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In Jeanne's wake, new efforts to prevent 'natural' disasters

Experts say aid priorities should include preparation and risk reduction as well as emergency relief.

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It is of little consolation to the 200,000 Haitians left homeless by hurricane Jeanne, or to the relatives of the 2,400 estimated dead, but next door in the Dominican Republic, the same wind and rain killed just 11 people.

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Nor does it help the survivors of last December's earthquake in the Iranian city of Bam, which killed 27,000 people and destroyed 90 percent of the houses there, to know that an earthquake just as strong and just as deep struck the California's community of San Simeon four days earlier. Two people died and 40 homes were damaged.

Just as US homes were better built than Iranian ones, Dominicans were better prepared to withstand a hurricane than their Haitian neighbors.

"There is no such thing as a natural disaster," says Jonathan Walter, a disaster expert with the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies. "So often it is human causes that underlie the catastrophes."

"A natural hazard becomes a disaster when people do the wrong things," adds Sálvano Briceño, head of the UN International Strategy for Disaster Reduction. "In Haiti, vulnerabilities were allowed to pile up so much that the catastrophe was no surprise. People were putting themselves in harm's way."

Unfortunately, more and more people - especially in the world's poorest countries - are suffering the consequences of not being prepared for hazards, say analysts at the Centre for Research on the Epidemiology of Disasters (CRED) in Brussels. Recent studies have shown that preventative measures can be much more cost effective than recovery efforts, prompting some in the international community to call for a reassignment of aid priorities.

"There has been no increase in the number of hazards" over the past 30 years, "but a great increase in the number of people affected by them," says David Hargitt, a CRED researcher, "because more people are living in precarious situations."

Thirty years ago, says Mr. Hargitt, there were 497 reported natural disasters - hazards that took a significant human toll - between 1974 and 1978. The last five years have seen 1,897 of them, a nearly threefold increase. Between 1974 and 1978, 195 million people were killed by such disasters or needed emergency aid; there were 1.5 billion such victims in the past five years.

The trend threatens to continue, demographers warn. Over the next 20 years, 90 percent of the population increase in developing countries is expected in cities. That means more unplanned slums of the sort engulfed by mudslides in Venezuela five years ago that killed 30,000 people.

Unplanned slums in the Haitian town of Gonaives, where nearly a quarter of a million people are now homeless, were only one of the catastrophe's causes.

Experts describe Haiti, the poorest country in the hemisphere, as an example of everything going wrong.

Because nobody planned the way land is used, people were living in areas vulnerable to flooding. They were made even more vulnerable by the way people have cut down most of the forest in Haiti for fuel, which left the hills unprotected against mudslides.

Because the country is poor and disorganized - in the grip of corrupt dictatorship or political instability for decades - the civil defense forces could not warn people early enough of the coming storm. Nobody had done any contingency planning, so people did not know where to go when the rains arrived.

"One of the main problems was that people did not know how to react to the disaster," says Javier Castellanos, a Red Cross disaster reduction specialist in the Caribbean.

The chaos in Haiti illustrates the link between poverty and disasters. While an average of just 18 people in highly developed countries died per disaster over the last decade, 555 citizens of the least developed were killed whenever disaster struck, according to a recent 'World Disasters Report', published by the Red Cross.

It does not necessarily cost more to reduce disaster risks beforehand than to pay for emergency aid afterwards, according to experts. A recent study by the World Bank and the US Geological Survey found that economic losses from disasters worldwide could have been cut by $280 billion in the 1990's by spending one seventh of that amount on prevention and risk- reduction measures.

Sometimes it is just a question of organization. Cuba gets high marks for the way the government runs hurricane preparedness exercises every year and ensures that neighborhood committees know when and where to evacuate people.

Other simple measures require nothing more than forethought: After two devastating earthquakes in Turkey in 1999, a study by a local university concluded that 25,000 injuries could have been prevented if large pieces of furniture and other tall heavy objects likely to fall over had been secured to a wall.

Local communities can help themselves by organizing early warning networks, and governments have a role to play by ensuring sensible land use, preventing unplanned urban sprawl, applying conservationist environmental policies, and rebuilding only in safe places after disasters.

Because disasters can wipe out 20 years' worth of economic development in days - as Honduras discovered after Hurricane Mitch in 1998 - "risk reduction has to be built into development projects from the start," argues the UN's Mr. Briceño, who will be running a World Conference on Disaster Reduction next January in Kobe, Japan.

At that conference, he says, he hopes to persuade developing country governments "to make risk impact assessments as much a feature of development projects as environmental impact assessments have become."

He also hopes to change donor country attitudes. "At the moment they keep their money to allocate when there is an emergency," he says. "It is nice to be on TV, seen to be helping. But is it the right kind of help?"

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