Improved international planning could have prevented tens of thousands of tsunami deaths


UN Advisory Board calls for new millennium development goal

A major international panel headed by former Japanese Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto has called for a new UN Millennium Development Goal of halving the number of lives lost to water-related natural disasters by 2015. The UN Advisory Board on Water and Sanitation seeks to reduce these deaths through better implementation of international disaster preparedness programs. The call was made during the United Nations' World Conference on Disaster Reduction, taking place this week in Kobe, Japan.

Currently, approximately 30,000 people die annually as the result of flooding; hurricanes and typhoons; monsoons; and other hyrdo-meteorological disasters. Ninety percent of this loss of life occurs in Asia, where poor disaster preparedness policies and overpopulated flood-prone areas have been confronted with a marked increase in the number of these disasters over the last 15 years.

The Tsunami that hit much of Eastern and Southern Asia last month was almost unprecedented in its scale of human and economic loss. While this seismic occurance was less predictable than hydro-meteorological events, the affected countries would nonetheless have prevented tens of thousands of deaths and billions of dollars of economic loss had they adopted the preparedness policies that the Hashimoto Advisory Board has outlined.

Japanese development studies conducted in Bangladesh strongly support the need for better preparedness. A devastating cyclone that hit that country in 1991 resulted in more than 130,000 deaths. However, when a second cyclone of similar scale hit the country after Japan and other donor countries instituted preparedness plans, only 314 deaths were reported.

Funding for programs to anticipate these disasters, design emergency plans and create hardier or more innovative infrastructure remains grossly inadequate, despite strong evidence of their effectiveness. For every one hundred dollars spent on disaster relief around the world, only one dollar is spent on disaster preparedness.

"Planning for these disasters has become too low a priority for the majority of developing countries that are most affected by them," said Kenzo Hiroki , Senior Researcher, Public Works Research Institute, Government of Japan. "Instead, these countries and donor nations spend hundreds of millions of dollars rebuilding infrastructure after the disasters hit, thereby reducing the funds available for more general economic development projects. To continue using this reconstruction-based model is a very ineffective use of global development resources, but the human toll is even worse."

Increased Disaster Frequency Predicted

Most flood disaster victims, most of whom occupy marginal lands, are often well below the poverty line. These and other weaker sections of the society, being more vulnerable, are the worst affected and further slide down the poverty scale. The situation is aggravated due to migration of affected people from rural areas towards generally peri-urban informal settlements exposed to hazards.

Due to increasing population and intensive and sometime unsustainable land use planning and economic activities by 2050, another two billion people will be vulnerable to flooding. The increased hydrological variability and extremes due to anthropogenic and climate change is also likely to increase the frequency of such disasters.

Long-Term Economic Effects

The diversion of development resources that occurs when water-related disasters has long-term economic effects as well. When development dollars are redirected to disaster relief, economic growth is slowed dramatically, decreasing the likelihood that other Millennium Development Goals, such as halving the number of people living in dollar-a-day poverty or suffering from hunger, will be met.

Proposed Actions

Traditionally, flood management has essentially been problem driven and is fragmented. Sustainable development has to appropriately incorporate the risk posed by all hazards, especially floods. There is need for an integrated rather than fragmented approach to flood management. Multi-sector and inter-disciplinary disaster risk reduction strategies such as integrated flood management, integrating land and water resources development, various structural and non-structural options with a suitable mix of long, medium and short-term measures in river basins, within the context of Integrated Water Resources Management need to be developed and adopted.

The aim of such an integrated approach is to put in place well-functioning measures for flood management that ensure linkages between various relevant development sectors involved in safety chain of prevention, mitigation, reconstruction, and rehabilitation activities.

Reducing flood risks means, on the one hand, developing capacity to monitor their magnitude, duration, timing and location, and on the other, assessing and reducing our vulnerability to them. Mitigation of the impacts of floods has to be achieved through robust public infrastructure and resilient societal systems build through raising awareness that should include information on possible risks to the communities and available infrastructure, share knowledge about future climate change, and facilitate planning adaptable to climate change. It should provide information on disaster risks and mitigation options, recognizing the local traditional and indigenous knowledge and implement risk management training for civil servants, and local leaders.

Regular monitoring and efficient early warning system is a prerequisite for preparedness, and a prompt and effective response to warnings from both government machinery and public. A people-centered early warning system, recognizing the needs of diverse groups is an essential component. Data and information on flood disasters and warning need to be made available to all stakeholders as a public good and funded by the state.

Establishing a global information system with appropriate protocols on exchange of data and information across political boundaries in support of early warning and response supported is essential for disaster preparedness.

Disasters effects development in low income countries which are far way behind in achieving the Millennium Development Goals. Such countries, in aftermath of disasters, as a token of solidarity and concerns for human sufferings, are offered substantial support in rehabilitation activities. These financial resources are more often spent on ad-hoc activities and do not bring bringing long-term and permanent benefits. A global goodwill partnership should be created for taking preemptive actions in flood prone countries especially those which are far behind in achieving the Millennium Development Goals. Such an approach will provide a sustainable plank to poverty reduction efforts.

Source: Eurekalert & others

Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 21 Feb 2009
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