Cutting disaster risk goal of forum

Attendees warned failure to act could be catastrophic.

BY P.J. HELLER | GENEVA | June 9, 2007

"The combination of decaying infrastructure, land erosion, crowded conditions and a lack of rescue services could lead to catastrophes of an unprecedented scale."

—John Holmes

A three-day international forum on disaster risk reduction has wrapped up here after officials warned "our vulnerability to disasters has never been so high."

"For the first time ever, the world's urban population will exceed its rural population and one-third of the urban population will live in marginal settlements or in slums," said John Holmes, United Nations under-secretary general for humanitarian affairs who chaired the meeting. "Growing urbanization combined with climate change will create new stresses on urban settlements, making millions of people even more vulnerable to disasters.

"We have no choice," Holmes told the Global Platform for Disaster Reduction. "We need to move the disaster risk reduction agenda forward if we want to save lives."

The forum attracted some 600 representatives from governments worldwide, the UN, financial, scientific and academic institutions, non-governmental organizations, faith-based groups and others who discussed disaster risk reduction from the international to the grass roots level.

Among issues addressed by the forum was a review of progress made on policies adopted since the January 2005 World Conference on Disaster Risk Reduction in Japan. That conference, attended by 168 countries and held just weeks after the devastating Indian Ocean tsunami, adopted the Hyogo Framework for Action, a 10-year plan to bolster the ability of nations and communities to respond to disasters.

The stated goal of the framework was to take a "holistic approach" to identify and address measures to achieve a "substantial reduction of disaster losses, in lives and in the social, economic and environmental assets."

"Good governance, effective planning, courageous budgeting and implementing policies to prevent human settlement in hazardous areas are indispensable," said Salvano Briceno, director of the UN's International Strategy for Disaster Reduction. "We have to ensure that hospitals, schools, transportation and water systems are hazard-resilient."

The forum that ended Thursday in Geneva included calls for governments to implement the framework through legislation, policies and investment. Holmes warned that failure to act could be catastrophic.

"Over the past 30 years, the number of disasters - storms, floods and droughts - has increased threefold," he said. "Five times more people are now affected than just a generation ago. Today, eight out of the world's 10 most populous cities are prone to earthquakes, and six of them are on or near the coast. A billion people live in unstable, overcrowded slums. By 2020, that one billion figure may well double.

"The combination of decaying infrastructure, land erosion, crowded conditions and a lack of rescue services could lead to catastrophes of an unprecedented scale," he said. "Global warming makes our task still more urgent, and our responsibility, ever more grave."

Holmes said investment in risk reduction by governments, development banks, donors and others would be money well spent.

"One of the most potent arguments for risk reduction is also the simplest: 'an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure,'" he said. "A recent expert study in the United States showed that one dollar invested today in disaster risk reduction saved four dollars in the future cost of relief and rehabilitation - a bargain by any standard.

"Natural hazards need not lead automatically to human catastrophe," he added. "By taking simple, cost-effective steps today, we can reduce risks and save lives tomorrow. Disaster risk reduction is an idea whose time has come. That is why we must combine our efforts and support investment to reduce our vulnerability."

Saroj Kumar Jha of the World Bank agreed.

He said the conference was an opportunity "for all of us, as part of one global community, to reaffirm that it’s better to invest in disaster prevention than wait for an event to happen and then mobilize international assistance for reconstruction."

Holmes said he was hopeful that the conference would become the main global forum in disaster-risk reduction and expressed optimism about dealing with those issues.

"The challenges we face are genuinely daunting, but, as with climate change, they are not insurmountable," Holmes said. "They are not insoluble. The greatest risk we face is either complacency or inaction of any kind, because we know very precisely what we need to do and how we need to do it to reduce our vulnerability."


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Hyogo Framework for Action 2005-2015 .pdf

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