UN humanitarian chief stresses role of reinforced hospitals in disaster mitigation

7 October 2008

With natural disasters claiming 230,000 lives in the first six months of this year alone, the same toll as the massive Indian Ocean tsunami of 2004, much more must be invested in disaster reduction and the reinforcement of hospitals should be a top priority, the United Nations relief chief said today.

“Making hospitals safe from disasters is highly cost-effective,” Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs John Holmes told a news conference in New York on the eve of International Disaster Reduction Day.

This year’s theme for the Day is hospital safety, with the warning that climate change is also clearly increasing the number and intensity of natural disasters around the world.

“We calculate that for a new hospital, protecting from disaster on average adds only 4 per cent to their overall costs,” Mr. Holmes said, stressing the importance of safe building codes and citing as an example the South Asian earthquake of 2005, centred on Kashmir, which killed 73,000 and injured over 125,000 more.

“One of the main lessons they (the Pakistani Government) did learn was the need to redo and reinforce the building codes they had and not only to make sure the codes were but that they were actually enforced and implemented,” he added, noting that it existing hospitals can also be retrofitted for only 1 per cent of their value while preserving up to 90 per cent of the value of the whole facility.

“If we’re going to achieve this goal of safer hospitals, everybody needs to act, we need action from governments, we need action from the United Nations, from international agencies, from regional agencies, from NGOs (non-governmental organizations), health institutions, donor community, financial institutions, and also professional associations.”

Disaster mitigation has been a central focus of UN agencies, particularly after the 2004 tsunami. Mr. Holmes – who is also UN Emergency Relief Coordinator – cited this year’s Cyclone Nargis in Myanmar, which killed 140,000 people, as a prime example of a country which had not done anything to reduce risks, and he compared it with measures taken by Bangladesh.

“They (Bangladesh) have put in place over the years a very comprehensive series of measures to reduce the risks of those disasters in terms of early warning, building shelters, building embankments, building places where people can go,” Mr. Holmes said. “People go round on bicycles with bullhorns warning people a cyclone is coming which can have the most dramatic effects, certainly on the casualty rates.”

When Cyclone Sidra, similar in nature to Nargis, struck Bangladesh, the death toll was less than 4,000, whereas 30 or 40 years ago, it would have been 100,000, 200,000 or even more.

“That’s a very good illustration of the difference these kinds of measures can make and the reason why we try to promote the idea of disaster reduction,” he said. “Prevention is always better than cure… So we try to encourage people, whenever they’re giving money in response to a disaster, [that] they should be investing some of that money in disaster risk reduction because it’s an extremely good investment.”

The UN has urged the Government of Myanmar to make reduction a priority and it is thinking of putting in place measures similar to those in Bangladesh. “The lessons are, I hope, being learned but they’re not being learned as quickly as we think they should be,” he added.

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