Efforts to prevent deaths in disasters mean people live to tell

by Robert Glasser | UNISDR
Thursday, 13 October 2016 06:57 GMT

A pupil washes his hands with an improvised tap in front of a school in Lagos, Nigeria, which managed to halt the spread of Ebola during the the world's worst-ever outbreak in West Africa, Sept. 22, 2014. REUTERS/Akintunde Akinleye

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Many countries that have suffered large loss of life in the past are committed to a zero casualty approach

At first glance it has not been a great year for saving lives in disasters. Hundreds have died in earthquakes, notably in Ecuador and Japan. And the grim search for bodies is continuing for those who lost their lives in Hurricane Matthew as it swept across Haiti.

This is why today on International Day for Disaster Reduction we are focused on reducing global disaster mortality and encouraging a drive to ensure that people, at the very least, live to tell the tale of their survival.

Reducing global disaster mortality is the first target of the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction adopted by all U.N. Member States in March 2015, and today we have chosen to highlight five very different cases where governments and others combined their efforts to save lives.  

We are calling them “Sendai Target Champions for Reducing Disaster Mortality”, and they will all be formally recognised for their efforts at forthcoming regional events.

In India, where the government has adopted its first ever National Disaster Management Plan and based it on the priorities for action of the Sendai Framework, we recognise the highly-regarded NGO SEEDS, founded in 1994 by two idealistic architecture students, Manu Gupta and Anshu Sharma.

Their experiences of the death and destruction caused by cyclones and earthquakes in Gujarat inspired their devotion to providing earthquake and cyclone-resistant housing to thousands of poor families across India and post-earthquake Nepal. Their work continues.

Earlier this year, Fiji was battered by the most powerful storm ever to make landfall on the Pacific island nation. Great loss of life was feared but the combined efforts of the Fiji Meteorological Services (FMS), the private weather forecaster NaDraki, the National Disaster Management Agency and other actors kept the death toll at 44.

This was still too many deaths and it was heartening to see the Ministry of National Disaster Management carry out a thorough investigation into the circumstances of those deaths, and to commit to further improvements in a post-disaster needs assessment which is a model of its kind.

In view of the strong focus on the importance of health in the Sendai Framework, we are pleased to recognise the strong leadership demonstrated by the Nigerian Federal Ministry of Health and its effective coordination of the Ebola response in 2014. That included the rapid establishment of an Emergency Operations Centre headed by Dr. Faisal Shuaib, who was also at the centre of the country’s efforts to eradicate polio.

It was a truly heroic effort by all those involved including the World Health Organisation, CDC (US Centre for Disease Control and Prevention), Médecins Sans Frontières, the Nigerian Red Cross and other partners as they stopped Ebola spreading beyond the 20 infected individuals into the general population in Lagos and Port Harcourt. Seven died including five courageous health workers.  

"ZERO CASUALTY" APPROACH

The El Niño may have been declared over in May, but millions continue to live with the consequences. Peru lost 9,300 people in the two previous major El Niño events and this time prepared carefully to ensure reduced loss of life.

The joint effort involving government agencies, the scientific community and civil society to promote understanding of risk and strengthen resilience in communities was key to the government’s success. Though many thousands were affected, the official death toll stands at 20.

In Europe, we have chosen to recognise Meteoalarm, a portal that gets 3 billion hits per year and was established after 140 people died in Cyclone Lothar in 1999. It is operated by the Austrian weather service, ZAMG, with the support of EUNETMET, on behalf of 31 national weather institutes, and provides the public with impact-based weather warnings and alerts.

Meteoalarm is a great example of how communication can save lives by keeping language simple and jargon free for the ordinary public. It also demonstrates the power of regional, cross-border collaboration on disaster risk reduction.

It is often a challenge to demonstrate what success looks like when it comes to disaster risk reduction but it is important to recognise it when it happens. Success is not limited to these specific examples.

Many countries that have suffered large loss of life in the past are committed to a zero casualty approach. Fewer people are losing their lives in floods and storms in many parts of the world.

Over the lifetime of the “Sendai Seven Campaign: Seven Targets, Seven Years”, inspired by the targets set out in the Sendai Framework, we intend to use each International Day to accentuate the positive, and pay tribute to a sampling of those who are making progress in reducing disaster losses and thereby making a significant contribution towards achieving the 2030 Development Agenda. 

Robert Glasser is the U.N. Secretary-General's Special Representative for Disaster Risk Reduction and head of the U.N. Office for Disaster Risk Reduction (UNISDR).