Disaster aid? It was catastrophic

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IN JUST five months time the United Nations International Decade of Natural Disaster Reduction will grind to an end. And it has been a complete catastrophe.

Back in 1989 the UN unanimously declared that the 1990s would be dedicated to preventing natural disasters. Last week, delegates attending a UN conference to evaluate the success of the campaign learnt the extent of their failure. The number of disasters has risen three-fold over the last 10 years - and their cost, even after allowing for inflation, has risen nine times over.

Last year was the worst ever, thanks to hurricanes Mitch and George which devastated the Caribbean, the worst floods in China for half a century and the most long-lasting on record in Bangladesh - and a host of other catastrophes which, in all, affected 300 million people. The damage cost pounds 60bn, more than twice as much in a single year as the disaster bill for the 1980s.

It was the worst year on record for floods - with 96 of them in 55 countries - and the last four years have seen the fiercest hurricanes since records began. Hurricane Mitch - which killed 10,000 people - is officially described as the worst disaster ever to hit the Western Hemisphere.

So far this year, says the Brussels-based Centre for Research on the Epidemiology of Disasters, there have been 102 catastrophes, including the earthquake that killed 1,171 people in Colombia in January and the record tornadoes that ripped through Oklahoma and Kansas in May. Last week new floods hit two million people in Bangladesh, while the waters of the Yangtze in China are rising again, threatening an inundation as great as last year's.

Debbie Sapir, the Centre's director says: "The decade has not been a thumping success." And UN Secretary General Kofi Annan ruefully told last week's conference: "Despite a decade of dedicated and creative effort, the number and cost of natural disasters continues to rise."

There are three broad reasons for the increase, according to the Red Cross and other expert bodies. First, people are putting themselves more in harm's way. For example as poverty and population increases, more and more people in the Third World - which takes more than 90 per cent of the damage from natural disasters - are having to live on vulnerable land from sandbars on the Bangladesh coast to Rio's hillside slums.

Forty of the world's 50 fastest growing cities, one study concludes, are in earthquake zones and the inquiry into last year's record floods in Britain was told that half of all the houses built in the country since the Second World War had been "imprudently" sited in areas prone to inundation.

Second, the world's natural defences against disaster are being destroyed, for example by cutting down forests - which soak up rain - and straightening rivers making them flow faster and break their banks more frequently. The Red Cross's latest World Disasters Report, published last month, says that, by the time it reached Central America, Hurricane Mitch was "not an exceptionally severe storm": the catastrophe occurred because its rains hit denuded hillsides, causing floods and mudslides.

Last year's floods of the Yangtze were made much worse, says Washington's Worldwatch Institute, because more than four fifths of the forests around it had been cut down: after the disaster the Chinese government banned further logging and ordered that recently cleared hillsides should be replanted. And the devastating floods of the Rhine in 1993 and 1995 were exacerbated because 90 per cent of the upper part of the river had been cut off from its natural flood plains.

Lastly, many scientists believe that global warming is already bringing more extreme storms and more frequent floods as sea levels rise - and almost all expect this to happen at an ever increasing pace in the future.

"This sets alarm bells ringing all over the place," says Peter Walker, Head of Disaster Policy at the International Red Cross.

Everyone expects disaster to increase in the next century as population growth, environmental damage and global warming continue: by 2025, 60 per cent of the world's people are expected to be "highly vulnerable" to catastrophes. Everyone that is, except perhaps the optimists of the conference who, undaunted by their experience with the International Decade, headed their final declaration: "A Safer World in the 21st Century".

THE GOOD NEWS

IT'S NOT all bad news - there have been a few successes in staving off the deluge of disasters:

n Drownings in Bangladesh have dropped dramatically, even as flooding has increased, thanks to a unique early warning system. When the waters begin to rise warnings are broadcast to 30,000 volunteers from the Red Crescent. Equipped with hand-held radios and megaphones, the volunteers pick up the message and set off to warn the people of their areas - and as they are all local villagers, they are believed. The people then retreat to mounds the size of football pitches where they have sunk wells for water, dug fish ponds for food, and planted trees for fuel - sitting it out until the waters subside.

n After floods completely inundated Winnipeg in Canada in 1950, the premier of the province of Manitoba, Duff Roblin, ordered that a diversion channel should be dug around the city to prevent it ever happening again. For nearly 50 years the channel - dubbed Duff's Ditch - was a local joke. Then, two years ago, the waters rose again, far faster than in 1950. Other cities were soon under water, but Winnipeg stayed high and dry; without the channel it would have been submerged. Duff's ditch eventually saved the city billions of dollars worth of damage, for an initial cost of pounds 40m.

n Last week's conference heard how the Swiss were rolling rocks down mountain sides to see what kind of vegetation was best at stopping landslides.

n The authorities in Kazakhstan have set aside a whole valley where they deliberately start mud slides so as to work out how to cope with them.

n Other countries are putting meanders back into rivers to slow them down and trying to recreate flood plains as safety valves.

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