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Investment key to disaster preparedness

Children stand before the ruins of their primary school in cyclone-hit Patuakhali District southern Bangladesh. Score of schools in the area were badly affected or destroyed when Cyclone Sidr struck the area on 15 November 2007. David Swanson/IRIN
Natural disasters may be unavoidable, but human vulnerability to those disasters is not. "What kills, and what destroys, is the vulnerability of the population," said Margareta Wahlström, UN Assistant Secretary-General and Special Representative for Disaster Risk Reduction.

The second biennial session of the Global Platform for Disaster Risk Reduction, which opened in Geneva on 16 June, has adopted the slogan, Invest today for a safer tomorrow. The concept is being promoted seriously.

Philippines senator Loren Legarda noted that China managed to save US$12 billion in rehabilitation costs thanks to its $3 billion investment in flood control. "We need to look at disaster risk reduction as an investment rather than a cost," says Legarda. "In the long term it will be much more effective."

One of the goals of this year's conference is to secure a commitment of funding for disaster risk reduction from money that has already been approved for humanitarian relief and development aid. "We're not asking for more money," says Brigitte Leoni, head of communications for the International Strategy for Disaster Reduction (ISDR), "We're asking to use the money in a different way."

The conference is introducing a dramatically updated mortality risk index (MRI), which uses computer modelling to show which countries are most at risk from earthquakes, floods, tropical cyclones and landslides. A team of 20 scientists worked for two years on the study, based on data from thousands of tropical cyclones, earthquakes, landslides and floods.

Bangladesh, China, India and Indonesia fall into an extreme high-risk category partly because of the size of their populations. Colombia and Myanmar are in the same category because of the relative risk to their smaller populations. When it comes to vulnerability, poverty and poor governance play a major role. Myanmar, which lost more than 130,000 people in tropical Cyclone Nargis, is an example when lack of warning and preparedness combined to raise the casualty level.

More surprisingly, the United States is listed in the same risk group as Haiti, Ethiopia, Nepal and Honduras, partly because the US is especially vulnerable to tropical hurricanes and earthquakes, but also because the US has pockets of poverty, which make some of its population particularly vulnerable. An example was Hurricane Katrina.

No matter what action is taken, some countries will always be at risk, but even if it cannot be completely eliminated, the loss of life can be reduced. Bangladesh lost more than 500,000 people during Cyclone Bhola in 1970. It subsequently built 2,500 cyclone shelters on elevated concrete platforms and trained more than 32,000 volunteers to help in evacuations. When Cyclone Sidr struck in 2007 with an enormous sea surge, the death toll was less than 4,000.

Despite these precautions, Bangladesh continues to lose people because over-population and poverty force people to live in vulnerable areas. Wahlström said that at some point governments need to ask themselves, "Is this viable? Can you continue to grow in these areas?" What is clear is that preparedness can reduce the losses due to natural disasters, and in the long term it is an investment well worth making.

"Our message," says Wahlström," is that you have a choice."


This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information:

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