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Last Updated: Wednesday, 18 February, 2004, 00:04 GMT
'Stop disaster before it strikes'
By Alex Kirby
BBC News Online environment correspondent

Islander in Bay of Bengal   Jim Loring/Tearfund
This man's house in the Bay of Bengal is now under water
The West could save thousands of lives every year in natural disasters in the developing world, British experts say.

Tearfund, a Christian development and relief agency, says western governments should work to prevent disaster, rather than simply help people afterwards.

The agency says people can be enabled to save their own lives, and to prepare for disasters that cannot be averted.

Tearfund says its approach can often be simple and cheap, and makes good sense for all, both economically and morally.

On the rise

In a report, Before Disaster Strikes, the agency says western governments and other major international donors devote a lot of effort to emergency crisis response rather than disaster prevention.

It calls it "indefensible and immoral" not to help poor people either to prevent misfortune or to prepare to weather it when "the simplest of measures" could often save thousands.

Villagers marooned in swollen river   Jim Loring/Tearfund
Erosion destroys many homes on Bay of Bengal islands
The report's author Sarah La Trobe said: "There must be new thinking about how we do aid work.

"Focusing primarily on emergency responses like air drops of food and pulling people from the rubble is no longer enough. Disasters can be prevented and people equipped to save their own lives."

The report gives examples of the ways to help people to prepare to survive disasters that cannot be prevented, including:

  • building cyclone shelters and early warning systems in the Bay of Bengal
  • providing escape routes and warning systems in villages in the Indian state of Bihar, affected by annual flooding
  • helping poor Honduran communities vulnerable to flooding to move their homes to higher ground and to plant trees to prevent mudslides.
The report says natural disasters like the Bam earthquake which killed 30,000 Iranians last December and the devastating Mozambique floods in 2000 are increasing.

Reasons it suggests include climate change, urbanisation and poor land use.

Someone else's job

Of those killed, 98% are from poor countries, and the report says by 2025 more than half the people living in the developing world will be highly vulnerable to floods and storms.

Bangladeshi villagers dig up bricks to rebuild houses   Jim Loring/Tearfund
Bangladeshi villagers search for bricks to rebuild their homes
Tearfund says its research shows general agreement among major donors, including the United Nations, the European Union and the US, UK and Canadian governments, on the good sense of disaster prevention.

But it says governments' approaches still lean towards "bandaging wounds" rather than "preventing injuries".

Tearfund says many government development experts do not understand the relevance to their work of reducing the risk of disasters.

There is also a gap between development and relief officials, with each thinking risk reduction is the other's responsibility.

"The sheer pressure of responding to other international aid needs such as HIV/Aids and conflict means that time and money are stretched," it adds.

All images courtesy of Jim Loring/Tearfund.

The BBC's David Loyn
"It's always easier to raise money after disasters happen"

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