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Mar 17th, 2005
Disaster planning could save lives  

By Slobodan Simonovic

As we have seen from the Asian tsunami, disasters can pose so many challenges to humanity.

Around the world, the loss of life and economic well-being due to disasters are on the rise with grave consequences for the survival, dignity, and livelihood of individuals, in particular for the poor and for the impact on hard-won development gains.

Increasingly, there is recognition that more must be done to reduce disaster risks.

Measures must be integrated into policies, plans and programs for sustainable development and poverty reduction, and supported through improved cooperation at all levels.

In January, barely two weeks after the tsunami, 4,500 delegates from 170 governments and NGOs along with more than 40 ministers attended the United Nations World Conference on Disaster Reduction in Kobe, Japan.

In the words of UN Secretary General Kofi Annan, “Rarely has tragedy made a conference so topical and timely”.

The conference generated four important documents:
§ Review of the Yokohama Strategy and Plan of Action for a Safer World
§ A program outcome document: “Building the resilience of nations and communities to disasters: Hyogo Framework for action 2005–2015”
§ Hyogo Declaration
§ A common statement on the Indian Ocean Disaster: Risk Reduction for a Safer Future.

One report indicated the year 2004 was the second costliest disaster year on record - $140 billion in economic losses. It was also the costliest natural catastrophe year ever for the insurance industry - $40 billion in insured losses.

Economic losses include $73 billion in Asia (mainly earthquake) and $63 billion in North and South America. Losses were dominated by weather-related disasters and there are warnings that climate change will develop into a serious danger unless radical measures are taken soon.

Major disasters in 2004 include an earthquake in Japan ($10 billion in losses), tsunami in the Indian Ocean, four hurricanes that hit Florida; and extreme floods that killed more than 2,000 people in the Caribbean and more than 2,500 in South Asia.

Important messages should be taken from that conference by the nations of the world.
§ Ensure disaster risk reduction is a national and local priority with a strong institutional basis for implementation
§ Identify, assess and monitor risks and enhance early warning
§ Use knowledge, innovation and education to build a culture of safety and resilience at all levels
§ Reduce the underlying risk factors
§ Strengthen preparedness for effective response.

In short, nations must foster a culture of disaster prevention and resiliency.

The Western-based Institute for Catastrophic Loss Reduction took an active role in the conference because we believe developing strategies at this level are critical to fostering a culture of disaster prevention and resiliency.

Professor Gordon McBean, Chair in Policy, and I provided active contribution to a wide range of themes involving subjects such as risk assessment, the need for action and climate change in urban environments.

Some action is being taken. The International Flood Initiative that I and others worked on, including a key meeting here at Western last fall, was formally launched in Kobe.

The new inter-agency initiative aims to minimize loss of life and reduce damage caused by floods. It would integrate the scientific, operational, educational and public awareness aspects of flood management, including the social response and communication dimensions of flooding and related disaster preparedness.

And we have a goal worth aiming for: to cut in half by 2015 the flood-related loss of life.

Slobodan Simonovic is Chair in Engineering, Institute for Catastrophic Loss Reduction and Professor, Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering at the University of Western Ontario.

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