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Saving lives, building hope

BY SUSAN KIM | BALTIMORE | August 23, 2002

Disaster mitigation can be simple as building a terrace on a hillside in Uganda.

Church World Service consultant Ivan DeKam describes how he worked with the Church of Uganda to build terraces on the hillsides of a country that makes pendulous swings from severe drought to heavy rain.

"We pulled an original terracing concept from the rural Philippines," explained DeKam. "Every three meters on the hillsides, we made a wall of rocks or stones. Behind that you plant fast-growing trees. Over time land erosion is stopped, land fertility is increased, and you can raise a variety of corps that are rotated," he said.

The seemingly simple act of building terraces was a way of bringing disaster mitigation -- or reducing vulnerability to hazards -- into the heart of the Uganda farm community.

Efforts like these -- and there are thousands being administered by faith-based groups across the globe -- have saved lives, found a newly released United Nations report called "Living With Risk."

The report showed an increase in the number of natural hazard events globally during the last three decades, and an increase in the number of people affected.

In the last decade alone, 4,777 natural disasters have taken more than 880,000 lives, affected the homes, health and livelihoods of almost 2 billion people around the world and inflicted approximately $687 billion in global economic losses.

But thanks to mitigation the loss of lives and homes is less than it could have been, UN researchers found.

"Even though the number of disasters has more than tripled since the 1970s, the reported death toll has decreased to less than half," the report said.

The exception may be regions like southern Africa, where some 13 million people today are suffering from a food shortage. Famine threatens at least six southern African countries -- Zimbabwe, Malawi, Zambia, Mozambique, Lesotho, and Swaziland -- where lives are already being lost to hunger.

It may be even more lives that previously thought, the report showed. In Africa, "the lack of coherent disaster-related figures means the impact of the disaster is highly underestimated."

DeKam said that, in places like Malawi, the majority of farmers are still raising corn, a cash crop that is not indigenous. "Nobody remembers when they started raising corn," he said. "It could have been the 1900s or earlier."

Before that, farmers raised millet, sorghum and legumes, which can tolerate longer periods of drought. "They're also more nutritious," said DeKam.

Drought is a particularly difficult disaster to mitigate, found the UN researchers. "Absence of a precise and universally accepted definition of drought adds to the confusion as to whether it exists, and if it does the degree of its severity," the report found. "Thus, drought is often forgotten once it ends, and everybody seems to be caught unawares again by the next one."

As part of drought mitigation, faith-based groups have been urging farmers in Malawi to diversify their crops.

The problem is, mitigation doesn't attract monetary donations the way disaster relief does, said DeKam. "There are 1,001 agencies out there willing to assist with disaster response. Far fewer are willing to do mitigation. They say it's too much like community development."

The UN report also found that, once relief groups pull out, communities are often left to cope with long-term effects of a disaster on their own.

"...the drama of disasters and the urgent international activities to provide emergency relief assistance command the attention of the international media -- generally only for a few days," the researchers found. "The consequences of the disasters last much longer and are more poignantly measured in solitude..."

Since more than 90 percent of natural disaster-related deaths are found in developing countries, mitigation projects are vital.

DeKam said crop diversification is a local form of mitigation that is seeing some success among Malawi farmers.

The UN researchers found that, for a mitigation program to be successful, local leaders and residents must wholeheartedly adopt mitigation practices into their daily lives. "Inhabitants of local communities are potential victims of natural disaster," the report explained. "They also represent the greatest potential source of local knowledge regarding hazardous conditions, and are the repositories of any traditional coping mechanisms suited to their individual environment...Local communities are those most aware of historical risk scenarios and the ones closest to their own reality."

DeKam believes that ultimately, the farm diversification program will be in the heart of farm communities in Malawi. "I sometimes ask people to remember what were the coping mechanisms used -- to ask their parents what they did during a drought. Many times the answer is 'we didn't raise just one crop.' "

In Asia, too, a one-crop system in many regions has made food security very fragile, DeKam added.

The UN report also cited other countries that have made dramatic strides in disaster mitigation.

"The single most terrible year in human loss in the last decade was 1991, when a cyclone devastated Bangladesh, killing 139,000 people," the researchers noted. "Cyclones are cyclical and they continue to hit the Bangladesh coasts but no such catastrophe has happened again."

"Living With Risk" is sponsored by the Inter-Agency Secretariat of the International Strategy for Disaster Reduction.

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