World Lags on Disaster Mitigation and Prevention

The year 2006 has so far not seen the kind of high-profile disasters that grabbed headlines worldwide during the previous two years: the Indian Ocean tsunami in December 2004, Hurricane Katrina in August 2005, and the Kashmir earthquake in October 2005. But irrespective of whether the world’s TV cameras are present or not, several regions of the world have confronted floods, droughts, and other calamities. While UN agencies and other aid groups are working hard to provide aid, the international community is all too often turning its back on these tragedies. The United Nations is left to beg for funds, often without success.

  • UNICEF’s July 2006 appeal to donors for $2.5 million to help more than two million drought-stricken Afghans was met with a deafening silence. In early November, the UN agency said the deteriorating situation meant that it needed an additional $3.8 million, warning that lack of water and food will exacerbate the outbreak of disease and malnutrition among the young. The drought has affected the north, northeast, west and southern provinces, adding to the displacements of more than 20,000 families due to intensifying fighting.
  • The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) is appealing for funds to support some 50,000 families left homeless by a deadly May 27 earthquake on Indonesia’s Java island. Even as the rainy season approaches, about 40 percent of people who lost their housing remain without adequate shelter. The quake killed nearly 6,000 people, injured close to 40,000, and destroyed or damaged more than 300,000 buildings.
  • Following devastating flash floods in August and severe drought earlier in 2006, heavy rainfall caused extensive flooding in southeastern Ethiopia. When the Wabe Shebelle River burst its banks, it washed away people, livestock, bridges, and roads. Meanwhile, in northeast Kenya and southern Somalia, recent floods are hampering the transport of food aid. The Horn of Africa region has also been hard hit by drought, with 1.5 million pastoralists dependent on humanitarian aid after large numbers of livestock died, and water sources dried up.
  • Sri Lanka has been in the news lately mostly because of the resumption of war in the northeast. But largely unnoticed is the fact that more than 330,000 Sri Lankans are currently affected by floods, landslides and displacement. A range of UN agencies—including UNICEF, the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, and the UN Development Programme—are providing aid.
  • More than 30 people lost their lives in flooding in southeast Turkey following torrential rains. The towns of Cinar, Bismil and Silopi in this mostly Kurdish area of Turkey were badly affected. Many people had to abandon mud brick homes unable to withstand floods. Roads in the region were reported as flooded. Outside of the towns, farmers’ livelihoods were in peril as hundreds of their animals were killed and cotton fields under water.

Though falling short of needs, the money allocated globally to humanitarian programs almost tripled between 1995 and 2005. It is far cheaper in monetary terms and far preferable in human terms to undertake preventive measures than to rush in emergency supplies in the aftermath of disasters. And this distinction will grow in importance as the world confronts climate change and the associated increase in disaster risks.

Britain's Department for International Development (DFID) pledged in July 2006 to spend 10 percent of funds allocated for any natural disaster on measures aimed at reducing the risk of future events. But a recent report by the British parliament's International Development Committee argues this is not enough and laments the lack of political will among donors to allocate sufficient sums to preventive measures.