Originally: Human disaster is preventable

September 27, 2004

GENEVA, (OCHA) – “Vulnerabilities have been allowed to grow in Haiti to the extent that any natural hazard inevitably leads to great tragedy”, said Salvano Briceno, director of International Secretariat of Disaster reduction (ISDR), the United Nations Secretariat in Geneva that focuses on disaster reduction. “And yet, thinking ahead and investing in prevention will save lives and livelihoods”, he emphasized.

In May 2004, rains killed 2,665 people in Haiti. This week they have caused another 1,000 deaths and more than 1,000 people are missing — yet only 11 are reported dead in the Dominican Republic. TThe rains in Haiti were less strong than the ones that struck the Dominican Republic, but nevertheless the loss in lives and livelihoods was much higher in Haiti than in the rest of the Caribbean.

In Haiti, rapid urbanization, lack of land management, the exploitation of charcoal and consequent deforestation make Haitian people highly vulnerable to mudslides. Since 60 per cent of the Haitian people rely heavily on charcoal for cooking, deforestation has been extensive. In the Dominican Republic, on the other hand, people depend entirely on natural gas to cook.

Deforestation is not the only problem : the lack of early warning capacity is another. A survey conducted in July 2003 for the Second International Conference on Early Warning in Bonn, Germany, found many early warning systems in the Caribbean — and none in Haiti. Without early warning and preparedness, people are simply caught unawares.

For a poor country like Haiti, disaster early warning and preparedness systems are not a top priority when the sun is shining, but they are essential for saving lives when it rains. Effective and low cost systems could be put in place easily with the help of the international community.

“Haiti has limited capacity to finance disaster preparedness and response itself. The international community should work with the Haitian Government and invest in long-term measures rather than only producing funds for relief after disaster has hit”, said Mr. Briceno.

In the nearby Dominican Republic, for example, the Government and Civil Defense have instituted a National Commission of Emergencies. “Thanks to the European Union and the United States, we have a good alert system”, said Louis Luna Paulino, director of Civil Defense and of the National Commission of Emergencies in the Dominican Republic. “When there is an alert, people go to shelters and everybody is warned by radio and television.”

The United Nations World Conference on Disaster Reduction that will take place in Kobe, Hyogo, Japan from 18 to 22 January 2005 will be an opportunity to make a clear and strong point that the reduction of vulnerability has to be an explicit objective of developing planning