The Courier - N°160 - Nov - Dec 1996 - Dossier Habitat - Country reports: Fiji , Tonga
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View the document ECHO fine-tunes disaster preparedness strategy

ECHO fine-tunes disaster preparedness strategy

by Eva Kaluzynska

When a cyclone strikes in the Caribbean, beware of giant flying razorblades - airborne sheets of corrugated iron that kill and maim unsuspecting victims every time. 'The use of galvanised iron sheeting for roofing is extremely dangerous in cyclone-prone areas,' says Professor Debarati Guha-Sapir, Director of the Centre for Research on the Epidemiology of Disasters (CRED) at the Universite Catholique de Louvain. 'We know this, and we need to encourage the use of lighter materials, such as thatching, which doesn't kill if it flies off in a gale,' she adds.

That is the kind of issue facing people exposed to unavoidable natural disasters - in the Caribbean's case, every year. In 1995, there were 27 tropical storms in the region. CRED has been in the vanguard of monitoring natural disasters and in coming up with solutions to the problems they create since it was set up in 1973. Now it is assisting the European Community Humanitarian Office (ECHO) in developing its new Disaster Prevention, Mitigation and Preparedness Programme (DIPECHO) to cover the next two years.

Since 1994, ECHO has spent almost ECU 7 million on 50 disaster prevention operations, at both national and regional levels. Now, instead of just responding to requests for funding from non-governmental organisations, international organisations and governments, ECHO has decided to fine-tune its strategy. It will concentrate its efforts on specific regions known to be particularly vulnerable and prone to natural disasters. We may not know exactly when disasters will strike, but we certainly know where to expect them. The regions selected at present are: the Caribbean, Central America, South East Asia and Bangladesh.

All of them are exposed to repeated emergencies. All of them have a struggle to develop when their efforts are disrupted so frequently. They cannot just pick up where they left off. Loss of life and property is just the most visible aspect of what happens when disaster strikes.

The infrastructure, such as it is, takes a hammering. Road and rail links are severed. Communications, electricity and water supplies break down. Add loss of health care and sanitation, and you get populations exceedingly vulnerable to epidemics. Add loss of education facilites, and a vicious spiral of poverty sets in.

An expert in emergency aid cites the sad example of the Aetas, a tribal group that used to live a secluded life on the remote slopes of Mount Pinatubo, the volcano that erupted spectacularly in 1991 in the Philippines. Though the volcano was known to be menacingly active, the Aetas were not evacuated and resettled in time. They fled in panic as disaster struck, to the plains, where they faced a deadly, invisible enemy: measles, a disease to which they had never been exposed. Measles claimed more victims than the volcano itself did in the months that followed. They could have been resettled earlier. And they could have been immunised years before, but weren't.

It's easy to be wise after the event. DlPECHO aims to encourage action before it's too late. The idea behind ECHO's new policy is to take each region, and to identify its hazards and capacity for dealing with disasters. This will help to pinpoint the gaps. Then it will draw up Action Plans that slot into the wider picture of potential development in each case.

DIPECHO projects will involve training personnel in the regions affected to handle disasters, and to strengthen the institutions that can contribute to effective prevention, preparedness and mitigation.

Some of the solutions are ingenious, low-cost, low-tech ideas. Take, for instance, the use of light, widely-available, inexpensive materials for roofing in earthquake or cyclone-prone zones - an idea poorer countries could adapt from wealthy Japan's experience. Or the construction of safe, raised 'islands' that will stay above the waterline amid flooding in Bangladesh to offer shelter. Or adapting drainage, and changing cropping patterns in Andhra Pradesh, India, to mitigate the effects of cyclones.

In earthquake-prone Central America, protecting roads and bridges, or building schools less prone to collapse is very important. Using the radio or even neighbourhood watch systems to sound the alarm when disaster is imminent can make a big difference to its impact in terms of injuries. Drilling all at risk, from school-age up, to know what to expect and to know what to do is vital.

DIPECHO did not include Africa in its first selection of regions for Action Plans. This is not to underestimate the gravity or scale of the disasters experienced there, says Professor Guha-Sapir: 'Floods, drought and famine are very frequent events there.

They are often killers.' Overexploitation of scarce resources and political turmoil compound situations that lead to disasters which seem less dramatic than a volcano eruption, but are no less far-reaching in impact.

The instability in many of the areas worst affected means that African countries lack the institutions needed to prepare for disasters in an organised way, she says. 'There are limits on ECHO's ability to intervene. It's unrealistic to expect the kind of grassroots, technical preparedness we are talking about in the current situation.'

ECHO's Jean-Claude Heyraud sums up the new policy: 'As far as preventing, mitigating and preparing for catastrophes goes, the new proactive approach reflects the importance ECHO attaches to this type of action. The DIPECHO programme meets the growing need to evaluate risks in order to reduce loss of life and damage to property. If and when emergency aid is needed, preparation and prevention can help to reduce the scale and cost of such actions.'