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Local Communities Can Reduce Natural Disaster Risks

A new survey finds the risks from natural disasters can be drastically reduced if local communities are involved in implementing policies enacted at the national level. A consortium of 300 organizations in 90 countries called the Global Network of Civil Society Organizations for Disaster Reduction is launching the study within the context of a major weeklong conference on Disaster Risk Reduction.

The survey is the largest of its kind. More than 7,000 people in 48 countries were interviewed to measure the progress being made on the local level in reducing risks from natural disasters by preparing for them.

Chairman of the Global Network for Disaster Reduction, Marcus Oxley, says the study finds that national progress in enacting disaster reduction policy, for the most part, has not trickled down to the local level.

"So, we are making progress in getting the policies in place. But, the challenge is how do we turn those policies into practice. Just because it is a national level policy, does not mean to say that that is actually going to bring about change at the local level," Oxley said. "And, the evidence that we found was that there is not widespread systemic change happening. What we believe is that the heart of building resilience at the community level actually is an awareness and an understanding of what the risks are."

And the risks are many. United Nations statistics show last year, 236,000 people lost their lives in over 300 disasters, including earthquakes, floods, storms, and landslides.

More than 200 million people were directly affected, and damages exceeded $180 billion. Figures compiled between 1980 and 2007 show nearly 8,400 disasters caused by natural hazards have killed more than two million people.

The global survey finds the countries that have made the most progress in disaster risk reduction are those that have adopted locally based approaches. They include Vietnam, the Philippines, Tajikistan, Thailand and Nicaragua.

India falls in the middle of the rankings. The country is prone to disasters. And, activists say the government is learning from these experiences and is engaging in preparedness and disaster mitigation at the local level.

Executive director of the organization Seeds India, Manu Gupta, recalls the devastating earthquake that took place in the city of Bhuj in the state of Gujarat in 2001.

"So, following the disaster in the usual recovery phase, we found communities to be actually demanding better level of services, better level of preparedness in terms of emergency response, in terms of how legislation works at local levels so on preventing people from making encroachments on public spaces and all. So, the city of Bhuj actually has risen up after the earthquake," Gupta said.

Gupta says it was the people who forced the government to act. As a consequence, he says the city is much safer today than it was in the past.

He notes Bhuj was completely destroyed in the 1956 and 2001 earthquakes. But, he says experts agree the city will not collapse should another disaster strike because of the measures that have been taken.