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Red Cross Says Preparation Can Mitigate The Toll Of Disasters

"Building stronger resilience to disasters is not only about reducing the loss of life but also about cutting the financial impact of natural calamities" - Margareta Wahlstrom. Photo courtesy of AFP.
by Ian Timberlake
Singapore (AFP) Nov 20, 2006
Disasters cannot be prevented but community preparation and education can help mitigate their deadly toll, Red Cross officials said Monday at a conference taking place in the world's most disaster-prone region.

More than 200 delegates from 46 Red Cross and Red Crescent societies around the Asia-Pacific and Middle East regions have gathered for the conference, held every four years to discuss disaster preparedness strategy and to set the group's humanitarian agenda.

"Sixty percent of the world's disasters occur in Asia and the Pacific, and it is a region where tensions and conflicts are a common and persistent feature," Juan Manuel Suarez del Toro Rivero, the Spanish president of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, told delegates in his opening address.

In one of the deadliest natural disasters ever, more than 220,000 people died in December 2004 when a tsunami struck Indonesia and other nations around the Indian Ocean.

Another 74,000 people died and 3.5 million were left homeless from a massive South Asian earthquake in October 2005.

This year disasters continued their destruction when a landslide in the Philippines, an earthquake and tsunami in Indonesia, and a typhoon that lashed China and Vietnam together claimed thousands more lives.

Rivero told AFP that, while saving lives is important in the immediate aftermath of a disaster, "it is also very important to make all the necessary tools available so that in the next disaster... the population and communities are stronger, so that they are better prepared and they know how to defend themselves better, how to organize themselves better."

Bangladesh has shown that readiness saves lives, said Simon Missiri, head of the Asia-Pacific department of the international Red Cross.

The 20,000 volunteers in the Bay of Bengal cyclone preparedness program teach first aid and evacuation procedures, and also help sound the alarm and get people to safety when cyclones hit, Missiri said.

He said that a severe cyclone killed about 100,000 people there in the 1980s but after the volunteer program took effect the death toll was greatly reduced when another devastating storm hit several years ago.

"It's because of this early warning, and the population being prepared," Missiri said of the effectiveness in cutting casualties.

Margareta Wahlstrom, UN Assistant secretary general for humanitarian affairs, said Japan's earthquake and tsunami early warning system is another example of good preparedness.

"You have a very well educated population who knows what the risks are and what to do about avoiding them and minimizing the impact," she told AFP in an interview.

She said building stronger resilience to disasters is not only about reducing the loss of life but also about cutting the financial impact of natural calamities.

"They are huge. They undermine many countries' investments for a better future," said Wahlstrom, a former Red Cross official.

"For sure with good preparedness you save five to seven times the cost of the impact of the disaster."

Winston Choo, the retired general who chairs the Singapore Red Cross, said a major aim of the conference is to refine procedures so Red Cross societies are better organized and prepared to respond.

"We cannot prevent disasters," he said. "What we hope to do is to be more proactive, to be better prepared so that we can react better, faster."

Mohammed Al-Hadid, chairman of the standing commission of the Red Cross and Red Crescent, told delegates to listen to the grassroots.

"Top-down approaches need to give way to more inclusive culturally sensitive approaches that are fully accountable to beneficiaries," he said. "If we lose touch with the day-to-day realities in communities around the world, our work is left in a void."

Source: Agence France-Presse

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