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Roundup: Disasters affect 50 million Africans

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by Chen Ming

PRETORIA, Aug 8, 2002 (Xinhua via COMTEX) -- More than 50 million Africans have been affected by disasters such as drought, floods fire, war, epidemics, industrial and transport accidents during the last decade, according to a conference held here Thursday.

Some 100 specialists, government officials and army officers explored the ways to prevent and manage various kinds of disasters and called on African governments to pay higher attentions to disasters which may affect 830 million Africans.

In the year 2001 alone, refugees and asylum seekers by country of origin in Africa numbered approximately 3 million people, according to the conference.

Dr. Bob Scholes, who is specialized on water, environment and forestry technology in Pretoria, said that the main natural disasters, Africa-wide, are related to climatic extremes. Droughts are endemic in both southern Africa and the Sahelian region of western and northern Africa.

They are partly linked to the El Nino climate phenomenon, he added, "millions of people are at risk." In some cases drought are exacerbated by human-induced changes in land cover.

"Climate change is projected to increase the risk of drought over much of southern Africa in the 21st century, partly through altering the frequency of El Nino events," he warned at the conference.

Floods can occur in arid areas as well as humid areas. In tropical, near-coastal regions they generally result from cyclones that can drop a year's worth of rainfall in a day. Because coastal zones are flat and densely populated, and cyclones are large in extent, hundreds of people can be affected.

Specialists said that Africa is generally not a windy place, but tropical cyclones can reach destructive force, and severe connective storms sometimes generate tornadoes in the humid interior.

"Dust storms are a feature of the arid parts of West Africa," Scholes warned.

Dr. Louis Du Plessis, director of University of Stellenbosch, said that natural disasters and human-made disasters are often linked. A natural disaster such as drought is often aggravated by certain food policies, or alternatively, a human-made disaster such as armed conflict could again wreak havoc on the environment and contribute to a natural disaster.

It could also be argued that the AIDS virus contains elements of both a natural and a human-made disaster, he added.

He suggested that human-made and natural disasters should be approached from the point of view of causes as well as consequences.

Increasingly, he said, prevention of disasters through so- called "early warning" mechanisms is emphasized, in addition to the management of disasters.

The causes of human-made disasters would include conflict, corruption, ineffective policies and human behaviors such as AIDS, over-population and destruction of the environment.

Specialists held that each of these phenomena, although in turn having causes, has the potential to result in disasters if the consequences are wide-spread and severe. Disasters such as armed conflict also often overspill national boundaries, while others affect the whole continent such as the case with AIDS in Africa.

They also list some specific human-made disasters such as corruption, ineffective policies, violent crime, banditry and terrorism, conflict, poverty, HIV/AIDS disease.

Chris Kaye from UN Office for coordination of humanitarian affairs in Botswana said that lower economic growth and social welfare in turn increase countries' vulnerability to natural disasters.

In effect, he noted, a number of trends such as increasing poverty, population growth and density, and flawed patterns of economic development have led to an increase in the level of vulnerability to natural disasters even in regions with no previous history of disaster occurrence.

As a UN officer, he said, the ultimate aim of the international relief system is to reduce countries' vulnerability to disasters, through the implementation of effective prevention and preparedness measures.

UN entities play a role not only in the emergency and post- emergency phases of natural disasters, but also in the pre- emergency phase, when a country's vulnerability to natural disasters can be lowered, he said.

He said there are two key principles governing the role of the international community in response to disaster.

First, that countries affect by disasters have primary responsibility to provide humanitarian assistance to the affected population.

Second, the international community acts when the scale of the disaster exceeds the response capacity of the country affected and when the country requests for assistance.

In all phases of response to natural disasters, he said, close cooperation should be sought with the national authorities of the country concerned, as well as with other acts. These include non- governmental organization and international humanitarian and development organizations, particularly the International Federation of the Red Cross and the World Bank.

Copyright 2002 XINHUA NEWS AGENCY.

Copyright (c) 2002 Comtex News Network
Received by NewsEdge Insight: 08/08/2002 13:37:40