Strengthening of the coordination of humanitarian and disaster relief assistance of the United Nations, including special economic assistance: strengthening of the coordination of emergency humanitarian assistance of the United Nations (A/59/374)

from UN General Assembly
Published on 21 Sep 2004

Fifty-ninth session
Agenda Item 39 (a)

International cooperation on humanitarian assistance in the field of natural disasters, from relief to development
Report of the Secretary-General*


The present report has been prepared pursuant to General Assembly resolution 58/25, in which the Assembly requested a report on the progress made in improving international response to natural disasters. The report also updates the activities of the International Search and Rescue Advisory Group, in response to General Assembly resolution 57/150 and other subsequent Assembly decisions on this subject.

The report highlights some of the key activities undertaken to respond to natural disasters during the reporting period with particular emphasis on disaster response, recovery and transition efforts and global initiatives to reduce risk.

I. Introduction

1. The present report has been prepared pursuant to General Assembly resolution 58/25, in which the General Assembly requested a report on progress made on improving international response to natural disasters.

2. The report also includes an update of the activities of the International Search and Rescue Advisory Group (INSARAG), in response to General Assembly resolution 57/150.

3. A number of issues relevant to the report are also addressed in the reports of the Secretary-General on strengthening the coordination of emergency humanitarian assistance of the United Nations (A/59/93-E/2004/74) and on the implementation of the international strategy for disaster reduction (A/59/228).

II. The year in review

4. The large number and scale of natural disasters are having an increasing human and financial impact, resulting in massive loss of life and property worldwide. It is often those communities most prone to natural hazards that are least able to cope with their effects, resulting in long-term negative social, economic and environmental consequences. In 2003 and 2004, it is estimated that natural disasters claimed the lives of 75,000 people, affected more than 284 million people and caused more than $65 billion worth of material damage. Overall trends indicate that the frequency of natural disasters and the number of people affected have increased sharply during the past 30 years, but that interventions, such as early warning and food aid, have maintained the death toll at a relatively steady level.

5. On 26 December 2003, a devastating earthquake struck the city of Bam in the Islamic Republic of Iran, destroying 85 per cent of the city, killing more than 26,000 people and injuring more than 30,000 others. Two months later, on 24 February 2004, an earthquake occurred close to the port city Al Hoceima, Morocco, killing more than 600, injuring 900 and displacing 15,000 people.

6. Intense monsoons in July 2004 led to serious flooding in South Asia, killing more than 2,000 people, affecting more than 50 million people and causing severe damage to public infrastructure, including roads and railways. South-East Nepal was the hardest hit, with an estimated 130,000 people affected and roughly 38,000 families displaced. In Bangladesh, more than 33 million people have been affected and about 5 million people are in urgent need of food, as well as other relief items. Flooding in the Dominican Republic and Haiti in November 2003 and May 2004 killed more than 1,059 people and affected 6,226 families. Severe flooding in Argentina and the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia caused infrastructural damage to roads and bridges, as well as to agricultural facilities. In Peru, severe cold and snowstorms in July 2004 killed 90 and affected 337,467 people. A heat wave in Europe in the summer of 2003 reportedly led to more than 20,000 deaths. To these examples can be added hundreds of smaller-scale disasters, many of which go unreported and therefore are not included in global disaster statistics.

7. Erratic and inadequate rainfall in the Horn of Africa perpetuates drought conditions in the region. Although international efforts to address and fund structural obstacles to food security averted a major famine from the drought that began in 2002, food shortages continue to threaten millions with hunger. Malnutrition and extreme poverty have caused mass population movements in search of safer and more fertile ground. The United Nations 2004 Humanitarian Appeal estimates that almost 2 million people in Eritrea, 5 million people in Ethiopia and 1.3 million people in Somalia are in need of immediate emergency aid. In Kenya, the recent combination of endemic drought, premature ending of the long rains and blight on existing grain stores has put approximately 2.3 million people in immediate need of food assistance.

8. Although the situation in Southern Africa has improved considerably since the devastating drought and food crisis of 2002-2003, the situation remains precarious in many parts of the region due to the lethal mix of erratic weather patterns, high HIV/AIDS prevalence rates, restrictive land reform policies and weak governance. Poor harvests -- notably in Lesotho, southern Malawi and Swaziland -- combined with depleted productive capacity continue to erode previous nutritional gains and undermine prospects of sustainable livelihoods for millions of vulnerable people. Careful monitoring of food security in the region is critical, in the light of increasingly restrictive government policies and practices that are limiting humanitarian food aid, access to vulnerable populations and the collection of credible information on needs, vulnerabilities and capacities.

9. West Africa is currently facing a worsening locust crisis, which is causing significant crop damage. The worst affected country is currently Mauritania, while the situation is also deteriorating in Mali and the Niger. Locust swarms have also been reported in Burkina Faso, Cape Verde, Chad and Senegal. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) has warned that the locust situation could further deteriorate in the next few weeks, with new swarms starting to form in September, seriously threatening crops that will be ready for harvest.

10. Epidemics and newly-emerging infections continue to threaten the health of people around the world. Globalization, climate change, the growth of mega-cities and an explosive increase in international travel are increasing the potential for rapid spread of infection. Deforestation and urban sprawl bring humans and animals in closer contact and allow new epidemics to emerge. Many of these epidemics, such as cholera and meningitis, recurrently challenge health systems in countries with limited resources, which are already strained by the HIV/AIDS epidemic. Other epidemics, such as influenza and dengue, have an increasing potential to create new pandemics. The return of yellow fever threatens large cities in the developing world, while the emergence and rapid spread of drug-resistant tuberculosis and malaria increase treatment costs dramatically. Travel, trade and tourism are all affected by emerging and epidemic disease threats.

11. As such events attest, the growing number of hazards and their increasingly damaging effects on vulnerable populations are cause for great global concern. A number of trends suggest that the situation is likely to get worse. Short-sighted policies and unsustainable development practices, such as uncontrolled urbanization and deforestation, continue, and the Earth's climate is very likely to change, owing to increases in concentration of atmospheric greenhouse gases caused mostly by burning fossil fuels. Authoritative predictions point to rising temperatures and sea levels and to greater intensity and incidence of extreme weather events, such as storms, floods, droughts and heat waves. Adverse socio-economic impacts are likely to result, including changes in agricultural production patterns that, in turn, will have implications for livelihoods and migration patterns. Growing competition for the exploitation and the control of natural resources is often a factor in the outbreak or continuation of armed conflict.

12. Most worrying is the fact that developing countries are disproportionately affected. Natural hazards themselves -- earthquakes, volcanoes, hurricanes and cyclones -- do not necessarily lead to disasters themselves. Rather, hazards become disasters when they impact the people and the assets that are susceptible to their destructive effects. This is often due to unhelpful international and local policies and practices, such as inappropriate land use and poor building construction, which exacerbate vulnerability and erosion of the natural resource base. A United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) report, issued in 2004, Reducing Disaster Risk: A Challenge for Development, concluded that natural hazards of similar intensities produce more devastation in lower income countries. For example, countries classified as having low human development account for more than 53 per cent of total recorded deaths, despite representing only 11 per cent of the world's hazard-exposed populations. In other words, it is the poor and vulnerable who are most prone to environmental degradation and natural hazards, and who are likely to suffer the consequences, through death and displacement and the systematic loss of development gains. Mitigating the adverse effects of disasters is therefore inextricably linked to promoting sustainable development and achieving the Millennium Development Goals.

13. What is therefore required to both improve humanitarian assistance to disasters and accelerate progress towards achieving the Millennium Development Goals is a comprehensive two-pronged approach that puts energy and resources into preparedness for catastrophic events, while simultaneously investing in mitigation and development processes that aim to reduce risk. Building the capacity of Member States and regional organizations in disaster management and supporting national and regional risk reduction activities are also critical to ensuring that such approaches endure.

* The report was delayed for technical reasons.

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