Man’s Fight Against Disasters
THREE years had passed, and UN secretary-general Boutros Boutros-Ghali was not cheering. “We have not moved fast enough,” he told a group of experts early in 1993. “In asking you to meet now rather than later, my aim was to see whether we could make up for lost time.” Lost time? What was on his mind? Five letters: IDNDR. What do they mean? And why the haste?
One of the experts attending that meeting was Frank Press, a geophysicist and the “father” of the IDNDR. Eleven years ago, Dr. Press began rallying the worldwide scientific community to step up its fight against natural disasters. Five years later, in December 1989, the United Nations responded to his call for an end to passivity by designating the years from 1990 to 2000 as the International Decade for Natural Disaster Reduction, or IDNDR. What is its aim?
A Change of Mind Needed
Brazilian geology professor and member of the IDNDR’s Scientific and Technical Committee, Umberto G. Cordani, told Awake! that the IDNDR is an appeal to the international community to pool its knowledge and resources and work together in reducing the suffering, destruction, disruption, and loss of life caused by natural disasters. “Reaching that objective,” stressed Professor Cordani, “requires a worldwide shift of focus from post-disaster reaction to pre-disaster action.”
Changing global thinking is, however, far more difficult than naming a decade, for “decision makers,” states UNESCO Environment and Development Briefs, “tend to focus on relief to the exclusion of prevention.” Of all money spent today on natural hazard management in Latin America, for example, over 90 percent goes to hazard relief and less than 10 percent to prevention. After all, notes the IDNDR’s newsletter Stop Disasters, politicians “obtain more support consoling disaster victims than from requesting taxes for the undramatic measures that would have avoided or reduced the disaster.”
Setting the Targets
To alter this spending pattern, the United Nations defined three targets for the decade. By the year 2000, all countries should have in place their (1) assessment of the risks posed by natural hazards, (2) long-term preparedness and prevention plans, and (3) warning systems. National committees were formed to translate the IDNDR’s philosophy and good intentions into concrete plans, and in May 1994, Japan was host to a UN-sponsored World Conference on Natural Disaster Reduction. With all these activities planned or under way, why was Boutros-Ghali not content? Because of a disturbing trend.
On the one hand, the efforts of the IDNDR are paying off. Scientists’ awareness about disaster reduction has increased, and some measures, like improved warning systems, are saving lives and reducing losses. However, despite these gains, notes Dr. Kaarle Olavi Elo, director of the IDNDR’s secretariat, “the number and the magnitude of disasters continues to grow, affecting more and more people.” We have seen “a 3-fold increase from the 1960’s to the 1980’s,” confirms another UN expert, “and a further major rise in the 90’s.” Indeed, in 1991, 434 major disasters killed 162,000 people worldwide, and in 1992, losses exceeded $62 billion (U.S.). The world, concludes UNDP (United Nations Development Program) administrator James G. Speth, has become “a disaster machine, producing crises with distressing regularity.” (UNDP Update, November 1993) What is behind this disturbing trend?
Why the Increase?
To answer, first note the difference between a natural hazard and a natural disaster. The first is a natural event—such as a flood or an earthquake—which has the potential to become a disaster yet does not always do so. For instance, floods in Brazil’s uninhabited Amazon basin are natural events doing little harm. However, floods striking Bangladesh in its densely populated Ganges delta cause widespread human, material, and environmental losses. Often such losses are so disastrous that stricken communities cannot cope without help from outside. In that case, the natural hazard has become a natural disaster. Why, though, are these disastrous collisions between man and nature on the increase?
Disaster expert James P. Bruce notes that “a trend towards more severe and frequent hazards” may be “a contributing cause.” He and other scientists concur, however, that the main cause for the increase in disasters is not an increase in natural hazards but an increase in man’s exposure to these hazards. This increased exposure, points out World Health magazine, is caused by a “mix of demographic, ecological and technological conditions.” What are some components of this disaster-triggering mix?
For one, the expanding world population. As the size of the human family keeps growing, the likelihood that a natural hazard will find some of the world’s 5.6 billion people in its path is growing as well. Moreover, population pressure keeps forcing millions of poor people to settle in unsafe buildings in areas notorious for receiving regular assaults from nature. The result is not surprising: Since 1960, the world population has doubled, but disaster losses have increased almost tenfold!
Environmental changes add to the problems. From Nepal to the Amazon and from the North American plains to the islands of the Pacific, man is cutting down forests, overcultivating the land, destroying coastal barriers, and leaving a trail of other ecological footprints—but not without a price. “As we stress the bearing capacity of our environment and modify its character,” says a former IDNDR director, Robert Hamilton, “the greater the likelihood that a natural hazard might become a disaster.”
If man’s actions, however, are contributing to the increasing appearance of disasters in today’s headlines, then the opposite would be true as well: By taking preventive measures, man can change tomorrow’s headlines. Death and destruction can be minimized. For example, 90 percent of deaths from earthquakes, say experts, can be avoided. Nevertheless, although the arguments for prevention are compelling, many people continue to regard disasters as inevitable. This fatalistic view, reports UNESCO Environment and Development Briefs, is “the single greatest barrier to disaster reduction.” On what side of that barrier are you?
Inevitable or Reducible?
Especially in the developing world, this feeling of helplessness is widespread—and no wonder! Of all the people killed by natural disasters during the last 50 years, 97 percent lived in the developing world! In some of these countries, notes Stop Disasters, “the frequency of disasters is so high that it is difficult to delineate between the end of one disaster and the beginning of another.” In fact, 95 percent of all disasters occur in the developing world. Add to this an endless cycle of personal disasters—poverty, unemployment, cruel living conditions—and you can see why helplessness engulfs the poor like a rising tide. They accept the losses caused by recurrent disasters as a bitter but fated part of life. However, are these losses inevitable?
What You Can and Cannot Do
True, you cannot control the frequency or intensity of natural hazards, but that does not make you completely helpless. You can reduce your exposure to these events. How? Think of this comparison.
Let us say a person wants to limit his exposure to the sun (the natural event) to prevent getting skin cancer (the disaster). What measures can he take? Obviously, he cannot control the rising and setting of the sun (the frequency of the event). Nor can he diminish the amount of sunshine reaching his environment (the intensity of the event). But does that make him helpless? No, he can reduce his exposure to the sun. For instance, he can stay inside during the hottest part of the day, or if that is not possible, he can wear a hat and protective clothing while outside. This increases his protection against the sun (the event) and lowers his risk of becoming a victim of skin cancer (the disaster). His preventive actions can make a difference!
Likewise, you too can take steps that increase your protection against the impact of some natural hazard. In that way, you will reduce your vulnerability and losses when a disaster strikes. For those living in the developed world, the tips in the box “Are You Prepared?” may be useful. And if you live in the developing world, the examples in the box “Low-Cost Improvements That Work” may give you an idea of the type of simple measures now available. They may go a long way in saving lives and reducing losses. With today’s available technology, reminds geophysicist Frank Press, “fatalism is no longer acceptable.” No doubt, when it comes to natural disasters, prevention is definitely better than cure.
[Box on page 6]
Are You Prepared?
THE U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency recommends a number of ways to cope with hazards. The following are some highlights.
Get information. Contact your local emergency management office and find out which disasters could strike your community. You may be aware of some, but others may surprise you. If you learn that your home is exposed to natural hazards:
□ Meet with your family and discuss the types of hazards that could threaten you. Explain what to do in each case.
□ Plan how your family will maintain contact with one another if separated by such an event. Pick two meeting places: one outside your home in case of a sudden emergency, like a fire, and the other outside your neighborhood in case you can’t return home.
□ Ask a friend to be your family contact so that if you cannot reach your arranged meeting places, all family members can call this contact and tell where they are. Choose a friend who lives away from your area because after a disaster it’s often easier to call long-distance than to call within the affected area. Teach children how to call this friend. Discuss what to do when you have to evacuate. Consider how you would help your neighbors who may need special assistance. Plan how to take care of your pets.
□ Post emergency telephone numbers by every phone.
□ Locate the main electric fuse box, water main, and natural gas main. Show responsible family members how and when to turn these off, and keep necessary tools near the main switches.
□ Prepare for fire. Install smoke detectors, especially near bedrooms.
[Box on page 8]
Low-Cost Improvements That Work
JUST under half the world population, reports the World Bank, survive on five dollars a week or less. Even if you are in that position, say experts, there are proven measures that you can apply. Inform yourself about them, because education, stresses Peruvian disaster expert Alberto Giesecke, “is a key low-cost mitigation measure.” Here are two examples from South America:
The UN manual Mitigating Natural Disasters explains what can be done to build better adobe, or mud, houses:
□ In mountainous terrain, excavate the land to form a platform for the house.
□ Square houses are strongest; if you need a rectangular shape, build one wall two and a half times longer than the other.
□ Use rock or concrete foundations to dampen seismic forces.
□ Build parallel walls with the same weight, strength, and height. Keep them thin and low. Houses built in this manner incurred less damage during earthquakes than standard mud houses.
Traditional latticework (quincha) construction is another proven technique. Quincha houses, says Stop Disasters, have a framework of woven reeds and small branches supported by horizontal and vertical poles and have only a small amount of earth-fill. This type of structure, with 4- to 6-inch-thick [10-15 cm] walls, allows the houses to shake during an earthquake, and when the earthquake stops, the buildings adjust to their original positions again. When an earthquake hit in 1991, all such houses remained standing while 10,000 other houses, with solid 40-inch-thick [1 m] walls, were shaken to the ground, killing 35 people. According to UNESCO architect John Beynon, earthquakes don’t kill people; collapsing buildings do.
[Pictures on page 7]
In some places man is recklessly cutting down forests, opening the way for more natural disasters