Wilfried P. Thalwitz
The United Nations declared the 1990s the International Decade
for Natural Disaster Reduction. The Ad Hoc Group of Experts for the IDNDR saw
the Decade as a moral imperative and urged the application of scientific and
technical knowledge to alleviate human suffering and improve economic security.
Therefore, the World Bank has assembled for this important Colloquium on
Disasters and the Environment some of the brightest minds in the fields of
development and environmental and disaster management.
Why is this happening in the Bank? What do natural disasters
have to do with an institution that has rather limited involvement in financing
relief measures and little technical capability for predicting disasters? The
connection is development itself. Poverty in the developing countries limits
their resilience in the face of disaster. We have only to remember TV images of
the earthquake victims in Iran, flood victims in Bangladesh, and, more vivid
still, the emaciated victims of recurrent drought in the Sahel. In all these
disasters, many more people died than needed to - and they died because of their
poverty. They died for lack of transport, for lack of hospitals, for lack of
shelter, for lack of food - they died for lack of means, generally.
You could express it another way: poverty keeps the insurance
premium from being paid. There is no risk reduction without development - in the
sense of growth and the accumulation of wealth, the ability to save and invest,
the creation of functioning institutions, and investments in human capital.
Development enables ex-ante precautionary measures to be taken that are an
important application and expression of wealth - and makes it possible to
cushion the impact ex post, when preventive measures are inadequate.
But development is not enough. Development is a necessary but
not a sufficient condition for safety. And one purpose of this colloquium is to
focus on ways in which the quality of development must be improved - to examine
the important feedback loop between growth and the resource base. We recall that
the United States allowed drought conditions - the Oklahoma dustbowl
of the 1930s - to develop even though the agricultural practices of the time
were known to be disturbing the American Prairies delicate ecological
balance. The small farmers lost their land to produce wealth for others.
Even humanitarianism is dangerous when it ignores long-term
effects on the ecology. After the first drought in the Sahel, for example, many
European agencies rushed to dig wells that would bring water. Cattle herds grew
in number, the cattle devoured all available groundcover, and the water table
dropped rapidly - because there was nothing to absorb even the little rain that
did fall. The herders were worse off than they had been before. All the
traditions that had seen nomadic families of the desert through in the past were
of no use; the land had lost the ability to sustain animals because of the tube
In short, development is needed to increase developing
nations resilience in the face of disaster, but development efforts must
not result in destruction of the natural resource base.
International efforts to combat global warming and to cooperate
on the use of the seas are two components in a major change in resource use. We
need to create a fund for poor countries so they can forgo the use of their
resources in the short run - as called for in the Montreal Protocol and the
Global Environmental Facility. Too often, costs fall on the poor in developing
countries while benefits accrue to other, better-off countries.
We must also increase the capacity for scientific research. We
can never reach the level of precision with data, or the security of prediction,
that an insurance company is capable of - but we must improve our capabilities
for measuring the risk of disaster. Better data on risk will allow us to develop
policy and incentives to channel the use of our natural resource base in more
benign ways. How we use these environmental assets has an impact on the entire
world. We must understand the interconnectedness of development and the
management of disasters and the