Economic and Social Council Chairman's Summary of the Discussions: Panel Discussion on Technology and Natural Disasters
In her introductory remarks, the Executive Director of WFP noted that the number of natural disasters had increased three-fold from the decade of the 1960s to the decade of the 1990s, and that the biennium 1998-99 represented the most costly ever in terms of natural disasters. She felt that this worsening trend was likely to continue, and stressed that poverty was reducing the capacity of developing nations to cope with this trend. She stressed the need for prevention and coping mechanisms to be included into development planning, and for resources to be directed to this end.
The first Panelist was the U.N. Resident Coordinator for Mozambique. He noted that some 500,000 people in Mozambique were still living with international assistance, and that 100 tons of food aid per day was still being provided to the victims of the floods that struck that country early in 2000. The Resident Coordinator stressed the utility of technology in disaster response strategies, even in a developing country such as Mozambique. He noted that GPS and GIS technologies had helped map the affected areas and populations, adding that pre-existing maps had been inadequate. He stressed the need for the development of national and local capacity to use new technologies and the need to deploy appropriate technology for the local population. He also covered aspects of the coordination of military assets, development of preparedness systems and the need to build national human resources capacity.
The second Panelist was the U.N. Resident Coordinator for Turkey. He noted that the earthquakes which had struck Turkey in 1999 had occurred in the most economically advanced area of the country. He stressed that Turkey, although a developing country, had relatively sophisticated technologies, capacities and institutions with which to respond to the earthquakes. He said that a major lesson learned from the earthquakes had been the need to develop better information management, and that the existing institutions had been overwhelmed by the sheer volume of information pertaining to the disasters. He stressed also the need to have better links between different sources of information. He added that Turkey's experience reaffirmed the need to have the most up-to-date technology and equipment to maximise the effectiveness of disaster response mechanisms. As priorities to be addressed he identified the need for a link between institutions, the upgrading of technical facilities and effective supply management. He also appreciated the benefits of the World Bank-funded Marmara Earthquake Emergency Recovery Programme in Turkey.
The third Panelist was the U.N. Resident Coordinator for Venezuela who discussed the land-slides which had ravaged the northern coast of Venezuela, killing an estimated 30,000 people. He noted that, in addition to the human toll, the disasters in Venezuela had caused approximately US$3.2 billion in damage, representing about 3% of the country's GDP. The Resident Coordinator felt that technology, including web-based information-sharing systems, had improved the response of the international community. He emphasized, in particular, the role of indigenously developed software in improving the coordination of incoming relief assistance, which Venezuela was prepared to make available to the international relief community. He felt that the first lesson learned of the disaster was the need for better preparation. He appreciated the assistance in coordination provided by OCHA.
The next Panelist was the representative of the Office of Outer Space Affairs. He discussed the role of space-based technologies - remote sensing, in particular - in all phases of disaster management: mitigation, preparedness, relief and rehabilitation. He emphasized the need to enhance the capacity of disaster-prone states to use information already available, but not yet packaged in forms that are sufficiently useful to decision makers in those countries.
The representative of the World Food Programme stressed the link between planning for disasters and development planning. He noted the many uses of technology in disaster management, but stressed that many opportunities to benefit from these technologies were missed. He noted that technology was about people, and the need to make new technologies more accessible to the communities which need those technologies for disaster management. He stressed the need to use, share, package and tailor information more effectively.
The representative of UNDP was the last Panelist to speak. He identified six key issues: the generation of risk scenarios; ensuring that information reaches users; building disaster inventories; developing early warning systems; ensuring sustainability; and developing local-level information systems.
The Moderator then opened the floor for comments and questions. The representatives of Mozambique, Turkey and Venezuela thanked the international community for its assistance in recent disasters, and emphasized the need for better disaster preparedness programmes, the development of capacities to use new technologies, and the need for full coordination of preparedness and relief efforts.
The representative of Finland and the Representative of the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) spoke of the Tampere Convention, urging member states to sign, and those which had signed to ratify. The representative of ITU informed the meeting that 47 states have signed the Convention, but only six have ratified it. The United Nations is the designated repository, and the Convention will be held open for signature until June 2003. It will come into force when 30 states have ratified it.
The representatives of Ecuador and South Africa spoke of the distinct but complementary functions of disaster prevention and disaster response. They both expressed some concern about prevention, and the representative of South Africa asked that the Under-Secretary-General a.i. consider a briefing to the Humanitarian Segment of ECOSOC on ISDR. He felt that the Under-Secretary-General a.i. might wish to explain the slow progress of the ISDR in implementing the General Assembly resolution creating it.
The representatives of Italy and Austria spoke of the need to use technology better - for land-use planning, for example -- and asked about how this could be done and how national capacities could be enhanced. The representative of the World Health Organization stressed that disaster response was essentially a health issue, and spoke of the need to use resources and technology to strengthen the capacity of health sector preparedness at the national level.
The representative of the United States welcomed the emphasis on local-level decision making and on enhancing the capacity of such decision makers to use the technologies available in the disaster management cycle. He stressed that technology should not be used for its own sake. He drew the attention of delegates to three up-coming conferences - two in the United States and one in Australia - on the application of technology to disaster management.
The representative of Colombia spoke of the need to change the conceptual framework from one in which the emphasis was on 'disasters' to one in which the emphasis was on managing hazard risk. Several delegates took the floor to agree. The representative of Burkina Faso stressed the role of regional arrangements, particularly when dealing with seasonal climate events. This point was reinforced by others, more than one of whom noted that information from the wider southern Africa sub-region could have given vital information about the floods that later affected Mozambique.
The representative of Belarus commented on the need to strengthen regional disaster coordination mechanisms, and requested the text of the Tampere Convention to be translated into Russian. (It was later confirmed that the text exists in all official languages.)
The representative of China stressed the importance of early warning and disaster reduction measures. He felt that there was a need to assist countries in improving their capacities for disaster response. He also stated the need to analyze the causes of disasters specific to certain areas.
Finally, the Director of OCHA Geneva stated that he fully agreed with the importance of mitigation measures. He also stressed that the United Nations must be prepared to respond to natural disasters when hours count in effective response. To this end, he drew the attention of participants to the work of the United Nations Disaster Assessment and Coordination (UNDAC) Teams, and to the efforts of OCHA to incorporate G-77 countries - particularly in Latin America and the South Pacific - into the UNDAC framework. He also mentioned the Military Civil Defense Unit (MCDU) and the Emergency Telecom Project as well as other recent initiatives, including the Russian proposal made at Fribourg to use additional technologies and the Ericsson Initiative. Replying to a question from the representative of South Africa, he said that he understood that the Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs a.i. was hoping to provide delegations with a briefing on ISDR in the next few days, but that this would have to be confirmed with her.
The Moderator closed the session by drawing the attention of delegates to four themes which she felt had come out of the Panel Discussion. Those points were:
- The critical nature of disaster mitigation, planning and preparedness, which might be even more important than disaster response.
- The importance of coordination, between all local, national and international actors.
- The importance of technology, at the international, national and local levels, and of the capacities to use such technologies.
- The need for resources, both national and international.
To learn more about OCHA's activities, please visit http://unocha.org/.