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Secretary-General to Decade for Natural Disaster Reduction

Press Release SG/SM/7060 - 19990706

Following are remarks of Secretary-General Kofi Annan on the occasion of the closing of the International Decade for Natural Disaster Reduction, delivered at the International Conference Centre of Geneva on 5 July:

As the International Decade for Natural Disaster Reduction (IDNDR) draws to a close we have achieved much, but we continue to confront major challenges. It is a tragic irony that 1998, the penultimate year of the Disaster Reduction Decade, was also a year in which natural disasters increased so dramatically.

At the same time, the International Decade has seen major achievements; for that, the IDNDR team here in Geneva, and their partners in and outside the United Nations system, deserve our gratitude.

There have been major advances in scientific cooperation. Around the world, an interdisciplinary scientific community of meteorologists, geologists, seismologists and social scientists is working ever more cohesively. Despite its limited financial resources, IDNDR has also brought together governments, NGOs, other international organizations and the private sector to work with the scientific community on disaster reduction strategies.

Much has been learned from the creative disaster prevention efforts of poor communities in developing countries.

And yet, we confront a paradox. Despite a decade of dedicated and creative effort by IDNDR and its collaborators, the number and cost of natural disasters continues to rise.

The cost of weather-related disasters in 1998 alone exceeded the cost of all such disasters in the whole of the 1980s. Tens of thousands of mostly poor people have died. Tens of millions have been temporarily or permanently displaced.

1998 was, in fact, a truly disastrous year.

In the Caribbean, hurricanes George and Mitch killed more than 13,000. In fact, Mitch was the deadliest Atlantic storm in 200 years. A cyclone in India in June got less publicity. But it caused comparable damage, and an estimated 10,000 deaths.

India, Nepal and Bangladesh were hit by major floods, with more than four thousand killed. Two thirds of Bangladesh was inundated for months: millions were made homeless. But the greatest single disaster of 1998 was China's catastrophic Yangtze flood. Thousands were killed. Millions were displaced. The cost has been estimated at 30 billion dollars -- yes, 30 billion dollars.

In Afghanistan, major earthquakes killed more than 9,000 people. In Brazil, Indonesia and Siberia, fires ravaged tens of thousands of square kilometres of forest.

The developed States suffered far less; even so, a single ice storm in January in Canada and the northeast of the United States left 2 billion dollars worth of damage in its wake.

The cost of disasters in the 1990s was some nine times higher than in the 1960s, and it is becoming increasingly clear that term "natural" for such events is a misnomer.

No doubt there will always be genuinely natural hazards -- whether floods, droughts, storms or earthquakes. But today's disasters are sometimes manmade, and nearly always exacerbated by human action -- or inaction.

Obviously disasters like Mitch can exacerbate poverty. But poverty can also exacerbate disasters.

It is no accident that 90 per cent of disaster victims worldwide are in developing countries. Poverty and population pressures are forcing growing numbers of poor people to live in harm's way -- on flood plains, earthquake-prone zones and unstable hillsides. Their extraordinary vulnerability is perhaps the single most important cause of disaster casualties.

And as cities in developing countries grow ever larger, as urban communication, energy and transportation systems grow ever more dense and complex, the risk of high cost losses is ever greater.

Disasters can also be made worse by faulty development practices. Massive logging operations reduce the soil's ability to absorb heavy rainfall. That, in turn, makes erosion and flooding more likely. The destruction of wetlands reduces the land's capacity to absorb heavy run-off.

Extreme climatic events may also be caused in part by global warming, which is, in turn, partly caused by increased carbon emissions from burning fossil fuels. Can it really be a coincidence that 1998 was the warmest year recorded since worldwide measurements were first taken some 150 years ago?

Much remains to be achieved. The programmes initiated during the decade point the way.

We must, above all, shift from a culture of reaction to a culture of prevention. The humanitarian community does a remarkable job in responding to disasters. But the most important task in the medium and long term is to strengthen and broaden programmes which reduce the number and cost of disasters in the first place.

Prevention is not only more humane than cure; it is also much cheaper. Disaster reduction and disaster relief are complementary, and yet quite different. Each is vital. Neither should be subsumed by the other.

Achieving prevention, as the IDNDR team and their partners have tirelessly argued, requires better early-warning of impending disasters to give vulnerable populations time to move out of harm's way. It means better policies to mitigate the effects of natural disasters. But above all, it means greater efforts to reduce vulnerability in the first place. Unfortunately, such efforts rarely receive much publicity and thus too often fail to engage the attention of top policy makers.

Early-warning is critical. But it will achieve little unless we use it for a combined effort by all sectors to plan ahead and build up people's capacity to respond rapidly at the local level.

And if we are to make real progress, we need a better understanding of the scientific and technical requirements of prevention. And we need to apply them resolutely in all our policies on development, housing and land use.

The scientific community understands the importance of the connection between natural disasters, climate change, and land use. The challenge now is to communicate this understanding more effectively to citizens and policy makers.

Prevention policy is too important to be left to governments and international agencies alone. To succeed it must also engage civil society, the private sector and the media.

We know what has to be done. What is now required is the political commitment to do it.

Of course the United Nations is not alone in the disaster prevention field. But it has a special leadership role thanks to its universal character, its broad policy agenda, its capacity for acting as an honest broker and its vital role as a forum for global dialogue.

Real progress will require Member States, NGOs and international organizations to work together on advocacy, networking and consensus-building, creating the sorts of global coalition that we saw in the campaigns to ban landmines and establish the International Criminal Court.

Among our most pressing tasks is to create clear guidelines for future action at all levels.

Above all, let us not forget that disaster prevention is a moral imperative, no less important than reducing the risks of war.

I applaud your extraordinary work over the past decade, and I share your determination to work even harder in the years ahead.