Colombia + 3 more

Natural Disasters: Reducing the Impact - Exhibit Opens at UN Session on Humanitarian Affairs

New York, July 19, 2000 - Countries can limit the extent to which natural hazards lead to disasters, as well as the impact of the disaster itself, according to disaster experts at the opening of an exhibit linked to the humanitarian affairs session at the United Nations' Economic and Social Council meeting here today.
The exhibit, organized by the Permanent Mission of Colombia together with the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO), regional office of the World Health Organization, shows how Latin American and Caribbean countries have increased their preparedness for disasters, and their successes in disaster relief as well as mitigation, preparation, and response. Its opening is July 19 at 9:15 a.m. in the first basement of the Secretariat Building, near the Viennese Café.

Typically, according to PAHO disaster experts, when a major disaster strikes, national and international solidarity is mobilized and within hours huge amounts of supplies begin to arrive. Many of these supplies have not been requested and are not necessarily useful or of first necessity to cover the needs resulting from the emergency. On the contrary, they complicate matters for the affected country, taking up time and staff for reception, storage, classification, control and distribution of these supplies.

The exhibit shows how a PAHO-developed supply management system, SUMA, helps manage all those supplies through a simple system that classifies and sorts them from the point of entry through transportation to distribution, helping local authorities cope. SUMA has been used in numerous disaster relief operations in the Americas, as well as in Rwanda, Bangladesh, the Philippines, and East Timor.

Using the advances pioneered in the Americas, international goodwill can be channeled more effectively instead of contributing to confusion because it was not solicited and did not respond to real needs, disaster experts say. The SUMA supply management system is a useful way to bring some order to the great quantity of supplies when they arrive and provide national governments with the kind of information that could ensure transparency in the management of donations.

The Americas have also pioneered the use of the Internet in disaster management, providing credible sources of information during the immediate post disaster phase and helping affected countries manage information.

Local capacity to respond to disasters and well-coordinated, appropriate international response are both critical to help the populations affected by natural disasters, according to Dr. Claude de Ville, PAHO=B4s emergency preparedness chief. Disaster coordination, he said, entails good information and intelligence, good governance and accountability, and professional expertise at the site of a disaster. A public education campaign is needed on how to provide effective aid to disaster victims, a unified source of information, and coordinated technical support to affected countries. Dr. De Ville also cites traps that should be avoided in disasters, such as "time consuming crisis meetings without operational impact, unproductive duplication or competition, inappropriate emphasis on visibility rather than excellence and on convenience rather than effectiveness."

The poor are often the most severely affected by disasters, and special efforts are needed to show them simple ways to reduce risks from natural disasters. Likewise, donors often ship inappropriate or unneeded supplies after a disaster, creating a second disaster as the affected country is overwhelmed by an influx of goods. Another key message is that long-term support for affected counties is very necessary after the disasters fade from the television screens.

Reliable information and quick mobilization are crucial in responding to disasters. Preparing health facilities such as hospitals and health centers to withstand earthquakes and other disasters is vital so they can continue to function when disasters strike.

PAHO established its emergency preparedness and disaster relief coordination program in 1976, in response to requests from the countries of Latin America and the Caribbean. Since its creation, it has worked with Ministries of Health to strengthen disaster preparedness, disaster mitigation, and support in disaster response. One of the cornerstones of PAHO's efforts has been the production and publication of technical information and disaster training materials such as books, slides, and videos, and the dissemination and distribution of this information to all the countries of the Americas at the lowest possible cost.

PAHO recently issued the first Virtual Disaster Library on CD containing more than 250 complete technical publications on disasters, including preparedness, mitigation and response. The CD, which is also available on PAHO's Internet site, is a technical information resource for all individuals and organizations related to disaster preparedness, and was distributed to hundreds of libraries and organizations, especially in Latin America and the Caribbean, so that individuals with no access or limited access to the Internet can obtain information. It is also available on PAHO's Internet site and other servers to ensure wide circulation.

The Pan American Health Organization, founded in 1902, works with all the countries of the Americas to improve the health and raise the living standards of their peoples. It serves as the Regional Office of the World Health Organization, and has offices in 27 countries in Latin America and the Caribbean as well as nine scientific and technical centers apart from its headquarters in Washington, D.C.

For more information call Daniel Epstein Tel (202) 974-3459, Fax (202) 974-3143, PAHO Office of Public Information, 525 Twenty-Third Street, N.W. Washington, DC 20037, USA, e-mail: epsteind@paho.org - http://www.paho.org