The Secretary General’s report on Habitat (1) is of great interest for the Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement. It touches two issues which are at the core of what we do and how we work: reducing vulnerabilities, and working in partnerships.
Reducing vulnerabilities, building capacities
One of the Millennium Development Goals is related to reducing by half the proportion of people without sustainable access to safe water and basic sanitation. Our work to reduce vulnerabilities links naturally to this goal. It addresses the wider context of disaster prevention and reducing the risks for disasters, as a condition for reducing vulnerability and fighting poverty.
- Disasters can strike in a short time and affect many people, wiping away the hard won gains of development. People who live in unsafe conditions are the most vulnerable for this. To guarantee adequate responses to disasters, well-functioning structures are needed. Our organization has expertise and extensive experience in disaster preparedness, which is one of our core areas of work. The basis of effective response mechanisms is the mapping of vulnerabilities. We work with local structures, driven by volunteers who live and work in the same local communities they serve. These people provide indispensable insight into local vulnerabilities and capacities. Such a ‘mapping’ was for instance carried out in the Palestine territories (2), resulting in valuable information for our own organization as well as for local governments and other parties involved.
- Even with adequate response mechanisms in place, unless the surrounding risk factors are addressed, people will continue to find themselves vulnerable, and remain trapped in poverty. Safe housing obviously is of prime importance in this respect. On basis of known risk factors, housing should enable its inhabitants to resist recurring disasters, taking on ‘sustainability’ from the outset. When floods struck Viet Nam in 1999, only one out of 2,450 flood- and typhoon resistant homes, built by the Red Cross, succumbed (3).
- Equally important is the provision of adequate infrastructure, such as drainage systems, together with systems that prevent housing in unsafe locations, or that at least protect the vulnerable people. Taking risk reduction in Viet Nam to a higher level, mangrove forests were planted along its coastline. They serve as an effective barrier that decreases the velocity and impact of wind and flood, providing protection of coastal dykes as well as the people living behind them, while at the same time reducing maintenance costs(4).
- One of the underlying conditions for increased vulnerability is poor health. It is in fact a disaster in its own right. Absence of clean drinking water, proper sanitation, as well as access to primary health care and to health information all contribute to increased vulnerability. The impact of limited access to water on health is for instance indicated by the high mortality rate of children in many African cities (5). Thus, people living in poverty and working in an environment that negatively affects their health, have a limited ability to cope with disasters once they are affected by these. Hence the ‘poverty trap’ they are facing. Unless these root causes are addressed, vulnerability and poverty will persist.
The Red Cross and Red Crescent actively supports the Water for African Cities program, within the context of NEPAD, with projects in various urban areas. Another example of our activities in this field is provided by the Red Crescent Society of Tajikistan, setting up several pipelines for water distribution to villages in the south of the country, which are hit hard by the recurring droughts. The important issue of water is also reflected in this year’s National Human Development Report for the Republic of Tajikistan, focusing on improving water management. This report was launched yesterday.
Protecting people from disaster risks is first and foremost a task of every government. As auxiliaries to the governments, the Red Cross / Red Crescent has wide experience in mapping vulnerabilities, addressing the causes and utilizing people’s capacities in relation to urban risks and disasters, as is highlighted above. With our structures we enjoy good working co-operation with governments, but indeed also with NGOs and the various specialized United Nations agencies. This was, inter alia, reflected in last year’s UN resolution on urban search and rescue (6). We therefore welcome the Secretary-General’s recommendation that governments facilitate partnerships among civil society organizations, youth, professionals, local authorities and the business sector. The national Red Cross and Red Crescent societies in over 180 countries, supported by our IFRC structure, are more than willing to continue lending their support.
With this in mind we will also work towards the World Urban Forum in Barcelona in September 2004. Our preparation for this important conference included our participation in the recent International Healthy Cities Conference, held in Belfast in October 2003. There the IFRC’s representative, who was himself drawn from the Northern Ireland Branch of the British Red Cross, worked to bring the Conference’s attention to the importance of partnerships and Red Cross’/Red Crescent’s role in this, in relation to the particular situation in urban environments.
The International Conference of the Red Cross and Red Crescent
The IFRC is following this debate with additional care this year because so many of the issues are relevant to what will be discussed in December in Geneva at the 28th International Conference of the Red Cross and Red Crescent, where your governments will be participating as our equal partners. The theme of the International Conference – Protecting Human Dignity – is to be discussed in Commissions which will address different sectors, but one of particular relevance to the work of UN-Habitat is that which deals with disaster risk reduction.
The anticipated outcome of the International Conference - the adoption of an Agenda for Humanitarian Action - will commit governments, the IFRC and National Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies to jointly protect lives and livelihoods, by fully integrating risk reduction into policy and planning, reducing the risk of disasters on marginalized and vulnerable populations.
Before this Committee today, the IFRC has raised several issues that we consider relevant to processes now under debate in the United Nations General Assembly. These include, briefly,
- The importance of national and local governments accepting the Red Cross or Red Crescent Society in their cities as natural interlocutors on all issues relating to vulnerability;
- The ability of our local structures to play an active role in the design, development and implementation of programs aimed at addressing vulnerability;
- The need for governments, and indeed for the wider donor community, at all levels to be aware of the importance of building an enabling volunteer environment so that the resources of communities are maximized in urban contexts.
We look forward to continue and strengthening our co-operation and partnerships in the field of disaster preparedness and risk reduction and in the field of health, to further work to improve the lives of vulnerable people in urban environments.
1) Implementation of the outcome of the United Nations Conference on Human Settlements (Habitat II) and of the twenty-fifth special session of the General Assembly” (A/58/178)
2) For more information: International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies World Disasters Report 2002 - Focus on reducing risk (IFRC, Geneva, 2002, pp. 128-147)
3) idem (pp. 15)
4) idem (pp. 95)
5) United Nations Center for Human Settlements (Habitat) The State of the World’s Cities 2001 (Nairobi, 2002, pp. 46-47). The correlation of life expectancy with the level of city development is further indicated by e.g. the higher incidence of HIV/AIDS, mental ill-health, violence, accidents and chronic diseases.
‘6) Strengthening the effectiveness and coordination of international urban search and rescue assistance’ (A/57/L.60)