More prevention, less cure: are we prepared for the future challenge of natural, environmental and technological disasters? Let me rephrase it. Are we prepared for today's challenge of natural, environmental and technological disasters?
Or are we still, both nationally and internationally, essentially treating these disasters as acts of god or fate, as the myths that we have tried to dispel for decades? Do we, with early warning, contingency planning, disaster preparedness and coordination all in place and getting better, still treat disasters as one off events?
You will claim that we have moved on from that. And yet, we still avoid systematic reduction of risks, we build on outdated or fragmented knowledge, isolate vulnerability data from hazard data, lack overview and comprehensive strategies, keep disaster discourse and action well separated from conflict and development discourse and action, and we do craft and implement our own human-made, "natural" disasters.
Of course a lot has happened during the last few decades. But progress is slow, unsystematic, fragmented, continuously and increasingly putting people in harm's way, creating unnecessary hardship, suffering and death for millions and millions of people. And the poorest are hardest hit.
Over the last ten years, the International Federation's World Disasters Report has played an important role in increasing awareness about the effects of disasters as well as identifying trends. A comparison of the 70s and the 90s through World Disasters Report shows that deaths from natural disasters fell from 2 million to under 800 000 people, but the numbers of people affected tripled to 2 billion, and economic losses multiplied five times, to $629 billion in the 1990s. The result: disasters have continued to devastate the development of poorer countries.
One of last year's most deadly disasters happened in a developed region in the world. During the summer, in particular August 2003, around 23,000 people died during a heat wave in Europe, almost as many as in the Bam earthquake (26,271 corrected number at the end of March (BBC, 29 March). Scientists were taken by surprise by the extremity of the heat wave. According to Nature (12 January 2004) this heat wave had a statistical chance of happening once every 46,000 years, or as one of the scientists said: statistically this summer could not happen.
According to scientists the cause can only be explained by climate change. But to public health staff the hazard cause of the heat wave was less relevant. For them the disaster related more to vulnerability, to a breakdown in social networks, political failure to support an aging population and overwhelmed and rundown public health services. The heat wave is an example of how hazards thrive on vulnerability.
The International Federation World Disasters Report 2002 on Risk reduction calculated that the number of weather-related disasters and people affected by them had doubled in as little as a five-year period around the end of last century. Though the timeline of this record is too short to draw firm conclusions on the relation between climate change and extreme weather events and disasters, there is consensus among meteorologists that the trend fits expected impacts of climate change (source WMO), and that the trend will continue.
Combined with the figures for vulnerability, both as a consequence of a disaster and as a trigger of it, those trends are a devastating threat to the Millennium Development Goals.
We tend to focus on natural disasters (also those that are largely unnatural), and we lack a good word for those, which we humans trigger. Technological disasters such as effects of chemical exposure, poisonous transports, road accidents, remnants of war, future Chernobyls and Bhopals, are still largely un-researched and hidden areas.
Rapid, unplanned urbanization is another trend with increasing dangers building up as people migrate to mega-cities and towns, be it refugees, displaced or part of a rural exodus, losing its social capital in the transition. The housing awaiting most is unsafe and unhealthy, on steep slopes, riverbanks, or close to a polluting main road and without social services. And still it may be a necessary move from a depleted livelihood in a region in transition that favours non-sustainable monoculture to be part of a globalized market.
Current trends include rapid population growth, an aging population, changing disease patterns such as HIV/AIDS, TB, logging companies all over the world cutting down the forests at an unprecedented rate, despite all the consumer actions and international agreements like the biodiversity convention.
What does all this add up to? One trend is evident. It is about a compounding of factors, leading to exponential growth of danger. We still need to factor in climate change as well, despite the largely unknown impacts at this stage. And governance, good or bad, political will or lack of it included.
There is a wide gap between humanitarian action in conflict and in disasters. Natural disasters have in the past been seen as simple and straightforward, moving relief items from a to b. The discourse is different, the parameters are different, often for good reasons. And when we use the same language, like "a deteriorating climate", "human insecurity" and "protection", we mean different things. Yet the underlying issues are related and need to be seen and worked on in a more interlinked way than today.
The language - we talk about complex emergencies in relation to armed conflict. What if complex emergency is a word, which should be used also for natural disasters, indicating the compounding of different causes, different dynamic pressures and hazards? The concept of "natural disasters" is mostly misleading and should be replaced - but by what? "Unnatural disasters" is a good provocative word, but does not make sense to the general public.
There is an increasing convergence of environment, development and humanitarian concerns. We cannot afford to work separately anymore. Vulnerability creates disasters, unemployment creates unrest and violence which can create war. War decreases government possibilities to protect its own population, increasing unsafety and disaster threat. It is a vicious cycle.
Implications for the coordination debate
Look at it from an International Federation perspective. We are often perceived as a relief organization, and we have acquired substantial experience in disasters since 1919. We play a strong role in disaster preparedness and response, and are probably better equipped in disaster management and coordination than ever before. Modern Federation assessment, management and coordination tools are increasingly compatible with UN tools. With OCHA we co-chair the UN IASC task force on natural disasters to further improve coordination.
The early stages of the Bam operation gave new models for cooperation with UN, INGOs, government and the private sector, not least including the strong national role of the Iranian Red Crescent.
But whilst we spend most funds on relief, the Federation spends most of the time and effort on capacity building, long-term health programs, disaster preparedness, risk reduction and recovery in 181 National Societies. We have long worked on preparedness and response, or shall I say compensatory disaster risk management.
Based on that core work - and seeing with their own eyes what triggers disasters - National Societies increasingly turn to a complementary role in risk reduction, prospective disaster risk management, especially community awareness, education, small-scale mitigation action and advocacy.
Over the last at least three decades the messages from our National Societies have come back loud and clear and more and more strongly. "We are working on disaster response, and that is important. And don't forget that we are also involved in so many small-scale disasters, which you never even hear about. But there is more to it. Much can be done beforehand to avoid unnecessary disaster impact, to mitigate on a small scale, to reduce risks, to advocate, and raise awareness. We National Societies need a broader approach for more impact. We must be more proactive".
As a consequence the Federation is adapting policies, guidelines, tools and training to a new environment, learning from experience by staff and volunteers in different parts of the world. This led to a disaster risk reduction agenda as one main Federation item on the 2003 Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement International Conference. This conference is held every fourth year with states, signatory to the Geneva Convention, participating.
The outcome was an Agenda for Humanitarian Action, a strong plea to host and donor governments as well as to international organizations and civil society to be more forceful and proactive in disaster risk management, in policy reform as well as in legislation, implementation of measures in inclusive partnerships across the lines, including civil society.
Whereas coordination within the humanitarian sector is becoming increasingly effective, there are no self-evident coordination mechanisms and partners for a broader approach, which focuses on risk. This is especially clear on a regional and national level.
But we are slowly finding our way. The Federation is one of the first international non-environmental organizations, which is taking the risks associated with climate change very seriously. Together with the Netherlands Red Cross we have set up a centre, specialized in these issues. We have invested a lot in establishing contacts with climate scientists all over the world, to understand the problem, its meaning for vulnerable people and in relation to disaster management.
We are developing programs that seek the synergy between the science and humanitarian communities, with interesting results at all levels, from local community up to international level and back again.
Another initiative: We have agreed to host and manage the ProVention Consortium together with the World Bank for four years. There were some comments initially on the incompatibility of the two managing partners, the World Bank and the Federation. But we found a relation - in the recovery and the post-conflict phase.
Alongside the Sphere project, the Reach-Out Refugee protection initiative and the Global Road Safety project ProVention is now hosted by the Federation in Geneva. It is a crucial vehicle for us in disaster risk management for global policy reform, for encouraging partnerships and sharing best practice, and for coordination. In the consortium we find opportunities for information sharing and increased learning together.
As an action-based organization the Federation uses outcome from research, which we could never carry out ourselves, we become part of cutting edge initiatives and find links to new partners to be more coherent, less fragmented, to minimize overlaps, and to strengthen joint advocacy. And as a seasoned actor in community disaster risk management, the Federation contributes to sharing knowledge in that field.
ISDR provides another vehicle for coordination especially with the UN system, in the way that ProVention is a vehicle with the international financial institutions, the private sector and some more specific stakeholders.
We have recently started discussions on an operational level with UNDP to work more closely. UNDP supports states in disaster risk management, Red Cross and Red Crescent National Societies coordinate disaster planning with governments and are part of civil society mobilization and community activities. There are examples from Europe, where UNDP has been able to build on RCRC structures in support of developing state disaster management structure, for instance in Albania.
The empowerment of at risk communities is one of our comparative advantages. Community Risk, Vulnerability and Capacity assessments act as eye-openers for those involved, and ideally both government, NGOs, UN, and Red Cross Red Crescent participate in assessment and analysis. After that the partnerships come more natural, based on common analysis and understanding.
This Wilton Park initiative is important in bringing together conflict and disaster actors. We must focus on human insecurity, whatever the basis. The humanitarian malaise will be discussed during these days. But lack of risk reduction is also a malaise and now is the time to look at that also in countries like Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan, Liberia.
My one proposal to increase humanitarian, development and environment cooperation at this stage would be that donor governments allocate a certain percentage of all disaster and conflict recovery and reconstruction funds to risk reduction measures This to invite government offices to create integrated approaches and collaboration between themselves, and not less for collaboration and coordination among post-disaster recovery actors. All perspectives can meet here.
One thing is for sure. To answer the question of more prevention, less cure: are we prepared for the future challenge of natural, environmental and technological disasters? I don't think we are even today. A key solution is better coordination between previously separate groups. I have given a few examples of how we need to mix with "the wrong people" so to say, those who are different, who have another culture, development, conflict disaster, not haphazardly, but based on careful analysis of specific needs and realities.
Solutions sometimes lie in axis between the different disciplines and groups, and in joint or coordinated work!