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Sunday, 11 January 2009





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Government Gazette

Preventing natural disasters

Four decades ago, we considered ourselves to be fortunate enough to be less prone to natural hazards when compared with other countries in Asia. Since mid 80-s things have gradually begun to change and today we appear to be highly vulnerable to natural disasters. Look at the statistics of what happened last year!

Nearly a million people were badly affected by flooding (including 43 deaths) during the first three quarters. Over 5000 suffered due to storms and 800 by the landslides. 150,000 people were drought victims. In the 2008/9 budget Rs. 145 million has been allocated for disaster mitigation.

These are devastating facts. The Minister of Environment and Natural Resources Champika Ranawaka has understood the challenge very well. During the budget vote last month he said, “It looks like Sri Lanka is required to grapple with Nature’s fury. The abuses of the past have to be compensated, and this means massive risk management and prevention”.

We talk about natural disasters. Floods, droughts, earthquakes, hurricanes, fires; these events occur all the time in nature. But how natural are they? While events of this type are certainly part of the natural world, in the last thirty years disasters have been happening more frequently, and with greater impact, than ever before. What is the reason? The answer is straight forward: Human activity.

One of the key reasons for the greater frequency of disasters is the effect on the environment of human activity in both developed and developing nations.

Environmental degradationTake for example, deforestation. It occurs when people cut down too many trees. In some instances it happens when organized groups log large areas for commercial purposes. Deforestation can also happen when poor communities clear land to grow crops, build houses or gather firewood for cooking.

Although it can have a negative effect on the environment, cutting down trees is a matter of survival for many poor communities.

Deforested land is more likely to flood severely because heavy rains on newly bare land move much faster than on forested areas. With too few trees to hold the soil together, landslides and mudslides can occur.

Pollution can have far-reaching effects too, even outside the country where the pollution is happening. Another important factor is global warming which is also believed to be changing weather patterns around the world.

Unfortunately, more and more people - especially in the world’s poorest countries - are suffering the consequences of not prepared for hazards.

Recent studies have shown that preventative measures can be much more cost effective than recovery efforts, prompting some in the international community to call for a reassignment of aid priorities.

“There has been a great increase in the number of people affected by natural hazards over the past 30 years, says David Hargitt, a researcher of Centre for Research on the Epidemiology of Disasters, Belgium, “because more people are living in precarious situations.”

“Thirty Five years ago”, says Hargitt, “There were only 497 reported natural disasters - hazards that took a significant human toll. The last five years have seen 1,897 of them, a nearly threefold increase.

Between 1974 and 1978, 195 million people were killed by such disasters or needed emergency aid; but there were 1.5 billion such victims in the past five years. The trend threatens to continue.”

Basic Techniques

It may seem like we have no control over these factors, but in fact there’s a great deal we can do to reduce their impact It does not necessarily cost more to reduce disaster risks beforehand than to pay for emergency aid afterwards, according to experts.

A recent study by the World Bank and the US Geological Survey found that economic losses from disasters worldwide could have been cut by $280 billion during the last decade by spending one seventh of that amount on prevention and risk- reduction measures.

Sometimes it is just a question of organization. Cuba gets high marks for the way the government runs hurricane preparedness exercises every year and ensures that neighborhood committees know when and where to evacuate people.

Other simple measures require nothing more than forethought: After two devastating earthquakes in Turkey in 1999, a study by a local university concluded that 25,000 injuries could have been prevented if large pieces of furniture and other tall heavy objects likely to fall over had been secured to a wall.

Because disasters can wipe out 20 years’ worth of economic development in 2 days, risk reduction has to be built into development projects from the start. We have to make risk impact assessments as much a feature of development projects as environmental impact assessments have become.”

It’s also time to change the mindset that natural disasters are inevitable. We can’t actually stop hurricanes or tsunamis or other extremes of nature.

But if we bring together the right mix of research- work that integrates such disciplines as engineering, climate, health, and social sciences-and find a better way to plug these insights into the policy making process, we can avoid a lot of unnecessary human and economic losses.

Scientists must address two fundamental challenges. On one hand, there is a need for new research that reveals more about why disasters are increasing and on the other hand, they need to pinpoint precisely the human activities that can aggravate or mitigate their effect.

There is also a communication problem that needs to be addressed. The scientists already have provided strong evidence that natural disasters are a growing threat and have offered advice for specific actions that can be taken to reduce exposure to harm.

A lot of evidence has emerged to prove that that policy-makers may at times act in ignorance or simply disregard relevant scientific evidence of what’s needed to prepare for or prevent devastation from a natural, predictable event like a hurricane.

One may ask: “Why are we removing mangrove swamps from vulnerable coastlines? Why do we continue to see land-use practices around the country that clearly boost the risks of floods, wildfire, and landslides? Why are we not making better use of satellite data to anticipate vulnerabilities? Are Local Government authorities fully knowledgeable of the intricacies of Disaster management?”

The answer to all these questions is, in part, that we frequently find it easier to focus on short-terms gains than guard against the potential long-term losses. The challenge today is to organize a natural hazards initiative that moves beyond our traditional focus on the physical sciences and addresses how scientific results interact with the policy-making process.

We need to find new ways to communicate science to decision makers so that they understand how to integrate scientific evidence into their political and policy processes. A strong component of this initiative should focus on linking scientific advances to end-users, which include local, regional and national government and also development agencies and those providing humanitarian assistance.


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