Botswana + 6 more

Proper preparedness planning needed to reduce impact of disasters

By Tapiwa Gomo, Harare
Thousands of lives and billions of dollars could be saved every year if a fraction of the funds pumped into major headline grabbing disasters were spent on minimising the effects of natural and human-caused hazards such as floods, drought, cyclones and others on vulnerable people, says the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies today (October 13) on the occasion of International Day for Disaster Reduction.

"Disaster preparedness through proper early warning systems and other mitigation measures will certainly pay in saving lives and livelihoods protection. Given the recent environmental trends in Southern Africa, there is an urgent need for different stakeholders and governments of disaster prone countries to invest in disaster risk reduction measures," said Françoise Le Goff, the Federation's new head of regional delegation for southern Africa.

Since the turn of the new millennium, the region has experienced a variety of disasters ranging from the Cyclone Eline in 2000 which left a trail of destruction in Mozambique, Zimbabwe, Botswana Zambia, Malawi and South Africa, and the recent floods in Caprivi Strip in Namibia. The previous two years of drought also saw more than 14 million people in the region qualifying for food aid. Household properties and other important utilities suffered extensive structural damage, whilst families also lost livestock and crops. Apart from the devastating effects of HIV/AIDS, the region also experienced some outbreaks of diseases such as the cholera in Zimbabwe, Swaziland, South Africa, Mozambique, Malawi and Zambia.

The impact of these disasters on vulnerable communities is growing each year as many communities have not yet fully recovered from their effects. But much can be done to reduce the risk of disasters and human suffering. "Many governments of disaster prone countries do not invest in preparedness because some disasters are a once off event, but the effects are long lasting. As Red Cross and Red Crescent societies we believe hazards don't always need to become disasters all the time, we can save lives and resources by investing in disaster reduction measures," said Tamuka Chitemere, the Federation's senior disaster management officer for southern Africa.

The private sector and donor community must play their part by balancing relief for humanitarian crises with increased emphasis on risk reduction to mitigate the effects of disasters. Many donors are interested in responding to disasters, yet it makes economic sense to invest more in disaster reduction. Disaster risk reduction has not attracted sufficient funding or political commitment to have a noticeable impact on the lives of the most vulnerable communities in Southern Africa. From a cost benefit perspective, there is every reason to invest in disaster risk reduction rather than wait to respond to disasters when they occur. A risk reduction programme for floods in Khartoum State, Sudan in 2003 cost USD 70.000, while relief operation for flood disaster in the same region a year before cost USD 1.500.000."While we appreciate the efforts by our partners and donors in providing relief and reconstruction assistance, we are advocating that they dedicate more resources to disaster risk reduction efforts. This can go a long way in reducing unnecessary human suffering and reconstruction costs," Chitemere added.

The experience of the Red Cross Red Crescent in many countries around the world proves that investment in disaster risk reduction works. There is good evidence that risk reduction helps alleviate human suffering. From landslide early warning in Costa Rica and drought reduction in El Salvador, to earthquake mitigation and awareness in Turkey, the Red Cross Red Crescent works with vulnerable communities to reduce the risk of disaster. In Mozambique, a well coordinated community-based early warning system was put in place after experiencing devastating floods in 2000. When another flood occurred a year later, the impact was reduced by far less than the previous year.

The resilience of vulnerable communities enables the Red Cross and Red Crescent societies to promote local empowerment through provision of materials and capacity building. "One of our principles is to promote the local people to avoid perpetuating a culture of dependency, and seek as an alternative, a partnership approach where our intervention empowers people to better prepare for future disasters," stated Françoise Le Goff. "This can only be achieved through collective efforts by all stakeholders, including governments, humanitarian agencies and the private sector."

The Red Cross Red Crescent in southern Africa is also actively engaged in activities that support disaster risk reduction at community level and help to save lives and property. After the floods in Mozambique, the Red Cross society in that country has put in place community-based early warning systems, while those who were in flood-prone areas were relocated to safer areas. Zimbabwe Red Cross society has also installed a radio communication in Muzarabani, a flood prone area, to ensure easy communication of early warning information. A food security pilot project is currently underway in Swaziland which is expected to ensure food security to the most vulnerable groups is an example of disaster mitigation. This is just a starting point and with proper coordination among all the stakeholders, including governments, a lot can be achieved through strategic partnership. As a result of the lessons learnt during the years of floods, drought, tornados, food insecurity and the effects of HIV/AIDS, the Federation in southern Africa hopes to start an intensive and widespread risk reduction programme in Lesotho, Namibia, Mozambique and Zambia in 2005.

The International Day for Risk Disaster Reduction marks the start of a month's advocacy on disaster preparedness and risk reduction by the Federation which rounds off with the launch of its World Disasters Report on October 28. The Federation will hold the launch at Rosebank hotel in Johannesburg, South Africa. Now in its 12th year, the flagship publication of arguably the world's most experienced disaster relief and response organization is the essential reference guide for those directly involved in disaster relief.

The 2004 World Disasters Report focuses on community resilience. In the hours and days after a disaster, most lives are saved by the courage and resourcefulness of friends and neighbours. During slow-onset crises such as drought, many indigenous societies have developed extraordinary capacities to cope and bounce back. It illustrates how humanitarian organisations, which seek to bring aid to disaster-struck communities, can strengthen rather than undermine this local resilience. It is also a useful tool for organizations and institutions campaigning for governments and the donor community to place greater emphasis on disaster risk reduction.

For further information, or to set up interviews please contact:

In Harare:

Tapiwa Gomo, Information Officer
Tel. + 263-4 705166-7 / + 263-91345936

In Geneva

Roy Probert, Press Officer
Tel: + 41 22 730 42 96 / + 41 79 217 33 86

The Federation, the national Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies and the International Committee of the Red Cross together constitute the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement. For further information on Federation activities, please see our web site: