Friday, May 25, 2007

Inaction on disasters is not an option

From Reuters Alternet, an opinion piece by Salvano Briceno, director of the U.N. Secretariat of the International Stategy for Disaster Reduction: In the coming years, we could experience disasters on an unprecedented scale. They could begin with an earthquake, late at night in a sleeping city, or perhaps a violent volcanic eruption. Or they could follow a fearful windstorm, a catastrophic flood, or landslides triggered by colossal rainstorms. Millions of people may be affected with economic losses that could bankrupt the rest of the nation.

To create the conditions for disaster, all we need to do is nothing. If we do nothing - and by us, I mean the politicians, business leaders, local authorities, bureaucrats, workers, bankers, safety chiefs, volunteers, teachers, engineers, farmers, families, citizens, the media and everybody else who has a stake in tomorrow - then the worst will certainly happen.

It will not happen simply because sea levels have begun to rise, and the frequency and the ferocity of hurricanes, ice storms, floods, heat waves and droughts could be on the increase. It will not happen just because global population - and therefore the numbers of potential victims - has trebled in the last century, and could reach 9 billion by 2050. It will not happen because more people have crowded into urban slums and city dwellers now outnumber people in the countryside. All of these things are part of the recipe for a terrible disaster, but they are not enough.

The final ingredient for human tragedy would be inaction. If we choose not to look, then we will not see disaster until it happens. If we choose not to act, then we will be at our most vulnerable when it arrives. We should face the bitter truth that some of the worst disasters of the past few decades could have been avoided, or their impact softened, if we had been better prepared; with more shelters from the storm, better advance warning of floods, surer protection from collapsing buildings, and swifter action against the fire, hunger or disease that arrives with each catastrophe.

That is why, in the wake of a series of warnings from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change scientists who have been studying climate change, the secretariat of the International Strategy for Disaster Reduction is about to bring governments, the United Nations, financial institutions, scientists and engineers, community leaders, non-governmental organisations together in Geneva for the first ever global platform on ways to make a dangerous world a safer place.

We - all of us - have a million reasons to do something rather than nothing. Worldwide, nearly 200 million people live in coastal flood zones, at risk from storm surges and cyclones. The economic costs of disasters rose 14-fold in the last 50 years and totaled $1 trillion in the last 15 years alone. Eight out of the 10 most crowded cities in the world are potentially at hazard from earthquakes. Six out of 10 of these cities are vulnerable to storm surges and tsunamis.

Yet there is good evidence that money spent wisely now could prevent horrendous losses in the years ahead. By 2015, 12 of the 15 largest cities in the world will be in developing countries. A billion people already live in slums, shanty towns, on unstable land and in badly built apartment blocks and by 2020 these numbers could reach 2 billion.

So there are urgent reasons, both humanitarian and financial, for helping to protect the vulnerable against future tragedy. We know what to do: ministers, scientists, engineers, investors and economists from 168 nations gathered at Kobe in Japan in 2005 to forge the Hyogo Framework for a decade of action. This document is a guide to a host of steps that could be taken, by heads of state and by the people most at risk, by international organisations and village councils, by civil engineers and schoolteachers, to foresee future hazards and avoid them, to prepare for the worst blows that nature can deliver, and soften their impact.

All over the world, nations have begun to act. But are those actions enough? Can they be implemented swiftly enough? Are they the best actions against local hazards? Is there enough political will to complete them, and keep disaster risk reduction (prevention, mitigation and preparedness) on the political agenda? Can risk reduction be the most effective strategy for adaptation to climate change?

Disasters that arise from natural hazards usually hit the poor hardest, and keeping the survivors in poverty and despair for years or even decades afterwards.

The worst disasters can undo decades of development. The US Geological Survey and the World Bank have estimated that an investment of $40 billion into disaster preparedness could have prevented $280 billion worth of losses during the last decade of the 20th century. That represents a sevenfold return: a bargain, by any investor's standards.

The cost of doing something is modest. But the price of doing nothing will be catastrophic. We know what to do. We know, better than ever, how to do it. And above all, we know that to do nothing is not an option.

No comments: