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Island Network on Natural Disaster Risk Management

Juha I. Uitto
Academic Officer
United Nations University

Paper presented at an International Symposium on "Small Islands and Sustainable Development" organized by the United Nations University and the National Land Agency of Japan.

The context

Each year natural disasters exert a heavy toll on human life and property. The United Nations estimates that, in the past 20 years, nearly three million lives have been lost to natural disasters, and some 800 million people have been affected (Katayama 1994).

Despite technological advances in forecasting, early warning, housing and disaster management services, natural disasters continue to claim lives and cause severe losses of property. Amongst the factors that have rendered societies even more vulnerable to natural hazards feature the increased urbanization in developing countries, and the invasion of coastal areas by agricultural, residential and industrial activities (Burton et al. 1993).

Natural disaster mitigation is essential for sustainable development, because the effects of disasters pose heavy strains on development efforts and divert funds from other needed purposes.

In many developing countries, natural disasters, such as cyclones, floods, landslides, drought, volcanic eruptions and earthquakes, are recurrent events. Yet, often little is or can be done to enhance the preparedness and to minimize the risk. Although disasters may equally hit industrialized countries, the generally good quality of structures, and preparedness and response strategies tend to moderate the losses.

Losses due to natural disasters cannot be nullified, but they may be mitigated by integrating new and existing knowledge, and by managing risk through various structural and non-structural strategies. International cooperation is needed to meet the challenge of this ever present and complex problem.

In response to the recognized need for better preparedness and response strategies towards natural disaster mitigation, the United Nations University (UNU), together with the World Seismic Safety Initiative (WSSI), the International Centre for Disaster Mitigation Engineering (INCEDE) of the University of Tokyo, and Stanford University, has initiated the Global Network on Natural Disaster Risk Management.

Natural Disasters, Small Islands and Sustainable Development

Small islands are particularly vulnerable to natural disasters of various type. Most islands are regularly subjected to cyclone hazards, and many are of volcanic origin. Small island economies are generally less-diversified in their production and export structures due to their small size, as well as a narrow range of human and non-human resources and markets. Furthermore, small island coastal zones take a particularly prominent place in physical geography rendering them increasingly vulnerable. These limited areas must host a frequently dense population, urban centres and agriculture. Natural disasters, therefore, tend to have relatively more severe impacts on their economies than in larger countries (Kakazu 1994; May 1994; Obasi 1995).

In spite of sometimes relatively high GDP per capita, the economies of small island nations tend to be extremely vulnerable (Briguglio 1993). To take an example, if a tropical cyclone passes through a small island nation destroying its sugar-can crop, as well as some of the infrastructure, the impact on the national economy will be dramatic and felt over an extended period. In 1985, when four typhoons swept through Fiji, the country lost about thirty percent of its agricultural production, including eighty percent of the tree crops. The sugar-cane industry was also heavily affected, with consequent negative effects on the employment. The case demonstrates the vulnerability of a small island economy, especially in view of the dependence on a single agricultural product (Blaikie et al. 1994).

One of the early regions where GLO-DISNET has been launched is the Pacific. In September 1994, disaster managers and concerned researchers from twelve Pacific Island Countries (PICs) gathered in Fiji to a 'Workshop on Opportunities for Disaster Reduction in Pacific Island Countries.' The meeting provided an opportunity for initiating plans for GLO-DISNET implementation on a regional basis.

Networking for Natural Disaster Mitigation

The GLO-DISNET approach taken will be multi-hazard and multi-faceted, ranging from disaster preparedness through response strategies to community recovery. The focus will be on assisting developing countries in managing risks associated with natural disasters through research, capacity building and information.

The objective of the Network is to initiate, implement and encourage the development of programmes to manage and reduce the risks of property and environmental damage and human suffering often associated with natural disasters. It is recognized that a substantial body of knowledge and experiences in natural disaster management exist in the world, both within the disaster management and engineering communities, as well as in academia. While many of the needs are country-specific, and the best experts are the local people, there are a number of areas where knowledge and experiences can be transferred from country to country. Still, mane technologies are available only in the industrialized countries.

GLO-DISNET will incorporate a country-specific approach to identify key vulnerable hazardous areas in each concerned country, and apply the successful experience of one country to another where conditions are similar. GLO-DISNET intends to mobilize the considerable experiences vested in the participating institutions and countries around the world.

GLO-DISNET intends to tap into, build upon and disseminate this body of wisdom vested around the world.

GLO-DISNET Functions and Mode of Operation

GLO-DISNET will focus primarily on initiating research and training programmes in developing countries, particularly in areas where natural disaster risk remains highest. The Network will also provide information on research and development on natural hazards currently conducted worldwide.

In recognition of the fact that each country and locality holds with it its own peculiar environmental, economic, social and cultural conditions, GLO-DISNET will incorporate a country-specific approach to identify key vulnerable hazardous areas in each concerned country, and apply the successful experience of one country to another where conditions are similar.

In practical terms, the Network will (i) develop a general framework for global research and training programmes involving natural disaster management using a multidisciplinary, geographical approach to research; (ii) bring together related research on natural disaster reduction under a single international network; (iii) increase interaction among interested researchers for the purposes of promoting related research and training, reduce research overlap, and promote a comparative approach; (iv) create a global database of research findings pertaining to natural disaster reduction and management for the purposes of dissemination to interested parties, including UN bodies and organizations; and (v) provide reliable, detailed information for operative environmental management, risk management and response strategies to effectively work to reduce the risks of natural disasters.

A central task of GLO-DISNET will be training and capacity building in developing countries. The main target groups of these activities are researchers, government officials and professionals involved in natural disaster management in their respective countries. The training and capacity building activities will be practical and problem-oriented. They will be implemented through joint projects by the partners.

GLO-DISNET will also encompass a public education function. It will perform this function by informing the general public, local communities and NGOs of research efforts and results through electronic, audio-visual and other means. Emphasis will be placed on promoting knowledge and information about risk management in relation to natural disasters through public media. NGOs will be encouraged to undertake their own programmes on global and local environmental issues based on information provided by UNU.

Concluding Remarks

GLO-DISNET is a new initiative. It is being by the initiating partners at various fora. Lessons from the Pacific islands support the integrated approach adopted by GLO-DISNET (e.g. Vrolics 1994). It is recognized that, while the disasters themselves may vary in type, the strategies for coping with them must cover all disasters in a holistic manner. Hazard management and hazard assessment are essential tools to be adopted in a multidisciplinary manner.

Similarly, international cooperation is needed to support the information exchange, preparedness and training functions. It is, nevertheless, important to remember that disaster risk management is not only a technical matter. It has a strong socio-economic, political and cultural dimension. While much can achieved through cooperation, each national is unique by way of its hazard structure, culture, infrastructure, level of education, economic means, etc. The professional concerned with disaster risk management will be working for and with the community affected by the risk of natural disasters.

The Fiji Workshop identified possible action areas where international cooperation would be beneficial and where GLO-DISNET may play a role. These include: building standards; land-use management; the agricultural sector; infrastructure (or lifelines); telecommunications; and risk assessment. In all of these fields, information exchange, technical assistance, and training and capacity building can make a difference.


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