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Department of Public Information . News and Media Division . New York

9 August 2007

With tens of millions more people each year suffering from weather-related devastation, development planning must take disaster preparedness into account, Margareta Wahlström, United Nations Deputy Emergency Relief Coordinator said at a Headquarters press conference this afternoon.

“There is a greater occurrence of extreme events,” Ms. Wahlström said as she briefed correspondents on the surge of flooding in South Asia and elsewhere. “The great risk is that large numbers of people are living in the most vulnerable areas in the world,” she added, noting that serious flooding had also affected the Sudan, Colombia and other parts of South America, South-East Asia and East Africa.

She said weather-related events now accounted for about 55-65 per cent of all disasters globally every year. Between 2004 and 2006, the number of emergencies had increased from 200 to 400, with floods increasing from 60 to 100 per year, affecting about 500 million people annually and placing great demands on the international humanitarian system. Despite reduced death tolls as a result of the early warning systems and preparedness efforts promoted by international organizations, floods still took lives and devastated livelihoods, infrastructure, housing and health-care systems.

Unfortunately, flood plains, river deltas and coasts -- many of the areas most vulnerable to flooding and cyclones -- were the same ones that attracted large populations due to their fertility and other advantages, she said, noting that people were loath to leave them for the same reasons. Parts of the Philippines, for instance, had been hit by five cyclones in quick succession, causing landslides and massive displacement. But, with the end of each emergency, people had returned to the devastated areas, both urban and rural.

It was human nature to return to one’s home region, she pointed out. “The challenge to countries, to organizations and to individuals is: Can we change our behaviour so that we reduce the impact of these events, knowing that, over the next 20 years, for sure, we will have more serious weather-related events?” In that effort, it was crucial that Governments and organizations take the International Strategy for Disaster Risk Reduction into account when creating national planning mechanisms, rather than keep rebuilding the same flooded-out bridge.

Responding to questions, the Deputy Emergency Relief Coordinator emphasized that risk-reduction planning was a complex and long-term task that could not be accomplished by merely telling people to “head for the hills”. The difficulties of mass relocation could be seen every time a dam was built; it was hard to get people to evacuate their homes even temporarily, unless they were assured that their property would not be looted. It was important -- for Governments, individuals and communities -- to make disaster mitigation an integral part of their development plans and personal decision-making, given the probabilities of increased devastation due to global warming and other factors.

Asked whether humanitarian organizations should work with military units in responding to emergencies, she said the latter had become important in air-transporting relief supplies and other first-response functions during large scale disasters. Specific recommendations were spelled out in the Oslo Guidelines for Use of Military Assets.

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For information media • not an official record

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