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UN emergency chief urges action on disasters today to prevent calamity tomorrow

UN emergency chief urges action on disasters today to prevent calamity tomorrow

Jan Egeland
With global warming threatening to change the face of the planet, mega-cities looming as potential earthquake mega-traps, and the world’s poorest exposed as the most vulnerable, the top United Nations emergency relief official is calling for “action today to prevent calamity tomorrow” by investing in disaster mitigation.

“Over the last 30 years, natural disasters have affected five times more people than they did only a generation ago,” Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator Jan Egeland said in new paper entitled ‘An investment in our collective future.’

“The bad news is, things are getting worse as our climate changes, threatening more extreme weather and a potential explosion in human misery. This year alone, 117 million people have suffered from some 300 natural disasters, including devastating droughts in China and Africa and massive flooding throughout Asia and Africa, costing nearly $15 billion in damages.

“The good news is, we are far from powerless to reduce risks and protect ourselves from nature's wrath. But we must act today if we are to prevent calamity tomorrow. Indeed, we have no time to lose,” he added.

Mr. Egeland laid out a three-point blueprint:

  • No country is immune to natural disasters and mitigating and preventive measures must be taken now. “The old maxim is correct: an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. One dollar invested in disaster reduction today can save up to seven dollars tomorrow in relief and rehabilitation costs,” he said.
  • Last year’s Pakistani quake when 17,000 children died in collapsing schools underscored the need to build smarter and safer. “Risk reduction must be woven into the fabric of international development and lending policies to prevent these huge losses,” he added, noting that the quake cost Pakistan $5 billion in damage, about the same amount the World Bank lent it over the last decade.
  • Disaster risk reduction is fundamentally a matter of communication and education. “Everyone – from the head of state to local building contractors, radio announcers, and local schoolteachers – has a role to play in making communities more resilient to nature's hazards,” he declared, stressing the importance of well-prepared evacuation plans, better land usage and environmental policies, public awareness campaigns and emergency broadcasting systems.

The UN has put disaster risk reduction on the front burner ever since the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, when experts said scores of thousands of the more than 200,000 dead could have been saved if early warning systems had existed and allowed them to escape to higher ground in the hours between the earthquake that triggered the giant waves and their landfall.

Since then it has played a major role in developing early warning systems, not only for the Indian Ocean but other vulnerable areas as well, based on quake and tidal sensors, alarm networks ranging from radio to cell phones and text-messaging, and disaster preparedness training to ensure timely evacuation of vulnerable coastal areas.

While earthquakes, hurricanes, and tsunamis have long posed deadly threats, Mr. Egeland underscored the new aggravating circumstances. Rising sea levels and melting glaciers and polar ice caps from global warning spell potential catastrophe for hundreds of millions of people living in low-lying coastal areas from Bangladesh to New York, China to the Netherlands.

The risk of mass fatalities is greater given modern land use policies, rapid urbanization, and population growth. “Today, tens of millions of people in mega-cities such as Mumbai, Mexico City, Lagos, and São Paulo live in potential death traps: huge, densely populated slums with little basic infrastructure or sanitation that are located on fault lines or in flood-prone areas,” he said.

“The result is a human house of cards with potentially catastrophic consequences, especially for the poorest among us. To ignore these risks is to play poker with our future,” he added. “Global warming underscores the urgency – and the moral imperative – for action. Let’s seize this opportunity. Lives depend on it.”