other human rights pieces
Disasters: What the United Nations and its
World Can Do by Ben Wisner
The Same old Story
Ironically, it was during a decade dedicated to reducing the loss form natural
disaster (1990-99), that we have seen some of the worst losses of human life and largest
economic losses in living memory. Hurricanes and cyclones took large tolls in South Asia,
Philippines, Central America, Caribbean, and the USA. There has been unprecedented
flooding in Europe, China, and Venezuela, the USA. Earthquakes in Turkey, Japan, and
Taiwan cost a surprising number of lives, and, together with the Northridge in Los
Angeles, cost billions.
The combined cost of disasters world wide, according to the Center for Epidemiology of
Disaster in Belgium, was U.S.$741 billion (thousand million) between 1990-99. Human lives
lost during this period were 589,000, and the number of deaths has climbed each year since
1994. These are officially reported deaths, it must be remembered, so the actual number
could be even higher.
Now, just as that decade of intensive scientific activity and public discussion of
disasters has come to an end, we witness the same old story: an earthquake in Central
America, the 18th damaging one since 1990. The toll is tragically familiar: more than 700
dead, 2,000 missing, thousands of homes demolished, two-fifths of all hospital capacity
destroyed, one-fifth of all school buildings rendered unusable.
In India, the same scenario was repeated on an even greater scale in the state of Gujarat.
12,000 bodies have been recovered from the ruins of apartment houses, hospitals, smaller
residences. The final number could even reach 100,000, an estimate given by India's
Ministry of Defense. An area the size of Wales or West Virginia has been reduced to rubble
as if it had been bombed.
These terrible losses were not necessary.
It is not part of the human condition to be buried under a landslide triggered by an
earthquake. Earthquakes happen. But the disaster follows because of human action and
inaction. In the case of the middle-income neighborhood of Las Colinas in Santa Tecla,
just outside the capital, San Salvador, 400 homes were lost beneath a wall of debris from
a collapsing slope above. This was not an "act of God." Road building,
deforestation, and property development on the slope above Las Colinas should never have
been allowed. These activities in a high risk environment almost certainly contributed to
the instability of the steep slope. In fact, a group of Las Colinas residents and
environmental groups were in court only last year to stop development on that slope and
the ridge above. The judge ruled against them. Experts agree that steep slopes made of
volcanic soil are unstable. Geologists know this. Planners know this.
It is not an "act of God" that no more than 10% of the multi-storey structures
in Indian cities are built according to earthquake resistant norms. The earthquake didn't
kill, but the buildings did. The buildings go up rapidly with little planning and
inspection in a boom economy like Gujarat's. A study commissioned by the Indian government
warned in 1998 about the lack of compliance with building codes throughout India, but
especially in the zones, such as Gujarat, where seismic risk is high.
In El Salvador and also in Gujarat, both the poor and the middle class suffered. In both
places hungry rural people have been migrating in search of work to cities like San
Salvador, Ahmedabad, and Bhuj. They become squatters who live in makeshift dwellings in
some of the most potentially dangerous areas in an earthquake. They have little or nothing
to invest in making their homes safer, and little incentive because they don't own the
land where they've built.
In San Salvador and Ahmedabad alike, the middle class is attracted to the rapidly growing
edge of the sprawling cities. Developers and contractors rush to fill this market demand,
often in too much haste to observe building codes. This is where the landslide buried
hundreds in Las Colinas, and where new apartment houses for Ahmedabad's salaried workers
came crashing down.
In both recent earthquakes hospitals either collapsed, killing patients and staff , as in
the city of Bhuj in Gujarat, or they became useless because of damage. The main medical
laboratory in El Salvador's capital is unable to function because bottles holding
chemicals for medical tests were not secured on their shelves with simple restraints of
the kind that are used on boats. Forty per cent of El Salvador's health care facilities
suffered disabling damage. Yet is it very well known how to protect health care structures
and their non structural elements.
What the United Nations Family has Done
Very many agencies within the U.N. family joined with other international
scientific and humanitarian organizations, national committees, non-governmental
organizations, and citizen groups in an effort called the IDNDR, or International Decade
for Natural Disaster Reduction (1990-99). This period was one of accelerated and intensive
international exchange of scientific information. More than enough knowledge was
generated, refined, debated, systematized, and disseminated to have prevented the loss of
life in the landslide in Las Colinas, El Salvador. That knowledge could have dramatically
reduced the number of lives claimed in Gujarat, and it certainly could have protected
priority infrastructure such as schools and hospitals.
Going into the IDNDR, the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO), had already begun to
accumulate a vast amount of detailed advice about protecting hospitals. They were spurred
on by the collapse of two major hospitals in Mexico City in 1985. One of these had been
the principal maternity hospital. The world still remembers images of the handful of
"miracle babies" who were rescued from under the massive concrete slabs. Three
large volumes of guidelines are available gratis from PAHO in Spanish and
Portuguese. Why, one must ask, wasn't this knowledge put to use in El Salvador, and, by
extension through the rest of the World Health Organization, applied to the major civilian
hospital in Bhuj?
During the IDNDR schools were also a priority focus. UNESCO had a program for
strengthening schools, and the Organization of American States has an initiative that is
attempting to do the same thing , just to mention two.
In its last five years the IDNDR gave much attention to public education, and also, in its
last three years, it developed a comprehensive project for urban earthquake risk reduction
called RADIUS. Nine pilot cities took part, with another 84 associate cities. Where it
worked best, as in Tijuana, Mexico and Izmir, Turkey, there was strong support from the
local administration and many local universities and professional groups. The project
developed a low cost method of anticipating urban earthquake damage and loss and a model
for creating an action plan to mitigate those losses. Tijuana is about the same size as
San Salvador. The distance between them is not so great. The language is the same. Why,
one has to wonder, were the methods developed by RADIUS in Tijuana not applied in San
In part the answer is that a terrible civil war raged
in El Salvador until 1992. Since the end of that war U.N. agencies have been very much
involved with the post war recovery process and the building up of the civilian
administrative, legislative, and judicial institutions that are necessary for maintenance
of peace and good governance. These are the same institutions that are necessary to apply
existing knowledge to reducing the impacts of earthquakes and other extreme events such as
hurricane Mitch (1998).
After hurricane Mitch, El Salvador was in an ideal position to make a quantum leap in its
preparedness for not only the next hurricane, but the next earthquake, volcanic eruption,
or season of extreme El Nino weather. El Salvador had not suffered the extreme devastation
of Honduras and Nicaragua, yet it was an integral part of new donor attention in Central
America to making mitigation of risk a mainstream part of planning. Good urban planning,
good land use and environmental management - what one might call "sustainable
development" - were encouraged by institutions like the Inter-American Development
Bank, the World Bank, and the Stockholm group of donors.
If knowledge, institutions, and finance were available, what else has been missing in El
Salvador, in India, and elsewhere in the world where disasters continue to plague
What More Could the U.N. Family Do?
U.N. agencies have provided three kinds of things so far. These are necessary,
but they are not sufficient to initiate the sea change in how nations deal with natural
hazards. These are: technical knowledge, support for institution building , and financial
assistance through grants and loans. The missing ingredient is the kind of moral
imperative that can mobilize local political will. It is when the world at large agrees to
standards of responsibility by nation states toward their citizens in the form of
treaties, covenants and other agreements, that this moral force is felt most strongly.
Why, then not set our sights on an international treaty that commits governments around
the world to apply low-cost solutions based on available knowledge to prevent such tragic
Networks of scientists and engineers exist that could take on the technical work of
defining these standards. These networks were created in part by the IDNDR - 10 years of
scientific exchange mandated by the United Nations. However, this International Decade
left unfinished business. Science was exchanged all right, but generally it hasn't been
Such an effort would require thousands of experts to work out the low-cost, minimum
practices required to avoid further such tragedies. These scientists and engineers would
have to sit down with lawyers, legislators and policy experts to work out how the minimum
standards would be enforced. The devil is in the details, but scientists and lawyers eat
details for breakfast.
This is not an impossible task. It has happened before. One recent example is exchange
among hundreds of agencies that work in humanitarian and disaster relief that led to
agreement on a very detailed set of minimum technical standards for relief. Known as the
SPHERE project, it's published document covers food, water, shelter, health care, and many
other aspects of relief.
There are also many internationally agreed safety standards for the chemical industry,
airline industry, nuclear power industry, etc. It has happened already where global
warming is concerned. The Inter-governmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has mobilized
thousands of scientists, and their work has gone into the treaty-making process that led
to the Kyoto Accord on greenhouse gas emissions.
Could the U.N. not create a parallel Inter-governmental Panel on Natural Disaster, that
would, in a similar way, act to mobilize existing knowledge and feed it into a treat
Such a body is necessary because so many different kinds of knowledge and expertise is
required. No single existing specialized agency of the U.N. such as UNESCO, UNEP, WHO, or
WMO cover all the specialist knowledge that would be required. That is one of the reasons
that the IPCC was created. Preparing for the impacts of global warming requires many kinds
of knowledge from areas such as public health, economics, agriculture, oceanography, in
addition to expert understanding of world and regional climate.
What is to be done during the many years that such a treaty would be in the making? The
beauty of this process is that the low-cost solutions will filter out into society.
Citizens groups will demand action by their governments, as they did in Turkey when it
became clear that contractors hadn't followed building codes and had used low quality
materials or in South Florida, in the USA, when it came to light that poor construction
methods were responsible for much avoidable damage in hurricane Andrew. Prevention of
disasters has to come from the bottom up as well as from the top down.
Absolute safety is not a human right. Safety from avoidable loss, injury and death is.
Nothing in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights makes much sense if the human beings
who are supposed to enjoy these rights can be snuffed out because a government neglected
to enforce its own building codes.
More information is available at:
Ben Wisner is a researcher in the Environmental
Studies Program at Oberlin College, Ohio. He is vice-chair of the Earthquakes and
Megacities Initiative, vice-chair of the International Geographical Union's Commission on
Hazards and Risks, and a research coordinator for the United Nations University's project
on urban disasters. He is author of "At Risk: Natural Hazards, People's
Vulnerability, and Disasters" (London: Routledge, 1994) and numerous other books and
scientific papers. He also serves as an advisor to the emergency response program of the
American Friends Service Committee.
Back to the top