Monday, 14 December 2009

Disasters threaten livelihoods of Pacific islanders

Cherelle Jackson, Environment Weekly, Climate Pasifika: Photo by Cherelle Jackson

Copenhagen, 14 December - Over three quarters of deaths in 2009 were due to natural disasters, specifically
extreme weather events.

As the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen continues, alarming figures were released Belgian WHO collaborating Center for Research on Epidemiology of Disasters (CRED).  The 2009 figures which cover the period from 1 January to November 2009 noted that Out of the 245 disasters in 2009, 224 were weather related.

According to CRED this accounts for 55 million people out of 58 million people affected, 7000 out of 8900 of those killed, and US$15 billion out of the US$19 billion in economic damages.

“The extreme weather event figures are probably underestimated as drought impacts are not easily detected in disaster statistics” said Professor Debarati Guha Sapir (above left), Director of CRED in a press conference today in Copenhagen.

Figures for the Pacific were not specified by CRED however Sapir told Environment Weekly that the small islands in the region stand to lose more than lives.

"Natural disasters in fact have the tremendously impact on very very small islands or very small communities, partly because most of the events that occur there, can wipe out the majority of the Gross Domestic Product of a country. The proportion of the housing that can get destroyed can be up to 50 to 60 percent of the entire civilian housing so small islands are in an extremely, extremely vulnerable situation and as it is stands, in the South Pacific they are in cyclone parts all the times."

In Samoa alone a total of 439 people died as a result of natural disasters since 1968.

The number of deaths as a result of weather related disasters in Samoa amount to 291 with the highest deaths recorded in the 1964 tropical storm which killed 250 people.

Ms. Margareta Wahlström, the United Nations Special Representative of the UN Secretary-General for Disaster Risk Reduction says the numbers could get worse.

“Statistics this year show lower figures compared to previous years, which is a good news for people and countries, however extreme weather disasters remain top of the list and will continue to affect more people in the future as more than half of the world's population highly exposed is living in coastal regions” said Wahlström.

Preparedness is the key according to CRED Director Sapir.

"For islands such as those in the South Pacific who are located in the cyclone region, preparedness should be integrated into national policies, as this is of utmost importance."

Michel Jarraud, Secretary-General of the World Meteorological Organization announced the year 2009 among the top 10 warmest years on record since the beginning of instrumental climate records in 1850.
He underlined the importance of early warning systems, and seasonal climate forecasts to manage risks and to better prepare vulnerable populations to cope with more extreme events.

“Progress in monitoring, forecasting and warnings of climate-related hazards, linked to effective emergency preparedness and response on the ground, saves lives. In the last five decades, globally, while the numbers of disasters and related economic losses have increased between 10 and 50 times, the reported loss of life has dramatically been reduced by a factor of 10. Climate forecasting and information allows us to plan our communities better so as to reduce the risk of disaster when extreme weather strikes. This can help save livelihoods through better planning in health, agriculture, insurance and water resource management” said

Benefits of investments in tropical cyclone early warning systems were demonstrated in Cuba in 2008, when the country was hit by five successive hurricanes, but only 7 people were reported dead.

In Bangladesh, nearly 3500 lives were lost during super cyclone Sidr in November 2007, compared to two other events in 1970 and 1991 which respectively claimed over 300,000 and 191,000.

Those examples are however still rare.

In Samoa out of 5275 affected by the tsunami on the 29th of September 2009, a total of 148 were killed, a percentage that is very high considering the number of people affected.

A survey conducted by WMO in 2006 revealed that over 60% of the WMO’s 189 Members are not adequately equipped with the technical capacities to warn populations against hazards, particularly in most vulnerable countries. WMO says that these capacities need to be developed.

In addition UNISDR recommends that climate information, forecasts and projection combined with operational and strategic planning in various sectors can prevent widespread damage.  The organisation indicates that the combination of all those factors can save livelihoods and reduce economic risks associated with hazards in many sectors such as agriculture, water resource management, health and insurance.

Trends in extreme events and capacities to manage disaster risks are currently being assessed as part of a new report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.  The report according to the IPCC will look into managing the risk of extreme events and disasters to advance climate change adaptation.

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