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close this bookNatural Disasters - Be Prepared! (UNESCO, 1997, 50 p.)
View the document(introduction...)
View the documentMonth by month
View the documentSafety first
View the documentA decade for international action
View the documentNature on the rampage
View the documentMaking cities safer
View the documentThe do’s and don’ts of risk reduction
View the documentSounding the alarm
View the documentWomen in the front line
View the documentInsurance: halting an ominous trend
View the documentFact file
View the documentCommentary Federico Mayor
View the documentGREENWATCH New Caledonia: threats to biodiversity
View the documentHeritage. Taxila - The cradle of Gandhara art
View the documentREFLECTIONS. Spreading the world
View the documentInterview. Manuel Elkin Patarroyo
View the documentAUTHORS

A decade for international action

Interview with FRANK PRESS,
President Emeritus of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences
and ‘father’ of the International Decade for Natural Disaster Reduction (1990-2000)


· In 1984 you became the first person to call for an international decade to reduce loss of life and property from natural hazards.

- Yes. One of the highest callings of scientists and engineers is to improve the lives of people everywhere. Natural hazards do not recognize international boundaries, nor does any one nation have all the knowledge or material resources needed to cope with them. Only through international co-operation will significant progress be made, especially in developing countries with limited resources and few professional workers.

· What are the successes of the Decade so far? What happens when it’s over?

- The Decade has raised the priority of disaster mitigation in many countries, particularly in the developing world. Government disaster offices have been established and risk assessments have been carried out in many countries. Training programmes were implemented and international teams organized to assess the dangers of particular disasters. Many countries have prepared national plans for the first time and shared them with the international community.

More could have been done, particularly to help developing nations, which suffer most from natural disasters. Unfortunately we have not been able to raise enough funds to realize the Decade’s full potential. Nevertheless, we are grateful to the countries whose financial support enabled us to achieve some results. Hopefully the momentum inspired by the Decade will not be lost.

Building a barrier to hold back mud-flows caused by volcanic eruption In Galunggung (Indonesia). [I. And V. Kraft © Hoa Qui, Paris]

· Do you think natural hazards are a world issue which deserves, amid other proliferating environmental and societal issues, priority attention?

- Mitigation of natural disasters in the form of environmental protection, preservation of biodiversity, prevention of disease, education and the dissemination of knowledge, and equitable economic growth must be priorities on the agenda of a civilized and humane global society of the twenty-first century. Science can contribute to all of these.

· What are the primary decisions that the government of a hazard-prone country should take?

- Almost every country is prone to one or more natural hazards. Within the governmental structure there should be a body responsible for disaster mitigation and relief. Among its tasks would be assessment of risks from natural hazards, disaster relief planning, land use and construction regulations appropriate for indigenous hazards, public education, warning systems, evacuation planning, training and drill and arrangements for international co-operation. I emphasize that many devel oping countries will need help in establishing such programmes.

· Can the public participate in disaster reduction?

- Some governments have educated their citizenry in public safety measures. Unfortunately many countries have yet to achieve this degree of preparation.

· What is the link between dealing with natural disasters and potential human-made disasters?

- All of these disasters result in human suffering and should be tackled by the international community. Perhaps we could dedicate the new century to reducing all aspects of human suffering. However, these potential disasters differ, have various causes and solutions, and affect nations differently. It will be hard to get universal agreement on how to address such complex global problems. It may be worthwhile to treat these several categories of disasters separately in the short term.

· Dealing with disasters requires co-operation between many disciplines and between the public and private sectors. How can this best be achieved?

- First by establishing an organizational structure Once a structure is in place, a strategic plan or road map will have to define the roles to be played by professionals in diverse disciplines and by public and private sectors. All are currently involved one way or another but not in a truly collaborative enterprise. They meet and share information - more on disaster relief than pre-disaster planning and mitigation.

Electronic communication, universally accessible data archives, software for learning from experience and building “virtual teams”, spin-offs of bureaucracy-free entities are some of the mechanisms used to spur collaboration and increase efficiency in attacking complex problems.

Earthquake drill at a Los Angeles school (U.S.A.). [© Giboux/Liaison/Gamma, Paris]


This test, created by Dorothy Hoffmann and Gilbert Padey of the World Health Organization (WHO), was reproduced from the Jan./Feb. 1991 Issue of WHO’S World Health magazine.

1. In case of disaster, an immediate appeal for international medical personnel should be sent out. True or false?

2. When a disaster occurs, people in other countries should not react by immediately organizing the collection and despatch of whatever can be obtained in the way of medicines, clothing, equipment, etc. True or false?

3. A few weeks after a disaster occurs, things are usually back to normal and most of the major services are restored. True or false?

4. Disasters cause fewer deaths in rich countries than in poor countries. True or false?

5. Disasters bring out the worst in human behaviour. True or false?

6. When disaster strikes, outbreaks of infectious diseases are inevitable due to the presence of unattended dead bodies. True or false?

7. Mass hunger can be avoided after a disaster strikes. True or false?

8. Following a disaster, it is best to house people as close as possible to their own dwellings rather than in settlement camps. True or false?

9. In case of limited food supplies following a disaster, priority should be given to the young and old. True or false?

10. When disaster strikes, individuals should take care of their own families and belongings first? True or false?

11. The intensity of two earthquakes in Armenia and San Francisco was the same but in Armenia several thousand died whereas in San Francisco sixty people died; This is mainly due to the difference in earthquake-proof construction. True or false?

12. The Sahelian drought is caused by a combination of climatic and human factors. True or false?



1. False. Local health services are normally able to cope in case of disaster. They have the advantage of speaking the local language and are familiar with the health service infrastructure. Foreign teams may provide specialized skills and equipment, but they have to be housed and fed.

2. True. A fast international response to disasters is not necessarily the best solution. An evaluation of the most urgent needs should first be made so that communication channels do not become blocked: by unessential items or by outdated medicaments and food products.

3. False. Although disasters may disappear from the news headlines, their impact may last for years. There is often permanent damage to water supplies and health services; reconstruction and rehabilitation are time-consuming and costly.

4. True. Poverty leads to poor living conditions and the poor are more vulnerable in case of disaster. The richer countries have the resources with which to rebuild their lives and are usually better prepared.

5. False. Although some people might encourage us to believe that looting and other forms of selfish behaviour are common following disasters, if has been shown that disaster situations bring out the best in people and solidarity is strengthened.

6. False. Dead bodies do not cause epidemics or disease transmission during the first 72 hours; after this the decomposition process may cause contamination of water supplies. First priority following a disaster should be to care for the injured.

7. True. Disasters such as earthquakes do not damage crops although drought, hurricanes and floods do. However if adequate preparations such as storage and rationing of foods have been properly organized, there should not be any serious hunger. When international assistance is requested, seeds and tools are often more important than food.

8. True. Keeping people as close to their homes as possible is best; settlement camps-should be a last resort since they create other problems. International assistance: in the form of building materials and tools may be desirable.

9. False. Careful rationing should be organized so that everyone is fed. Those involved in salvage work and reconstruction are particularly in need of a regular food supply.

10. False. Team work is the most efficient way of dealing with the aftermath of disaster. Training of teams prior to a disaster so that each person knows his or her responsibilities is indispensable for the proper management of a disaster.

11. True. Strict adherence to the building code in earthquake-prone areas significantly diminishes the loss of human life.

12. True. Overgrazing, a failure plant trees and mismanagement of land use lead to soil erosion. In the Sahel, when added to the effects of climate change, all this means an advance of the desert.


· 100,000 thunderstorms
· 10,000 floods
· Thousands of landslides
· Over 100 earthquakes which cause damage
· Hundreds of wildfires
· Scores of hurricanes, cyclones, typhoons and tornadoes
· Dozens of volcanic eruptions, tsunamis and droughts