A call to prevent, rather than relieve, disasters

It is largely man's environmental mismanagement that makes worldwide hazards out of droughts, famine, floods, hurricanes, and earthquakes, says Jon Tinker, director of Earthscan, an international environment and development information service.

Urging emphasis on prevention rather than after-the-event relief, he further contends that environmental mismanagement is the fundamental cause of the world's present conflicts - revolution, surges of refugees, civil war, and superpower confrontations.

Mr. Tinker spoke recently to the World Affairs Council of Northern California. He was here in conjunction with a press seminar on third-world environmental problems and their effect on California, which was funded by the US Agency for International Development and the Gannett Foundation.

Tinker's observations are based on his research in third-world countries and include these four basic points:

* Certain flood and famine crises are actually caused by man.

* The human impact of all these is magnified by environmental mismanagement.

* Vulnerability to disasters is highest in the third world, where vast poverty compounds such troubles.

* For all of these reasons, the impact on society of devastating food, weather, geologic and geographical conditions is constantly growing.

Drought, famine, and flood are largely made worse because of mismanagement. ''Floods in India,'' he offers as an example, ''are triggered by monsoons but caused by deforestation and soil erosion.'' They are further aggravated by the fact that masses of poor largely crowd into the only land they can afford, which is often the undesirable flood plain.

''As population grows and the environment deteriorates, so poverty deepens and desperate people search for a way out,'' he said. That phenomenon has influenced conflicts like: The rise of the Sandinistas in the wake of corruption of the 1972 earthquake relief; the resentment of religious leaders with the Shah's blankets-and-tents relief after the 1978 Tabas quake - resentment that was part of the cause for the revolution; the fall of Haile Selassie after the 1974 famine in Ethiopia; the civil war that created Bangladesh after Pakistan failed to respond to the needs of the Bangladesh cyclone in 1970.

''The disaster is not so much the event itself as the damage it causes to people, and that can be magnified and intensified by human and environmental mismanagement,'' Tinker said.

''Far too often,'' he suggested, ''disaster relief is part of the problem rather than part of the solution. . . . One of the myths about disasters is that after an earthquake or a flood, or during a famine, people sit around in numbed helplessness waiting for helicopters to come in with blankets and food. The truth is almost exactly the opposite: It is the delivery of food and blankets which causes this dependence and inactivity.''

He offered the example of the 1976 Guatemalan earthquake in which the Red Cross raised $850,000 for 3,000 tents for the town of San Martin. ''In fact, the Guatemalan Army had to march people into the camps at gunpoint. They left soon afterwards. They wanted to be near their possessions and their livestock,'' he noted.

''I do not say such examples are typical. But they are not all that unusual either,'' Tinker said. Some foreign assistance is actually harmful. Like the bulldozing of Managua earthquake ruins to make room for reconstruction, when the stones of every two collapsed buildings could be used to build one new one.

A study by the Swedish Red Cross and Earthscan shows an increase in these conditions from the 1960s to the 1970s - 50 percent more and 50 percent more people affected. But casualties - because of combined crisis conditions - increased sixfold during the same period.

The Western press is largely responsible, he contends, for the focus on disaster relief rather than disaster prevention. Charity can become ''patronizing'' to ease guilt, he said. ''Western coverage of disasters, in a natural attempt to make the suffering relevant to people back home, tends to focus on the arrival of aid.''

Some foreign relief groups are focusing on prevention programs, he said, like helping a flood prone village to build concrete bases to their homes rather than stockpiling blankets against the next flood.

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