In Jeanne's Wake, New Efforts to Prevent 'Natural' Disasters ; Experts Say Aid Priorities Should Include Preparation and Risk Reduction as Well as Emergency Relief

Article excerpt

It is of little consolation to the 200,000 Haitians left homeless by hurricane Jeanne, or to the relatives of the 2,400 estimated dead, but next door in the Dominican Republic, the same wind and rain killed just 11 people.

Nor does it help the survivors of last December's earthquake in the Iranian city of Bam, which killed 27,000 people and destroyed 90 percent of the houses there, to know that an earthquake just as strong and just as deep struck the California's community of San Simeon four days earlier. Two people died and 40 homes were damaged.

Just as US homes were better built than Iranian ones, Dominicans were better prepared to withstand a hurricane than their Haitian neighbors.

"There is no such thing as a natural disaster," says Jonathan Walter, a disaster expert with the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies. "So often it is human causes that underlie the catastrophes."

"A natural hazard becomes a disaster when people do the wrong things," adds Salvano Briceno, head of the UN International Strategy for Disaster Reduction. "In Haiti, vulnerabilities were allowed to pile up so much that the catastrophe was no surprise. People were putting themselves in harm's way."

Unfortunately, more and more people - especially in the world's poorest countries - are suffering the consequences of not prepared for hazards, say analysts at the Centre for Research on the Epidemiology of Disasters (CRED) in Brussels. Recent studies have shown that preventative measures can be much more cost effective than recovery efforts, prompting some in the international community to call for a reassignment of aid priorities.

"There has been no increase in the number of hazards" over the past 30 years, "but a great increase in the number of people affected by them," says David Hargitt, a CRED researcher, "because more people are living in precarious situations."

Thirty years ago, says Mr. Hargitt, there were 497 reported natural disasters - hazards that took a significant human toll - between 1974 and 1978. The last five years have seen 1,897 of them, a nearly threefold increase. Between 1974 and 1978, 195 million people were killed by such disasters or needed emergency aid; there were 1.5 billion such victims in the past five years.

The trend threatens to continue, demographers warn. Over the next 20 years, 90 percent of the population increase in developing countries is expected in cities. That means more unplanned slums of the sort engulfed by mudslides in Venezuela five years ago that killed 30,000 people.

Unplanned slums in the Haitian town of Gonaives, where nearly a quarter of a million people are now homeless, were only one of the catastrophe's causes.

Experts describe Haiti, the poorest country in the hemisphere, as an example of everything going wrong.

Because nobody planned the way land is used, people were living in areas vulnerable to flooding. They were made even more vulnerable by the way people have cut down most of the forest in Haiti for fuel, which left the hills unprotected against mudslides. …