It is a special honour for me, as a representative of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, to be with you today at this seminar.
Its theme - "Safer Living - Reducing Natural Disasters" - could hardly be more appropriate today, as the world comes to terms with recent disasters including the devastating Indian Ocean tsunami, the drought and famine in the Sahel region, and Hurricane Katrina which caused so much destruction in the United States of America.
National Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies are defined by international law as the auxiliaries to the public authorities in the humanitarian field. As such, they have a special relationship with their governments, and they are generally mandated with important roles and responsibilities in disaster preparedness and response.
For example, tasked with providing emergency shelter and support, the American Red Cross has been meeting the needs of thousands of New Orleans residents in nearly 300 shelters throughout nine states since before Hurricane Katrina made landfall. It is serving 300,000 meals daily, and is working closely with local health authorities and partners to provide health and emotional support services to those evacuated.
The Earthquake and Tsunami disaster which struck off the coast of Indonesia on 26 December 2004 led to the loss of over a quarter of a million lives and devastation in no fewer than 12 countries in South East Asia, South Asia and East Africa. In the Indian Ocean region, the International Federation through its member National Societies has been in the forefront of work to respond to the recent tsunami.
Our first assessments of damage led to our preliminary appeal being launched less than twelve hours after the disaster striking. This was followed by an unprecedented mobilisation of resources at local, regional and international level - including from the Red Cross of China and specifically in Hong Kong - to address the most immediate needs.
While the list of recent disasters is endless - are there are a good many disasters handled by Red Cross and Red Crescent volunteers on a daily basis that never reach the news headlines - the emergency response side of our work is really only half the story.
Earlier this year in Kobe, Japan, the World Conference on Disaster Reduction identified five priorities in its action plan - the Hyogo Framework for Action:
• To ensure that disaster risk reduction is a national and local priority with a strong institutional basis for implementation;
• To identify, assess and monitor disaster risks and enhance early warning;
• To use knowledge, innovation and education to build a culture of safety and resilience at all levels;
• To reduce underlying risk factors;
• To strengthen disaster preparedness for effective response at all levels.
The International Federation believes that disasters are a humanitarian and a development concern. Not only is there a growing body of evidence that countries of 'low human development' are disproportionately affected by the occurrence and impact of disasters but that people's vulnerability to hazards has increased through failed development.
Moreover, there is a growing recognition of the linkage between the intensity of extreme weather events - Katrina for example - with climate change and global warming. Disasters do therefore, threaten to undo development gains and prevent the attainment of the Millennium Development Goals.
One of the main lessons from the recent tragedies is that no state - no matter its level of development - can consider itself immune from such phenomena, and further investments must be made in developing effective disaster preparedness and in reducing disaster risk.
After all, it is not the hazard, such as a typhoon sweeping through the South China Seas, that spells disaster, but rather the combination of the hazard and people's vulnerability.
The International Federation, therefore, while being a major player in local, national and international disaster response also invests considerable resources in effective disaster preparedness.
Preparing for disaster and mitigating their impacts starts not at our Secretariat in Geneva, nor does it start at the headquarters of a Red Cross or Red Crescent national society, but rather it begins at the community and household level - it is here after-all, where the potentially lethal relationship between poverty and the hazard is played out.
Capitalising on our unique auxiliary role, volunteers - and we have 97 million of them - work in their own communities not only to identify vulnerabilities but more importantly to identify what capacities can be built to make safer and more resilient communities.
We have developed methodologies and tools to assist our volunteers to do this - the Vulnerability and Capacity Assessment (or VCA) is a key assessment tool that helps ensure optimum participation and ownership by the community as opposed to an initiative driven from the outside.
Amongst other things, the Vulnerability and Capacity Assessment process enables communities to rank the potential hazards and to map the resources that it may have at its disposal.
National Societies raise funds locally, nationally or through alliances with other Red Cross and Red Crescent national societies - e.g. the partnership between Hong Kong Red Cross and Cambodian Red Cross - whereby resources and this could include a mix of public and private contributions, are harnessed to support disaster preparedness measures.
For the Red Cross Movement, Disaster Preparedness typically includes all measures taken to reduce disaster risk - this includes mitigation activities, as well as community and organisational preparedness.
Community preparedness - and this certainly requires greater investment by governments and donors - includes:
• Participatory hazard, vulnerability and capacity assessment;
• Awareness raising and community education - drawing on local knowledge to better prepare for and to respond to disasters;
• Mitigation activities that reduce the impact of hazards, e.g. rainwater harvesting, protecting wells and latrines and planting mangroves;
• Community Based Early Warning - multi-hazard and accessible at the local level.
Organisational preparedness includes trained response teams (e.g. Satgana teams in Indonesia), contingency planning, stockpiling of relief supplies and effective operational support systems - logistics, IT and telecom.
Recognising that a number of disasters do overwhelm communities as well as Red Cross / Red Crescent local and national offices, the International Federation has established a system of support that we refer as 'local to global'.
At times of disaster, the system enables communities to access support from Red Cross / Red Crescent branch offices and volunteers, branch offices to draw down on national headquarters that in-turn can look to regional and international support. Regional Disaster Response Teams (RDRT) can be supported by internationally mobilised Field Assessment and Coordination Teams (FACT) as well as by Emergency Response Units (ERU).
Ladies and Gentlemen, while I hope I have been able to shed some light on the work of the International Federation in disaster preparedness and in reducing disaster risk, I should mention that we cannot do this alone.
Partners are crucial to the work we do. At the country level, we work alongside NGOs, civil society organisations, the United Nations and the local authorities.
We work with regional bodies such as the Asian Disaster Preparedness Centre (ADPC) in Bangkok and globally we have agreements with, inter alia, WMO, UNDP and WHO.
At our Secretariat in Geneva we host, among others, the ProVention Consortium - a consortium committed to reduce risk and disaster impact and the Sphere Project - that promotes minimum standards in humanitarian response.
In conclusion to my presentation, let me highlight what we at the International Federation see as some of the key issues:
• There is a continued need to put more resources into building community preparedness;
• Local preparedness will always save the majority of lives (it is the neighbour who is first to help);
• People and not technology should be at the centre of Early warning systems;
• Information may be the only type of preparedness that many vulnerable people can afford.
• We need to mainstream disaster risk reduction into development;
• We need to encourage States, donors and others to follow-up their commitments expressed through the Hyogo Framework for Action;
• We need to include adaptation to climate change in our disaster preparedness measures.
Before I take questions, I would like to thank the Hong Kong authorities as well as the Hong Kong Red Cross for organising this valuable forum and for providing the International Federation with an opportunity to present its experiences.