent casualties when Tropical Cyclone Yasi struck north-east Australia on February 2, 2011, as the UN top disaster risk official Wahlström said on February 4, urging other countries to invest in improving their capacity to respond to such disasters.

"What people bill as a miracle comes down to understanding risk, and knowing how to reduce vulnerability and minimize exposure to risk," she said, referring to news reports of Australians in the state of Queensland bunkering down in their homes, evacuating to shopping centres or driving to safer places further south.

Wahlström noted that before the cyclone made landfall, authorities had warned that a "life threatening" weather system -- with the intensity of Hurricane Katrina which struck the United States in 2005 -- would slam the north-eastern coast. The warning was in line with 2010 predictions from the Australian Bureau of Meteorology that the country would experience more frequent and severe cyclones this season.

Australia has had a long history of dealing with extreme weather -- from Cyclone Tracy in 1974 to Cyclone Larry in 2006, both category four storms -- which has offered the country lessons on resilience.

"Not every at-risk country has the same level of risk awareness as Australia, which is worrying because any of them stand a chance of being hit by the next big storm," said Wahlström. "Part of our advocacy is to convince governments to invest in building resilience amongst everyday people, and that no city is immune to disaster."