Costly Australian floods highlight need for disaster mitigation planning, UN warns

Special Representative for Disaster Risk Reduction Margareta Wahlström. UN Photo/JC McIlwaine

29 December 2010 – With unpredictable and extreme weather the “new normal,” both developed and developing countries must plan ahead by anticipating the consequences of development or face increasing economic losses, according to the United Nations disaster mitigation secretariat.

Citing torrential rains that have severely flooded parts of north-eastern Australia with damage potentially reaching $1 billion, Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon’s Special Representative for Disaster Risk Reduction Margareta Wahlström today called for an urgent reappraisal of the human factor in so-called natural disasters, with particular focus on risk assessment.

“At the UN, our interest is to change the view that disasters are ‘natural’ and to cause people to accept that disasters are ‘man-made’ and must be planned for,” she said. “With planning, it will be possible to lessen the blow when storms or other hazards hit. If we carry on treating disasters as events disconnected to our actions, nothing will change. And we remain vulnerable to ever more costly damage.”

Ms. Wahlström heads the secretariat for the UN International Strategy for Disaster Reduction (UNISDR), a framework adopted by Member States in 2000 comprising numerous organizations, States, intergovernmental and non-governmental organizations (NGOs), financial institutions, technical bodies and civil society.

“With weather patterns becoming more unpredictable and extreme, costs of this magnitude may become commonplace in all parts of the world unless we urgently change the way we think about and react to disasters,” she said today, citing the $1 billion estimate.

“The key to reducing the impact of disasters is to anticipate the consequences of our economic and social development, and to ensure that risk assessments become a routine part of planning. Where are we exposing ourselves to unnecessary risk? In cases where risks are known, what can governments and communities do to make society more resilient? And how can everyday citizens contribute to building resilience?”

Earlier this month, Ms. Wahlström warned that heavy snowfalls immobilizing cities in Europe were an indication that the world may be ill prepared to cope with unpredictable climate patterns.

Throughout 2010, as part of its “Making Cities Resilient” campaign, UNISDR has been urging local governments to perform risk assessments, assign a budget for disaster risk reduction, maintain critical infrastructure that reduces risk, and ensure education and training in risk reduction.

In November, Ms. Wahlström visited Cairns in north-east Australia, the first city to join the campaign. Cairns is also the first city in Queensland State to have a purpose-built, category-5 cyclone disaster coordination centre. So far, 159 cities have joined the campaign, and will share their experiences at the Global Platform for Disaster Risk Reduction to be hosted by UNISDR in Geneva, from 8 to 13 May.


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