7 October 2008


7 October 2008
Press Conference
Department of Public Information • News and Media Division • New York


“Making hospitals safe from disaster” was the theme of tomorrow’s International Day for Disaster Reduction, the Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and the Emergency Relief Coordinator, John Holmes, said this afternoon at a Headquarters press conference to make the announcement.

The second Wednesday of October was designated in 1989 to be the International Day, Mr. Holmes went on.  The purpose of the Day was to build a global culture of awareness that disaster reduction and climate change were connected and that “reduction” included prevention, mitigation and preparedness.  The theme of this year’s Day was the same as that of the 2008-2009 World Disaster Reduction Campaign that was part of the United Nations International Strategy for Disaster Reduction.

Explaining the strategy, Mr. Holmes said the seriousness of the subject of disaster reduction was demonstrated by statistics:  between January and June of this year alone, 230,000 people had been killed in natural disasters, the same as the number who had died in the Indian Ocean tsunamis of 2004 and 2005.  Overall, 130 million had been affected by those disasters.

Tomorrow marked the three-year anniversary of the tragic 7.6 magnitude earthquake that hit South Asia, particularly Pakistan, a disaster that had killed 73,000 people, injured 150,000 more and left over 3 million people homeless, many at very high altitudes as winter approached.  He said Pakistan’s Government had taken the lead in search-and-rescue, relief and recovery efforts, doing an “extremely good job” with the help of international assistance.  However, lessons had been learned.

The first was that the country’s disaster-management capacity was inadequate, he said.  A National Disaster Management Authority had been created, tasked not only with responding to disasters but also preparing for them and reducing the risks of them happening.  The building codes had also been rewritten and reinforced by taking strong measures to make sure they were implemented.

But the biggest lesson learned from Pakistan’s experience after the earthquake, he said, was that 388 out of 796 health facilities had been completely destroyed.  That was almost half the total number in the country.  Thousands of small health-care structures such as clinics had also been damaged.  In a matter of seconds, the earthquake had caused over $300 million damage to the health sector, the equivalent of nearly 60 per cent of Pakistan’s annual spending on health.

In short, he said, the theme of “making hospitals safe from disaster” had been chosen for this year’s Day and for the 2008-2009 Campaign because all disasters had health implications and placed great burdens on health facilities.  That made it necessary to ensure that health facilities functioned when they were needed, especially in the aftermath of disaster.  Damage to health facilities could also affect development long into the future, not just in the immediate aftermath of the disasters, he added.

Further, he said, hospitals were important for psychological purposes and in terms of producing shelter.  Often, they were sanctuaries for vulnerable people.  Their failure could cripple morale and cause political dissatisfaction.  Conversely, their continued existence could help put the return to normality, at the least, into the realm of the conceivable.

Finally, he said, making hospitals safe from disasters was cost-effective.  Protecting a new hospital from disaster added approximately 4 per cent to the overall construction cost.  Older hospitals could be retrofitted for approximately 1 per cent of their value, while preserving up to 90 per cent of the facility’s overall value.  “And the most expensive hospital is one that fails”, he added, not only because it failed to meet its purpose, but because it would have to be rebuilt.

Achieving the objective of making hospitals safe from disasters would require action on the part of the international community at every level, from Governments to United Nations agencies, non-governmental organizations and donor communities, he continued.  Notable progress had already been made through the International Strategy.  For example, Mexico’s Platform included a hospital safety index developed by the Pan American Organization and regional partners.

He went on to point out that Madagascar’s new national disaster plan, developed through a comprehensive programme that had involved the United Nations and the World Bank, had helped reduce the damage from hurricane Ivan.  Iran had allocated $4 million to building earthquake-safe classrooms and the same amount to building new safe school buildings.

In other progress on disaster reduction, he said countries were increasingly introducing better disaster-reduction legislation.  Regional leadership was improving.  Asian countries were holding annual meetings to ensure disaster response ministers helped and supported each other in implementing regional platforms.

He said the Secretary-General had made disaster reduction a priority and had held a ministerial meeting last week on the links between disaster-risk reduction and the climate change that was increasing the frequency and intensity of disasters.  One outcome had been an agreement that disaster-risk reduction must be incorporated into the climate change agenda.  The December discussions on climate change in Poznan, Poland, would emphasize risk reduction to ensure negotiators had those issues in mind as they went forward to craft a post-Kyoto Protocol climate agreement in Copenhagen the following year.

In response to a question, he said disaster-reduction measures were being implemented but not quickly enough, and often not before disaster hit.  For example, Cyclone Nargis had hit Myanmar this past May, a country that was unprepared for a disaster on that scale.  Bangladesh, on the other hand, which was hit by Cyclone Sidr in November 2007, had much experience with cyclones.  A very comprehensive series of measures had been put in place there to reduce the risks of disasters in terms of early warning, building shelters and erecting embankments to reduce damage and minimize human death and injury.

“Prevention is always better than cure”, he went on, saying a portion of assistance money should always be turned back into implementation of preventive measures.  Bangladesh’s Government had led those efforts, but United Nations development and humanitarian response programmes mainstreamed disaster reduction components into them.  “Building back better” was the guiding principle for assisting a country hit by a hurricane.

* *** *

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