In Reghaia, Algeria , where in May 2003 an earthquake caused a 10-storey apartment block to collapse killing more than 300 people.
Credit: Chris Black/International Federation
Figures from the Emergency Events Database (EMDAT), a project that compiles disaster statistics to enhance preparedness, show that natural disasters are not only more frequent now, but they also impact the lives of more people than ever.

Climate change has been directly linked to natural catastrophes, resulting in more common hydro-meteorological disasters than ever recorded. In the December 2004 tsunami in the Indian Ocean, an estimated 250,000 to 300,000 people were killed or are still missing, while millions of lives have been upturned, socially and economically, by its impact.

Both hydro-meteorological and geophysical disasters have grown more common, becoming 68 percent and 62 percent respectively more frequent over the last decade, according to EMDAT’s figures. This reflects longer-term trends.

According to Feng Min Kan, who directs the International Strategy for Disaster Reduction (ISDR) for Africa, a UN agency that coordinates African governments’ disaster risk reduction (DRR) initiatives and advocates DRR policies, the notion that the impact of natural disasters can be reduced or mitigated is relatively recent.

“The 1970s witnessed a growing sense that disaster risks can actually be reduced. In the 1980s, the damage caused by natural disasters increased dramatically. This is what led to the adoption of the International Decade for Natural Disaster Reduction during the 1990s,” Kan told IRIN.

In 1989, the UN General Assembly proclaimed the coming decade - 1 January 1990 to 1 January 2000 - the International Decade for Natural Disaster Reduction (IDNDR). Its goal was to provide a disaster-reduction “roadmap” for the international community.

Damage caused by rain-induced floods in Hargeysa, Somaliland.
Credit: IRIN
This global campaign, launched under the aegis of the UN, aimed at sensitising national authorities to the importance of DRR. The UN defines DRR as a conceptual framework to “minimize vulnerabilities and disaster risks throughout a society.” DRR strategies include measures to avoid, mitigate or prepare for natural disasters.

Civil society also was involved in the campaign. The International Federation of the Red Cross (IFRC), which is made up of national societies in most nations of the world, has long been an active member of the movement. It has consistently provided the UN and governments with information and experience collected from the ground during its disaster-response operations.

The Red Cross and Red Crescent societies – who often are the first to respond to catastrophes - focus on operations at the community level, which enables them to identify and share good practices through their networks. The IFRC documents the scale of and response to disasters in their “World Disasters Report”, which they publish annually.

The IDNDR aimed to increase the capacity of countries - especially developing ones - to respond to disasters, notably by emphasising early warning systems. It promoted the adoption of appropriate guidelines and strategies and the dissemination of knowledge for the assessment, prediction and mitigation of natural disasters.

As members of the secretariat, governments were called upon to formulate national disaster-mitigation programmes, to participate in concerted international actions - such as the regional pooling of resources to create disaster monitoring and follow-up mechanisms - and to increase general public awareness of disaster risk.

A man surveys the damage to his damaged home in Bam.
Credit: IRIN
The IDNDR secretariat was required to facilitate and coordinate national efforts, particularly through the establishment of a scientific and technical committee, which developed overall programmes to be taken into account in bilateral and multilateral cooperation.

This plan was conceived as an international DRR blueprint emphasising awareness and capacity building at a national and local level and advocated incorporating DRR strategies into national law. It also recommended the establishment of regional centres for disaster reduction and prevention, focusing especially on vulnerable developing countries.

Evaluations conducted during the decade emphasised the need for regional coordination and response through regional groupings. In Africa, for instance, this led to discussions between African environmental and foreign affairs ministers and members of the then-Organisation of African Unity (now the African Union). This culminated in the Nairobi Declaration on Natural Disaster Reduction, which was adopted at the conclusion of the IDNDR UN Environment Program (UNEP) meeting for Africa in May 1999.

Concurrently, NGOs’ awareness of the importance of DRR in fulfilling their mandate increased during the 1990s. International relief organisations also involved in development, such as Oxfam, Care and Save the Children, launched disaster-mitigation programmes and incorporated disaster prevention in their operations.

Civil society often casts a sceptical eye on governmental policy discussions and conceptual debates, repeatedly emphasising that disaster reduction first and foremost must be community focused and address needs at the grassroots level. Many NGOs pushed for less advocacy and meetings, and more concrete, on-the-ground programmes.

The Geneva Forum reaffirmed that “vulnerability [to disasters] can be reduced, [which] makes disaster reduction not a random choice but a moral imperative,” and subsequently recommended necessary institutional arrangements for the UN’s DRR activities. It recognised the need for an interagency task force for natural disaster reduction.

Feng Min Kan, director of ISDR Africa, told IRIN, “The 1999 wrap-up meeting of the decade in Geneva was the opportunity for governments to propose a successor to it, the International Strategy for Disaster Reduction (ISDR), which the General Assembly approved in 2000.”

The tsunami that struck in late December 2004 was a clear call to international agencies to translate much-discussed mitigation and prevention strategies into action.
Credit: IRIN
The ISDR’s report “A Safer World for the Twenty-First Century: Risk and Disaster Reduction” was developed as a framework for future DRR activities within the UN system. According to the report presented by Secretary-General Koffi Annan to the General Assembly, “The main objectives of the Strategy are: (a) to enable communities to become resilient to […] hazards[…]; and (b) to proceed from protection against hazards to the management of risk, by integrating risk prevention strategies into sustainable development activities.”

The ISDR secretariat, based in Geneva since 2001, was set up as an interagency task force to serve as the main UN forum for devising DRR strategies and policies. It was charged with identifying gaps in existing DRR policies and programmes and coordinating UN agencies involved in DRR. This continues to be one of its central objectives.

The ISDR was to be achieved along four main lines: increasing public awareness, obtaining commitment from public authorities, stimulating interdisciplinary partnerships and improving scientific knowledge of the causes of disasters.

From awareness to implementation? – Preparing for Kobe 2005

Looking back on the UN’s DRR activities up to 2004, Koffi Annan reported to the UN General Assembly that “the ISDR secretariat has increasingly served as a reference centre and information clearing house on DRR issues, involving governments and expert organisations.”

While the ISDR had developed a policy framework for guiding and monitoring DRR initiatives, there was a growing sentiment that “progress [in the field of DRR] is still seriously handicapped by a lack of systematic implementation,” said Annan.

Whole villages can be enveloped and destroyed by sudden floods as this village in Madagascar in 2004, forcing people to flee and forcing governments and the international community to face natural disasters as a real threat to the MDGs.
Credit: Conseil National de Secours
Tearfund, a relief and development agency, summed up many NGOs’ perception of government policy concerning disasters in a briefing published in preparation for the World Disaster Reduction Conference in January 2005 in Kobe, Japan: “There was a time when we did not know where disasters would strike. But today we know which countries are most disaster prone. Flooding in Bangladesh and drought in Ethiopia are hardly a surprise.”

Tearfund, like many other relief organisations, stressed the importance of implementing DRR and called for more operations, less paper: “It is both indefensible and illogical not to help communities prepare for disasters, when very often thousands of lives could be saved by even the simplest of measures.”

Just three weeks before the conference, a devastating tsunami struck Asia and parts of Eastern Africa, killing over 300,000 people and washing away billions of dollars worth of property.

“The tsunami raised interest in the Kobe Conference,” said Kan. “However, it also hijacked discussions of many other topics.”

Instead of focusing on the implementation of long-term DDR strategies as a means of safeguarding sustainable development, attendees - and the rest of the world - rolled up their sleeves and formulated plans for providing immediate response and relief to millions of tsunami victims as well as early warning plans to prevent a repeat of December 2004.

The tsunami may have stolen the spotlight from DRR during the Kobe conference, but at the same time it was a striking example of the impact of natural disaster – and focused people on the moral imperative to do everything possible to minimise vulnerability around the world.