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Saturday, 28 October, 2000, 00:23 GMT 01:23 UK
Disaster readiness 'could save thousands'
Flood victims AP
Survivors of Hurricane Mitch salvage what they can
By environment correspondent Alex Kirby

A UK development agency is urging rich countries to invest far more in the preparation to counter natural disasters.

The agency, Tearfund, says proper preparation could save the lives of thousands of people in the developing world.

It says climate change means natural disasters are happening more often.

And it wants governments to intensify their efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions agreed under the Kyoto Protocol, the international climate change treaty.

Priority funding

Tearfund, a church-based charity, says the number of natural disasters is climbing steadily every decade, and developing countries are facing a crisis.

It says there were 20 extreme natural disasters a year in the 1950s, and 87 in the 1990s - a trend it blames on climate change.

Andy Atkins, Tearfund's policy adviser, said: "Globally, governments are beginning to act on climate change, but more needs to be done to ratify and implement the Kyoto Protocol.

"Disaster preparedness programmes must cease languishing in the backwater of funding policy.

"They should become an integral and larger part of government, economic and non-government organisations' responses to the developing world."

Floods and storms

The poor are most at risk, Tearfund says, because their communities lack a basic infrastructure, and are often forced onto hazardous land such as steep hillsides and valley floors.

Tent AP
Aftermath of an Indian cyclone
It says 40 of the 50 fastest-growing cities are in earthquake zones, and 10 million city dwellers live under constant threat of floods.

By 2025, it believes, over half of all people in developing countries will be highly vulnerable to floods and storms.

In a report, Before Disaster Strikes, Tearfund gives examples of what it says are simple, life-saving steps poor communities can take:

  • Moving homes to higher ground to avoid floods, and redesigning homes to resist damage
  • Making maps of risk-prone areas and planning evacuation routes
  • Training local people in first aid, nutrition and rapid disaster assessment.
The report comes out on the second anniversary of Hurricane Mitch, which killed about 10,000 people in Central America and left three million more dependent on aid.

Early warning

Tearfund says that while entire communities in Honduras were swept away by Mitch, one town, La Ceiba, which had installed early warning systems, successfully evacuated 10,000 people before the hurricane struck.

Mother AP
Mozambique flood victims wait for food
It says the arguments for advance planning are not only human but also financial.

The World Bank and the US Geological Survey have calculated that economic losses worldwide from natural disasters could be cut by 175bn (about $240bn) by spending one-seventh of that on disaster readiness.

Bill Crooks of Tearfund said: "There was a time when we did not know where or when disasters would strike in the developing world.

"But increasingly we have the means to both predict and prepare communities to save their own lives.

Local knowledge

"It is time that more of our development budgets were committed to disaster preparation."

Tearfund says the first 48 hours after a disaster are crucial, but international emergency help often takes up to 72 hours to reach a stricken country.

It says the most crucial resource for disaster planning is local knowledge.

And it is urging the rapid cancellation of the most vulnerable countries' unpayable debts, as a significant help to them in preparing to cope with natural disasters.

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See also:

26 Oct 00 | Asia-Pacific
Cambodia gets $2m flood aid
07 Aug 00 | Sci/Tech
The dangers of climate change
28 Jun 00 | Sci/Tech
Red Cross warns on climate
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