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Settlers in Risky Areas More Vulnerable to Disasters


A United Nations agency says the impact of the catastrophic floods in Pakistan could have been lessened had proper, preventive measures been taken. The U.N. International Strategy For Disaster Reduction says the number of people affected by the flooding is very high because too many people were allowed to live in high-risk areas.

Natural disasters have been increasing in recent months. Pakistan's catastrophic floods have affected 20 million people and killed up to 1,600.

The latest flooding and mudslides in China, fires in Russia and drought in Niger also have killed thousands and affected many millions of people.

The U.N. International Strategy for Disaster Reduction says climate change is aggravating these extreme events, but other factors are making disasters worse.

The Agency's Director, Salvano Briceno, says human settlements are becoming increasingly vulnerable to disasters when people choose or are allowed to live in risky areas, for example, along riverbanks or forest-depleted slopes. He says this is what has happened in Pakistan.

"If people would not have settled in the river banks, definitely the disaster would have been less because that is the main cause of the disaster, is people getting in the way of the river. We know where rivers flow." he said. "... So, it is well known and that requires governments at all levels, local governments and national governments to have proper risk assessments made in order to avoid people settling in those areas. There are other areas that can be used for settling a population."

Briceno notes Pakistan took sensible measures following the 2005 Kashmir-area earthquake. But, he adds it is difficult for the government to implement long-term risk reduction measures because of war and poverty.

He says many countries, such as Cuba and Chile have put early warning systems and other preventive measures in place. These have successfully reduced the number of deaths from natural disasters.

He says China is doing a great deal about disaster risk reduction and has one of the most effective emergency response systems in the world. But, he adds their challenges are huge.

He says Senegal and Burkina Faso are making progress in planting forests to reduce desertification. But, the extreme poverty in Niger, he says makes it difficult for the country to put proper risk reduction measures in place.

Nevertheless, he says, there are steps Niger can take to ameliorate the effects of the country's chronic drought.

"In order to reduce the effects of drought, agricultural policies need to take into account risk reduction and drought-resistant crops, for example, need to be planted, more systematically, more heavily, not just the traditional crops," said Briceno. "There are crops that are very water demanding and that are (planted) just because they are part of the traditional staple of the country, they continue to be utilized when there is a need to shift. In some case, you need to shift the type of crops."

Briceno says disasters are not natural. He says it is human intervention that creates the disaster.

He says when disaster strikes, humanitarian aid is essential. But, when the emergency is over, he says governments must consider investing in long-term measures that can prevent the worst from happening in the future.

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