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Managing natural hazards

Stephen O. Bender

Natural hazard management is one of several environmental concerns awaiting integration into development planning. Rapid population growth, particularly among the urban poor, makes it urgent that governments reduce the vulnerability of economic production and service infrastructure. Planning agencies - working with research and engineering organizations and disaster response agencies - must first identify vulnerable elements of the population and of lifeline networks, sector facilities, and proposed investment projects. They can generate that information using geographic information systems, remote sensing, the community, and existing planning mechanisms. Then they can integrate that information into their development planning. But many countries need help doing this. Working together, the development, scientific, and engineering communities and the agencies in charge of disaster preparedness and response must provide technical assistance, training, and technology transfer to countries vulnerable to disaster.

The 1990s are the self-proclaimed “Decade of the Environment.” Natural events and the hazards they pose are part of environmental problems to be addressed during the decade.

Natural events help sustain environments: shaping the topography, depositing volcanic soils, flushing estuaries, watering the land, exposing buried resources, disposing of combustible materials, and keeping cycles of regeneration in motion. But natural hazards are also part of the environmental problems to which society is increasingly attuned. They damage the habitats of endangered species, expose and heighten the impact of the degradation of natural systems, and spread human damage to the environment in uncontrollable ways.

Natural hazards are a global concern that should hold our attention because they affect such large portions of the earth’s surface and population. The international development assistance community should adopt the issue of disaster mitigation as its own and bring to it a greater sense of urgency, because a great deal of money is spent repairing and replacing what natural disasters destroy or damage - yet the risks of disaster are amenable to study, mitigation measures are available, and actions to reduce vulnerability immediately benefit the populations that might be affected by disaster.

Few constituencies exist for preventing natural disasters, despite their frequency, high cost, and predictability. Constituencies abound to prevent or mitigate other environmental problems - particularly those affecting wildlife and wildlands - of which the risks and consequences are far less certain. The threat of nuclear war appears to be greatly diminished, for example, yet enormous energy goes into antinuclear campaigns. We are uncertain about global warming, but conjecture about its impact is bringing about policy changes that affect long-term economic policy. We are unsure about the effects of the ozone layer’s depletion and are not certain if sea levels will rise, or how much. Calls for preserving the biodiversity of species are based on theoretical arguments, not measurable risks. And we don’t know how much it would cost to resolve the political causes of tropical deforestation or what benefits that resolution would yield.

Not that these issues should be ignored, but they get headline attention although the risks associated with them are uncertain. The forgotten issue is increasing human vulnerability to the natural hazardous events that have occurred repeatedly and are certain to recur, often because of human activity - including development, the goal of nations.

Natural hazards are consistently ignored in discussions of the environment. Yet of all the environmental issues they are the most readily predicted in terms of place, time, severity, and probability of occurrence. And their impact is the most certainly and effectively mitigated. Moreover, of all hedges against risk, natural disaster mitigation is the most dependent on changing the way development takes place. Methods already exist for identifying vulnerable populations and capital investments and for defining and implementing appropriate mitigation measures.

The endangered poor

The world’s poor are increasing in number faster than the general population. And the poor (half of whom are children) are the most vulnerable to disasters because of the buildings in which they live and the sites upon which those buildings are constructed. More than 80 percent of all international funds for nonemergency disaster mitigation (preparedness and response) in developing countries, and more than 90 percent of all funds spent on all types of disaster mitigation, go to saving lives in an emergency and replacing lost investments later. Most of these activities are in direct response to the needs of the poor. The rest goes to support nonemergency preventive efforts - through development planning and implementation - to reduce vulnerability to loss of life and property.

Lives can be saved and the economic effects of disaster reduced:

· As an emergency response to injury and damaged property immediately after an event.

· By reducing the vulnerability of basic service and production infrastructure (nonresidential structures).

· By reducing the vulnerability of human shelters and settlements.

In developing countries, priority is given to the first two activities, pursued through local, national, and international mechanisms. But it is up to citizens - particularly poor citizens - to reduce the vulnerability of their own domestic environments. Like all populations, the poor depend directly on their environment to live: for air to breathe, water to drink, food to eat, fuel to bum, clay to make bricks, and wood for roofs. To meet their basic needs, they change their environments, using free natural goods and services as much as they can. If they deplete the goods and services available in one area, they move to another - often in the hinterlands, where those goods and services are often poorer in quality and insufficient in quantity. The way the poor acquire food, fuel, building materials, and building sites - not for cash, and with no value added - is often at odds with the best management practices and with social, legal, and economic norms and policies.

The poor need safe building sites. But the supply of building sites relatively invulnerable to natural disasters is scarcer than the demand for them and no system exists for increasing the natural supply. Indeed, there is evidence that human activities - particularly for development - decrease the number of less vulnerable sites. And even at zero opportunity cost, with the poor providing their own labor, it is almost impossible to transform a vulnerable building site into a less vulnerable building site. Except in the way a shelter and its immediate surroundings are designed in response to site-specific natural hazards, it is generally beyond the efforts of individuals to reduce vulnerability to natural disasters.

Managing change

Apart from postdisaster emergency response, the steps that must be taken to save lives and reduce the economic impact of natural disasters are best taken collectively as part of general environmental management. Those steps should begin with public sector policy, and public and private actions to protect productive natural systems, and basic service and production infrastructure. Humanitarian assistance in emergencies and efforts to reduce the vulnerability of shelters and settlements must be accompanied by efforts to reduce the vulnerability of infrastructure. Longer-term efforts to prevent disasters through development planning and implementation must be a higher priority in environmental management.

This will require technical cooperation between the development community, the scientific and engineering research community, and the agencies in charge of disaster preparedness and response. Together these three groups must provide technical assistance, training, and technology transfer - regionally, nationally, and internationally. The public sector must provide continuity, support, and more focused direction than it has provided in the past, and should encourage the increased participation of the private sector.

The activities outlined below should be given a high priority in development planning. Some are already under way in some regions, if only at the demonstration level.

Technical assistance must be supplied in development project preparation. The following activities are recommended for all development projects but should be mandatory in postdisaster reconstruction programs because receptiveness to disaster prevention is highest in that period.

· Country overview documents should be prepared for each developing country, giving a history of natural disasters in that country, describing natural hazards and their relationship to natural resource and environmental management issues, identifying basic technical documents available and key professionals and national institutions to be consulted, and providing related information about the population, infrastructure, and natural resources. Much of the information needed to prepare these documents is available. The documentation for Latin America and the Caribbean could be prepared in two years.

· Sectors should be assessed nationally for their vulnerability to natural hazards. Sectoral assessments should indicate what investment projects are under way to mitigate losses according to defined mitigation strategies. They should also indicate which sector components are vulnerable, with no significant short- or medium-term possibility of reducing that vulnerability. Assessment models for priority sectors exist or are in preparation. The information needed should be generated by the country overviews, which the assessments will supplement.

· A brief on natural hazards should be included in initial project documentation for all capital investment projects - drawing in part on the country overviews. Much of the information already exists and processes are in place to begin this activity.

· Each phase of project preparation should address issues of vulnerability reduction. The final loan document should define and approve a specific vulnerability level and measures to take to achieve it.

Training - in skills, knowledge, and attitudes - must accompany technical assistance.

· Technicians in developing countries should be trained to prepare and update the country overview documents. They should participate in regional and then national workshops as each country progresses through the series of activities. Training models exist in Latin America and the Caribbean.

· Professionals from selected sectors should be trained in techniques for assessing vulnerability as part of natural disaster mitigation programs. Regional workshops should be followed by national assessments as countries complete the activities described in the section on technical assistance. Training models exist in Latin America. Regional sectoral agencies should be trained in techniques for continuing program development, as applicable.

· Professionals involved in project preparation for different sectors should be trained in how to use information on natural hazards in formulating sector investment projects. Basic training materials and instructors are available.

· Professionals involved in sectoral planning and project identification should be trained in natural hazard assessment and sectoral planning to fortify their understanding and use of information on natural hazards in sectoral policy, programs, and courses. Courses should be offered in:

(1) Integrated planning for large river basins, with emphasis on basic infrastructure (energy, transportation, and water resources) in regions near international borders.

(2) Integrated management of urban watersheds, with emphasis on reducing natural hazards and on using natural resources to meet the needs of the poor for food, fuel, safe building sites, and building materials.

(3) Assessment of landslide areas, with emphasis on areas where there are urban settlements or energy, transportation, and production infrastructure.

(4) Assessment of desertification processes, with emphasis on integrated river basin development, food production, forest management, and expansion of settlements.

Technology transfer should be part of technical assistance and should generate the subject matter for formal training activities.

· Techniques for managing information about natural hazards - both manual and computer-based approaches - should be made available for staff in charge of national planning and project formulation. Experts on selection and installation of relevant technology are available.

· Both manual and computer-based techniques for mapping information about natural hazards, natural resources, populations, and infrastructure should be made available to staff in charge of national planning and project formulation. Experts on the selection and installation of relevant technologies are available, particularly to match mapping needs with existing country experience and equipment.

· Emergency information management systems should be made available to both emergency preparedness and response agencies and to other appropriate national agencies, including those responsible for critical infrastructure (health, energy, transportation, public safety, communications, and the like) - for use immediately before, during, and after a natural disaster-