Disasters Undercut Millennium Development Goals
By Patricia Grogg
The social and economic impacts of natural disasters are increasing, warn experts. In Cuba alone, hurricanes resulted in losses of 2.3 billion dollars in 2005.
HAVANA, (Tierramérica).- If the countries of Latin America and the Caribbean don't work on reducing the risks of natural disasters they will fail to meet the United Nation Millennium Developent Goals, warned international experts at the VII International Congress on Disasters, in Havana.
"We have made progress in reducing mortality, but the number of people affected and the economic losses associated with cataclysms grows," said Francisco Arias, acting coordinator of the UN system in Cuba, in an address to disaster experts from 27 countries attending the Jun. 13-16 congress.
From 1970 to 1999 there were some 900 disasters in the Americas, with an annual costs ranging from 700 million to 3.0 billion dollars, 148 million people directly affected and eight million homes destroyed, among other losses.
In 2005, the direct and indirect impacts on Cuba of hurricanes Dennis, Wilma and Rita cost the Caribbean island more than 2.3 billion dollars, according to official estimates. The year before, hurricane Ivan thrashed the tiny island of Granada, leaving behind 889 million dollars in losses -- more than double that country's gross domestic product.
"Progress in development is destroyed, the economy tumbles and poverty increases. The United Nations Development Program (UNDP) believes that if we don't take into account disaster reduction we will not achieve the development goals proposed for 2015," Arias added.
The eight Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), approved by the UN General Assembly in New York in 2000, are: halve the proportion of people (based on 1990 numbers) living in poverty and halve the number of people suffering from hunger; achieve universal primary education; promote gender equality; reduce child mortality by two-thirds and maternal mortality by three-quarters; fight the spread of HIV/AIDS, malaria and other major diseases; ensure environmental sustainability; and create a global North-South partnership for development.
"The impact of the disasters slows down progress. What could be invested in education and health has to be spent on reconstruction," Linda Zilbert, an expert with the UNDP's Bureau for Crisis Prevention and Recovery, told Tierramérica.
Studies by the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) indicate that the increase in environmental degradation and urban poverty over the last few decades has deepened the vulnerability of the Latin American and Caribbean population, exposed to greater suffering from the impact of hurricanes, earthquakes or flooding.
This reality suggests the need to incorporate risk prevention into sustainable development efforts, with local and community participation, and the involvement of non-governmental organizations and citizens' groups.
Development should diminish risk through a reduction of social, economic and environmental vulnerability of the threatened populations and territories, stressed UNEP in a 2003 report.
According to Zilbert there is a direct relationship between the dangers of disaster and development. "If disasters occur it's because there are risk conditions and they must be reduced," said the expert, who presented a UNDP project to compile experiences in the area, beginning with the Andean countries and extending to the Caribbean.
In this respect, Zilbert and other UN officials attending the congress agreed that "human intervention" can increase the danger of catastrophe.
"There are countries with areas that flood every year, but they continue to build there," said Arias, UN representative in Cuba for the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).
Zilbert noted that it is easier to think that the "enemy" is nature itself, instead of criticizing the existing models for development. "Disasters have a natural element, but there is also an element linked to the conditions in which we live," she said.
For the past couple years UNDP has been working on an intercultural network amongst the Caribbean nations to systematize, exchange and disseminate initiatives on building early warning systems, disaster and prevention training, and housing construction, and other efforts.
"The goal is to convert all of this into useful tools for the region," Zilbert said. But she also underscored that risk management and adaptation measures imply a commitment to transforming the conditions that make communities vulnerable to disaster, and the need to work together in this area.
"If we don't work in an integrated way, the risk conditions will not be reduced. If best practices and learned lessons don't serve to improve capacity and generate knowledge, we haven't made any progress," she concluded.
* Patricia Grogg is an IPS correspondent