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Message of the Executive Director of the United Nations Environment Programme on the International Day for Disaster Reduction

Learning from today’s disasters for tomorrow’s hazards

Barely a week goes by without news of a disaster grabbing the headlines. Recent scenes from Bangladesh and Haiti reinforce the lesson that when disasters strike it is invariably the poor who suffer most, through loss of life and hard-won livelihoods.

It is a sad fact of today’s world that tragedies such as these have become all too predictable. Across the globe billions of people are living on the brink of disaster. The poor have the highest vulnerability to disasters and the least coping capacity. Years of endeavour can be wiped away in a minute, with no prospect of compensation or rebuilding shattered lives.

Global population growth, combined with the effects of climate change, mean that the number of vulnerable people will continue to increase unless governments and the international community truly commit to learning from today’s disasters for tomorrow’s hazards.

One of the main lessons to be learned from today’s disasters is that environmental neglect, coupled with poverty, can turn natural hazards into disasters. Time and again we see ordinary natural phenomena, such as heavy rains or prolonged dry spells, triggering extraordinary and sometimes catastrophic events.

The frequency and extent of such events is increasing, largely due to the degradation of the global environment and the important ecosystem services it provides. For example: wetlands can reduce flooding, forested watersheds help to prevent landslides, and mangroves and coral reefs can lessen the effect of coastal storms and extreme tides. The loss of these and other similarly important services has widespread implications for development.

It is clear that humanity is making itself more vulnerable to natural disasters as a result of its actions. We can all see the warning signs. The question is what are we doing with the warnings? Sustainable management of the global environment is imperative for the prevention of disasters and the achievement of the development goals agreed by the international community at the turn of the millennium.

The lesson we must learn from today’s disasters is that we all—governments, businesses and individuals—have a responsibility to protect the global environment on which we depend for our health and continued security. Failure to learn this lesson will only lead to more tragedies such as we have seen in recent weeks in Haiti and Bangladesh.