Thursday, April 9, 2009

Disasters are the new normal

From the COP15 website, John Holmes, the United Nations Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator: …. While mitigating the advance of climate change through reducing emissions is the best way to protect future generations, that strategy has little to offer to the 164 million people who were affected by natural disasters last year, and the hundreds of millions more whom we know will be affected in the decades to come. The focus on mitigation must not obscure the dramatic impact that climate change is already having on millions of mainly poor and vulnerable people in developing countries. Those people need help now to adapt to their new reality.

Next, we must prepare ourselves better. The UN and its partners have already established effective humanitarian response and coordination structures. Accountable financial mechanisms, coordination tools, and regional and national networks, are in place, helping to ensure a satisfactory response even in the most difficult environments.

But it is also essential to recognize that the humanitarian community’s skills in risk management will be increasingly central. As the Bali Action Plan made clear, risk management, risk reduction and financial risk transfer mechanisms such as insurance must all be important parts of an integrated strategy to help countries adapt in the face of climate change.

Moreover, a rethink is needed of how best to save lives. Sending teams of international search and rescue workers and relief workers to crisis zones after the event, to hand out food and water and provide shelter and medical care will continue to be needed. It will help prevent further deaths. But the way we have dealt with disasters to date, focusing mostly on this international response, must now give way to a new approach that emphasizes national preparedness and risk reduction, and building national capacity, much more. Rather than just reacting to emergencies, we must learn to act sooner and act smarter: prevention, not cure.

The point is that natural hazards by themselves do not cause disasters – it is the combination of an exposed, vulnerable and ill-prepared community with a significant hazard event. Disaster risk reduction policies and measures must be the first line of defense in adapting to climate change: no more building in flood-prone areas, restoring natural coastal barriers such as mangrove swamps, effective early warning systems etc. The Hyogo Framework for Action – a global blueprint for disaster risk reduction efforts during the next decade - provides a proven, five-step method for reducing injuries, damages and deaths due to natural hazards.

An aerial shot of the devastation wrought by Cyclone Nargis in 2008 (US State Department photo)

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