Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Decreasing the Destructiveness of Disasters is our only choice

It's been regrettably all quiet on the Blog front over the last days due mainly to mounting work committments coupled with picking up the backlog that continued to expand during the full focus on the Asia disasters in recent weeks. As a great and oft-inebriated Irish playwright might once have said "Work is the Curse of the Blogging Classes!" 

Having said that I do want to post a few thoughts today on what is officially marked as International Day for Risk Reduction. I know this is not going to have you out protesting on the streets but, although an admittedly banal-sounding name, disaster risk reduction is an extremely noble endeavour - it is basically about getting people out of harm's way when we know disaster is about to strike. It is about supporting communities to adapt to known climate and disaster risks. It is about using our knowledge on forecasting and understanding disaster patterns and getting this into the hands of the people who need it most. It is plain and simple a moral imperative. Below a few thoughts on the topic - on the day that is in it. There is also a three minute video embedded which shows what effective disaster reduction policies can mean in real terms to the lives of real communities.

Decreasing the Destructiveness of Disasters is our only choice
Today, as Asia Pacific reels from one devastating disaster after another, more than 12million people have been extensively affected. Typhoons, earthquakes, tsunamis and flooding have uprooted millions, left them homelessand strippedthem of their livelihoods. The countries’ National Red Cross or Red Crescent Societies have sprung into action with massive emergency assistance.Loss of life is always tragic, but ample investment in preparedness and early warning systems - including the training of community-based volunteers as first responders - have clearly contributed to minimizing the loss of life across the disaster areas.

These disasters remind us that although we have made progress in the field of risk reduction, a much greater global commitment must be reachedto make many, many more communities safe and strengthen their resilience, particularly in the disaster-prone regions of the world.

If we – as an international community of partners – do not step up risk reduction measures significantly, then we will fail to achieve the targets set by the UN’s Millennium Development Goals to decrease poverty, hunger, disease and deaths. In a globalized world, buffeted by the severe humanitarian impact of ever more extreme and frequent disasters, often linked to climate change, our mission to help the most vulnerable populations becomes ever more vital.

But a properly resourced global strategy is needed - one which is fully supported and respected by governments and decision-makers, and implemented at the community level.

A dollar spent on prevention saves four dollars in emergency response

Risk reduction is cost-effective – early warning and early action, as well as other preparedness measures, savesmore lives and livelihoods per dollar or euro spent than traditional disaster response.Recently, together with United Nations Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator John Holmes, we stressed that the G20 must lay the foundations for bold action in the upcoming Copenhagen conference on climate change.Whether at the global or local levels, we must help communities better adapt toclimate change impacts and integrate this into existing disaster risk reduction programmes.

In the photo above Maximino Virtudazo, 59, a volunteer of the Philippine National Red Cross, stands before the sea wall he helped to build to protect his village from storm surges. “If the Pacific continues to rise,” he says, “the wall will be destroyed and then only God knows if my children will still live here in the future.”

Early warning must strive to guarantee that communities receive the information they need. We have the technology to make seasonal and long-term forecasts to help farmers better plan their planting, as well as weekly and daily forecasts to warn coastal communities of incoming typhoons, but we need to make sure people are ready to react to this information. And we must ensure that this potentially life-saving information gets into the hands of those who need it most.

There is thankfully growing evidence ofthe effectiveness of disaster preparedness. In Samoa, when church bells rang out as a tsunami warning, Red Cross volunteers – well trained in tsunami preparedness drills - helped villagers evacuate to pre-identified sites on higher ground. This low-tech example illustrates the importance of reaching the grass-roots level, of making sure the information provided by advance warning systems reaches people urgently.

In west and central Africa, when warnings arrived last July of heavy rains and subsequent severe flooding, evacuations and evaluations took place quickly and pre-positioned stocks of essential relief items were distributed to the affected people in record time. The real work of protecting communities and preserving livelihoods can be done beforehand, but we must be ready to invest in preparing communities that are habitually exposed to disasters.

It is clear that much remains to be done to increase community safety and resilience, and that many challenges loom ahead. On this International Day for Disaster Reduction, let us remember that disasters like those currently happening in Asia and the Pacific are everybody’s business and that, working together, we can make communities all over the world safer and better prepared to face and overcome natural disasters and their consequences


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