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UN: Better Development Decisions Could Save Lives in Natural Disasters - 2004-02-02


A new U.N. report says millions of lives could be saved in coming decades if developing countries make better preparations to reduce the danger to their people from natural disasters. The United Nations Development Fund says much of the death and destruction caused by natural disasters in poor countries could be averted by better planning.

The report by the U.N. Development Fund says death rates are much higher in poor countries than in rich nations, even though the frequency and intensity of disasters are the same. The co-author of the report, Andrew Maskrey, says that does not have to be the case, and governments in developing countries can save thousands of lives if they make better development decisions.

"We need to be building schools that don't fall down, hospitals that do not need to fall down, roads that are sited in areas that are not flooded, etc.," he said. "But we also need to make sure that we don't do development in such a way that it actually produces risk. Because often when we do a development project, we can inadvertently create a lot of risks. When we develop in an undeveloped area and that leads to deforestation 10 years down the line, we will be generating landslides, flooding, drought - we will have moved new populations into hazard-prone areas, etc."

The U.N. report says natural disasters like earthquakes, tropical cyclones, floods and droughts, claim an average of 184 deaths every day around the world.

The report notes that while only 11 percent of the people exposed to such natural disasters live in poor countries, they account for more than 53 percent of the total number of recorded deaths.

The United Nations says a large part of the reason is poor development planning.

Mr. Maskrey says the impact of disasters could be cut sharply if more governments would make an effort to reduce the danger before a disaster happens. For example, he says Cuba and Bangladesh, although they are not wealthy countries, have dramatically reduced deaths from tropical cyclones by building shelters and developing early warning systems.

"While Bangladesh has still got a high vulnerability to cyclones - it is never going to be low because of the nature of the country - it has been enormously reduced in the last 20 years," he said. "So the message of the report is it is not just about money, it is not just about economic growth, it is really about having good policies and strategies in place to reduce risk."

But Mr. Maskrey says it is not just a matter of building shelters and warning systems. He says governments need to make basic development decisions with the potential for natural disasters in mind. He says time and again countries that have been struck by earthquakes or cyclones or floods rebuild their communities quickly and badly. He says this results in large casualty tolls from the next disaster due to the same bad decisions on where to build and the same shoddy materials that have caused large casualty tolls in the past.

Mr. Maskrey says this is a critical time for the southern Iranian city of Bam, which was devastated by an earthquake at the end of last year. He says he hopes the authorities will seize the opportunity to rebuild the city in a way that will protect its people from future quakes.