Edited Version of June 23, 1999 Transcript

EIIP Virtual Forum Special Feature

"Concluding Phase
of the
International Decade
Natural Disaster Reduction"


Philippe Boullé
UN IDNDR Secretariat

Amy Sebring, EIIP Technical Projects Coordinator

The original unedited transcript of the June 23, 1999 online Virtual Classroom presentation is available on the EIIP Virtual Forum (http://www.emforum.org). The following version of the transcript has been edited for easier reading and comprehension. Typos were corrected, date/time/names attributed by the software to each were deleted but content of discussions, questions, and responses are as stated by each participant. Answers from the speakers to questions by the audience are grouped beneath the appropriate question to facilitate meaning.


Amy Sebring: Welcome to the EIIP Virtual Forum! Today we are pleased to present a very special event.

The International Decade for Natural Disaster Reduction is now in the "concluding phase" and it is a time for reflection on the efforts of the past several years, and for looking ahead to the next decade, century, and beyond.

We want to extend a very special welcome to those of you visiting the EIIP Virtual Forum for the first time, and hope today's session will stimulate discussion and feedback.

We will be having approximately 30 minutes of presentation and 30 minutes of audience Q&A. But this time we are going to conduct the Q&A a little differently from our usual practice as our special guest will be asking the questions, and we hope to have answers and comments from you, our participants, in response.

Before I introduce our special guest, background information for today's session is located at <http://www.emforum.org/vforum/990623.htm>. And a number of links to information about the IDNDR may be found there, as well as, the link to this year's Internet conference that is going on right now.

A reminder to NOT send private messages to our Speaker or the Moderator during the session as it makes it difficult to follow the flow of the discussion but you are welcome to send direct messages to each other, especially if you need to keep your connection live! We will review the instructions for Q&A just before we begin that portion of the program.


We are honored to have with us today Philippe Boullé, Director of the UN IDNDR Secretariat. His biography may be found on the background page for today's session.

If I may quote from his welcoming remarks to the current Internet conference, he states,

" ... as we approach the end of the International Decade for Natural Disaster Reduction, further steps must be taken to make disaster reduction a public value. Our success will depend on being able to motivate an increasingly broad range of people in different professions to work together with public authorities. There is also a need for greater public understanding of the feasibility of disaster prevention, to be achieved through on-going public information and education from one generation to another."

Mr. Boullé will begin by addressing the theme of "Disaster Reduction as a Central Element of Government Policy," and we are very pleased to welcome him. Mr. Boullé.


Philippe Boullé: Thank you very much, it's great to be here today with you. I will immediately jump in with an initial message --- Disaster reduction as a central element of government policy. This may seem a sweeping statement, too global in its reach, as not all countries are subject to natural disasters. Should we not talk rather, about a few governments that need to give priority attention in their national policies to disaster reduction?

My point is that, given the growing interdependence and complexity of relations between nations of the world, disasters in fact affect directly or indirectly all countries. Each government must therefore take the threat of natural hazards seriously, even if it relates to other countries, and understand what it means for their own economy and their future.

There are many examples that can be provided --- primary commodities for example, to show that disasters, the economy and trade are related. What is important to note also is that this relation deteriorated considerably for the past twenty years.

Disasters cost more and more to our societies above $80 billion/year on average since 1990. Disasters have become socio-economic events, natural hazards that trigger them being only the start of a process, not the process itself. So, for purely economic reasons in an interdependent world, all governments have to consider disaster reduction as an important element of government policy.

I need not belabor the point, that in the fields of meteorology and climatic change, no government is protected from the impact of disaster such as storms or floods. Environmental disasters are a threat to almost every country, directly or indirectly.

But disaster reduction, up till today, has been treated as a technical, sectoral issue by governments, not a central policy issue. In fact, even when we look at the initial targets of IDNDR, we see that these are technical --- hazard assessment; early warning systems; drafting of national disaster mitigation plans.

We now have to go many steps further and ensure that disaster reduction becomes a policy matter for governments, an essential policy issue within the country's national planning. This is particularly important for developing countries, because they are the ones that lose most from disasters in terms of GNP. If disaster reduction is part of their development plans, then some sort of financial resources might be available from the Budget of the State, to start disaster reduction activities.

But the integration of disaster reduction in national development plans is only one way of giving priority to such issues in government policy as a whole. For example: in developed countries, disaster reduction must be dealt with, within government priorities; in another form: in the environment or research sectors, for example.

It is quite clear that the existing scientific research on natural hazards must proceed further, in order for us to understand better how these hazards translate in a disastrous impact in the socio-economic field. More vitally, it is important to focus on research of the vulnerabilities of societies to natural hazards.

The shift from a purely hazard-led approach to a vulnerability-driven research has to be undertaken. Governments have to increase the resilience of their communities to disasters, and the best way to do this is to give priority to such vulnerability studies.

In many countries, this recognition of the political value of disaster reduction has started to emerge at the regional or local level, or at the level of municipalities. In some countries, like France, the responsibility of the Mayor is engaged if a disaster happens and his administration had not taken appropriate preventive measures.

Disaster reduction will become an essential element of government policy when scientists and politicians, at the local or national level, are able to understand - and convince - each other of the real meaning of disaster reduction and of the harmful political and social impact of a disaster, in cases where proper prevention measures have not been taken.

One of the main aims of IDNDR right now is to facilitate the dialogue, and permit the emergence of common solutions. .

Amy Sebring: Thank you Mr. Boullé. We are now going to move into questions for participant feedback.

There are four thematic areas:

• Education and Socio Economic Concerns,

• Development and Environmental Concerns,

• Scientific and Technological Concerns, and

• Action Towards the 21st Century.

We will have Mr. Boullé provide the question, then I will ask for comments from the audience. We are going to use the exclamation point (!) today to indicate that you wish to comment; however, if you wish to ask a question, please continue to use the question mark (?). Enter your ! or ? to indicate you wish to speak, go ahead and compose your question or comment, but hold it until you are recognized, then click on Send

We are trying to facilitate some dialogue today. Do you have a question for our audience now?


Philippe Boullé: I have not mentioned once civil societies, NGOS, the social sector, health, etc. Can anybody provide their views on the importance of these?

Amy Sebring: There is a question on this for the conference as well. While we are thinking, David, did you have a question for Mr. Boullé?


David Wolfe: Yes. Perhaps semantics, but how does "disaster reduction" differ from disaster preparedness or mitigation?

Philippe Boullé: It is a question of semantics some times but disaster reduction especially includes long-term measures of prevention. Also, preparedness is usually to be a response to an event. Whilst disaster reduction usually tries to avoid the occurrence of the event itself.


Amy Sebring: Here is the question on the table as stated in one of the conference papers. "Who should be involved in the creation of coherent environment and development strategies and policies: Community planners? Government? Politicians on any level? Scientists and other experts? UN? Development banks? All stakeholders? How should this be done?"

Philippe Boullé: Amy, obviously all of those you mentioned; the problem is how to organise the necessary partnership. This is one of the goals of the IDNDR Programme Forum.


Avagene Moore: Comment on Philippe's question: I speak primarily about our experiences in the States. However, it seems to me that we have spent too much time looking to the Government at all levels for answers instead of using the private sector and private citizens (taxpayers, voters) as the driving force for change.


Tina Cattrone: In support of community capacity building, I think it is important to recognize that preparedness measures can't just be limited to the government level (As Mr. Boullé pointed out). Community preparedness programs, which include community members from the start, are essential if we are to succeed in protecting everyone.

Philippe Boullé: Tina, absolutely right. Let's not forget that it is at the level of the local community that disasters are best felt.

Tina Cattrone: For example: education programs that focus on preparedness in individual communities that include key players of that community; so when the implementation phase of a particular program wraps up, there remains a strong foundation for long-term success.

Philippe Boullé: Tina, yes, provided what the communities have learnt that it is not simply to prepare for disasters but to find means to prevent a hazard from becoming a disaster.


Claire Rubin: I am confused about comments above -- one says less government and the other says private sector is not to have the lead. Who will lead?

Philippe Boullé: Claire, if we are talking worldwide; then, of course, the notion of private sector may have different meanings.


Claire Rubin: I see. What incentives can governments use to stimulate private actions?

Philippe Boullé: Claire, long-term land use planning can be explained and discussed with local populations; building codes also; and obviously incentives of a financial nature.

Claire Rubin: I agree, but in the US we do not have a good track record with those measures.

Philippe Boullé: Claire, why not start now!


Amy Sebring: One of the comments I found particularly interesting from the Internet conference stresses the importance of convincing policy makers. How significant is this to incorporating disaster reduction as a matter of policy and what can drive this?

Philippe Boullé: Amy, it is of primary importance to discuss and convince policy makers but this is a two-way traffic. Local policy makers have a responsibility if they make the wrong choice. And sometimes, the advice given to them may not be the good one.


John Mills: In many counties the voluntary sector is ready and practised in playing their part in disaster relief. Indeed, the governments in those countries rely on them to be part of their plans. Many of these organisations members are throughout the world in many countries. They are also experienced in training private citizens to help in disaster scenarios. Can these organisations be encouraged to play a greater part?

Philippe Boullé: John, one of the main aims of IDNDR is to move from pure disaster relief to disaster prevention. The issue is, therefore, to get all these organisations to start thinking about saving lives long before they are put in danger.


Tina Cattrone: Policy movement is unfortunately, painfully slow. The window into the policy stream often remains closed unless a disaster occurs close to home. For most local and regional policy makers, disasters are still thought of as out of the locus of control. It takes local experts who are concerned to continually urge for action; otherwise, the issue will often not get on the agenda.

Philippe Boullé: Tina, I am sure you are right with regard to the US. But things are very different in other countries.

Tina Cattrone: Please elaborate.

Philippe Boullé: Tina, in many European countries or African countries, policy makers are usually very close to their constituents and they are very quick to follow the leads at the local level. At the same time, global policy research is also necessary / El Nino phenomenon/ and this needs time before being digested by policy makers.


David Wolfe: I understand preventing a hazard from becoming a disaster --- but even more fundamental, you are stating the need to avoid the occurrence(s) all together. I am having trouble envisioning the actual process and implementation. I would like to see more prevention than reaction.

Philippe Boullé: David, you are absolutely right, we must think in terms of a culture of prevention. Disasters are the result of the vulnerability of our communities and we can indeed work to reduce our vulnerability to natural hazards.


Libbi Rucker Reed: Maybe one way to start education for future generations of all people is to utilize a similar format as the DARE programs and Fire Prevention programs, and start with educating kids. Might not help as much right now, but will definitely work as the current generation grows up and becomes business and political leaders. Not advocating that we don't keep working on coordination with current leaders now; just looking to the future. Education makes comprehension and decision-making easier. This comment is in reference as to HOW to get more than just political leaders/governments involved.

Philippe Boullé: Libbi, the theme of our annual world campaign on disaster reduction last year was prevention begins with information. It was done mostly with UNESCO. At our Programme Forum next month, one key issue will be EDUCATING FUTURE GENERATIONS.

Libbi Rucker Reed: Outstanding!


Rick Tobin: The quandary I see worldwide is still the focus by government on infrastructure first, then people. That paradigm must change with the burgeoning populations, but what will it take to make that shift happen?

Philippe Boullé: Rick, excellent question. We have to empower people to push governments to think about people first. On the bright side, if I can say so, the number of people killed in disasters in Latin America in the last decade has decreased thanks mostly to local community action.


John Mills: Money! One of the problems that all governments come up against is finance/budget. They are reluctant to spend more than a token amount on "readiness" unless there is a fair certainty that the disaster will happen. There is also a problem that "poor" countries are likely to have disasters that are completely beyond their financial capabilities to deal with. Do you feel that the world financial organisations are likely to provide financial resource to cope with disaster prevention and education and not purely to dash in and help finance the outcome of disasters?

Philippe Boullé: John, yes. In fact, World Bank has just decided that it will not make reconstruction and rehabilitation grant and loans unless there is a disaster component integrated in the project. The amount of losses after a disaster is such that governments are slowly understanding that a little bit of investment in protective measures may save them billion of dollars later. This has been well understood now in Ecuador, for example.


Amy Sebring: Mr. Boullé, you referred earlier to the need for a long-term strategy. I sometimes think that our natural short-term vision can lead to frustration with an apparent lack of progress. How will the IDNDR shape the strategy for the future?

Philippe Boullé: Amy, there is frustration perhaps, but there is an enormous amount of success also. We will present success stories at our IDNDR programme forum, where also the strategy for the future will also be decided upon.


Russell Coile: California is earthquake land. We try to get homeowners to strap hot water heaters to wall studs and bolt houses to the foundations. There are a number of success stories in the IDNDR commemorative volume

Philippe Boullé: Russell, to protect people from earthquakes, we need to look both at measures, to strengthen houses, but also we must look at the soil quality.


Claire Rubin: Re: Libby's point: FEMA has worked with the Children's TV Workshop on earthquake and other hazard preparedness packages for children. As you may know they have done a great job with kids re: fire prevention.

Philippe Boullé: Claire, good point as this has been replicated in many countries. Russell, yes, you are right, I should have mentioned it too. And finally, I regret, we did not have time to discuss the relation between people and insurance companies because insurance companies have a large role to play in protection of lives and livelihoods.

Closing Comment:

Amy Sebring: Final comment, Mr. Boullé?

Philippe Boullé: I would like to thank all of you and please follow the PROGRAMME FORUM and read the commemorative volume mentioned by Russell. Goodbye.

Amy Sebring: We are just about out of time, and again our appreciation to Mr. Boullé today who has given his time to be with us. We also want to thank Tania Mania and Patrick Hein for their assistance with today's program.

Also our appreciation to the audience for their participation. We feel that the dynamic aspects generated by your participation are the most important part of our sessions.

A text transcript will be available this afternoon via the Transcripts link on our home page and the reformatted versions early next week. See the background page, and check the link to the ongoing Internet conference and also the commemorative volume Russell mentioned.

We hope you will join us for future sessions, and Avagene Moore will give us a quick preview of what is coming up next week.

Avagene Moore: Thank you, Amy. Would like to say that the topic today is too much for one hour of discussion. Wish we had more time. I have enjoyed it immensely, Philippe. Thank you.

Next week, the Tuesday June 29 Round Table discussion will be led by the National Emergency Management Association (NEMA). NEMA is the State Emergency Management Directors' association. This will be an opportunity to hear about the activities, goals and plans of NEMA.

On Wednesday, June 30, 12:00 Noon Eastern, the Tech Arena proudly presents George Sambataro, PC Weather Products, in a demonstration of HURRTRAK Tropical Cyclone Tracking Software. The hurricane season is predicted to be a rough one -- this demonstration will be of great interest. That's it for now, Amy.

Claire Rubin: I would like to give a plug to two new books: Disasters by Design (Dennis Mileti, ed.) and Disasters and Democracy: The Politics of Extreme Natural Disaster Events, Rutherford Platt (ed.) Island Press, 1999.

John Mills: Thank you for this opportunity today and for the work of IDNDR.

Amy Sebring: This officially concludes our session, but you are welcome to remain for informal open discussion.