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
"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
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. …