UN unveils plan for cutting risks posed by natural disasters

9 August 2002

Launching a global review of initiatives aimed at cutting the risk posed by natural disasters, the United Nations today called for a world where earthquakes shake buildings but not economies, cyclones bring drama but not tragedy, and floods drench landscapes without destroying lives.

Risk assessment, warning systems and public safety should be built into development planning for the future, according to Living with Risk, a 400-page study released in Tokyo. In the last decade, 4,777 natural disasters have killed more than 880,000 people and caused about $685 billion in losses worldwide. But disasters often stem from human activities, UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan wrote in the study's foreword.

"At the most dramatic level, human activities are changing the natural balance of the earth, interfering as never before with the atmosphere, the oceans, the polar ice caps, the forest cover and the natural pillars that make our world a liveable home," he wrote. "But we are also putting ourselves in harm's way in less visible ways. At no time in human history have so many people lived in cities clustered around seismically active areas. Destitution and demographic pressure have led more people than ever before to live in flood plains or in areas prone to landslides."

Living with Risk examines traditional solutions that have protected communities against natural disasters for centuries. The study also looks at links between economic development and environmental insecurity as well as the reports made during the UN's International Decade for Disaster Prevention, which ended in 1999.

Earthquakes don't have to trigger the tragic end of many lives, said Kenzo Oshima, Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs.

"Earthquakes don't kill people," Mr. Oshima said. " Unsafe buildings kill them. The earth's natural forces are awesome, but they are also predictable. Tragically, too many people who have perished in a so-called 'natural' disaster did so because they, or their leaders, failed to see the hazard, and take steps to avert tragedy. Think of this study as a starting point on the journey to a safer planet."


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