Countries must invest in disaster risk reduction, urges UNDP chief

Thursday, August 16, 2012
Helen Clark
Christchurch/New York: Countries must invest in disaster prevention and preparedness and donor countries and development organizations must prioritize such support to poor countries if human and economic development gains are to be made and not lost, said Helen Clark, former New Zealand Prime Minister and current head of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP).

Helen Clark gave a keynote lecture at the University of Canterbury in Christchurch, New Zealand, using the opportunity to focus on the devastating effects of natural disasters on the poorest and most vulnerable and highlighting the urgent need for prevention and resilience for these communities.

“For every dollar invested in minimizing risk, about seven dollars will be saved in economic losses from disasters,” Helen Clark said. “I see our work in disaster risk reduction being about building fences at the top of cliffs, rather than being content to place ambulances at the bottom.”

In February 2011, a magnitude 6.3 earthquake struck Christchurch and the surrounding area, killing 185 people, making it the second deadliest and most costly disaster in New Zealand’s recorded history. Helen Clark  said that while the loss of life and property was devastating, it would have been immensely worse if significant investments in resilience had not been made, including through civil defense and emergency services preparedness, early warning systems, and investments in earthquake-resistant homes and other infrastructure.

“The earthquake in Haiti in January 2010 was about the same magnitude as the major February quake in Christchurch, but the human toll was significantly higher,” Helen Clark said. “The tragic deaths of more than 220,000 people in Haiti tells us that it is not the magnitude of the disaster or natural hazard alone which determines its impact.”

From  drought prone regions of Africa, to regions prone to cyclones and flooding, to the impact of the January 2010 quake on Haiti’s densely populated capital and the major seismic disasters in New Zealand, Japan, Chile, Iran, and elsewhere, natural disasters are causing untold levels of human suffering and environmental and economic harm. In 2011 alone, almost 30,000 people were killed in 302 disasters, and 206 million people affected by floods, droughts, cyclones and other natural shocks, according to the UN’s Office for Disaster Risk Reduction (UNISDR).

These disasters have staggeringly high economic costs as well, hitting the most vulnerable the hardest. Global economic losses attributed to disasters caused by natural hazards last year reached US$380 billion, an increase of nearly two-thirds over 2005, the previous record year.

Even more sobering:

 -           95 percent of disaster-related deaths occur in developing countries;

 -           more than half of all cyclone deaths occur in least developed nations; and

 -           85 percent of people exposed to disasters live in countries with medium to low levels of human development.

For the desperately poor, disasters disrupt hard-earned development progress and prevent people escaping poverty. Those who escape with their lives, but are still affected by disaster, are often forced to sell assets and rely on subsistence-level activity, keeping them well below the international poverty line of $1.25 per day. Within poor countries, it is the most marginalized, including women and girls, who suffer the greatest impact.
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