As focus at the United Nations Global
Platform for Disaster Risk Reduction (May 8-13, 2011), in Geneva, came on to
the unsavoury equation between poverty and the impact of disasters, CARE
International warned that the increasing number of humanitarian disasters was
eroding the coping ability of poor people and therefore undermining their
ability to escape poverty.

As stated by Robert Glasser, CARE’s
secretary general and one of the speakers, ‘Poverty causes disasters and
disasters cause poverty. When disasters strike, poor people often lose their
assets on which their survival depends. At the same time, their limited
resources, lack of access to education and health services can increase their
expose to risks. For example, many poor people’s livelihoods depend on
agriculture. But a drought or flood can destroy a year’s income in the blink of
an eye.’

In recent decades, there has been a rise in
the number and impact of natural disasters. Developing countries are most
exposed to the risks as their inhabitants often lack the ability to cope with
such events, especially in the case of re-occurring disasters. Poorly planned
and managed urban development is a key driver of disaster risk. Poor housing,
lack of health facilities and infrastructure put nearly one billion urban
dwellers living in informal settlements at risk of disasters. Apart from that,
the lives and livelihoods of people living in floodplains, low-lying coastal
areas and steep slopes are particularly vulnerable to danger.

It was also pointed out that women were frequently
most affected by disasters. More women than men are injured or killed during
hurricanes and floods. They have in general less access to political and
economic resources needed to protect themselves from disasters, and to deal
with disaster effects. Women are less likely to know how to swim; they are
restricted from running fast by their clothing; and their role as caretakers of
children and older people as well as cultural rules restrict them from leaving
their homes without the accompaniment of a male relative.

‘We need to reduce the risks for poor
people by strengthening their capabilities to cope with recurring disasters,’
Glasser suggested. This includes assisting people to diversify and adapt their
livelihoods, helping build capacities of urban governance to ensure urban
dwellers can live on safe lands and have access to infrastructure and services,
and protecting ecosystems through community-based natural resource management.

A main objective for the third session of
the Global Platform for Disaster Reduction will be to encourage stronger
political commitment to local action. The local level is where the impact of
disasters is most felt and where risk reduction impact and results must be
realized. More effective support is required to empower local communities.
Local authorities (including city administrators and other civic leaders) play
an essential role in ensuring their cities are made more resilient to disaster.

The United Nations established the Global
Platform for Disaster Reduction in 2007 as a biennial forum with the goal of
fostering better communication and coordination efforts in response to
disasters. It is considered to be the world’s foremost gathering of risk reduction,
recovery and reconstruction experts from government, non-government organizations,
academia and the private sector. The theme this year is ‘Invest today for a
safer tomorrow: Increase investment in local action’, and more than 2,000
representatives are expected to partake in the forum.

Countries around the world have incurred
massive damage in the first quarter of 2011 alone, including US$300 billion as
a result of Great East Japan Earthquake; US$8.5 billion in the earthquake in
Christchurch, New Zealand; and US$9.5 billion in the floods in Australia.There are direct and indirect economic damages
to be made up for. It is estimated that the March 11 earthquake and tsunami in
Japan will cost the insurance industry between $21 billion and $34 billion,
making it the most costly disaster for insurers since Hurricane Katrina in the
United States in 2005.

The United Nations International Strategy
for Disaster Reduction (UNISDR) and its partners are calling on world leaders
to join the dialogue at the Global Platform to discuss and decide on immediate
actions that will reduce the economic cost of disasters. ‘Economic loss risk
will continue to rise across the world, and in particular in high-income
countries, if we do not manage to reduce vulnerabilities and build safer
societies,’ said Margareta Wahlström, Special Representative of the United
Nations Secretary General for Disaster Reduction.

Wahlström had earlier on, ahead of the
third session of the Global Platform for Disaster Risk Reduction, stressed that
governments and communities must urgently build disaster preparedness to avoid
paying higher human and economic costs when such events occur. ‘We are in a
fast-moving car and ahead is a crash waiting to happen. We need to act,’ were
her words on the subject.

Wahlström pointed out that cities and
communities from Japan, Australia, New Zealand, Brazil, Pakistan and other
countries which have been recently affected by earthquakes, floods and
mudslides continue to pay a high price today in terms of economic losses.

An added dimension of this year’s
conference will be the World Reconstruction Conference, organized by the World
Bank and the UN, at the same venue. ‘Recent experience – for example, in Haiti
after the 2010 earthquake – shows that despite great goodwill and collective
efforts, we need to improve how the international system supports national reconstruction and recovery,’ said Selina Jackson, the World Bank Special
Representative to the UN and the World Trade Organization (WTO). She further stated:
‘If done right, a crisis situation can be a window of opportunity. Therefore,
it is appropriate and very timely that we are now holding the first ever World
Reconstruction Conference, with the theme “Rethinking reconstruction for a
safer future”.’