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International policy responses

Until the 1970s, the international community considered disasters as exceptional circumstances, when local coping capacities were exhausted and external emergency relief was required. The term disaster management was generally equivalent to disaster response and tended to be within the exclusive competence of organizations such as the Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies or national civil defence institutions.

In 1971, the United Nations Disaster Relief Office, now the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UNOCHA), was established to mobilize and coordinate relief activities from all sources in times of disaster. The concept of disaster preparedness was developed during the 1970s and 1980s, and included training and some cross-sectoral activities to increase capacity for rescue, relief and rehabilitation during and after a disaster. But even the most pessimistic forecasts could not have foreseen the upward spiral in negative socio-economic consequences of natural disasters in the closing decades of the 20th century.

China committed to risk reduction

The Chinese government is shifting the focus of its disaster policies from improving response capabilities to reducing hazards and risks. During the past ten years, national coordination has been vested in the Chinese National Committee (CNC) for the IDNDR, an inter-ministerial organization composed of representatives from 28 ministries, departments and commissions. Since 1989, CNC has been working on the National Natural Disaster Reduction Plan of the People's Republic of China (1998- 2010). It has also helped to develop and coordinate policies and plans for national and local disaster reduction activities.

Motivated by the seriousness of the 1991 floods in China, the Chinese authorities recognized the need 'to integrate disaster reduction into the comprehensive plan for national economy and social development'. The Chinese National Centre for Natural Disaster Reduction has now been established within the Chinese Academy of Sciences. The centre compiles and analyses data on disasters, and passes the results to the State Council for decision-making responsibilities.

China experienced its worst floods in more than 100 years in 1999, which affected more than 300 million people. The floods galvanized more political commitment for the integration of risk and disaster prevention programmes into national social and economic planning. However, China believes that there were fewer losses during the 1999 floods in the Yangtze River Valley, despite higher water levels, because of the US$7.6 billion invested in water conservancy measures since the costly 1998 floods.

Source: CNC-IDNDR 1999

The 1990s was declared the International Decade for Natural Disaster Reduction (IDNDR), one of the principal goals of which was to inculcate a culture of disaster prevention through the wider application of known scientific and technological mechanisms by a better-informed population. In the words of United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan, 'We must, above all, shift from a culture of reaction to a culture of prevention. The humanitarian community does a remarkable job in responding to disasters. But the most important task in the medium and long-term is to strengthen and broaden programmes which reduce the number and cost of disasters in the first place. Prevention is not only more humane than cure, it is also much cheaper' (IDNDR 1999b). The IDNDR successfully placed risk reduction higher on the political agenda, as well as setting out a number of priorities to be undertaken by countries and regions in the 21st century.

An increasing number of governments and international organizations are promoting risk reduction as the only sustainable solution for reducing the social, economic and environmental impacts of disasters. Risk reduction strategies include:

  • vulnerability mapping;
  • identification of areas that are safe for settlement and development;
  • adoption of building codes based on disaster resilient engineering and on local hazard risk assessments; and
  • enforcing these plans and codes by economic and other incentives.

At the global level, the UN has established an International Strategy for Disaster Reduction (ISDR), a global platform aimed at helping all communities to become resilient to the effects of natural disasters and to proceed from protection against hazards to the management of risk through the integration of risk prevention into sustainable development. The strategy - based on the IDNDR experience and developments such as the 1994 Yokohama Strategy and Plan of Action for a Safer World and the 1999 Strategy 'A Safer World in the 21st Century: Disaster and Risk Reduction' - reflects a cross-sectoral and interdisciplinary approach to disaster reduction.

Prevention and preparedness to reduce the costs of disasters

The fundamental goal of the UNEP disaster management programme is to reinforce the centrality of environmental concerns in disaster management. The other cornerstone is the adoption of preventive strategies and practical measures to reduce the potential loss of human lives and property, as well as destruction of the environment.

The success of this approach depends on increasing public awareness of the risks that natural, technological and environmental hazards pose to societies, and on educating people about the value of existing approaches for prevention and preparedness. UNEP contributes to this process through its programmes on environmental law, early warning and assessment, and Awareness and Preparedness for Emergencies at Local Level (APELL).

UNEP's APELL programme, developed in conjunction with governments and industry, recognizes that the incidence and effects of environmental disasters can be reduced by prevention and preparedness initiatives at the local level. The APELL concept has been successfully introduced to more than 30 countries and in more than 80 industrial communities worldwide. The UNEP strategy includes the promotion of cleaner production processes and technologies, and helping countries establish cleaner production centres.

A major objective of the UNEP early warning and assessment programme is to evaluate the increasing vulnerability of human society due to widespread environmental and climatic change in order to emphasize the need for sound integrated environmental management, and to provide early warning of emerging threats for preparedness and response.

Implementation of the strategy, which is based on the establishment of partnerships between governments, non-governmental organizations, UN agencies, the scientific community and other stakeholders in the disaster reduction community, is an integral part of efforts aimed at promoting the overall goal of sustainable development. It is also an indispensable element in the search for solutions designed to counter the increasing threat posed by natural hazards (ISDR 1999).