Switzerland: IDNDR Programme Forum 1999, 5-9 July 1999


IDNDR Programme Forum 1999

5-9 July 1999, Geneva, Switzerland
International Conference Centre of Geneva (CICG) 15 rue de Varembé

Thematic Session: Disaster Reduction and Protection of Natural Resources (8 July 1999)

As the International Decade for Natural Disaster Reduction (IDNDR) concludes, the international community is increasingly aware that natural disasters are a major threat to social and economic stability and that disaster prevention is the main long-term solution to this threat. The biggest challenge of the Decade lies, therefore, in the creation of a global culture of prevention. It is in this context that the IDNDR Secretariat in the United Nations is organizing the IDNDR Programme Forum 1999 within the closing event of the Decade.


Thematic and regional events with respect to natural disaster prevention have been held as part of the 1998 – 1999 Action plan for the concluding phase of the IDNDR, culminating in the IDNDR Programme Forum 1999 which will provide a platform for global multi-sectoral and inter-disciplinary dialogue between all concerned partners within IDNDR to:

  • Exchange information on achievements

  • Identify remaining gaps and future research needs in the fields of disaster reduction and risk management

  • Propose a feasible and effective disaster reduction strategy for the 21st century

  • Agree on a future framework for action

Results of the Programme Forum will constitute a major input to the UN Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) deliberations on IDNDR. The IDNDR Programme Forum 1999 will offer more than 40 thematic sessions in support of natural disaster prevention, including 3 tracks of concurrent sessions as well as a Sub-Forum on Science and Technology organized by WMO and UNESCO. In addition, panels, poster sessions, exhibits and an open public forum will be organized, thus providing a comprehensive overview on the broad spectrum of IDNDR achievements at all levels. Emphasis will be placed on:

  • Education and socio-economic concerns

  • Development and environmental concerns

  • Scientific and technological concerns

  • Action towards the 21st century

A public Internet Conference will be held prior to the Programme Forum to initiate debate on selected thematic areas. Highlights of the Conference will be accessible on line at the Programme Forum. The target audience comprises invited representatives of national IDNDR committees, governments and the UN system as well as members of the Scientific and Technical Committee for the IDNDR (STC), other IDNDR partners and guests. In addition, representatives of other international organizations, NGOs and private sector, experts (scientists, engineers, media specialists, and others), journalists and students may apply by expressing their interest on the attached application form. Representation of developing countries including media and scientists is especially encouraged.

For more information (including on-line registration) click on: http://www.idndr.org/forum/index.html


IDNDR Programme Forum

5-9 July 1999 CICG, Geneva

Thematic Session: Disaster Reduction and Protection of Natural Resources (Thursday, 8 July 1999, 9:00 – 11:30)

Organised: IUCN – The World Conservation Union

Task Manager: Sebastian Winkler

Focus of the Thematic Session

Floods and hurricanes occur regularly in many parts of the world. They are an unfortunate part of life, from the Bay of Bengal to the Caribbean to including the many countries affected by the fluctuations of El Niño. Their effects have become more devastating with time, as they harm densely populated areas, agriculture, and urban and road infrastructure.

Although they occur regularly, floods and hurricanes are treated as unpredictable, one-time disasters and emergencies. When disaster strikes, funds are marshaled internationally for emergency assistance, mostly to repair the terrible damage that has affected infrastructure: housing, roads, and bridges.

In many places on earth we have seen repetitions of the cycle of physical reconstruction and nature’s wrath in regular intervals. This has lead to work on the fundamentals of greater resistance to natural disasters. Beginnings have been made in this respect. Most investments into greater resistance have focused on engineering solutions focussing on large infrastructural works, better building standards, and the construction of shelters. However, what is done so far is insufficient, as long as the reconstruction interventions are not better linked to the development and implementation of disaster preparedness strategies that include resilient infrastructure and resilient environmental and social systems.

There is a need to develop a coherent disaster preparedness strategy on a country-by-country basis, linked to a regional preparedness strategies that are based on river basin linkages. Coherence will come when governments treat disasters as normal events, which deserve consideration in mainstream, long term planning. Coherence will come when basic structural improvements are put in place, which will make physical infrastructure, natural systems and water management, and human communities more resilient.

Within an overall consideration of disaster reduction and recovery this session will focus on maintaining and rehabilitating resilient environmental and social systems which form key building blocks for disaster preparedness and security.

Managing Ecosystems to Reduce the Impact of Natural Disaster

Planning for the next Hurricane

Why has Hurricane Mitch been so devastating in Central America in 1998? Because many of the natural systems, which used to buffer against devastation, have been the drastically altered over the years. In upper watersheds, where forests used to protect the soil and to retain water, there are now communities with their housing, livestock and agriculture. In these unprotected watersheds the topsoil and entire communities were swept away by torrential waters. In lower lying areas many wetlands areas were drained and altered preventing them to form buffers against the huge quantities of water coming down. Gone are the previous absorptive capacity of forests and natural wetlands, which can absorb access waters in a sponge-like fashion. And where even 30 years ago substantial coastal mangrove forests would have prevented much of the valuable soil from being swept up into the ocean, there are today only plundered remnants of mangrove forests, as these have been thinned out by people in search of fire wood, or as these have become shrimp farms or beach side tourism developments.

There are viable alternatives to these patterns of destruction. Nowhere was the positive role intact natural systems can play in withstanding disasters more evident than in the very few Honduran watersheds where reforestation and soil conservation had indeed taken place as part of development assistance programs. 1998 provided the lesson that where nature is better managed, there is far less physical damage. In some of these better protected areas, there where no deaths at all among the affected population.

What will be different when the Hurricane Mitchs of the future recur, or when El Niño strikes once again? So far, not much, because emergency assistance programs are not focusing on medium and long-term disaster preparedness.

Unless true attention is given to investments in environmental reconstruction of upper watersheds, wetlands and mangroves, damage will be repeated and come each and every time with billions Dollar price tags associated with infrastructure damage. Moreover, with time, there will be a detrimental cumulative effect, as finite environmental resources are swept away forever – precious soil and ecological resources.

This thematic session will also establish linkages with other ongoing global processes related to environment and disasters. In particular, a linkage will be developed with the ongoing development of a Vision for Water and Nature that focuses on the relationships between water management and environmental, social and economic security.

Burning Issues: Preventing Forest Fires

The fire and smoke episode of 1997-98 in South East and North Asia, the Americas and the Mediterranean for the first time helped focus world attention on what is an increasing problem. The application of fire in land-use systems and forest conversion was associated with the extreme drought caused by the El Nino-Southern Oscillation (ENSO) event which created conditions for the escape and spread of often uncontrollable wildfires. This has been widely publicized in the media.

A series of studies have documented damages and losses caused by fire and smoke pollution, e.g. human health, livelihood of indigenous people, essential traditional forest products such as foods and medicines, biodiversity and genetic resources, timber production and trade, agriculture, wildlife, tourism, carbon release and global climate. They have also recorded extensive loss of life resulting from accidents related to smoke-haze, the negative impact of fires on foreign investment and damage to economic development.

Losses caused by wildfires and atmospheric pollution have been documented in some cases. The fire episode in Indonesia in 1982-83 involved burning of more than 5 million hectares (ha) of different vegetation and land-use types, causing damages of ca. $US 9 billion; the losses in 1997-98 in Indonesia exceeded 9 million ha and damages of ca. $US 10 billion. In Mongolia extended wildfires in 1996 and 1997 affected ca. 10 and 12 million ha respectively. In the People’s Republic of China the number of people killed in forest fires between 1959 and 1990 exceeded 4,000. Australia’s Ash Wednesday Fires of 1983 burned 2,593 homes and killed 75 people and nearly 300,000 domestic livestock. In the same ENSO year extended forest and savanna fires in Côte d’Ivoire killed more than 100 people and burned 12 million ha of land. Fires burning in the suburban-wildland interface of California in 1991 and 1993 involved insurance losses of $US 1.3 and 1 billion respectively.

How did the fires get so out of hand during the most recent episode of 1997-98? Weather conditions exacerbated by an unusually strong El Nino (perhaps itself enhanced by climate change) are part of the answer. But the scale of the fires has more to do with human factors than with any natural causes. While some fires were set to cover up illegal logging, most of them were intended to convert forest to other land uses. The responsible stakeholders are not just small farmers. The activities of plantation and timber companies, misguided government settlement schemes and subsidy policies that encourage forest clearance and burning are responsible for much of the damage.

Due to the lack of a proper base of to knowledge and monitoring it is unfortunately often not easy to distinguish well-balanced natural fires or the traditional and beneficial use of fire in maintaining land-use systems from those fires which have destructive effects on societies and the environment.

In many regions of the world the scale of destructive fire events is quite clearly beyond the capacity of many individual nations to cope. Political leaders, industrialists, ecologists and other people now need to work together to seek realistic and workable solutions. Policies at national and international levels need to be reformed and implemented to provide an improved legislative, economic and technical basis for controlling harmful anthropogenic fires. An internationally concerted action programme is required to facilitate access and monitor fire-related information, to bridge the gaps between the wealth of scientific knowledge and the yet existing weaknesses in fire management and policy development.

Organisation of the Thematic Session

This thematic session will be organised around a Keynote Presentation on Disaster Reduction and Preparedness through Protection of Natural Resources. This will be followed by two case study presentations focusing on forests and watersheds (each of 20 minutes). Following the presentations, there will be 40 minutes of debates and discussions.

Speakers and Panelists

Introductory Remarks: Environmental Foresight and Natural Disasters Reduction – Maritta von Bieberstein Koch-Weser, Director General of IUCN

Speakers: Planning for the next Hurricane: Watershed Management in Latin America – Miguel Araujo, former Minister for the Environment, El Salvador and Orlando Arevalo, Presidente de la Confederacion Nacional Campesina de El Salvador

Fire Disasters, Ecosystems and Societies: Changing Vulnerabilities – Johann G. Goldammer, Global Fire Monitoring Center (GFMC), Max Planck Institute for Chemistry

Burning Issues: Preventing Forest Fires in Indonesia – Effendy A. Sumardja, IUCN World Commission on Protected Areas, Regional Vice Chair Southeast Asia

Rapporteur: Sebastian Winkler, Special Assistant to IUCN’s Director General



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