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Tuesday, July 6, 1999 Published at 16:07 GMT 17:07 UK


Taming a violent planet

Hurricane Mitch helped make 1998 a very bad year

We live on a dangerous planet - from time to time the ground shakes; volcanoes spout streams of red hot lava and storms bring devastating winds and torrential rain.

Throughout history, natural disasters have wiped out entire communities. However, it is only recently that humankind has developed the power to predict when some of these events will happen.

Making sure that the best use is made of this knowledge is the theme of a conference in Geneva, a United Nations-sponsored forum on disaster relief

Scientists, policy makers and community workers want to develop strategies that will save lives.

There is no way of stopping the forces of nature, says Helena Molin Valdes from UN's International Decade for Natural Disaster Reduction programme. However, just knowing a serious event is coming means people can get to safety.

Early warning systems

"In many many communities, in Honduras, El Salvador, Guatemala, Nicaragua, people really got the message in advance, took their things, and evacuated. Of course it's not enough when you still lose some lives, but at least it does mitigate the impact."

[ image: Living through the event is one thing, rebuilding your life is another]
Living through the event is one thing, rebuilding your life is another
Technology plays a key part in disaster warning - from sensors on the ocean floor to satellites in space. Last year, when a major cyclone hit the Indian state of Gujurat, the new tools used to predict the storm also broadcast the warning.

"We found that conventional communication systems break down becasue of the cyclonic conditions," says Dr S Rangarajan of India's Space Research Organisation.

"So we then found that we could deliver the messaging through the satellite itself because the satellite systems are more sturdy and they can be built to withstand these conditions. And that has been very effective."

Power to act

The UN has put a lot of effort into establishing the structures needed to evacuate people in a hurry and provide them with food and medical support. Integrating all the agencies involved is a huge difficult task but Philippe Boulle, Director of Secretariat for the International Decade for Natural Disaster Reduction, believes the programme has worked.

"We've achieved a change in attitude from most of the local communities around the world that were subject to disasters. People now believe that there is something that can be done to prevent natural hazards from turning into disasters," he says.

"The second thing is that when people believe that something can be done, they start doing things. While we cannot stop the forces of nature, we can and we must stop them from turning into major social and economic disasters.

And we can do that by creating partnerships between the social and technical world and also the local populations and governments."

Environmental refugees

Evidence of the UN's success can be seen in the reduction in the number of deaths as a result of natural disasters, even though those events have increased in frequency during the last decade.

But if you want to understand the problems we still face, you only have to read a recent report from the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies. It said the natural disasters of 1998 were responsible for creating more refugees than wars or other armed conflicts.

The number of people needing help from the federation's member societies has grown in six years from under 500,000 to more than 5.5 million.

The report said that falling soil fertility, drought, flooding and deforestation drove 25 million people from their homes, and many of these environmental refugees joined already fragile urban squatter communities.

The federations warned of the dangers of they called "super disasters".

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