As we commemorate the anniversary of the Wenchuan earthquake in Sichuan province, which is also designated as National Disaster Reduction Day in China, it is timely to reflect on how we can reduce the risk of such devastation in the future.
We all hope China will never experience another Wenchuan, but Japan's recent earthquake and tsunami are a sobering reminder that around the world catastrophic events continue to threaten the lives of millions, while, less immediate disasters - such as prolonged drought - erode the livelihoods of many more. No country is immune to the elements.
In recent decades, the frequency and intensity of natural disasters has escalated and many experts predict this rise in climate-induced extreme weather events will continue in the future. However, the human and economic costs of natural disasters could be mitigated if we reduced our vulnerability to such hazards.
In China, natural disasters impose staggering human and economic costs. In 2010 alone, disasters affected some 430 million people, killing nearly 8,000 and destroying 3 million homes. Direct economic losses exceeded 500 billion yuan ($77 billion) and nearly 40 million hectares of crops were damaged.
But as UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon stressed at the General Assembly's inaugural debate on disaster risk reduction in February, disasters are as much man-made as they are natural and unplanned urbanization and environmental degradation add to the challenges facing governments around the world.
Poverty is a fundamental cause of people's vulnerability to the power of nature. The poor often live in areas that are ecologically fragile, reside in substandard housing, are susceptible to disease and have few options to cope with the loss of productive assets. Inappropriate development processes and/or weak governance may also exacerbate disaster risks.
Disasters compound the effects of impoverishment, stretching poor communities beyond their limits. Meanwhile, the pressures of disaster recovery may divert public resources away from poverty reduction efforts and development may be disrupted - or even reversed - for years.
We therefore need to view disasters as a fundamental threat to development and place development at the core of disaster prevention. This means not only building poverty reduction into post-disaster recovery efforts, but also integrating disaster risk-reduction strategies into broader development processes. As China recognized in its 2009 White Paper on Disaster Reduction, this needs to occur at both the national and local levels.
In the three years since the Wenchuan earthquake, China has made tremendous progress in exploring ways to help vulnerable groups avoid lapsing into poverty and to build resilience to future disasters.