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UN Report Blames Human Activity for Many Deaths in Natural Disasters - 2002-08-09

A United Nations report says human activity is responsible for much of the loss of life and property damage in natural disasters. The U.N. study says much of the death and destruction in natural disasters could be reduced significantly if governments would enact such measures as early-warning systems and tougher building codes in earthquake or flood-prone areas.

There is no way to stop natural events such as volcanoes, hurricanes, and earthquakes. But, a United Nations report says such natural hazards are turned into disasters by people who are damaging the environment, crowding into cities, and living in areas prone to landslides or earthquakes.

The director of the U.N. Disaster Reduction Office, Salvano Briceno, said existing technologies can be used to reduce risks. "Despite the knowledge and despite the experience, the vulnerabilities are increasing faster. In other words, there are more people going to live in the city and in an unplanned manner," he said. "There is more environmental degradation. The climate change is expected to impact on these phenomena, also of hydro-meteorological origin, and there is, of course, increasing poverty, which is the most important vulnerability."

The United Nations says nearly 4,800 natural disasters in the past ten years have taken more than 880,000 lives. They have affected the homes, health, and livelihoods of close to two-billion people and caused economic losses of around $685 billion.

The report calls Asia the most disaster-prone continent. But, it says Africa suffers most from natural disasters because it is the world's poorest continent.

Mr. Briceno said it is poverty, not the drought in southern Africa, which is threatening to kill millions of people. "Spain is one of the countries most exposed to drought in the world, but nobody dies of drought," he said. "So, it is poverty that kills, not drought. Drought is an onset hazard that is very slow, that is very easy to identify and prevent. There are some very important early-warning systems developed. It is easy to measure the rainfall gradually, little by little, to know when it is going to become drought."

The report cites several cases where good preparation has prevented or reduced damage or loss of life from natural disasters.

One example is Bangladesh, where 139,000 people died in a tropical storm in 1991. But similar storms in Bangladesh now kill far fewer people because officials have developed swift, simple, and low-cost ways of warning those most at risk.

The report says simple steps like risk assessment, warning systems, and public safety programs should be included in all development planning in the future.