UNITED NATIONS – Governments should change their focus from aiding victims of natural disasters to reducing the risk of death and destruction from such calamities before they occur, a U.N. report said.
Earthquakes, floods, drought, storms, wildfires, volcanic eruptions and landslides are causing more economic and social disruption over the years as the world’s population becomes more concentrated in urban areas, said the report by the U.N. inter-agency International Strategy for Disaster Reduction.
In 2003, an unusually bad year, more than 50,000 people were killed in 700 natural catastrophes around the world, causing losses of more than $60 billion, the report said.
“The challenge of a disaster reduction strategy … is to find a way to live with these phenomena, rather than die from them,” the report said. “A natural disaster is only a disaster because people are in the wrong place at the wrong time, had no choice but to be in the way of a disaster or were caught unawares when it struck.”
Successful strategies cited in the report ranged from a government initiative in earthquake-prone Japan to upgrade and better enforce building codes to a privately funded campaign in Cameroon to teach farmers what crops best avoid soil erosion and other flood damage during the rainy season.
In Central America, a radio soap opera developed by local civic groups focuses on helping communities better prepare for hurricanes as the storm season approaches, the report said.
“While many people are aware of the terrible impact of disasters throughout the world, few realize that this is a problem that we can do something about,” U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan said in a preface to the report.
Disasters also diverted poor nations’ limited resources from efforts to combat poverty, he said. “Disasters are a problem that we can and must reduce.”
The U.N. initiative’s goal is to improve planning and regulatory mechanisms and encourage development and environmental protection strategies that help policy-makers determine where and why disasters are likely to occur and take steps to alleviate the risk, the report said.
The U.N. campaign will culminate in a World Conference on Disaster Reduction in Kobe, Japan, in January.