Press Conference by International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies to Launch 'World Disasters Report 2009'

16 June 2009

Press Conference by International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies to Launch 'World Disasters Report 2009'

16 June 2009
Press Conference
Department of Public Information • News and Media Division • New York




While natural hazards were unavoidable, especially given the growing threat of climate change, they only became disasters when they exceeded community coping mechanisms, according to the World Disasters Report 2009 of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC).

In terms of the impact of natural hazards, 2008 had been one of the most devastating years, Trygve G. Nordby, IFRC Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Diplomacy, said at a Headquarters press conference to launch the report.  Accompanying him were Maarten van Aalst, Associate Director of the Red Cross/Red Crescent Climate Centre and Lead Climate Specialist; Simon Mason, Chief Science Researcher at Columbia University’s International Research Institute for Climate and Society; and Yvonne Clarke, Director-General of the Jamaica Red Cross.

Mr. Nordby said that the report, presented annually by IFRC since 1994, provided statistics and examined important issues in the context of disasters.  Its theme was part of the post-Bali and pre-Copenhagen processes aiming to replace the Kyoto Protocol to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change.  Climate change and disaster adaptation were at the centre of those discussions, whereas the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) had taken the lead in designing a common humanitarian position.  The International Centre for Disaster Resilience, which had launched a global assessment report and humanitarian platform, was debating the issue in Geneva this week.

Mr. van Aalst, reviewing key statistics and messages from the report, said that, according to the Centre for Research on the Epidemiology of Disasters, 326 natural disasters and 259 technological ones had been reported worldwide in 2008 -– the lowest figures for the decade in both cases.  However, the 235,736 reported killed by natural disasters was the second highest number of the decade, close to the peak of 2004.  In 2008, Cyclone Nargis had left more than 138,000 people dead or missing in Myanmar, and the Sichuan earthquake had killed nearly 87,500 people in China.  Those two disasters accounted for 93 per cent of all people dead or missing.  The nearly 7,000 people killed in technological disasters was, by contrast, the lowest number of the decade.

He said the number of people reported affected by natural disasters –- 213 million -– remained stable compared to the previous year and was below the decade’s average of 270 million.  By comparison, technological disasters had affected far fewer people, some 39,000.  Natural disasters in 2008 had cost $181 billion, the second highest amount of the decade, representing three quarters of the 2005 record, when Hurricane Katrina had caused damage amounting to almost $140 billion.  Behind those raw numbers on disasters, it was evident that disaster impacts were unevenly distributed, with developing countries most affected.

In fact, 76 per cent of disasters in 2008 had occurred in developing nations, he said, adding that the average for the past decade was 72 per cent, but developing countries had suffered 99 per cent of the deaths.  While 92 per cent of the people affected by natural disasters were in developing countries, only 65 per cent of the economic losses were suffered there, indicating that more assets were at risk in developed countries.  At the same time, it was clear that humanitarian impacts were far worse in developing countries, while the availability of insurance coverage was much greater in developed countries.  Individuals in developing countries had a 44 per cent greater chance of dying from disasters in 2008 than those in developed nations.

He said the necessary response was what the report called “early warning -- early action”.  Instead of waiting, it was crucial at least to prepare for disaster.  While risk could not be reduced to zero, failure could be minimized with greater investment in prevention.  An economic rationale for that argument was that for every $1 invested before a disaster occurred, $4 was saved afterwards.  For example, a few weeks or months ahead of a storm, given more scientific warnings to evacuate, it was possible actually to undertake evacuation drills.  A very recent example of the effectiveness of that approach had occurred on 27 May during the cyclone in Bangladesh.

A tragedy of massive proportions, it was also a tragedy averted, as 600,000 people had been evacuated to shelters, thanks to the Bangladesh Red Crescent Society, he said.  Through simple means, it had been able to provide warnings to villages.  It was not just about receiving a scientific warning, but about getting that information out to the people.  The last mile was a crucial component of any early warning system.  Radios could enable people on the backs of motorcycles with bullhorns to alert villagers.  It was about knowing what to do and being able to act.

Dr. Mason said the experts had become very good at forecasting the weather over the last couple of decades, making accurate predictions from a few days to even a few decades in advance.  Scientists tended to talk in complicated language, and one goal was to simplify that for Red Cross personnel on the ground.

Mr. van Aalst agreed that the challenge was not just obtaining the science, but translating it so that people in the field could use it effectively.  For example, Red Cross volunteers in Ghana had been able to warn fishermen and no one had been killed when a dam had spilled over.

Ms. Clarke said that the Caribbean, and more particularly Jamaica, was addressing the reality of climate change through early warning and early action, taking into account the tourism industry and the location of Jamaican hotels.  Sea level rise was an important concern.  Hurricane Ivan had washed away 2 metres of sand along the roadway to one of Jamaica’s two international airports, rendering it unusable for almost a week.  Both international airports were located on the coast.  Furthermore, damage by extreme weather events often affected the livelihoods of farmers and fisher-folk.  Scientists had done their part on early warning, while the Red Cross had “grasped the baton” and was off and running, building infrastructure and entering into partnerships, including at the national and community levels.

She said vulnerability and capacity assessment had become the hallmark of her early warning thrust as her office sought to reduce vulnerability by cleaning drains, building foot bridges, planting trees and strengthening houses against storm winds.  To facilitate the retrofitting and strengthening of houses, the Red Cross had developed a manual and trained carpenters, using the “build back better” methodology.  It had taught communities how to reduce their risks.  Community members had been trained to warn of hurricanes through the use of teams equipped with bullhorns.  They travelled around the villages warning residents, especially the elderly and other home-bound people, to evacuate.

Early warning and early action worked, she said, pointing out that no one was dying in many prepared communities that had previously suffered immensely from every weather system that hit the island.  As a result of extreme damage to houses, the Jamaica Red Cross had started a project of retrofitting roofs.  Hurricanes Dean and Gustav, although extremely powerful, had taken fewer lives and had had a lesser impact on those vulnerable communities.  However, 100 communities in Jamaica still required that type of intervention, in addition to the 40 being addressed this year.  “Climate change is here and now.”  Communities were not powerless, but there was a responsibility to act early.  More resources and investments were needed to tackle the more frequent and intense climate risks.  Early warning and early action energized communities and contributed to development.

Mr. Nordby added that the report contained key messages: the need to acknowledge the humanitarian consequences of climate change; that it was about local people, local governments and local civil society; the need to mainstream early warning -- early action in development efforts and in the humanitarian response; the need to recognize preparedness as a key element of adaptation; that Governments should be held accountable for the plight of their people, which required additional funding; and that the Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies and local chapters stood ready to work with partners.

Asked whether the United States had become better prepared since Hurricane Katrina, Jonathan Aiken, Media Director for the American Red Cross, said the country was better prepared at the state, local and federal levels in terms of realigning its relationships with regional governments.  It had taken a stronger role in coordinating responses in some vulnerable areas in terms of mass care, such as shelter and food.  There was also a wider communications net and better cooperative arrangements between the federal and state levels, as well as inter-state and intra-state.  In some cases, there was broader representation and cooperation between national societies working more closely with the Mexican Red Cross, for example, in disasters along the Texas-Mexico border or the wildfires affecting both California and Mexico.

Responding to questions about the El Niño forecast, Dr. Mason said it was likely to have a fairly important impact on the forecast in that there tended to be fewer hurricanes over the North Atlantic.  At the same time, El Niño could also suppress some of the weaker storms, and very important rainfall seasons for regions like the Caribbean could suffer.  A much clearer picture would emerge in the next month or two.

As for communicating predictions to Governments and decision-makers, Mr. van Aalst said the Federation did not keep warnings to itself.  In some cases, national authorities even got their alerts from IFRC and then contacted regional centres.

Regarding the panellists’ involvement in the Copenhagen and pre-Copenhagen process, he said the group had been working for 10 years to systematically advocate “this side” of the climate change problem.  It was constantly gathering facts about what it meant in factual and financial terms, in order to get the humanitarian consequences on that agenda.  There was presently an enormous draft, but IFRC was still trying to insert some key elements.

Mr. van Aalst said he was encouraged to see increasing attention being paid to adaptation over mitigation.  The Federation’s concern was to get humanitarian consequences and the humanitarian approach into the climate change agreement.  One important element was attention to the most vulnerable.  There were presently many references to the most vulnerable States, but the most vulnerable individuals within States should also be a priority.  Since it was not possible to prevent all problems through adaptation, and much of the protection for the most vulnerable would come after they had already been hit by some of the consequences, there must be space, not just for risk reduction, but also for disaster response.

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