Concerned about the extent of this human tragedy, Mr. Klaus Toepfer, Executive Director of UNEP and the Acting Executive Director of UNCHS (Habitat) has offered support to the Government of Venezuela. The regional offices of UNEP and Habitat are mobilising a team of technical experts in the fields of environment and disaster prevention to assist in an assessment of the situation and to help with the rehabilitation of the country.
The destruction caused by natural disasters increases every year. Earlier this year, over 10,000 people were killed by a cyclone in Orissa, India. Last year, more than 1.5 million families in China lost their homes to floods. At the same time, the National Earthquake Information Centre in the United States reported that 2,900 people were killed in earthquakes in 1997 and it trebled to 8,928 in 1998. With over 18,000 dead in the 3 major earthquakes of 1999, in Colombia, Turkey and Taiwan, the increase in deaths makes disaster mitigation and prevention an urgent priority.
?The scale of human tragedy caused by natural disasters is compounded by the unchecked process of urbanisation and the destruction of the environment, ? said Mr. Klaus Toepfer. ?In fact, evidence shows that the impact of disasters can be minimised through better environmental and urban planning.?
Over the past year, studies carried out by UNEP and Habitat of the major floods in Asia and Latin America show that the intensity of natural hazards is exacerbated by unsustainable environmental practices, including deforestation and poor management of water resources. In towns and cities, inappropriate land use, including the building of informal settlements housing poor people on wetlands and water catchment areas, often blocks the natural flow for storm water drainage.
In the case of earthquakes, the damage has been exacerbated by the exponential growth of cities. In many cases, governments and local authorities have been unable to keep up with the demand for housing and infrastructure. This has led to a deterioration of building standards because local authorities are often too ill equipped and poorly staffed to manage or monitor the regulations. The result is that it is buildings, rather than tremors, that kill people.
Research by UNEP, Habitat and other agencies involved with disaster management is critical for the future survival of citizens in disaster prone areas. With this cumulative knowledge, it should now be possible for all these agencies to collaborate on the design of a vulnerability index. This would be based on a risk assessment of any town or city after analysing indicators such as its geographical location, the state of the buildings and infrastructure, land use management policies in theory and practice and the state of the immediate environment.
?In a world increasingly beset by natural disasters,? said Mr. Klaus Toepfer,?there is an urgent need to establish a vulnerability index to assess which human settlements are in danger.?
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