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View the documentThe International Decade for Natural Disaster Reduction
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The International Decade for Natural Disaster Reduction

Neelam S. Merani

The International Decade for Natural Disaster Reduction was launched formally on 22 December 1989 by resolution 44/236 of the United Nations General Assembly. Its objective is to prevent or mitigate - in a way the same object - natural disasters and the loss of life, property damage, and social and economic disruption they produce worldwide. Only individual countries themselves can achieve this objective, but the Decade should inspire them to and should help them acquire or reinforce the means to do so. The Decade should be both an umbrella and a sparkplug for international cooperation and activity.

The key is to mobilize strong, coherent, effective national committees that can coordinate the work of different departments, different levels of government, and different parts of the community - including the scientific, professional, business, and industrial communities. If economic and social development efforts are not to be lost to disasters, it is essential that these national committees share experiences and learn from each other how reducing losses from disasters will benefit their national economies. It is important that they create or strengthen regional and global networks to monitor natural phenomena and human behavior, exchange data and assessments, and bring the latest scientific and technological advances to bear on disaster management, including the early, adequate, credible generation of disaster warnings. Achieving the objectives of the Decade will require a concerted international effort involving the most modern and dynamic sectors of society: science, telecommunications, banking, insurance, local authorities, voluntary organizations (in particular, the Red Cross), the media - each and every one of us.

Economic losses and human suffering from natural disasters have increased in the past two decades, endangering social and economic development, particularly in developing countries. Tackling this problem requires a sound evaluation of disaster mitigation policies. Two things must be determined. First, which investments to protect society and reduce its vulnerability to disaster are cost-effective? And second, when we invest billions of dollars each year on infrastructure and long-term capital development, what measures should we take to reduce those investments’ vulnerability to disaster? Our evaluators must remember that disasters are statistically certain to happen, although our scientific knowledge does not yet allow us to predict them with even the certainty with which we predict the afternoon weather.

We must measure the direct costs of restoring or attempting to restore housing, infrastructure, and the economy to predisaster conditions, particularly in the most exposed developing countries. And we must not forget to measure the loss of human lives, the true basis for - and beneficiaries of - development.

To preserve the delicate balance and two-way relationship between the earth and humankind, it is important that we develop a broad-based historical database on disasters. For reliable results, we must combine the knowledge and know-how of the world’s major investment banks (including the World Bank), regional banks, private sources of financing, insurance companies, universities, and economic research centers.

In mobilizing various actors internationally - different international, intergovernment, and nongovernment bodies, scientific and professional communities, and the private sector - the Decade and its secretariat must see itself as catalytic. Its role must be partly to generate resources to support the efforts of others within a framework of commonly supported approaches.

Countries differ in their vulnerability to different natural disasters or combinations of disaster, and in addressing the causes and consequences of disasters must not focus only on those that are easy to address, thus meeting the needs of some countries but not others. We must also attack the causes of the problems, not just the symptoms. In marshalling our knowledge of disasters we must be careful not just to advance the state of knowledge but to find cost-effective, practical solutions.

And we must seek an integrated approach to disaster mitigation. Natural disasters and environmental catastrophes are two sides of the same issue: the two-way relationship between mankind and its environment. Human activities affect the planet earth and our planet affects mankind, sometimes catastrophically. Human beings can adapt only in a limited way to environmental variations, particularly if forces unleashed in the atmosphere or inside the earth’s crust evolve into cataclysms. And mankind’s vulnerability has been increased by development, because human assets - of population, physical infrastructure, and economic resources - are combined in an increasingly complex and valuable system. The effects of natural disasters have been compounded in terms of loss of life, physical damage, and detrimental effects on the economic development of vulnerable countries.

Environmental degradation, by attacking the earth’s resource base, limits the human capacity for long-term development, narrows options, and destroys the heritage of future generations. Environmental degradation has been characterized as a creeping disaster, but hazardous waste is not - nor was Chernobyl. Climate change has been seen as advancing at a slow pace, but our solutions should begin to move beyond a brisk walk. We must see depletion of the ozone layer as an urgent problem. Time is running out.

Natural disasters, on the other hand, are seen as fast-moving events. But activities to prevent or mitigate disasters cannot be conducted in an instant. In many ways they depend in advances in scientific thinking - about plate tectonics and other natural forces that affect our environment, about the interface between biological, geological, and physical forces.

Just as we must integrate our knowledge about the earth, the oceans, and the atmosphere, so we must integrate our approaches to different types of disaster. Although the bell ringers may be different, warnings and preparedness for natural and industrial disasters have much in common. The need to conserve and manage watersheds is the same whether the ultimate concern is flooding or environmental degradation. The UN General Assembly sees drought and desertification as natural disasters in one resolution and as environmental problems in another. What is important is to address them effectively as problems to be resolved.

Nor can a line be drawn in terms of those affected. Environmental degradation, like natural disasters, affects the natural resource base and thus ultimately the human economy. Possibly that is why the last UN General Assembly adopted a resolution, 44/224, on international cooperation in the monitoring, assessment, and anticipation of environmental threats and assistance in environmental emergencies. Resolution 44/224 refers to potential environmental disasters, whether natural, accidental, or caused by human beings - just as the resolution on the Decade recognized the importance of environmental protection for the prevention and mitigation of natural disasters.

It is difficult to foresee putting into place effective measures for preventing climate change; the question may be how much we can moderate it. But sooner than many think, we may need to address the potential for natural disaster that global warming may generate, translate it into regional and country specifics, and prepare for it - hoping to prevent or mitigate its worst consequences. If the consequences will be more tropical storms, for example, we must take appropriate measures in terms of forecasting, warning, and preparedness. Clearly, those in charge of managing natural disasters and those in charge of managing environmental change must work together. The public may not understand if such cooperation fails to materialize. Disaster mitigation policies are essential to the strategy for protecting human survival and life on earth. The International Decade for Natural Disaster Reduction provides us with the framework for an active global approach to protecting that life and earth. Every country must be able to benefit from the scientific and technological knowledge available in some countries that can be used to understand the causes and effects of natural disasters and possible ways to reduce their impact.

Global change and reducing natural disasters

Stephen Rattien

The International Decade for Natural Disaster Reduction (IDNDR) must consciously address two countervailing forces: (1) our ability to mitigate natural disasters through warning, planning, and preparedness and (2) human activity that has contributed to the depletion of stratospheric ozone, the threat of global warming, deforestation, acid rain, the extinction of species, and other negative changes of which we are not yet aware.

Advances in science and technology allow us to mitigate their damage. But the same advances have also made possible the very breakthroughs in medicine, industry, and agriculture that have led to extraordinary population and economic growth - at the price of possibly globe-threatening effects on the environment. To be sure, we have reduced some of the worst environmental effects of early industrialization, but the sheer magnitude of human endeavors has inevitably damaged our planet. Confronting both natural disasters and global change will require a judicious blend of science and technology, public policy and education, help from the industrialized to the developing world, and a partnership between industries, individuals, and governments - within nations and throughout the world.

Certain disaster mitigation activities cost little or nothing; others require changes in practice and investments. Unless governments, industries, and individuals see these activities as being in their self-interest, they will resist them. The same applies to activities to confront global change. Stopping the use of CFCs in aerosol cans is essentially a zero-cost action. But reducing the loss of habitat from the destruction of tropical forests will be far more difficult to accomplish, as it will require assistance that crosses national boundaries.

The challenge of the Decade is to build on already-known science and technology; to replicate successful programs and activities; to find new ways to effectively transfer and implement three decades of disaster research; and, most important, to develop new, flexible, innovative hazard reduction programs that are compatible with, and support, the goals of our communities.

Not surprisingly, confronting the challenge of global change will require a similar approach - on a larger scale and over more time. Cumulatively, individual actions could overwhelm our planet’s assimilative capabilities. It is important to understand what is occurring and to take action. The Cairo Compact, which resulted from the World Conference on Preparing for Climate Change held in Cairo in December 1988, noted: “All nations, and the vulnerable segments of various populations, will be hit by climate change; by rises in sea level that jeopardize coastal areas, by changing weather patterns, by decreased availability of fresh water, by induced heat stress, by increased ultraviolet radiation, and by the spread of pests and disease. All this will devastate food and agricultural production and adversely affect human health, welfare and cultural heritage.”

We generally think of such changes as ozone depletion and the buildup of carbon dioxide as affecting climate - but global change is far more than climate change alone. Ecological diversity is being reduced at an alarming rate, particularly through the destruction of tropical forests; the pollution and overuse of ground-water is reducing its availability for agriculture, while the world’s population is swelling; acid rain is destroying forests and lakes; and even great seas such as the Mediterranean are losing their productivity - indeed, their ability to sustain aquatic life.

Global change is often viewed as the impact of man on his environment and disaster as the impact of nature on man, but man can affect the prevalence and locale of natural hazards, and natural phenomena have historically shaped global change. The effects of many natural hazards are exacerbated by global change. Bangladesh, for example, is essentially a river delta that is flooded when river waters rise or when there is a storm surge. Were the mean sea level to rise through global warming, the frequency and severity of flooding would increase. This is true not only in Bangladesh. New Orleans, much of which is below sea level and protected by dikes, is already vulnerable to hurricanes, as are many low-lying coastal cities around the world. Flooding has been exacerbated by forest-clearing and by certain agricultural practices that promote erosion and reduce the ability of upland soils to retain moisture and of the land to hold back the water.

Similarly, natural hazards can and do affect global change. Historically, global change - rapid, radical global change - was the result of natural forces: meteorites, volcanic eruptions, and firestorms. Relatively recent examples on the paleontological record are the volcanic eruption of Krakatoa and the burning of the North American forests. Now human systems vulnerable to natural hazards can, because of their scale and the materials involved, have a global impact. Oil spills can be the result of a pipeline ruptured by an earthquake or of a tanker or oil platform accident in an ocean storm. Similarly, water pollution is often the result of wastewater systems overwhelmed by stormwater or the runoff during storms of chemical pesticides from farming operations.

Thus, the objectives of mitigating disaster and confronting global change must be intertwined. As Dr. Robert White, President of the U.S. National Academy of Engineering, has stated, “our understanding of the dynamics of the planet and our ability to predict its future state require[s] that all elements of the earth system - the oceans, the atmosphere, the biosphere, and the solid earth - need to be considered as parts of a single interacting and continuously changing earth system. The phenomena of concern [are] interlinked not only by common physical, biological, and chemical forces, but also by common forces of economic and social development.”

Disasters are normally relatively rapid-onset events, but it often takes years, decades - even centuries - to set in place the elements that turn a naturally occurring hazardous event into a disaster. Decisions about where to locate, how to build, and what degree of preparedness is appropriate all have long-term consequences, and we are coming to recognize what we need to know and how we must apply this knowledge to reduce future disasters.

Global change is viewed as a relatively long-term phenomenon but it too is the cumulative effect of many smaller decisions about industrial development, land-use patterns, and environmental protection. Efforts to mitigate the effect of natural disasters will almost invariably reduce the threat of unwanted and unanticipated global change, and efforts to understand and confront human-induced global change will almost surely make the world safer.

Science and technology are the skills needed to address both issues. Gro Harlem Bruntland noted (1989) that as the challenging dynamics of global change gradually become clearer, the role of the men and women of science in shaping our common future becomes more central. The interplay between the scientific process and the making of public policy is not a new phenomenon. Indeed, it has been a characteristic of most of the great turning points in human history. It may be more important now than ever before in history for scientists to keep the doors of their laboratories open to political, economic, social, and ideological currents. The role of the scientist as an isolated explorer of the uncharted world of tomorrow must be reconciled with his role as a committed, responsible citizen of the unsettled world of the present. Bruntland’s comments apply equally to the challenge of disaster reduction. The choice is not between managing global change or mitigating natural disasters. In critical ways, they share common elements - and both require international cooperation in the application of scientific and technological knowledge. Reducing the toll from natural disasters will bode well for our ability to come to terms with the challenge of global change.