Health a fresh priority in disaster plan, talks snagged on aid

by Megan Rowling | @meganrowling | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Tuesday, 17 March 2015 14:38 GMT

Protective suits are left to dry after an Ebola training session held by Spain's Red Cross in Madrid October 29, 2014. REUTERS/Susana Vera

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As world struggles to stamp out Ebola in West Africa, health is gaining prominence in talks to reduce disaster risks

SENDAI, Japan, March 17 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - A new global plan to reduce the risk of disasters, due to be adopted at a U.N. conference in Japan on Wednesday, will give more prominence to health issues as the world struggles to stamp out the Ebola outbreak in West Africa.

Measures should be taken to curb the impact of disasters on people's health and to protect hospitals and other health infrastructure, the non-binding agreement, which will replace a current 10-year framework, is expected to say.

The agreement is likely to urge action to prevent biological hazards - which include viruses such as Ebola - turning into crises.

According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), the new draft plan contains some 36 references to health, compared with just three in the current Hyogo Framework for Action, agreed in 2005.

"In the 10 years since Hyogo, governments have increasingly recognised that healthy people are resilient people, and that resilient people recover much more quickly from emergencies and disasters," said Bruce Aylward, WHO's assistant director general for emergencies.

The new framework is likely to include a target to substantially reduce disaster damage to critical infrastructure, particularly health and educational facilities.

According to WHO, in large-scale disasters, such as major earthquakes, some countries have lost half of their hospital capacity, making it harder for them to respond and provide key services such as treatment of injuries and immunisation.

The cyclone that hit the South Pacific Island nation of Vanuatu over the weekend damaged the old part of the capital's hospital - but a new extension withstood the category 5 storm, and patients were moved there, according to Rick Brennan, director of WHO's emergency response department.

In the past 20 years, 79 countries have taken action to protect their hospitals from disasters, WHO said. When Mexico examined its hospitals, it found about 26 to be sub-standard. It demolished several, retrofitted others and built 176 safe hospitals, Brennan said.

To help, WHO has developed a tool to help quickly assess the safety and preparedness measures hospitals take to stay operational in emergencies.

The draft disaster risk agreement says more action should be taken to tackle pandemics and epidemics, like Ebola.

Brennan said mistakes had been made with the Ebola outbreak, particularly in terms of not identifying its emergence early enough. But "I am very confident we would do a better job next time," he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

As part of that, more efforts will have to be made to understand local communities and their customs in order to avoid the mistrust that has hampered the response this time around, he added.

WEAKENED TARGETS

The new global disaster risk reduction plan is due to be adopted by more than 180 governments by lunch time on Wednesday when the conference in the northeastern Japanese city of Sendai is scheduled to end.

But on Tuesday night, negotiators continued to wrangle over the issue of international cooperation - the aid and technical support developed countries are expected to provide to poorer nations. Rich nations are reluctant to make hard-and-fast commitments to boost funding.

Grassroots disaster experts were critical of "limited political commitment" on finance, as well as the rejection of proposals for numerical targets to help measure global progress on disaster risk reduction.

"Over the past few days here in Sendai, we have watched the draft agreement grow weaker and weaker in ways so that it will not make a real impact on the lives of poor people," said Harjeet Singh of ActionAid.

Plans to introduce targets to lower deaths from disasters, cut the number of people affected and curb economic losses, among other things, had been widely hailed as a leap forward.

But percentage goals have been jettisoned in the negotiations for language referring to "substantial" changes, which critics said is barely more ambitious than the existing plan.

Margareta Wahlström, head of the U.N. Office for Disaster Risk Reduction (UNISDR), said she had the impression people were "very happy" because the targets were "concrete" and could be used regionally and nationally, even without specific global numerical goals.

"It all adds up to a very strong sense that this is a step forward," she told the Thomson Reuters Foundatione earlier on Tuesday.

But Marcus Oxley from the Global Network of Civil Society Organisations for Disaster Reduction said the targets had been watered down in terms of how nations will be held accountable to deliver the intended outcomes.

"This reduced accountability will hinder the implementation of the agreement over the coming 15 years," he said. "This will dramatically impact our ability to respond to and avert humanitarian disasters." (Reporting by Megan Rowling; editing by Laurie Goering)

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