Quake, flood, fire. Will be ready ?

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THE people of Kobe know what disaster feels like. The Hanshin-Awaji earthquake that struck the city on 17 January 1995 cost 6433 lives, destroyed more than half a million homes, and caused 10 trillion yen in damage.

Ten years on, and just three weeks after the Indian Ocean tsunami that killed at least 280,000 people in Asia and Africa, experts and delegates from 168 countries met last week in the rebuilt Japanese city to discuss how to prevent future natural disasters claiming so many lives. They agreed a series of initiatives designed to give earlier warnings of tsunamis and floods, and a more coordinated response to extreme natural hazards.

Despite this, many of those involved say the World Conference on Disaster Reduction was a wasted opportunity. While there was much well-meaning rhetoric, little emerged in the way of firm disaster reduction plans or targets for saving lives. There was not even any agreement on how much money to spend on reducing the death toll caused by earthquakes, floods, droughts and tsunamis.

The targets at the beginning of this process were very clear and strong and concrete. What we’ve seen is that over the diplomatic process of reaching a consensus, they have been tremendously watered down. That is an enormous disappointment,” says hazard vulnerability expert Ben Wisner of the London School of Economics.

In May 1994, governments meeting in Yokohama, Japan, agreed a 10-year strategy based on a framework of principles for thinking about the management of natural disasters. There has been clear progress since Yokohama, says Salvano Briceno, head of the UN’s International Strategy for Disaster Reduction. Between May 1994 and April 2004 there were some 7100 disasters worldwide resulting from natural hazards, which killed more than 300,000 people and cost $800 billion. Grim as the death toll was, it was about one-third lower than in the decade before.

Last week’s Kobe meeting was designed to build on this success. The UN hopes the next 10-year plan, running from 2005 until 2015, will reduce that figure by half again, leaving aside the toll from December’s Indian Ocean tsunami.

“The real challenge is getting alerts to every person at risk, and ensuring that they know how to respond

That disaster was naturally high on the conference agenda, and there was initial optimism that the tragedy might galvanise governments into accepting the need for urgent action. “It’s mind-boggling that it takes one tsunami affecting 5 million people severely to make the world wake up, when we have 250 million affected [by disasters] every year for the past 10 years,” said Jan Egeland, the UN’s head of humanitarian affairs, on the second day of the meeting. “Still, we have to use the momentum we have to get going.

The meeting can claim some achievements. It saw the launch of a UN Global Early Warning Programme, which has the ambitious aim of ensuring that early warnings for all natural hazards, from tsunamis to droughts, are put in place worldwide. But there were no firm government commitments apart from an agreement to set up a tsunami early warning system for the Indian Ocean as soon as possible. The basic technology should be up and running within 18 months, UN agencies declared.

The exact form of that technology, and precisely how it could be made part of a global early warning system for other more common hazards, such as cyclones or flash floods, was left for future meetings to thrash out. Whatever form it takes, a warning system is urgently needed, says Michel Jarraud, head of the World Meteorological Association, adding that tsunami warning systems should also be set up in all other regions at risk.

Warning that a disaster is about to happen is only the start. The real challenge, as delegates acknowledged, is getting alerts to every person at risk, and ensuring they know how to respond. “Only 10 per cent of the problem of early warning rests with hardware. Ninety per cent is how you get these messages down to the end user and whether that person can do anything,” Wisner says.

One of the major themes of the conference was exploring how to involve local communities in disaster-management projects. Case studies show that community-based projects can work even in the poorest, most vulnerable parts of the world. For example, more than half of all Indians affected by floods live in the northern state of Bihar. The last major floods, in July 2004, killed 585 people, affected about 21 million others, and destroyed more than half a million houses. They were caused by dams in Nepal being opened to release water trapped following heavy monsoon rains.

Before the floods struck, a Delhi-based NGO called the Discipleship Centre had been working with people in Bihar to map vulnerable villages and to formulate response plans such as evacuation routes. Negotiations with landowners persuaded them to allow their workers to move to higher ground when floods struck, which they had previously not permitted. Alex Joseph, who coordinated the project, says villages where such plans were in place suffered fewer deaths and less loss of livestock and property than others in the region.

In Kobe, governments agreed that every country should have its own disaster management organisation to coordinate suitable projects. There was also recognition that poverty and disasters are often interrelated. Worldwide, about 95 per cent of all deaths in disasters occur in developing countries. And as a percentage of GDP, losses can be 20 times greater in developing countries than in industrial ones. When hurricane Mitch hit Honduras in 1998 it put back the country’s development by 20 years, while the Indian Ocean tsunami will set back the Maldives by an estimated 10 years.

Lessons from past disasters are seldom passed on. “We’re a bit like a bad football team that, every time it goes out to play, has to learn the rules from scratch,” says Andrew Maskrey, chief of the disaster reduction unit of the UN Development Programme’s Bureau for Crisis Prevention and Recovery in Geneva, Switzerland. “We need to find a way to move beyond ad hoc interventions to more predictable ways of supporting countries that have suffered a disaster.”

Research to discover what works best is urgently needed, says Ian Davis of Cranfield University, UK, who has worked on disaster planning for more than 30 years. One of the few studies so far is being done by the operations evaluation department of the World Bank, which is reviewing the 150 or so reconstruction and disaster mitigation projects the bank ran between 1984 and 2004. The results will be known this year.

At the conference, plans were announced for a partnership to extend this effort. To be financed by Japan, and bringing together several UN agencies and other organisations, the International Recovery Platform (IRP) will, among other things, collect studies into which responses to disaster have worked best. It will also put together teams of experienced experts trained in recovery methods to be dispatched following a disaster. The IRP is “an admirable idea,” Davis says. “Let’s hope it’s a balanced platform – technically, socially and environmentally.

Other initiatives announced at Kobe include an earthquake risk reduction alliance, and an international flood initiative, which aims to carry out more flood research, training and assistance to reduce the loss of life. All, apart from the Indian Ocean early warning system, were agreed in non-government sessions.

But will action really be taken next time it is needed? While the UK and Sweden pushed for hard targets in the Hyogo document, others, including the US, blocked such proposals.

Tellingly, Egeland’s opening call for 10 per cent of the $4 to $5 billion spent each year on disaster relief to be earmarked for disaster prevention also failed to find international endorsement. At present only 2 per cent is invested in this way.

Emma Young,

January 29th 2005

Magazine no2484

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