Nations have ability to lessen impact of natural disasters. National Academy of Sciences urges UN to start 10-year plan

The world is being challenged to reject the notion that high death tolls and heavy economic losses from natural disasters cannot be avoided. That is the thrust of a new report from the National Academy of Sciences, which calls for a concerted global effort to reduce casualties and damage from earthquakes, volcanoes, wildfires, tornadoes, hurricanes, landslides, and tidal waves (tsunamis).

``The magnitude of the problem worldwide might seem to defy solution,'' the report says. ``Yet hazard reduction successes clearly show that heavy losses at the hands of nature are not inevitable.''

Last week's earthquake in Los Angeles illustrates the point. To be sure, the quake left seven dead, more than $125 million in damage, and some 1,500 people homeless. But local officials and scientists add that the losses in human life and property could have been thousands of times greater had it not been for preparations made during the last few decades, including stiffer building codes, improved emergency preparedness and response procedures, and better monitoring of dangerous sites.

There have been plenty of these local successes around the world, the study notes, including some that involve cooperation among several countries, such as the tsumani warning network among countries that ring the Pacific Ocean.

But the spotty efforts have not been enough. During the past 20 years, natural disasters have killed 2.8 million people; left 280 million others injured, homeless, or otherwise affected; and caused $25 billion to $100 billion in property damage.

These figures don't take into account the broader losses to local and national economies that result, especially in developing countries.

The problem is likely to worsen, the study warns, as population growth, migration to cities, and spending on big-ticket development projects such as factories, dams, and power plants increases. Indeed, the losses from natural disasters have been growing despite progress in understanding how to deal with them, according to the authors.

``A lot of the basic science is already known, but it needs to be transferred to local officials,'' says Bruce Bolt, a geology professor at the University of California at Berkeley, who was a member of the committee that produced the report.

The study makes four main recommendations. They include:

A UN resolution declaring an International Decade of Natural Hazard Reduction, beginning in 1990. The object would be to look at what is currently known about hazard reduction, speed its application, and increase research in areas where gaps in knowledge remain.

The establishment in the United States, and presumably in other countries as well, of a national decade for hazard reduction.

A strong effort to encourage as many countries as possible to participate.

UN participation as the main vehicle for implementing the decade-long program globally.

The report calls on the UN to hold an international planning meeting as early as possible next year to set up an institutional framework and define the objectives of the effort.

The project has earned the support of a broad spectrum of international scientific bodies, as well as of scientific and professional organizations in countries such as Japan, Argentina, Mexico, Canada, Thailand, and the US, among others.

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