Traditional ways of helping world's disaster victims called 'all wrong'

Over the past decade, natural disasters have cost 2 million lives, $47 billion worth of damage, and wiped out years of laborious development in some of the world's poorest countries.

The stock response to earthquakes or typhoons, floods or other catastrophes has been the urgent appeal, the rallying of helpful donors, the mobilizing of voluntary agencies and the army, the arrival of tents and blankets, the bulldozing of unsightly ruins, the removal of distraught survivors - and the world breathing a collective sigh of relief.

But, according to a controversial new study from the United Nations, the stock response is all wrong.

The study comes from the UN Disaster Relief Organization (UNDRO) here in Geneva and is based on 11 case studies over the last 20 years. All but one are earthquakes.

The UNDRO study says that instead of being incapacitated by their ordeal, survivors are incredibly resilient; that foreign disaster assistance should be kept to a minimum; and that, instead of being removed, survivors should be encouraged to embark on reconstruction immediately, using the remains of their homes for material.

This major break with conventional wisdom has caused an angry dispute between UNDRO, which coordinates all UN emergency relief aid, and the Geneva-based League of Red Cross Societies, which acts as focal agency for 128 national Red Cross societies. So sweeping are the UNDRO conclusions, so critical of the standard approach, that the Red Cross refused to cooperate with the study.

''There are a thousand things we disagree with,'' said a Red Cross spokesman here, refusing any further comment. Undeterred, the authors of the UNDRO study have drawn the following conclusions:

* Despite the image of efficient foreign aid, almost all disaster relief is provided by locals. After an earthquake struck Guatemala in 1976, killing 27,000 people and destroying 385,000 houses, foreign aid amounted to only $25 million of the $750 million required. Within hours, survivors had improvised 50,000 makeshift shelters.

* The reaction of the national government is almost always inappropriate. In Guatemala, the government left reliefin the hands of a small army of foreign agencies. The result was chaos. At the other extreme, when a 1972 earthquake destroyed Nicaragua's capital, Managua, survivors were forcibly removed to camps , and ruins were bulldozed and closed off - actions that, warns the report, ''can turn survivors into refugees'' and destroy morale.

* Relief agencies are often too busy justifying themselves to contributors and competing against one another to mount an effective operation.

* Voluntary agencies are ''well-intentioned but lack professionalism,'' said Ludo Van Essche, the UNDRO official responsible for the report. In a recent interview he pointed out that of the 40 agencies working in Guatemala in 1976, none of the senior officials had had prior training in disaster relief. ''Each time a disaster occurs, everyone has to begin again,'' he said.

* The type of shelter usually flown in arrives late, is costly, and is inappropriate to local conditions, seriously hampering the problems of reconstruction.

Two examples: Following the 1972 earthquake in Nicaragua, the United States government provided 11,000 wooden shelters at a cost of $3 million; initially only 30 percent were used; more survivors moved in only when roads and other services were provided. In Turkey in 1973, when 463 polyurethane igloos were flown in to the city of Lice after an earthquake, the occupancy rate was only 10 percent; most were used for storing goods and animals.

* Most disasters can be anticipated and their effects mitigated by careful use of land and sensible building techniques.

Shantytowns are likely to be most vulnerable, because of their population density and haphazard siting. Some slums are doubling every 15 years because of the influx of poor from rural areas. Many of the casualties in Guatemala in 1976 occurred when squatters plunged to their deaths down the sides of ravines where they had built huts.

This leads to the key recommendation in the UNDRO study. Mr. Van Essche conceded that it will be hard to stockpile building materials in preparation for a disaster in poor countries where such materials are in short supply. But, he said, a ''progressive'' housing policy, which provides security of tenure for squatters and caters to the poor, will lead to ''active stockpiling.'' This means, he said, ideas, materials, and techniques will be in circulation and automatically available when disaster strikes.

The report also implies that socialist regimes may be better able to prepare than capitalist. Following the 1963 earthquake in Skopje, Yugoslavia, which lies on a seismic fault, the government redesigned the city to make open parks out of danger areas and ensure that appartments could be evacuated quickly.

In capitalist countries, however, just talking of the possibility of disaster causes tremors in land prices, and local authorities rather than national governments usually have the ultimate say over how land is used.

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