Preventing emergencies better than curing them

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John Zarocostas spoke last weekin Geneva to Sir John Holmes, U.N. undersecretary-general for humanitarian affairs and emergency-relief coordinator, on efforts to enhance disaster-risk reduction worldwide. Before the U.N. posting, Mr. Holmes was British ambassador in France. He’s a career diplomat and also served as private secretary to Prime Ministers Tony Blair and John Major.

Question: What’s the message from the conference on the global threats and the need for disaster-risk reduction?

Answer: That prevention is always better than cure, and that if we can reduce the vulnerabilities of populations around the world, particularly, the poorest populations, but not only them, to the natural disasters, which are happening, which are going to happen and which are going to increase. We suppose, because of the effects of climate change and increased urbanization, this is an absolutely fundamental agenda. It”s one in which political leaders are not yet hoisted onboard. It’s one in which public opinion has not yet been hoisted onboard enough, and but which is absolutely crucial, I think, for trying to reduce the impact of disasters when they happen.

Q: What are the potential costs and benefits?

A: Well, the differential has been measured at from anything of 1:4 to 1:7. In other words, an investment of $1 million will bring a return of $4 [million] or $7 million dollars because the need to repair the damage afterwards will be much less if you reduce the risk of the disaster before it happens.

… I think if you look at what some countries have done, like Bangladesh, chronically prone to cyclones or flood damage, 30 years ago these killed hundreds of thousands of people and caused untold damage. Now, they still cause lots of damage, but the lives lost are numbered in tens rather than in thousands, and the level of damage has been reduced.

You can see very clear benefits and results in terms of lives lost and in terms of economic development. We know that hurricanes like Mitch or Katrina can do immense damage and can destroy decades of economic development overnight if the preparation is not there.

Q: Rich countries have sophisticated civil-defense units, but that’s not the case with many developing countries. Are there plans to build these types of civil-defense capabilities?

A: I think a very important part of this is to try and build capacity at national but also particularly at local and community level because that’s where it counts. If your local community or village is prepared in every possible way for a disaster, which they know will happen at some stage, then they will survive it much better. And that’s not something that necessarily costs vast amounts of money. … It may be having one building in a village which is a shelter for everybody to go to. It may be simply everybody to know what to do when the disaster happens, which is a question of education and training and not a question of large amounts of equipment and infrastructure.

Q: Can much more be done to enhance the promotion and harmonization of building codes, especially in earthquake-prone areas?

A: I think building codes are one of the crucial areas because you can see again earthquakes of similar intensity hitting different areas with different building codes. The difference is like night and day. It’s impossible, I think, to impose a worldwide standard. What we need to do is to encourage countries to look at the savings they can make when building codes are made properly, and to make sure when reconstruction is done, it is done in accordance with proper building codes, and the difference over time will prove itself.

Q: Is there a risk that with all the focus on climate change that other aspects of disaster reduction not necessarily linked to this may be sidelined?

A: Yes. I think we’re trying to avoid a situation where all the attention is on climate change because some things like earthquakes will certainly not be affected by climate change. Although if there’s a tsunami associated with an earthquake, it could be worse because of climate change. If sea levels are higher, the damage can therefore be greater.

We are not focusing on climate change itself and reduction of emissions; that’s for another part of the international system. We’re trying to deal with the effects of climate change, but also with the effects of urbanization, such as mega-cities located on earthquake fault lines, mega-cities built near the coast where the danger is going to increase because of raising sea levels and increasingly severe storms. These are factors of increased vulnerability, just as much as the climate-change effects themselves. So, there is a whole other agenda which is valid whether or not climate change is an issue.

Q: What about cities close to the sea level, like Alexandria, Egypt, and Shanghai? How do you introduce measures to protect the populations from potential calamities?

A: It’s a big challenge. People are crowded together in small areas very often, often very poor. Rescue services are very poor. Operations for disasters are very poor. That’s why there’s a risk of a major calamity. That’s what we’re trying to address. Some of the mayors of these cities are conscious of this and are trying to put in place comprehensive disaster-reduction and management plans. We’re encouraging them to do that. There may be cases where the sea-level rise becomes a huge factor. Not now, but in 30, 40, 50 years time when some parts of cities may become uninhabitable.

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