Disaster Management

10 Jun 2006

More than 200 representatives from the academic world, NGOs and the private and public sector throughout the world met for three days at the prestigious Harvard School of Public Health in Cambridge, USA, to discuss the prevention of natural disasters.

This is a highly pertinent subject around which international and inter-sectorial interaction is needed to achieve significant results. Current data is not encouraging since, according to T. Rasmussen’s report, 6,480 natural disasters were recorded between 1972 and 2004 and, of these, 4,500 involved the loss of human life, resulting in more than five billion victims.

Natural disasters are part of daily life and are defined as large-scale events causing physical damage to persons, economic activities, infrastructures and the environment. Natural disasters, in contrast to the other two categories of disaster – intentional, such as terrorist attacks, or unintentional, such as Chernobyl – do not involve human intervention.

Nonetheless, it is through human intervention or, it might be said, the absence of human intervention by means of an inadequate risk management and a lack of preparation in responding to events, that disasters can turn into catastrophes.

There are three different examples that can best illustrate the variety of situations that are in included within the definition of natural disaster. AIDS is a form of disaster whose scale and significance has become gradually more apparent and against which there has been a failure to identify the virus, contain the epidemic and limit its effects. Hurricane Katrina is a recent example of natural disaster whose consequences have had a short term but devastating impact, worsened by the backwardness of the area and the marked social divisions – both problems whose roots go back a long way.

Lastly, Avian ‘flu is a potential natural disaster which has evolved over past centuries but whose outbreak could be immediate and extremely quick. According to recent World Health Organization reports, 205 cases of Avian ‘Flu have been recorded, causing the deaths of 113 people in 9 different nations.

During three days of discussions, the Harvard conference concentrated on both tools and targets, and workgroups were structured around these two elements to arrive at a series of conclusions. Education, communications, economic incentives and leadership appear as the key tools that can foster improved risk management, form policies round an adequate preparation for events, limit vulnerability and coordinate post-disaster reconstruction.

Today, we live in a society facing a variety of threats and the occurrence of a natural disaster can considerably reduce our capacity to respond to pre-existing problems such as poverty or illiteracy. In developing countries, the management of disasters and economic development are particularly interlinked. A number of sources have highlighted the need to move from a reactive, or post-event, approach to a preventive approach and to coordinate science, politics and local intervention.

Ultimately, in order for policies to be effective, it is necessary that these be implemented by the people themselves through their local community set-ups. To achieve this, clear communication tools are required, together with leaders capable of mobilizing the masses towards commonly shared goals. Mexico, through its National Ecology Institute (part of the Mexican Environment Ministry) is a positive example of the integration of research with public policies aimed at achieving a preventative management of natural disasters.

The Conference focused on targets such as nanotechnology, maritime disasters, natural catastrophes and epidemics, highlighting the numerous threats currently faced by the environment.

Franklin D. Roosevelt anticipated the message apparently emerging from the three days at Harvard when he declared that, ‘If we protect our garden, the environment will protect us’.

We need to think in terms of environmental sustainability, education, research and networks. All these objectives are fully shared by Slow Food and are taken forward by the Foundation for Biodiversity’s projects.

James Lee Witt, Director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency from 1997 until 2001, concluded the Conference. Basing himself on his lengthy experience of minimising the effects of natural disasters, explained that when a house, an economic activity or a field are swept away by an earthquake, a hurricane or whatever else, so the dreams and hopes of the common people and their communities are equalled destroyed.

Where it is impossible to reconstruct the same dreams and the same hopes, then it is necessary to create some new ones to put in their place. Listening to these words, I couldn’t help but think back to something I had read a few days previously in an evaluation report on a Louisiana fisherman who had received help from the Terra Madre Katrina Relief Fund. To the question of how Slow Food/Terra Madre had helped him to rebuild his activity, he replied: ‘With the sum received, I was able to rebuild the building where we clean the prawns we fish. The very idea that someone could care so much about me and my family, gave me new hope’.

For further information about Preventing Disasters and Minimising their Consequences Conference, see the website www.hsph.harvard.edu/disasters.

Ermina Martini works at the Slow Food USA office in New York City

Adapted by Ailsa Wood

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