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United Nations Environment Programme Executive Director calls for vulnerability assessment to prevent disasters

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NAIROBI, 20 January (UNEP) -- According to scientists at the Hurricane Research Division of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, in the United States, hurricanes are set to grow fiercer. As reported in the BBC, this could mean that, for example, a 10 per cent increase in the strength of the strongest hurricanes could mean doubling the damage.

Every year, the destruction caused by natural disasters increases. Earlier this year, over 10,000 people were killed by a cyclone in Orissa, India. Last year, more than 1.5 million families in China lost their homes to floods. At the same time, the National Earthquake Information Center in the United States reported that 2,900 people were killed in earthquakes in 1997 and it trebled to 8,928 in 1998. In 1999, in Venezuela alone, it was estimated that up to 50,000 people died in floods and landslides; a further 200,000 people were left homeless as whole towns along the Caribbean coast were washed away.

"The increase in deaths from natural disasters makes mitigation and prevention of disasters an urgent priority", said Klaus Toepfer, Executive Director of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and Acting Executive Director of the United Nations Centre for Human Settlements (Habitat), "particularly as evidence shows that their impact can be minimized through better environmental and urban planning."

After the recent tragedies in Turkey and Venezuela, Habitat and UNEP offered their support and sent missions to assess how they could help with long-term disaster mitigation.

In the case of Turkey, though a major geo-technical fault, the Anatolia Fault, passes through northern Turkey, the extent of the damage was compounded by the problems associated with rapid urbanization. Istanbul alone has a population of over 12 million. The race to house the expanding urban populations of the industrialized north led to a deterioration of building standards and land use planning. Despite the fact that Turkey has a strict building code, which includes comprehensive regulations for ensuring that new buildings meet modern earthquake resistance standards, many municipalities could not supervise the building process. The result is that it was collapsing buildings, rather than the tremors themselves, that killed people.

In the case of Venezuela, though the country experienced more rain than it had in the last century, again the extent of the damage was compounded by the process of urbanization. The destruction of the surrounding environment, including the deforestation of steep slopes, increased the vulnerability of the area to floods. Poor land use planning, including the building of informal settlements, housing poor people on wetlands and water catchment areas, also meant that the many households were extremely vulnerable.

With the help of the international community, both of those countries are now in the process of rehabilitation. The immediate humanitarian needs are giving way to a demand for reconstruction. But in the rush to rebuild the houses and the infrastructure, it is important to avoid the mistakes of the past. According to experts at Habitat and UNEP, the reconstruction process must address the long-term need for better land use planning and the stricter enforcement of rules and regulations. The argument of the United Nations experts is that cities can be made less vulnerable and disasters can be prevented through better urban governance.

At the same time, the Habitat and UNEP joint missions are recommending that the international community work with the local authorities to carry out a practical assessment of the vulnerability of the cities and towns in the two countries. This would be based on a risk assessment of urban areas after analysing indicators such as its geographical location, the state of the buildings and infrastructure, land use management policies in theory and practice and the state of the immediate environment. The advantage of such an assessment would be that it would provide an effective decision-making instrument for the local authorities.

The joint Habitat and UNEP missions to Venezuela and Turkey are part of a larger campaign by the agencies to minimize the impact of disasters in human settlements all over the world. In the case of Kenya, The Kenya Action Network for Disaster Management (KANDM) was established in the wake of the bombing of 7 August 1998. The KANDM is working with Habitat, the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), international donors, the national government, local authorities, and non-governmental organizations to establish a national strategy for disaster management and risk reduction. Since its inception the group has met a number of times to highlight hazards and to carry out a vulnerability analysis of Kenya. A workshop was held on 20 January.

On 24 January, The Joint Task Force on Flood Response, established between Habitat and UNEP, will hold its first technical meeting in New Delhi, India. This Joint Task Force was established in order to develop mechanisms for cooperation among countries in South Asia to predict and mitigate the impacts of floods on human settlements and the environment. The Joint Task Force has invited the Governments of Bangladesh, China, India, Nepal and Viet Nam to participate in that project.

"The increase in natural and human made disasters means that there is an urgent need to set up similar task forces all over the world", said Mr. Toepfer. "A modest but sustained investment by governments in disaster mitigation and emergency responses can save lives and avoid tragedies."

For further information please contact: Sharad Shankardass, Press and Media Unit, UNCHS (Habitat) Tel: 254-2-623151, 623153 Fax: 254-2-624060 Email: habitat.press@unchs.org Website: www.unchs.org