By Eric Schwartz

March 29, 2006

WHEN A MUDSLIDE in the southern Philippines wiped out the village of Guinsaugon and killed more than 1,000 people last month, it was the latest in a seeming spike in developing world natural disasters.The numbers impacted by recent calamities are indeed staggering. The earthquake that leveled large parts of Pakistan-administered Kashmir last October killed about 75,000 people, and left some 3 million homeless.

About a year earlier, the Asian tsunami caused the deaths of 230,000 people and the displacement of 1.5 million. In these two tragedies, governments, international organizations, and private individuals were asked to provide urgent assistance, and they contributed some $20 billion to relief and recovery.The bad news is that more and more people are being affected each year by natural disasters, and most of the populations are in the developing world.

Since 2000, some 1.6 billion have lost their homes or livelihoods or have suffered other damage. This continues an upward trend over the past several decades and represents a four-fold annual increase, on average, from the decade of the 1970s.In 2004 alone, disasters caused some $100 billion in damages and impacted the lives of about 140 million people.One might reasonably take the apocalyptic perspective and conclude that this growth in damage caused by natural disasters comes from an increase in the number and magnitude of hazards like earthquakes and hurricanes.

But while greater storm severity in recent decades is one risk factor, it cannot fully explain the large increase in overall effects — especially as there is little indication of a greater incidence or severity of earthquakes and other natural hazards.Rather, it is human behavior that is primarily responsible.

Worldwide migration to coastal areas has made populations far more vulnerable to hurricanes, and nearly 50 million people worldwide face risk of flooding due to storm surges. Environmental degradation has only accentuated this problem. In some areas of Sri Lanka, for example, mangrove trees provided critical coastal defenses during the tsunami and saved many lives. But where the mangroves had been depleted, the tsunami left a path of death and destruction in its wake.Rapid urbanization, population growth, and poverty have also contributed to increased levels of risk.

There are now some 400 cities with populations of more than one million people, the overwhelming majority of which are in poor countries — where public education on disaster preparedness is in short supply and citizens have limited ability to construct homes to meet whatever building codes may exist.The good news is that human practices and development patterns can often be altered to prevent natural hazards from becoming full-blown natural disasters. Even when practices cannot be changed completely, there are other ways to mitigate manmade risks.

These may have been the most important lessons coming out of the Asian tsunami.In India, Sri Lanka, Indonesia, the Maldives, and Thailand, governments are working to develop and implement not only an Indian Ocean early warning system for tsunamis, but also domestic legislation and policies that bring preparedness from national capitals to local communities — through measures such as stronger building codes, public education, safe access areas for emergencies, and private insurance for homes and businesses. But to succeed, these and other disaster mitigation efforts around the world will require substantial resources and a major reorientation of development priorities.At present, however, only 4 percent of the estimated $10 billion in annual humanitarian assistance is devoted to prevention, and neither donors nor affected governments have offered the kind of financial commitments that would turn their increased rhetorical support for prevention into reality.

This is a tragedy, as every dollar spent on risk reduction saves between $5 and $10 in economic losses from disasters.This week in Bonn, government experts from around the world gathered under the auspices of the United Nations for the Third International Early Warning Conference, to promote systems to protect communities against a wide range of natural hazards. Governments, international organizations, and nongovernmental organizations will showcase dozens of key early warning initiatives, valued at nearly $200 million, to enhance the protection of vulnerable populations.

The Bonn session provided a unique opportunity for governments to demonstrate their resolve to make progress on disaster reduction through full funding of these efforts. Such action is a fitting tribute to the memories of the more than 300,000 victims who perished in disasters over the past two years, and offers the prospect of a brighter future for hundreds of millions of people around the world.

Eric Schwartz is the UN Secretary General’s Deputy Special Envoy for Tsunami Recovery. 

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