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Poverty Times #3

Environmental management for disaster reduction

Illustration: This Japanese print criticizes the ineptitude of deities who have allowed the M 6.9–7.1 Ansei Earthquake (1855) to occur. The giant catfi sh (namazu) represents the earthquake. Our source is Gregory Smits’ (Pennsylvania State University) online textbook “Topics in Japanese Cultural History”.

The clean-up after the unprecedented tsunamis that ravaged South Asia last month is still on-going. In the weeks following this horrific human tragedy environmental concerns from widespread water pollution to the removal of debris and waste on a massive scale have been all too apparent.

While the strongest earthquake in decades and the devastating tsunamis that followed could have been less tragic if warning systems had been in place, it is increasingly clear that the negative effects of this, and other kinds of natural disasters, could have been and can be lessened not only by the speed and effi ciency of our relief efforts, but also by maintaining the proper environmental infrastructure.

It is premature to draw fi nal conclusions on the South Asia tsunami, but an earlier tragedy in the Caribbean, where fl oods and mudslides caused by Hurricane Jeanne killed up to 3000 people in Haiti and left another 200,000 affected, demonstrated all too vividly how natural disasters strike differently, depending on how the ground was “prepared for them” them .

In Haiti, extensive deforestation left large hillsides bare, allowing rainwater to run off directly to the settlements at the bottom of the slopes. In neighbouring Dominican Republic, hit by the same storm, there were many fewer victims to mourn, and part of the reason is that their hills are still covered by a protecting forest.

A similar disaster unfolded more recently when half a million people were affected by successive storms in the Philippines. As in Haiti, the destruction and loss of life wrought by the storms was made worse by deforestation in the hills above villages and towns. In response to the crisis, President Arroyo banned all commercial logging as rescuers rushed aid to wet and hungry survivors.

These two examples clearly show that taking care of our natural resources, and managing them wisely, not only assures that future generations will find better living conditions, but it reduces the risks that natural hazards pose to people today.

In this vein, and in close cooperation with our United Nations partners, UNEP’s goal is to reinforce the centrality of environmental concerns in disaster management, and to promote sound management of natural resources as a tool to prevent disasters or lessen their impacts on people, their homes and livelihoods.

Population growth, industrialisation and environmental abuse have opened a Pandora’s Box of catastrophes across the planet. From spectacular industrial accidents like Bhopal and Chernobyl to the horrors of drought in Africa and the extreme weather that battered Japan and the USA last year, the world is more and more aware of natural and man-made disasters. The question is how to prevent them, and if they should nevertheless happen, how to respond. It is these questions that the Kobe World Conference on Disaster Reduction and the necessary followup action, must address.

This edition of the Environment Times illustrates the problems and challenges before us, showing many practical examples on how useful preventive action can be taken. It lays out why we must think “environment” at every stage of disaster management, be it in preparing, preventing, mitigating or reacting.

Today, we are sadly witness to a growing number of devastating hurricanes, typhoons, droughts and fl oods across the globe which as a result of climate change are set to become more frequent and violent. As last year’s horrifi c pictures from Haiti and the Phillipines show, and with the almost incomprehensible scale of the South Asia disaster unfolding before us, it has become painstakenly clear that without the environment fi rmly in the equation there will be no long-term disaster risk reduction.

Dr. Klaus Töpfer is the Executive Director of the is the Executive Director of the United Nations Environment Programme.

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