ENVIRONMENTALFORESIGHT IN THE REDUCTION OF NATURAL DISASTERS A thematic session to end the International Decade for Natural DisasterReduction
GENEVA,July 12, 1999 Despite recurrent, catastrophic fires over the last decade,Indonesia was unprepared for the inferno of 1997-98. Most fires weredeliberately set, went completely out of control and turned into wildfiresurpassing any nations fire fighting capabilities. Last years episodealone caused hundreds of deaths, devastated some 9 million hectares of forestand cost US$ 10 billion in short term ecological and economic losses. The impactof several so-called natural disasters was analysed at a special session onDisaster Reduction and Protection of Natural Resources, organised on July 8th1999 in Geneva by IUCN The World Conservation Union, to mark the close ofthe International Decade for Natural Disaster Reduction.
Introducingthe session, Dr. Maritta R. von Bieberstein Koch-Weser, Director General ofIUCN, asked, “how much damage might have been reduced by better managementof environmental resources and social preparedness?” Referring to another1998 catastrophe, Hurricane Mitch, Dr. Koch-Weser argued in favour of coherent,country-by-country disaster preparedness strategies, linked to regionalstrategies, themselves based on sound eco-regional management, such as that ofriver basin linkages. “For instance,” she said, “the degree andextent of damage caused by Hurricane Mitch is attributed to the drasticalteration over the years of natural systems that would have provided a buffereffect. Unless local participation is harnessed and investments secured torehabilitate upper watersheds, downstream wetlands and mangroves, there will berenewed disasters with all the attendant consequences. The magnitude of thischallenge requires a co-ordinated effort with new partners and allies, as wouldbe possible under the umbrella of the Mesoamerican BiologicalCorridor”.
“Thedevastation caused to Central America by Mitch, the most destructive hurricanein the history of the Western Hemisphere, amounted to over 11,000 deaths, 13,000injured, 2 million homeless and 254 destroyed bridges,” stated H.E. MiguelAraujo, former Environment Minister of El Salvador. “When such disastersstrike, funds are marshalled internationally, mostly to repair the damage toinfrastructure housing, roads and bridges. And, though they occur regularly,such phenomena are still being treated as unpredictable, one-time disasters andemergencies”.
Mr.Orlando Arevalo, President of the National Peasants Confederation of ElSalvador pointed out that, “Only recently has the repeated cycle ofphysical reconstruction following the impact of natures wrath led to work onthe fundamentals of building greater resistance to natural disasters”.”But,” he added, “most of this work focuses on engineeringsolutions to improve the building standards of large infrastructure andshelters. Such measures are insufficient if not accompanied by disasterpreparedness strategies that foster resilient environmental and socialsystems”.
Thepanellists at the session recommended that the International Decade for NaturalDisaster Reduction now be followed by more creative, sustained and effectiveapproaches. Minister Araujo suggested that disaster prevention be integratedinto all sectors of activity, since it is beneficial to agriculture, forestry,transport, mitigating desertification, reducing carbon emissions (carbon sinks),etc. “Greater coherence will be achieved” he said “whengovernments begin treating disasters as normal events to be considered inmainstream, long-term planning. Such basic structural improvements will makephysical infrastructure, natural systems, water management and human communitiesmore resilient, even enhancing opportunities for investment”.
ProfessorEffendy Sumardja, Regional Vice Chair for Southeast Asia of IUCNs WorldCommission on Protected Areas stressed that donor funding has been uncoordinatedand too focused on emergency relief. Moreover, natural disaster reductionprojects have generally addressed only a negligible portion of the environmentthreatened by these disasters. “There is a need to enhance the ability ofgovernments, international agencies and civil society to design projects thataddress the real causes of natural disasters, instead of focusing only on sourcefunding from donors for remediation” he stated.
JohannGoldammer of the Global Fire Monitoring Center of the Max Planck Institute forChemistry, proposed several concrete measures, including:
the creation of an Interagency Task Force on Fire (ITFF) to develop integrated fire management strategies and harmonise operational systems to increase the efficiency of international response to major fires having global impacts;
increase co-operation with the United Nations Climate Change Convention (UNFCCC), since fires are responsible for up to 50% of global carbon dioxide emissions;
launching an internationally concerted action programme to monitor and facilitate access to natural disaster related information, in order to bridge the gap between the wealth of scientific knowledge in this area and remaining weaknesses in natural disaster management and policy development.
Sincethe frequency and intensity of natural disasters has repeatedly been linked toenvironmental degradation, sustainable development must embody the reduction ofregional vulnerability to disasters. The challenge is for global governance tostrike a better balance between emergency response and assistance, on the onehand, and mitigation and prevention, on the other. “For that tohappen,” concluded Dr. Koch-Weser, “long-term investments andstrategies for disaster preparedness need to reach beyond the scope of typicallymyopic political cycles and mere emergency relief”.
Therecommendations of panellists at this session were presented to the Economic andSocial Council of the United Nations (ECOSOC) for action following to the end ofthe International Decade for Natural Disaster Reduction (IDNDR).