9 October 2007


9 October 2007
Press Conference
Department of Public Information • News and Media Division • New York


While children were especially vulnerable to the threats posed by natural hazards, particularly because of unsafe schools, they could be powerful agents of change if they knew how to prepare in advance, how to act on warnings and how to reduce risks, John Holmes, Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs, said today as he briefed correspondents in New York ahead of tomorrow’s International Day for Disaster Reduction, which would focus on children.

Mr. Holmes, who is also the United Nations Emergency Relief Coordinator, was joined at the Headquarters press conference by Mukesh Kapila, Special Representative of the Secretary-General of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies.

Mr. Holmes announced that the International Day theme -- “Disaster risk reduction begins at school” -- would highlight how to make schools safer and how to integrate disaster risk reduction and disaster preparedness into the school curriculum.  To help bring the message home, the United Nations International Strategy for Disaster Reduction (ISDR) had just published the book Towards a Culture of Prevention: Disaster Risk Reduction Begins at School, which contained 35 examples of how to make children safer in their classrooms.  ISDR had also developed a new video game called “Stop Disasters”, which aims at sensitizing children on basic notions of disaster risk reduction in a fun and entertaining manner.

He said the number of people threatened by natural disasters had increased by three times over the last 30 years and the number of people affected by natural disasters doubled every 10 years.  Tens of millions of people had been affected this year by floods in countries all over the world.  The link between the increase in disasters and climate change, which had been predicted by scientists, was unmistakable.  Also, more people were now living in exposed areas.  Some of the biggest cities in the world were built in disaster zones.  Their poorest inhabitants were living in slums near those disaster zones and were, therefore, even more vulnerable.  That could lead to “mega disasters in mega cities”.

Mr. Kapila said that his Federation, which had the largest network of volunteers in the world, with tens of millions of members in 185 countries, was a “proud member” of the International Strategy for Disaster Reduction alongside the United Nations.  Last year, natural disasters had wreaked some $35 billion in damages.  The term “natural disaster” was a misnomer.  There were natural hazards that, because of “weakness of society”, turned into disasters.  If trends continued, there would be some $100 billion yearly in damages.  Yet, countries invested less than 1 per cent of their gross domestic product in disaster preparedness and risk reduction.

He appealed to the world leaders to show leadership and upgrade efforts for disaster prevention and reduction.  For some ordinary communities, climate change already meant a daily struggle with life and death.  Especially at the local level, small things could make a big difference.  The big disasters grabbed the headlines, but most disasters were smaller and attracted little attention.  Yet, those small disasters added up to more misery than the big ones.  While thinking globally, small-scale actions needed support.  His Federation’s Global Alliance for Disaster Risk Reduction would increase risk reduction actions by 30 per cent over the next three to four years.

Answering a correspondent’s question, Mr. Holmes said the elderly, as well as the disabled, also belonged to the most vulnerable groups during disasters.  Strategies for the elderly in conflict situations and natural disasters were being “mainstreamed”.  However, educating children in school about disaster prevention, risk reduction and awareness would produce a whole new generation better equipped to deal with the issue.

Asked if genocide, as a humanitarian disaster, was part of his concern, Mr. Holmes answered that protection of civilians was part of the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs’ focus.  Genocide was a failure to protect civilians.  It was, however, not only his responsibility.  There was also a Special Adviser on Genocide and Other Mass Atrocities.  However, genocide was in a slightly different category than natural disasters.

The goal of raising $450 million in 2008 for the Central Emergency Response Fund was indeed achievable, he answered to another question.  Nearly $400 million had been raised for 2007.  It was a matter of persuading existing donors to give more, and finding new donors.  More than 75 countries had contributed.  More donors had to be found, because disasters affected all countries.  It was not a matter of North-South or rich-poor.  This year had seen 13 flash appeals for natural disasters, which was three more than the last annual record.

Asked about citizen and community preparedness campaigns, such as having a disaster kit ready, Mr. Holmes said there were global campaigns, but what really mattered was the action taken at the community level.  It would make a real difference at the community level, if people knew where to run, knew where to get shelter and received the early warning.

Mr. Kapila added that risk reduction was as important as disaster preparedness.  Communities could also take action to become more secure, to diminish the impact of a disaster.  That might include such tings as strengthening the infrastructure of houses.

He would never claim complete success in addressing the consequences of disasters, Mr. Holmes said, after a correspondent noted to the President of Pakistan’s claim that the response to the earthquake two years ago had been a “complete success”.  Just after the disaster, which as in all disasters was characterized by chaos, mistakes had been made by everybody.  However, there had been a two-year-long ongoing and successful operation in reconstructing houses and communities.  As for the disparaging remarks made about Mr. Holmes by one member of the Government, he said the Government had disassociated itself from those remarks.

Asked about the situation in Myanmar regarding delivery of humanitarian aid and access to prisoners, Mr. Holmes said the recent events did not constitute a new humanitarian crisis, as a massive displacement of people had not occurred.   The Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs continued its current humanitarian programmes, which were targeted at ethnic tribes near the country’s borders.

Answering a question about New Orleans and Hurricane Katrina, Mr. Kapila said that the risk reduction model approach applied to all.  The lesson learned was that, by not involving the local leadership, a hazard had turned into a disaster, and a small disaster into a major catastrophe.  One way of preventing future disasters was to rebuild better, Mr. Holmes added.

* *** *

For information media • not an official record
For information media. Not an official record.