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Poverty and poor preparation increase toll from natural disasters

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New York, 20 October 1998 - Extreme poverty and the failure of government authorities to adequately prepare for natural disasters have cost nations dearly in loss of life and livelihoods in the past month.
Floods, drought and earthquakes have devastated poor communities in Africa, Asia, Latin America and the Pacific and set-back hard-earned development gains. According to John Rogge, manager of UNDP's Disaster Management Programme based in Geneva, human impact on the environment is exacerbating the number and intensity of many disasters: "Population growth and poverty are among the main reasons why disasters strike harder and more often, killing people and livestock, destroying crops and devastating homes, schools and health centers," he said, adding that much of the suffering is avoidable.

Mr. Rogge said that disparities between rich and poor are forcing a growing proportion of the world's poor to live in highly vulnerable areas. "Poor people have limited choices," said Rogge. "They build shantytowns in low-lying areas subject to flooding or on hillsides that are prone to landslides. In densely populated areas of Bangladesh and China, the rural poor now have no option other than to live permanently on islands in flood plains and in deltas that are only a few feet above sea level, areas which were previously cultivated only during the dry season. This situation results in higher casualty rates and loss of life and livelihoods, which further aggravate poverty and heightens vulnerability. It's a vicious cycle."

Increasing population pressure places severe stress on environments. Excessive logging and land clearance for cultivation increases erosion of the soil and can produce flash floods. This in turn causes siltation in river courses, exacerbating floods.

The causes and effects of a disaster often span national borders and require regional disaster reduction strategies. In Bangladesh, the siltation of rivers is partly a result of soil erosion in Nepal, where poor people clear forests and vegetation to provide land for cultivation and fuelwood.

In the past month alone, floods have inundated Bangladesh, China, DPR Korea, India, Nepal and Sudan. Fiji has suffered from drought, and most recently, hurricane Georges wreaked havoc in the Caribbean, destroying property and claiming an unusually high toll in human life. Most severely hit were Cuba, the Dominican Republic, Haiti, St Kitts and Nevis, as well as Saba and St Eustatius in the Netherland Antilles.

UNDP assists governments with the management of their responses to disasters by helping to recruit emergency personnel, providing transportation for emergency workers and supplies, providing communications equipment and by coordinating international aid. UNDP's Resident Representative usually also serves as UN Resident Coordinator and Humanitarian Coordinator. UNDP country offices support coordination through information gathering, needs assessments, and the preparation of appeals for international assistance. UNDP also helps countries prepare for natural and man-made disasters by organizing Disaster Management Training Programmes. This includes training for government employees, civil society groups, community leaders and partners in the United Nations system.

Some recent examples of natural disasters where UNDP has provided assistance:

Prolonged floods are affecting more than two thirds of Bangladesh's provinces. More than 353,000 houses have been destroyed and 1.2 million have been damaged. The floods have also damaged 800,000 hectares of crops, 9,160 kilometres of roads and washed away 1,800 schools. Water-borne diseases have broken out on a large scale. The UN System has provided US$ 1.16 million for flood victims. The funds are being used to provide emergency shelter, water purification tablets, food and sanitation. UNDP is supporting the coordination of funds provided by the international community. UNDP is also in the midst of a longer-term programme to strengthen the government's capacity to more effectively manage its recurrent disasters and to integrate disaster reduction strategies into its development programming.

In China, flooding has claimed more than 3,000 lives and affected 223 million people in 19 provinces. With funds from a UN Inter-Agency Appeal launched last week, UNDP will provide materials for construction of emergency shelters and the repair of damaged houses for 650,000 displaced people. Funds will also be used to purchase temporary shelter for 100,000 homeless people along the Yangtze river. UNDP assistance will also be used to immediately rehabilitate health stations and schools in the Jiangxi, Hunan, and Hubei provinces, where more than 3,400 health centres have been damaged or destroyed. The total estimated cost of the UNDP support described in the UN inter-agency appeal is US$ 34.15 million.

Additionally, UNDP is supporting the coordination and management of international relief assistance. UNDP has also contributed funds for training of front-line managers and government officials in charge of relief operations in 13 provinces and municipalities hit by the flooding in southern China.

In the Caribbean, more than 1 million people were affected by hurricane Georges. About 370 people were killed, and more than 100,000 lost their homes. In Haiti, UNDP is supporting the governmental body in charge of disaster management, and providing logistical support. UNDP Resident Representatives in all Caribbean nations hit by hurricane Georges are working with their UN agency and NGO partners to assist in relief and rehabilitation efforts.

In India, floods affected about 7 million hectares of land, including 3.3 million hectares of crops. About 3,000 people were killed and 36 million affected. 852,000 houses were partially or completely damaged, and 74,000 livestock were killed by the floods. However, the Government of India did not appeal for international assistance.

In Sudan, UNDP is providing logistical support and helping coordinate international relief efforts in response to flooding. More than 100,000 people were affected as floods washed away or damaged thousands of buildings and bridges. Vast areas of stagnant water have exposed flood victims to malaria, diarrhea and respiratory infections. UNDP has also commenced a two-year programme to support the government in strengthening its capacity to prepare for and mitigate against future natural disasters.

UNDP was involved from the very beginning in coordinating a response to the tsunami which hit Papua New Guinea on 17 July. Three tsunami waves measuring seven to ten metres hit 50 kilometres of the nation's coastline, killing more than 2,000 people, wiping out all buildings and most vegetation up to one kilometre inland. The waves were caused by an earthquake off the northwest coast of Papua New Guinea, measuring seven on the Richter scale.

For further information, please contact Trygve Olfarnes, tel: (212) 906-6606, fax: (212) 906-5776, e-mail: trygve.olfarnes@undp.org