UN agency calls for major steps mitigate effects of natural disasters worldwide

23 March 2006

With natural catastrophes around the world killing thousands of people and causing over $200 billion in damages last year alone, the United Nations meteorological agency today called for major steps to mitigate the havoc wrought by weather-related disasters, ranging from early warning systems to readiness training.

“While early warnings systems exist for many such hazards, they need to be further improved and made available to all countries, particularly to those with least resources,” UN World Meteorological Organization (WMO) Secretary-General Michel Jarraud said in a message marking World Meteorological Day.

“The challenge is therefore to ensure that all countries may have the necessary systems, infrastructure, human capacity, organizational structures and technical capacity, to fully utilize and build on the early warning systems,” he added, noting that the economic impact of such natural disasters has worsened markedly over the past decades.

The theme of this year’s Day is “Preventing and mitigating natural disasters,” and Mr. Jarraud recited a litany of last year’s havoc: prolonged droughts in the Horn of Africa, parts of Europe and Asia, Australia and Brazil, with Malawi suffering its worst drought in a decade; exceptional or heavy rainfall with extensive flooding in various parts of the world; and a record number of devastating hurricanes in the Atlantic Ocean.

He referred, too, to the catastrophic tsunami of 26 December, 2004, which killed over 200,000 people in a dozen Indian Ocean countries. Experts believe that many tens of thousands of lives could have been saved had there been an early warning system such as the one existing in the Pacific Ocean, currently the world’s only fully functioning system.

As it was several hours passed between the quake that spawned the tsunami and the landfall of the waves in some regions such as Sri Lanka, wasting precious time in which many could have fled to higher ground.

The United Nations is now leading efforts to set up such systems, both in the Indian Ocean and elsewhere, based on quake and tidal sensors, speedy communications, alarm networks from radio to cell phones, and disaster preparedness training in vulnerable regions.

Mr. Jarraud noted that during the 10-year period 1992-2001, natural disasters worldwide were linked to more than 622,000 deaths and affected over 2 billion people. Economic losses from water- and weather-related disasters were estimated at $446 billion - about 65 per cent of the total losses due to all natural disasters for the period.

Developing countries, especially the Least Developed Countries (LDCs) are more affected by these hazards, thereby increasing their vulnerability and setting back their economic and social growth, sometimes by decades, he added.

“While natural hazards may not be avoided, integration of risk assessment and early warnings, with prevention and mitigation measures, can prevent them from becoming disasters,” he said. “That means that action can be taken to considerably reduce the resulting loss of life and socio-economic damage.”

“Through its technology transfer, capacity building, and data management programmes, WMO works to ensure that all NMHSs (National Meteorological and Hydrological Services), particularly those of developing countries, have access to critical hazard-related data.”

 

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