In its annual World Disasters Report, the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies reports nearly 77,000 people were killed in natural disasters last year.  That's three times higher than the year before.  But the agency says local communities themselves are usually best suited to cope with and overcome the worst effects of natural disasters.  


The Red Cross says external aid will always be needed when disaster strikes.  But, it says a balance has to be struck between what international donors give and what local communities can do for themselves.   


The agency's Head of Disaster Management, Eva von Oelreich, says it is time to dispel the myth of the helpless victim.


"It is a myth that only Western aid agencies and governments know best," she said.  "It is a myth that only disaster-affected people can only cope with help of external aid.  This myth leads to inappropriate, top-down interventions that can undermine local response and recovery.  Disaster response works best when based on local capacities and knowledge." 


A case in point is the devastating earthquake, which hit the historic Iranian city of Bam in December 2003.  Approximately 30,000 people were killed and another 30,000 injured.  About 85 percent of the city's buildings were destroyed. 


The editor of the Disaster Report, Jonathan Walter, says 34 international rescue teams found 22 people alive, whereas local Red Crescent volunteers saved nearly 160 lives.  He says neighbors and volunteers from other provinces and local organizations saved hundreds more.


"The cost of sending one international search and rescue team into Iran is $50,000 for six days," he noted.  "The same amount of money could be spent training an Iranian team with three dogs and their handlers for two years.  Iranian teams, a handful of them, saved seven times more people than all the international teams that flew in from abroad.  So, we are saying invest more in local peoples' capacities, because that will save more lives." 


The report says about 250 million people were affected by natural disasters in 2003 at a cost of at least $56 billion.  It says an unusually high number of people were reported killed.  This was mainly due to the heat waves in Europe, which claimed up to 30,000 lives and the Bam earthquake, which killed another 30,000 people.


The report cites the deadliest disasters as drought and famine, floods and earthquakes.  It says the most affected region in the world is Asia-Pacific.