Juha I. Uitto
Island Network on Natural Disaster Risk Management
United Nations University
Paper presented at an International Symposium on "Small Islands and Sustainable Development" organized by the United Nations University and the National Land Agency of Japan.
Each year natural disasters exert a heavy toll on human life
and property. The United Nations estimates that, in the past 20
years, nearly three million lives have been lost to natural
disasters, and some 800 million people have been affected (Katayama
Despite technological advances in forecasting, early warning,
housing and disaster management services, natural disasters
continue to claim lives and cause severe losses of property.
Amongst the factors that have rendered societies even more
vulnerable to natural hazards feature the increased urbanization in
developing countries, and the invasion of coastal areas by
agricultural, residential and industrial activities (Burton et al.
Natural disaster mitigation is essential for sustainable
development, because the effects of disasters pose heavy strains on
development efforts and divert funds from other needed purposes.
In many developing countries, natural disasters, such as
cyclones, floods, landslides, drought, volcanic eruptions and
earthquakes, are recurrent events. Yet, often little is or can be
done to enhance the preparedness and to minimize the risk.
Although disasters may equally hit industrialized countries, the
generally good quality of structures, and preparedness and response
strategies tend to moderate the losses.
Losses due to natural disasters cannot be nullified, but they
may be mitigated by integrating new and existing knowledge, and by
managing risk through various structural and non-structural
strategies. International cooperation is needed to meet the
challenge of this ever present and complex problem.
In response to the recognized need for better preparedness and
response strategies towards natural disaster mitigation, the United
Nations University (UNU), together with the World Seismic Safety
Initiative (WSSI), the International Centre for Disaster Mitigation
Engineering (INCEDE) of the University of Tokyo, and Stanford
University, has initiated the Global Network on Natural Disaster
Natural Disasters, Small Islands and Sustainable Development
Small islands are particularly vulnerable to natural disasters
of various type. Most islands are regularly subjected to cyclone
hazards, and many are of volcanic origin. Small island economies
are generally less-diversified in their production and export
structures due to their small size, as well as a narrow range of
human and non-human resources and markets. Furthermore, small
island coastal zones take a particularly prominent place in
physical geography rendering them increasingly vulnerable. These
limited areas must host a frequently dense population, urban
centres and agriculture. Natural disasters, therefore, tend to
have relatively more severe impacts on their economies than in
larger countries (Kakazu 1994; May 1994; Obasi 1995).
In spite of sometimes relatively high GDP per capita, the
economies of small island nations tend to be extremely vulnerable
(Briguglio 1993). To take an example, if a tropical cyclone passes
through a small island nation destroying its sugar-can crop, as
well as some of the infrastructure, the impact on the national
economy will be dramatic and felt over an extended period. In
1985, when four typhoons swept through Fiji, the country lost about
thirty percent of its agricultural production, including eighty
percent of the tree crops. The sugar-cane industry was also
heavily affected, with consequent negative effects on the
employment. The case demonstrates the vulnerability of a small
island economy, especially in view of the dependence on a single
agricultural product (Blaikie et al. 1994).
One of the early regions where GLO-DISNET has been launched is
the Pacific. In September 1994, disaster managers and concerned
researchers from twelve Pacific Island Countries (PICs) gathered in
Fiji to a 'Workshop on Opportunities for Disaster Reduction in
Pacific Island Countries.' The meeting provided an opportunity for
initiating plans for GLO-DISNET implementation on a regional basis.
Networking for Natural Disaster Mitigation
The GLO-DISNET approach taken will be multi-hazard and
multi-faceted, ranging from disaster preparedness through response
strategies to community recovery. The focus will be on assisting
developing countries in managing risks associated with natural
disasters through research, capacity building and information.
The objective of the Network is to initiate, implement and
encourage the development of programmes to manage and reduce the
risks of property and environmental damage and human suffering
often associated with natural disasters. It is recognized that a
substantial body of knowledge and experiences in natural disaster
management exist in the world, both within the disaster management
and engineering communities, as well as in academia. While many of
the needs are country-specific, and the best experts are the local
people, there are a number of areas where knowledge and experiences
can be transferred from country to country. Still, mane
technologies are available only in the industrialized countries.
GLO-DISNET will incorporate a country-specific approach to
identify key vulnerable hazardous areas in each concerned country,
and apply the successful experience of one country to another where
conditions are similar. GLO-DISNET intends to mobilize the
considerable experiences vested in the participating institutions
and countries around the world.
GLO-DISNET intends to tap into, build upon and disseminate
this body of wisdom vested around the world.
GLO-DISNET Functions and Mode of Operation
GLO-DISNET will focus primarily on initiating research and
training programmes in developing countries, particularly in areas
where natural disaster risk remains highest. The Network will also
provide information on research and development on natural hazards
currently conducted worldwide.
In recognition of the fact that each country and locality
holds with it its own peculiar environmental, economic, social and
cultural conditions, GLO-DISNET will incorporate a country-specific
approach to identify key vulnerable hazardous areas in each
concerned country, and apply the successful experience of one
country to another where conditions are similar.
In practical terms, the Network will (i) develop a general
framework for global research and training programmes involving
natural disaster management using a multidisciplinary, geographical
approach to research; (ii) bring together related research on
natural disaster reduction under a single international network;
(iii) increase interaction among interested researchers for the
purposes of promoting related research and training, reduce
research overlap, and promote a comparative approach; (iv) create
a global database of research findings pertaining to natural
disaster reduction and management for the purposes of dissemination
to interested parties, including UN bodies and organizations; and
(v) provide reliable, detailed information for operative
environmental management, risk management and response strategies
to effectively work to reduce the risks of natural disasters.
A central task of GLO-DISNET will be training and capacity
building in developing countries. The main target groups of these
activities are researchers, government officials and professionals
involved in natural disaster management in their respective
countries. The training and capacity building activities will be
practical and problem-oriented. They will be implemented through
joint projects by the partners.
GLO-DISNET will also encompass a public education function.
It will perform this function by informing the general public,
local communities and NGOs of research efforts and results through
electronic, audio-visual and other means. Emphasis will be placed
on promoting knowledge and information about risk management in
relation to natural disasters through public media. NGOs will be
encouraged to undertake their own programmes on global and local
environmental issues based on information provided by UNU.
GLO-DISNET is a new initiative. It is being by the initiating
partners at various fora. Lessons from the Pacific islands support
the integrated approach adopted by GLO-DISNET (e.g. Vrolics 1994).
It is recognized that, while the disasters themselves may vary in
type, the strategies for coping with them must cover all disasters
in a holistic manner. Hazard management and hazard assessment are
essential tools to be adopted in a multidisciplinary manner.
Similarly, international cooperation is needed to support the
information exchange, preparedness and training functions. It is,
nevertheless, important to remember that disaster risk management
is not only a technical matter. It has a strong socio-economic,
political and cultural dimension. While much can achieved through
cooperation, each national is unique by way of its hazard
structure, culture, infrastructure, level of education, economic
means, etc. The professional concerned with disaster risk
management will be working for and with the community affected by
the risk of natural disasters.
The Fiji Workshop identified possible action areas where
international cooperation would be beneficial and where GLO-DISNET
may play a role. These include: building standards; land-use
management; the agricultural sector; infrastructure (or lifelines);
telecommunications; and risk assessment. In all of these fields,
information exchange, technical assistance, and training and
capacity building can make a difference.
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