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close this bookNatural Disasters - Be Prepared! (UNESCO, 1997, 50 p.)
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Safety first

BY BADAOUI ROUHBAN


When Colombia’s Nevado del Ruiz volcano suddenly erupted on 13 November 1985, it struck the towns of Armero and Chinchina and claimed nearly 25,000 lives. Above, victims flee the disaster. (Julien Fridman © Sygma, Paris)

Throughout history, the violent side of nature has manifested itself in destructive phenomena such as floods, volcanic eruptions, severe storms, wildfires, earthquakes and tidal waves. Disasters and risks are a part of our life, and they will continue to threaten, kill and destroy. “Zero risk” is out of reach in the contemporary world. The basic problem is how to prevent hazards from causing increasingly large-scale disasters. The answer is that the disastrous effects of natural phenomena will only be eliminated, reduced or stabilized when people decide to make cities, settlements, infrastructures and houses safer.

A culture of prevention

For people are the agents of disaster. “It’s not the bullet that kills, it’s the hole”. Earthquakes and windstorms do not kill; the collapse of houses and buildings from shaking is the main cause of death. Natural hazards themselves are not on the increase; nor are they likely to be in the future. It is the frequency of natural disasters that is expected to grow, as well as their complexity, scope, gravity and destructive capacity. There will be an increase in multiple or synergistic-type disasters causing society-wide impacts. In a time of globalization, large-scale damage caused by an earthquake in a world financial centre such as Tokyo or California is bound to have an effect even on the economies of faraway countries.

A call for a ‘culture of prevention’ to counteract increasingly destructive natural disasters

Natural disasters are not always entirely “natural”. On the one hand, natural forces are at work on a planet whose environment is being altered day after day by humankind: floods are made more severe by deforestation, global warming more preoccupying by the unchecked emission of greenhouse gases. On the other, natural disasters will increasingly generate or magnify concurrent technological disasters. Floods can devastate chemical complexes, earthquakes can affect critical plants.

The good news is that disaster reduction is both possible and feasible. While we cannot prevent an earthquake or a windstorm from occurring, or a volcano from erupting, we can use the scientific knowledge and technical know-how that we already have in order to increase the earthquake- and wind-resistance of houses and bridges, and to issue and disseminate early warnings of volcanic eruptions and organize proper community response to such warnings. The extent to which society puts this knowledge to effective use depends upon its social, cultural, political, economic, and even religious specificities.

Informing the public

Disaster prevention and preparedness start with improving our understanding of risks by assessing the distribution in time and space and the intensity of the natural phenomena involved and the exposure of people and structures to them. On the basis of this assessment, protective measures may be taken such as land-use restrictions, adequate construction measures and wise environmental management. Detection and warning systems may be installed, and contingency and emergency plans be set up. One permanent measure of paramount importance is the education and information of the public.


The eruption of Vesuvius in 1794 (anonymous 19th-century painting). [© P. Bourseiller/DU/Hoa Qui, Paris. Alfano Museum, Pompei]

A number of cases show that loss of life, injuries and physical damage can all be significantly reduced by the application of better warning and disaster prevention measures. Because of inadequate use of, and response to, warning, more than 300,000 people died in Bangladesh due to a cyclone in November 1970. In May 1985, better prediction and proper response to warning of a cyclone of the same intensity kept the death toll below 10,000. Similarly, appropriate warning and evacuation saved the 30,000-strong local community during the 1991 eruption of Mount Pinatubo in the Philippines. The population of the city of Armero in Colombia had been less fortunate in 1985 when a comparable eruption of Nevado del Ruiz volcano caused 25,000 deaths within minutes.

Disaster prevention measures cost much less than relief and reconstruction expenditure following a disaster, yet many decision-makers tend to focus on relief and to treat disaster situations in an ad hoc way when they are presented with them. Today most typical strategies are crisis-oriented. Furthermore, information about natural hazards and disaster reduction techniques is not well disseminated, and planners, project managers and communities do not integrate hazard management into development planning. Resources spent on relief and recovery continue to account for 96 per cent of all resources spent on disaster-related activities annually, leaving a pitiful 4 per cent for disaster prevention. It is high time to make a shift in emphasis from post-disaster reaction to pre-disaster action.