It goes without saying that the work of the Commission on Sustainable Development is central to the work of the international community in support of the achievement of the UN Millennium Declaration and the associated Development Goals.
This is true of all aspects of the Commission's agenda, but nowhere is it clearer than in the items which relate to natural disaster and the need for the water and sanitation bases of life itself.
The International Federation of Red Cross and Red Cross Societies has touched on this core point in many of its presentations to multilateral and other fora.
It was also a key issue in our work at the important Mauritius International Meeting on Small Island Developing States in January 2005.
It was further developed within our community preparedness priorities at the World Conference on Disaster Reduction in Kobe, Hyogo in the same month, and will be refined further when the Economic and Social Council meets in New York in July.
At this session of the Commission, we will concentrate on prevention and response elements, taking water and sanitation actions as the basic case examples for our message.
For those that survive natural disasters, the most common threat to their continued survival is the need to provide or re-establish access to the most basic of needs.
Disasters frequently damage or even destroy basic infrastructure such as water supplies, sewerage systems, waste collection systems, homes and institutions. Life is no longer normal for those affected, and in addition the combination of loss of family and friends, loss of homes and livelihood causes extreme trauma.
Our experience, and that of others, shows that the access to safe water, sanitation and shelter are three of the key requirements post-disaster. This is not only to ensure health and wellbeing, but also to restore some degree of normalcy and dignity to the survivors. It also mitigates post-disaster physical and psychological suffering.
Lack of water primarily for drinking and cooking can cause immediate stress, and may lead to social unrest if such access is denied. If water is available it must be safe, if polluted or contaminated it can soon lead to disease, epidemic & death. Water is also needed for bathing and maintaining hygiene. It is also crucial for health centres, feeding centres, schools and other institutions.
Sanitation facilities, primarily for safe disposal of excreta and other waste, are essential for the reduction of the risk of disease and disease vectors. Sanitation facilities must be easy to access, have adequate security and privacy. There must be strong public awareness of their availability.
Shelter from the elements by provision of simple and adequate buildings can also provide security and privacy. Shelter also facilitates the reuniting of families and friends, and is important to the restoration of a degree of normalcy to the lives of the people themselves. It is one of the most important psychological factors after a disaster.
Therefore, the conclusion is that without adequate water, sanitation and shelter, disaster affected populations are prone to physical and psychological stress, disease and death. Prompt and adequate measures must be taken immediately post-disaster to provide these most basic needs.
(b) Response to Natural Disasters:
Post disaster morbidity and mortality, if to be contained at all, requires prompt and appropriate response from every avenue to provide or restore basic infrastructure. This response needs to come from the population itself, the population surrounding the affected area, Government and local or international civil society, UN and other international humanitarian bodies, military authorities and the private sector.
There must be an integrated effort, built around a strategically set series of partnerships in recognition of the size and complexity of the challenge. There are several important groupings which need to be taken into account:
Response Capacity within the community:
Awareness of the risks in any particular area is the first step to mobilising potential at community level. Red Cross & Red Crescent Societies with support from their International Federation are increasingly using awareness raising as a means to prepare communities better.
An increasingly used set of tools for this are Vulnerability and Capacity Assessments (VCA). VCA is a participatory means of assisting communities to identify risks and prepare response mechanisms. A key factor is the role of the Red Cross or Red Crescent volunteers at this level who are often members of the communities at risk.
As part of normal Red Cross and Red Crescent activities at the community level, training is given to volunteers in VCA and risk mapping and training in skills such as water disinfection, latrine construction, first aid, shelter construction. There is also other specific training, dependent on the needs of the community in question.
An essential part of VCA and related training is that it is provided within the requirements of the Red Cross Red Crescent fundamental principles - without discrimination of any kind.
We have made it clear in other UN debates, for example in the Commission on Human Rights, that our work against discrimination has as one of its key objectives effective work for sustainable development and in support of disaster preparedness, prevention and response.
Response Capacity at Local/National Level:
Leading from the above first level of engagement, Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies are in a position, as auxiliaries to the public authorities in the humanitarian field, to engage with the authorities at all levels to ensure that community preparedness is matched by Government potential to support them, particularly in coordination of disaster response and in providing resources appropriate to the disaster.
This is enhanced where National Red Cross & Red Crescent Societies are part of national disaster management and coordination bodies. Governments have several times agreed that these bodies should include their National Society. There is now strong evidence to show that this involvement makes a significant difference for the better when disasters strike, and it is our hope that bodies like this Commission will add their voice to the call for the redoubling of effort in this direction.
Response capacity at Regional/International Level:
The International Federation recognises that awareness and skills training conducted at the community and local/National levels needs to be mirrored at regional level to be fully effective. We operate at that level through the formation of Regional Disaster Response Teams (RDRT). These bring together Red Cross and Red Crescent staff and volunteers and Federation staff and Delegates, and provide a capacity through joint training and program coherence to respond to larger and more complex disasters.
Our capacity also extends to coordination at a global level when necessary, bringing together the combined capacities, human, material and financial from the 181 Red Cross and Red Crescent National Societies, under the International Federation's umbrella, to respond effectively. It is this capacity which is receiving so much international attention in the current response to the Asian earthquake and tsunami disaster.
It is also this capacity which makes our ten-year Global Water and Sanitation Initiative (GWSI) such an important contribution to future work in this area and in support of the Millennium Development Goals. Apart from its contribution the building of local coping capacity, it will help communities establish much more effective coping mechanisms to deal with the acute water and sanitation challenges which so often follow natural disasters.
At all levels, we stress the importance of work on water and sanitation priorities. This is why our immediate response capacity, delivered through trained teams of Red Cross and Red Crescent specialists within special-purpose Emergency Response Units include groups with special expertise in water and sanitation. The tsunami disaster was followed by the immediate despatch of 7 Water and Sanitation ERUs, providing safe water to over 100,000 people.
(c) Prevention of Natural Disasters:
As with response above, prevention measures need to be tackled at three levels:
Prevention within the community:
Awareness of the risks is the first step to prevention. The VCA approach is an opportunity to introduce measures that can be taken by the community and which are relevant to that community's own situation and risk. Bangladesh is a good example of where this has worked well, through building embankments to redirect flooding, protection of the environment to reduce silting, building houses on higher elevations, and more.
This effort, to be successful, can require the active involvement of large numbers of community volunteers. Our Red Cross Red Crescent Movement is famous for its volunteer base, and we are working hard in other fora, including the Commission on Social Development, to ensure that there is full recognition of its value and no obstacles to its growth and strength.
Prevention at Local/National Level:
Leading from the above first level of engagement, Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies are able, as auxiliaries to the public authorities in the humanitarian field, to engage with local and national authorities to plan prevention and risk reduction initiatives.
This works best when it is initiated through national disaster management bodies, for it leads to initiatives planned across the whole geography of regions likely to be affected by disasters. It brings national resources into disaster preparedness work coherently, and ensures that national legislation and executive action supports the needs of the local communities.
At community and national levels, there is a continuing need for education and public awareness to strengthen understandings of the importance of water and sanitation. At the same time, governments and concerned international organisations should build their own programs to ensure that water and sanitation is planned and provided as a fundamental human requirement.
Prevention at Regional/International Levels:
Good national planning and preparation is of great benefit to effective international action. It benefits other organisations - the relationship of the World Food Programme to the Bangladesh Red Crescent Society is a case in point - but it also benefits international coordination when there is a national plan in place which can be activated as soon as disaster strikes.
Action in Iran after the Bam earthquake was swift and effective, in large part because of the existence of a strong community-involved plan in Iran which involved the Red Crescent Society and its community volunteers.
The inexorable conclusion from this short analysis is that measures to address the impact of natural disasters, through prevention and response, must be applied at all levels if they are to be successful. They must also be applied with the involvement and support of the local communities themselves.
The involvement of communities will highlight the needs which the people themselves hold at the top of their own priority lists - this ordinarily and naturally means safe water and sanitation.
The International Federation will continue to emphasise this point at all levels in these debates, for it is the essential underpinning for any work towards the safety, stability, sustainable development and prosperity of communities and nations.