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UN Urges Better Policies to Reduce Impact of Natural Disasters in Africa - 2004-02-03

U.N. officials are calling for African governments, aid groups and local communities to adopt policies that will reduce the impact of natural disasters.

U.N. officials say the frequency and devastating impact of droughts, floods and other natural disasters in Africa is linked to bad policies that can and should be changed.

Their comments follow Monday's launch of a report by the U.N. Development Program, which notes that although disasters like earthquakes and floods are fairly evenly distributed around the world, their impact is much greater in developing countries. The officials who spoke in Nairobi say this is especially true in Africa.

As an example, they referred to massive flooding in western Kenya early last year, in which several thousand families were displaced.

Nairobi-based U.N. official Kenneth Westgate told reporters heavy deforestation of the affected areas had caused water to run off the hills and the rivers to fill up with silt, which made the flooding much worse than it otherwise would have been. "The flooding in western Kenya is not solely because of heavy rain. The flooding in Kenya is because of the failure of development in western Kenya where the basic issues of rural livelihoods have not been addressed. This leads to people being extremely vulnerable," he said.

Mr. Westgate, who specializes in reducing the impact of natural disasters in Africa, said to avoid similar problems in the future, the Kenyan government needs to set up a process to manage the use of land in flood-prone areas. He says local governments and communities also need the political will to block development that destroys forests that are vital to helping control water flows and to prevent people from building houses in areas where floods are likely.

Many African countries, such as Ethiopia, have the opposite problem, droughts, and the U.N. officials say the impact of that, too, can be eased through proper planning.

Officials say the simplest way to avoid widespread starvation often caused by droughts is to improve agriculture production and stockpile food.

The director of the U.N. Development Program's Drylands Development Center, Philip Dobie, said there is a lot of information available on how to improve water supplies and the quality of the soil in dry areas so that farming can be more productive. "In most of Africa, the soil has got to the stage where it barely supports crops. The use of fertilizer in Africa is at an all-time low. Fertilizer is not the only way of improving soil fertility. There's many organic ways of doing it. We can plant what are called cover crops. We can plant leguminous crops, which actually put nutrients into the soil. We actually have this technology," he said.

Mr. Dobie said African governments, aid groups, local communities, and others need to work together to use the appropriate farming technology to increase the food supply. He said they also need to build roads and other transportation facilities to enable the food to get to all parts of a country.

The U.N. disaster relief specialist, Kenneth Westgate, said if African governments do a better job of easing the impact of natural disasters, they could also reduce the number of conflicts on the continent. He said shortages of food, water and other resources often spark wars, causing even more suffering for local people. "You cannot divorce the conflict issue from the natural hazard. Increasingly, we must be looking at a whole package of risk, which includes conflict, includes HIV/AIDS, includes a number of other risks that people face and deal with them together," he said.

Mr. Westgate says it is particularly important to reduce the impact of all those factors on poor Africans. He and the other U.N. officials say poor people have little ability to recover when their homes or livelihoods are destroyed.