Securing lifelines for disaster

By Vinod Thomas and Ronald S. Parker
0 CommentsPrint E-mail China Daily, August 17, 2010
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The frequency and intensity of natural disasters have been on the rise in recent decades. This year alone, a catastrophic earthquake has devastated Haiti, a far stronger quake battered Chile, and yet another quake brought destruction to the Chinese province of Qinghai. Disasters caused by tropical storms and heavy rain have been increasing most rapidly.

Pakistan has suffered massive loss of lives and economic damage from what is being described as the worst flood in decades, and most recently massive mudslides in northwestern China claimed hundreds of lives and destroyed infrastructure and property. This tragic sequence of events is yet another demonstration that disasters are recurrent, and therefore, national development planning should always involve increasing resilience and readiness over time.

The recent calamities not only caused casualties, but also triggered emergency relief intended to address the life-threatening problems of survivors. Therein lies a lesson worth taking more to heart going forward. Very often urgent care could not be provided because critical care facilities were no longer functioning, or there was no way to access services. While headlines focus on damage, not enough attention is paid to reconstruction efforts and the importance of ensuring functioning lifelines - notably potable water and first aid - during disasters.

Making human settlements more prepared to face extreme natural events is a continuous process. But much can be achieved in the immediate term by making vital installations, such as hospitals and emergency shelters, more disaster-resistant with uninterrupted power supply, a network of protected access routes, and secure provisions for safe water and sanitation. In too many places, facilities that are essential for an effective response are tied to networks that are almost guaranteed to fail.

In Haiti, Chile and other countries, potable water could not be provided to victims in reasonable time, and emergency medical facilities dropped off-line just when needed most. The ability to take early action in critical care has a cascading impact on the whole recovery process. Where basic connectivity to emergency medical care and water continues, reconstruction is that much easier - there are more able-bodied individuals when it is time to pick up the pieces.

It is unfortunate that the increase in disaster incidence and severity is taking place just as the population density is increasing rapidly in many vulnerable urban areas. Notwithstanding that increased density is a major cause of rising damage levels, disaster damage can sometimes be relatively light even in dense settlements if effective prevention measures have been taken. Chile's relatively low level of damage given the severity of its earthquake is of interest to all. We see hopeful signs elsewhere too, that public officials are realizing the importance of emphasizing prevention when dealing with relief.

Bangladesh, subject to annual floods and to massive losses of life, has improved its ability to provide early warning systems and hurricane shelters, and evacuate people from areas most at risk. As a result, while the cyclone and floods of November 1970 took the lives of 300,000 people, a similar size storm in May 1997 claimed 188 lives in contrast.

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