Wildfire Disasters and the International Decade for Natural Disaster Reduction(IDNDR)
On 11 December 1987, at its 42nd session, the General Assembly of the United Nations designated the 1990s as the International Decade for Natural Disaster Reduction (IDNDR) (Resolution 44/236 of 22 December 1989). The concept of this international programme was an initiative of the U.S. Academy of Sciences in 1984. The basic idea behind this proclamation of the Decade was and still remains to be the unacceptable and rising levels of losses which disasters continue to incur on the one hand, and the existence, on the other hand, of a wealth of scientific and engineering know-how which could be effectively used to reduce losses resulting from disasters.
Objectives of the Decade
The general objective of the Decade is:
to reduce through concerted international actions, especially in developing countries, loss of life, property damage and economic disruption caused by natural disasters such as earthquakes, windstorms, tsunamis, floods, landslides, volcanic eruptions, wildfires and other calamities of natural origin such as grasshopper and locust infestations.
The following four goals represent the desired destinations which Decade efforts should lead to:
Improve the capacity of each country to mitigate the effects of natural disasters expeditiously and effectively, paying special attention to assisting developing countries in the assessment of disaster damage potential and in the establishment of early warning systems and disaster-resistant structures when and where needed;
Devise appropriate guidelines and strategies for applying existing scientific and technical knowledge, taking into account the cultural and economic diversity among nations;
Foster scientific and engineering endeavours aimed at closing critical gaps in knowledge in order to reduce loss of life and property;
Develop measures for the assessment, prediction, prevention and mitigation of natural disasters through programmes of technical assistance and technology transfer, demonstration projects, and education and training, tailored to specific disasters and locations, and to evaluate the effectiveness of those programmes.
Based on the above broadly defined goals, it was found necessary to focus on a number of specific areas of activities which would mark progress to be achieved at the end of the Decade period.
By the year 2000, all countries, as part of their plan to achieve sustainable development, should have in place:
Comprehensive national assessments of risks from natural hazards, with these assessments taken into account in development plans;
Mitigation plans at national and/or local levels, involving long-term prevention and preparedness and community awareness, and
Ready access to global, regional, national and local warning systems and broad dissemination of warnings.
To date, 120 national IDNDR Committees and focal points have been established around the world in order to realize the Decade’s objectives. In addition a group of 25 scientific and technical experts selected on the basis of their personal capacities and qualifications and with due to regard to the diversity of disaster mitigation issues and geographical representation constitute the membership of the Scientific and Technical Committee of the IDNDR. Their functions include to develop programmes to be taken into account in bilateral and multilateral cooperation and to assess and evaluate the activities carried out in the Decade and to make recommendations on the overall programmes in an annual report to the Secretary General.
Wildfires – “Natural Disasters”?
In the past years there have been various successful examples of how national governments were prepared and the international community responded to disaster management support, e.g. after earthquakes, hurricanes, and floods.
What about wildfires? Are there or have there been any “wildfire disasters”? If so, has any of the goals indicated above been achieved in the sector of wildfire-caused disasters?
In the context of IDNDR, wildfires clearly have been defined as potential natural disasters. However, a global survey carried out by IDNDR shows an interesting picture. Among the 93 nations which responded to an enquiry by IDNDR a total of 49 nations considered wildfires to be an important “Prevailing Hazard” in their country. The remainder of 44 countries did not mention wildfires to be an important natural disaster threat (Tab.1).
Tab.1. Extracts from the information provided in national reports to the IDNDR. One of the questions directed to the countries was on “Prevailing Hazards”. In the questionnaire the countries had to state whether wildfires were considered to be a prevailing hazard or not. The total number of responses was 93. Extracted from: WCNDR Information Paper No.2 (April 1994)
From another survey on damages caused by significant natural disasters the evaluation of wildfire-related economic and human losses were not clearly to be identified. In the preface to that survey it was defined that a “significant disaster” must meet one of the following criteria:
Damage: >1% of total annual GNP
Number of affected people: >1% of the total population
Number of deaths: > 100
It is clear that only a few wildfire disasters meet these criteria in order to be put into the category of “significant” disaster. However, a look to the forest fire statistics from the People’s Republic of China show that throughout the last 40 years more than 100 people annually died in forest fires on an area affected by fire of nearly one million ha per year (Tab.2).
Tab.2. The forest fire statistics from the People’s Republic of China for the years 1950-1990 reveal the high loss of human life due to severe wildfires (Source: Ministry of Forestry, Fire Prevention Office, Beijing).
Wildfires at the UN World Conference on Natural Disaster Reduction
A World Conference on Natural Disaster Reduction, which forms a part of a mid-term review of Decade activities, was held in Yokohama (Japan) between 23 and 27 May 1994. The conference was the first of its kind to be held on a global level it was expected to provide a platform for the exchange of experiences between Decade partners at national, regional, and international levels.
During the UN World Conference some technical posters were exhibited, e.g. on new systems on remote sensing of fires (by Finland and Germany). The conference also provided the floor for the public presentation of the film “The Fire Experiment”. Note: The film “The Fire Experiment” (mp4, 3.5 GB) is a one-hour film originally produced for the German TV Channel Two (ZDF) and the French-German TV Channel “Arte” and broadcasted on 20 December 1993. The film covers the preparation and execution of a fire experiment in the frame of the Fire Research Campaign Asia-North (FIRESCAN), carried out in July 1993, a documentary on the start of cooperation in forest fire research between East and West. The background and systematics of fire research are well conveyed for the general public. The English version of this film which was sponsored by UNESCO and the Foreign Office, Federal Republic of Germany.
The ECE/FAO Team of Specialists on Forest Fire brought the fire issue onto the table of policy makers by presenting a poster and discussing the fire issue in the Technical Committees.
Outcome of the Conference and Proposal to the Annex of the Yokohama Strategy for a Safer World, submitted by the ECE/FAO/ILO Team of Specialists on Forest Fire
The Yokohama conference clearly recognized the still existing gaps between its vision – as formulated in the beginning of the Decade – and reality. This reality is that the goals and targets are far from being achieved as one would expect after half of the Decade has passed by: many of the delegates of the 147 nations represented at the conference commented that 95% of the Decade’s work needs to be done in its second half.
The conference unanimously accepted the declaration of the “Yokohama Strategy”. The 18-page document gives clear outlines and a plan of action although no specific disaster or action is mentioned in detail.
From the point of view of global cooperation in coping with wildfire-caused disasters, two of the recommended international activities, which were given in order to implement the IDNDR objectives, are of importance:
Recognition of the need of adequate coordination of international disaster reduction activities and strengthening of the mechanisms established for this purpose. International coordination should relate, in particular, to the formation of development projects which provide assistance for disaster reduction and their evaluation;
Effective coordination of international disaster management, in particular by the United Nations system, is paramount for an integrated approach to disaster reduction and should, therefore, be strengthened.
As it had been decided at the Meeting of the ECE/FAO Team of Specialists on Forest Fire in Geneva, April 1993, a proposal was directed to the conference and will be part of the Conference Annex: