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Better disaster planning essential to saving lives Jan 6th, 2005

by Jim Anderson

The disaster from the earthquake and resulting tsunami in south Asia will send a strong message to world leaders in Kobe, Japan later this month that more must be done to mitigate loss in life and property from such disasters.

“Our thoughts are with the many people who have been deeply affected by this tragedy, and our hope is that our research will serve as a foundation of knowledge that strengthens society's resilience to future hazards,” says Paul Kovacs, Executive Director of Western’s Institute for Catastrophic Loss Reduction (ICLR), Faculty of Engineering.

“I do believe that the remarkable events in south Asia provide important lessons for Canada,” says Kovacs, also an Adjunct Research Professor in Western’s Department of Economics.

“First, severe hazards can strike anytime and anywhere. Every part of Canada, for example, is vulnerable to natural hazards, and the impacts can be very destructive if we are not prepared. Second, investments in disaster safety can significantly reduce the risk of loss. Modern, well-engineered structures across south Asia, for example, held up very well to what was the fourth largest earthquake in the past century and one of the largest tsunamis.”

Kovacs adds: “Third, the best time to prepare for hazards is when all is well, and Canadians should be investing now in hazard safety. We should establish a culture of hazard safety.”

An international conference at Western on water-related disasters, held only two weeks before the south Asian earthquake and tsunami struck on December 26, is sending a strong message that more must be done to mitigate the loss in property and life from such disasters around the world.
Hosted by the ICLR, the workshop December 13-14 attracted nearly 100 participants from Canada, Germany, Venezuela, Japan, Australia, Austria, Nigeria, France, Ghana and Jamaica.

Experts shared knowledge and expertise about international, national and local initiatives aimed at minimizing loss from water-related disasters. They included representatives of UNESCO, the International Strategy for Disaster Reduction (ISDR), UN University and other international and national organizations.

“The goal of the conference was to bring a strong message of consensus to the World Conference on Disaster Reduction in Kobe, Japan,” says Western engineering professor Slobodan Simonovic, Chair in Engineering of the ICLR.

“The connecting thread that came from our discussions was the particular need for changing the way we deal with floods and drought. There is strong consensus that floods and other water-related disasters are going to continue in the future. We have to learn how to live with them and find a better way to manage these disasters and minimize damage and loss of life.”

During the last decade, more than 2,000 water-related disasters occurred globally with a cost of $50 billion to $60 billion a year and the loss of thousands of lives. The south Asian earthquake and tsunami has taken more than 150,000 lives and created billions of dollars in damage.

The conference heard presentations from some of the world’s leading researchers, policy and decision-makers in catastrophic loss reduction.

Gordon McBean, Chair in Policy at the ICLR and a Western geography and political science professor, chaired a session on living with risks, coping capacity and disaster risk reduction.
McBean’s session looked at the intersection of climate policy, risk management and water management issues.

“My argument was to deal with these in a more comprehensive way rather than separately,” says McBean.

“We need to shift our focus to flood recovery – let it happen and spend more to fix it up later as opposed to spending money in advance in an attempt to prevent these disasters from happening.”

Past efforts at flood prevention have been expensive and largely unsuccessful, he observed.

“We have developed a strong consensus and message to the politicians that we need to do better and we can do better in managing water-related disasters,” says Kovacs.

“Appropriate risk-mitigation investment and the redirection of resources into prevention offer significant benefits as well as reduction in loss of life and personal property.”

Some of the messages contained in the draft document for Kobe, Japan include:

-Despite well over a hundred years of massive human interventions and flood control measures, the frequency and severity of water-related disasters are on the rise.

-One of the challenges is risk management. Floods and droughts may vary in severity and measures may be taken to influence their impact, but there is recognition that they will always remain recurring yet incidental phenomena of the hydrological cycle.

-Focus on sustainable reduction of vulnerability through an integrated approach to water-related disasters.

-The role of political will and governance is important in creating a framework that makes sustainable water-related disaster reduction possible.

-Assessment, monitoring and early warning of water-related hazards can contribute to mitigating risks and losses.

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