“Natural” Disasters a Misnomer, UN Leader Says


“Natural” Disasters a Misnomer, UN Leader Says

Source: Environmental News Service at

7 July 1999

GENEVA, Switzerland, July 6, 1999 (ENS) – “It is a tragic irony that 1998, the penultimate year of the Disaster Reduction Decade, was also a year in which natural disasters increased so dramatically,” United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan said Monday. Annan was speaking at the closing ceremonies for the United Nations International Decade for Natural Disaster Reduction (IDNDR) at the International Conference Centre of Geneva.

“It is becoming increasingly clear that term ‘natural’ for such events is a misnomer,” Annan said. Ecological imbalances brought on by poor development practices and climate change are responsible for much of the loss of life, displacement and destruction that follows floods, storms, earthquakes and droughts, the secretary-general pointed out.

Much has been learned from the creative disaster prevention efforts of poor communities in developing countries, said Annan, for it is the poor who live most directly in harm’s way due to population pressures. They must live on flood plains, in earthquake-prone zones and on unstable hillsides. “Their extraordinary vulnerability is perhaps the single most important cause of disaster casualties,” said Annan.

The cost of weather-related disasters in 1998 alone exceeded the cost of all such disasters in the whole of the 1980s. Tens of thousands of mostly poor people died in storms, floods, earthquakes and droughts. Tens of millions have been temporarily or permanently displaced. The cost of disasters in the 1990s was some nine times higher than in the 1960s, Annan said.

“No doubt there will always be genuinely natural hazards – whether floods, droughts, storms or earthquakes. But today’s disasters are sometimes manmade, and nearly always exacerbated by human action – or inaction,” he said.

Disasters can be made worse by faulty development practices. Massive logging operations reduce the soil’s ability to absorb heavy rainfall. That, in turn, makes erosion and flooding more likely. The destruction of wetlands reduces the land’s capacity to absorb heavy run-off, he explained, preaching to the choir.

“Extreme climatic events may also be caused in part by global warming, which is, in turn, partly caused by increased carbon emissions from burning fossil fuels. Can it really be a coincidence that 1998 was the warmest year recorded since worldwide measurements were first taken some 150 years ago?” Annan asked rhetorically.

The secretary-general called for a shift from “a culture of reaction to a culture of prevention.”

He urged better early-warning of impending disasters to give vulnerable people time to move out of harm’s way and better policies to mitigate the effects of natural disasters.

But above all, said Annan, prevention “means greater efforts to reduce vulnerability in the first place. Unfortunately, such efforts rarely receive much publicity and thus too often fail to engage the attention of top policy makers.”

The scientific community understands the importance of the connection between natural disasters, climate change, and land use, he said. The challenge now is to communicate this understanding more effectively to citizens and policy makers.

“Real progress will require Member States, NGOs and international organizations to work together on advocacy, networking and consensus-building, creating the sorts of global coalition that we saw in the campaigns to ban landmines and establish the International Criminal Court.”

Annan expressed gratitude to the IDNDR team in Geneva, and its partners in and outside the United Nations system.

“Around the world, an interdisciplinary scientific community of meteorologists, geologists, seismologists and social scientists is working ever more cohesively. Despite its limited financial resources, IDNDR has also brought together governments, NGOs, other international organizations and the private sector to work with the scientific community on disaster reduction strategies.” “We know what has to be done. What is now required is the political commitment to do it,” he declared.

© Environment News Service (ENS) 1999. All Rights Reserved.

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