Ineffective disaster management systems, poor funding and lack of relevant data for planning risk-reduction activities have taken their toll on sub-Saharan African countries, specialists said.
"Despite high economic growth in some countries, disasters are continuing to affect the continent's ability to build wealth for its people," Margareta Wahlström, UN Assistant Secretary-General for Disaster Risk Reduction (DRR), said.
"We often looked at disasters as events that happen, then we go back to normal life... this is no longer possible due to the high cost of disasters," Wahlström told the Second Africa Regional meeting on DRR in Nairobi on 5 May.
"It is difficult convincing ministries of finance to allocate funding... but is reducing risk through better planning expensive? Not necessarily," she added. "If you plan to build a house and the local people tell you that the area is flood-prone, you save money by looking for a safer place."
Kenyan government records estimate the cost of response to the 1999–2001 drought at US$340 million. It would, however, have cost half that had there been an effective disaster management system in place, according to Ali Mohamed, permanent secretary in the government’s special programmes ministry.
Kenya also grapples with internal and cross-border conflicts. Experts said the country's level of emergency preparedness was tested by massive displacement in the 2008 post-election violence.
Achim Steiner, Executive Director of the UN Environmental Programme, said Kenya loses an equivalent of 5.5 percent of its gross domestic product every seven years to recurrent floods and drought. At present, an estimated 10 million people are affected by drought.
The lack of disaster preparedness is, however, not only a developing-country problem, as exemplified by Hurricane Katrina, which hit New Orleans in 2005.
"Our state of preparedness in woefully inadequate," Steiner said. "Climate change is the most stark truth, perhaps, that we have to start to manage as a planet. The sea level in Bangladesh is predicted to rise 60cm this century... about 20 to 30 million people will have to look for a place to live."
[Africa] Among the most compelling evidence of the onset of climate change is the impact on the world's glaciers and ice sheet. [Date picture taken: October 2006]
Among the most compelling evidence of the onset of climate change is the impact on the world's glaciers and ice sheet (file photo)
Lack of climate data, for example, had reduced the ability of countries to correctly make climate predications, according to Charles Akol of the UN Economic Commission for Africa. "There is limited capacity [for] African countries to carry out loss assessments after disasters," he said.
Davies Okoko, disaster preparedness manager at the Kenya Red Cross Society, said disaster responders needed retraining to tackle emerging threats and emergency services needed equipment to tackle rapid onset disasters. "There are few resources committed to deal with such disasters," he said.
Rapid urbanisation was cited as one cause of increasing risks and costs of disaster, as the global urban population surpasses the rural one.
Youcef Aitchellouche, disaster management coordinator of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, called for capacity building at local level, and improved coordination between development and humanitarian aid for sustainable disaster risk management.
In Mozambique, for example, disaster management agencies were working with local communities, said Pedro Tomo, director of the national institute for disaster management. Agricultural technology centres had also been set up in remote areas to teach farmers to counter the effects of recurrent drought and flooding.
Wahlström said weather events such as the 2004 tsunami had showed that disasters have no borders. "We have to learn to be opportunistic, to take advantage of the triggers as people tend to forget disaster events," she said.
The conference, which closes on 7 May with recommendations, is being held under the Hyogo Framework for Action , a global blueprint to promote a strategic and systematic approach to reducing vulnerabilities and risks to hazards and cut disaster losses by 2015.
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