SEATTLE — Following devastating earthquakes and floods, Mexico, Kyrgyzstan, Cameroon and other countries decided to change the way they think about disaster risk reduction. These nations are not alone; a recent article in The Huffington Post highlighted the organization UNOPS as advocating for countries to turn their attention to preventative measures, rather than ways to clean up the damage afterward.
This reaction follows the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction 2015-2030, a non-binding, 15-year agreement endorsed by the U.N. General Assembly. The framework considers the social, environmental and economic conditions of each country and outlines four general strategic goals: assessing risk and preparing for the event of a disaster, strengthening partnerships between countries, accruing public and private investment toward any disaster risk reduction measures and putting systems into place for recovery and reconstruction.
The organization Practical Action, an NGO with the primary focus on helping poor nations and communities reduce their risk to natural disasters, estimates that disasters affected three billion people between 2010 and 2012 alone. According to the 2015 Global Assessment Report on Disaster Risk Reduction, the impact on human lives is overwhelmingly skewed toward low and middle-income countries and equivalent to the amount of damage that diseases such as tuberculosis can cause.
Governments and organizations believe the most effective way to reach these goals is managing the (often predictable) risks before the disaster. This approach has already taken root in several countries:
After a devastating earthquake that shook Mexico City in September of 1985, taking 5,000 lives and leaving millions more homeless, Mexico established the National Civil Protection System. The system uses seismic sensors to broadcast early warnings via radio signal from seismic alert systems. Currently, 8,200 of these systems are spread across the country. Families who hear the warning typically have 30-60 seconds to find shelter. Mexico is one of the few countries currently implementing 90 percent of the Sendai Framework.
UNICEF has been implementing disaster risk reduction by training children in safety practices in the event of a natural disaster. In a country where earthquakes, mudslides and floods can occur without warning, the children are learning from preschool what action they should take. Rather than panicking in the event of a flood, the children know to return home immediately to their parents. In some instances, the children even tell their parents what to do. UNICEF and partnering local governments hope that this will create a “culture of safety” that is continuous.
The NGO Practical Action has been working with communities in Nepal to improve the structures of its buildings. As part of the project, the organization reinforced schools with fiberglass, a strong yet low-cost alternative to traditional iron supports. It also trained masons to build homes that would withstand earthquakes, since the country sits on a fault line. The 1,300 homes and schools constructed under these guidelines in the Kaski district in Western Nepal remained standing after a 7.8 magnitude earthquake. The organization is also working to install smoke hoods in newly constructed houses to protect families from fatal smoke inhalation.
Floods claim the lives of more than 700 people per year in Bangladesh. Part of the problem lies with the unsteady structure of houses traditionally built out of wood. Practical Action has been teaching communities to build their homes from brick and has introduced a variety of innovations. Among them include fastening the walls firmly to a “skeleton” of bamboo poles, raising the house up above ground level on a “plinth” made from stone, soil, and cement and placing “water-thirsty plants” in the house to suck up any extra water. The organization has also elevated and built 160 wells above the reach of stagnant and contaminated flood water.
Cameroon’s frequent flooding left 11,000 people dead between 2010 and 2015, not only from direct impact by the floods but also from the diseases that spread as a result. Garbage left on the street in slum neighborhoods, when combined with the stagnant water left over from the floods, creates a breeding ground for cholera, typhus and the mosquitos that carry malaria. In Southern Cameroon, Nkolbikok volunteers established a community sanitation program, coming together once every two weeks to clear away garbage buildup. Local NGOs have also helped the community put in fountains for clean drinking water and improve the latrines.
The Sendai Framework aims to significantly reduce the lives lost in and after floods, earthquakes, mudslides, fires and other disasters by 2030. It will also reduce economic impact and damage to important facilities such as schools and healthcare centers.
– Emilia Otte