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Risk Management Experts: Preparedness Can Save Lives in Natural Disasters

Preparing for natural disasters, such as the tsunami that devastated South Asia, or Hurricane Katrina, which flooded the U.S. city of New Orleans, can help save lives and limit damage. That's the assessment of risk management experts who met in Davos, Switzerland, this past week under the auspices of the United Nations.

The tsunami that hit South Asia in December of 2004 claimed more than 230,000 lives and affected 12 countries. Hurricane Katrina, which devastated New Orleans and much of the U.S. Gulf Coast last year, caused damage estimated by the Re Insurance Company at $45 billion.

The United Nations says more than 3 billion people, or almost half of the world population, live in coastal areas, and could face future threats of hurricanes, storms or floods due to climate changes and sea-level rising.

Director of the U.N. International Strategy for Disaster Reduction Salvano Briceno says vulnerability to natural hazards is rapidly increasing around the world, due to growing urbanization.

"All the so-called mega-cities, which are going to become the majority of the population of the world in less than 20 years, we are seeing that most of the populations settling there are going to very [high] risk areas," he noted. "I must say that most of the mega-cities, if not all, are located in disaster-prone areas, either earthquake, or cyclone, or tropical storms-affected areas."

Most of these cities are in developing countries, but some, such as disaster-prone Tokyo, are in developed countries. Briceno says the risks are the same in all mega-cities, but those located in rich countries have more money to deal with pending disasters.

He says there are many things people and governments can do to reduce losses and save lives. For example, he says, buildings and houses can be constructed to resist earthquakes. He says the impact of Hurricane Katrina would have been lessened had the levees in New Orleans been strengthened. He says early warning systems can alert people to the need to evacuate a dangerous area.

"There is also a very important activity, which is preparing the people to know what to do and to be alert and to understand what needs to be done in those cases when one of these hazards strike," he added. "And each hazard has a different [response] behavior, or needs to have a different behavior. So, it is not the same thing for an earthquake or a cyclone or a fire or any other type of hazard."

In Southeast Asia, a new regional tsunami warning system can detect dangerous conditions in some areas, but will take several more years to complete.

Risk management experts attending the conference agree education is critical to knowing how to reduce losses from natural disasters. They urge countries to make disaster risk education a priority.