Calamities of the 20th and 21st centuries

Last Updated: Tuesday, May 13, 2008, CBC News  

An Acehnese man walks amid debris of destroyed buildings in Banda Aceh, Dec. 27, 2004.

An Acehnese man walks amid debris of destroyed buildings in Banda Aceh, Dec. 27, 2004. (Achmad Ibrahim/Associated Press)

The following is a list of some of the worst natural calamities to strike the world since 1900. The list is by definition arguable. Earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, tsunamis, cyclones, hurricanes and other storms are all clearly natural phenomena.

But the picture is less clear for disasters like floods and famine. What some people may consider a natural disaster, others may consider more of a political act (for instance, some of the world's deadliest floods and famines were caused, at least in part, by policy decisions taken by hostile, indifferent or negligent regimes).

For our purposes, we have included floods and famines as well as flu pandemics on the assumption that disasters that are not man-made are, by definition, natural.

This list is also limited to disasters since 1900 — an arbitrary cut-off to be sure — but one made to reflect so-called "modern-day" disasters only.

The death tolls from disasters in the long-distant past are, at best, rough estimates. But there can be no doubt that our pre-1900 ancestors endured some appalling calamaties such as the bubonic plague ("The Black Death") that spread through Europe beginning in 1348 and wiped out an estimated one-third of humanity, or about 25 million people.

Earthquakes and tsunamis

Oct. 8, 2005. At least 80,000 people were killed and three million left homeless after a quake struck the mountaineous Kashmir district in Pakistan.

Dec. 26, 2004. A magnitude 9.0 quake struck off the coast of Sumatra, triggering tsunamis that swept through the coastal regions of a dozen countries bordering the Indian Ocean. The death toll has been estimated at between 225,000 and 275,000.

Dec. 26, 2003. An earthquake devastated the ancient city of Bam, in central Iran, leaving between 31,000 and 43,000 people dead.

Rosa Castillo cries in front of the remains of her house in Choluteca, in southern Honduras, Nov. 9, 1998. Neigbourhood were wiped out by the Choluteca river when the river overflowed due to heavy rains caused by Tropical Storm Mitch.

Rosa Castillo cries in front of the remains of her house in Choluteca, in southern Honduras, Nov. 9, 1998. Neigbourhood were wiped out by the Choluteca river when the river overflowed due to heavy rains caused by Tropical Storm Mitch. (Scott Dalton/Associated Press)

July 28, 1976. The 20th century's most devastating quake (magnitude 7.8) hit the sleeping city of Tangshan in northeast China. The official death toll was 242,000. Unofficial estimates put the number as high as 655,000.

Oct. 5, 1948 - More than 110,000 were killed when a 7.3 quake rolled through the area around Ashgebat in Turkmenistan.

May 22, 1927. A magnitude 7.9 quake near Xining, China, killed 200,000

Sept. 1, 1923. A third of Tokyo and most of Yokohama were levelled when a magnitude 8.3 earthquake shook Japan. About 143,000 were killed as fires ravaged much of Tokyo.

Dec. 16, 1920. China was also the site for the world's third-deadliest quake of the 20th century. An estimated 200,000 died when a magnitude 8.6 temblor hit Gansu, triggering massive landslides.

Dec. 28, 1908. Southern Italy was ravaged by a 7.2 magnitude quake that triggered a tsunami that hit the Messina-Reggio-Calabria area, killing 123,000.

Volcanic eruptions

July 15, 1991. Mt. Pinatubo on Luzon Island in the Philippines erupted, blanketing 750 square kilometres with volcanic ash. More than 800 died.

Nov. 13-14, 1985. At least 25,000 are killed near Armero, Colombia, when the Nevado del Ruiz volcano erupted, triggering mudslides.

May 8, 1902. Mt. Pelee erupted on the Caribbean island of Martinique, destroying the capital city of St. Pierre. Up to 40,000 were killed. The day before, a volcano had killed 1,600 people on the nearby island of St. Vincent and five months later Mt. Santa Maria erupted in Guatemala, killing another 6,000.

(Two of the most famous eruptions took place before 1900. In 1883, two-thirds of the Indonesian island of Krakatoa was destroyed when a volcano erupted. A resulting series of tsunamis killed more than 36,000. In 79 CE, Mt. Vesuvius erupted in southern Italy, destroying the ancient Roman city of Pompeii and two other communities. Thousands died.)

Hurricanes, cyclones and floods

May 3, 2008. Cyclone Nargis, swept along by winds that exceeded 190 kmh and waves six metres high struck the Burmese peninsula and may have left as many as 100,000 dead, according to U.S. estimates.

Oct. 26-Nov. 4, 1998. Hurricane Mitch was the deadliest hurricane to hit the Americas. It killed 11,000 in Honduras and Nicaragua and left 2.5 million homeless.

Aug. 5, 1975. At least 85,000 were killed along the Yangtze River in China when more than 60 dams failed following a series of storms, causing widespread flooding and famine. This disaster was kept secret by the Chinese government for 20 years.

August 1971. An estimated 100,000 died when heavy rains led to severe flooding around Hanoi in what was then North Vietnam.

Nov. 13, 1970. The Bhola cyclone in the Ganges delta killed an estimated 500,000 in Bangladesh. Some put the complete death toll as high as one million.

June, 1938. Nationalist Chinese soldiers, under the direction of Chiang Kai-Shek, blew up dikes around the Yellow River to stop Japanese troops from advancing. More than half a million people died in the resulting flood.

May-August 1931. Massive flooding of China's Yellow and Yangtze rivers led to almost four million deaths from drowning, disease and starvation. The flooding of the Yangtze also killed an estimated 100,000 in 1911 and 140,000 in 1935.

Pandemics and famines

1900 to present. Malaria is one of the leading causes of death in the developing world even though it is curable and largely preventable. According to the World Health Organization, malaria causes severe illness in 500 million people each year and kills more than a million annually.

1984-1985. Famine killed at least one million in Ethiopia as severe drought led to desperate food shortages.

1980 to present. Toll from AIDS worldwide since 1980 is estimated at 25 million, with 40 million others infected with HIV.

1968. The Hong Kong flu became the third flu pandemic of the 20th century.

1965-67. Three years of drought in India resulted in an estimated 1.5 million deaths from starvation and disease. Severe Indian droughts also killed millions in 1900 and 1942.

1959-1961. The "Great Leap Famine" cost an estimated 20 to 40 million lives in China as the policies of Mao Zedong resulted in massive social and economic upheaval. China was also hit by large famines in 1907, 1928-1930, 1936 and 1941-1942.

1957-1958. The Asian flu swept around the world, killing an estimated two million and making it the second biggest flu pandemic of the century.

1932-1933. Failures in Soviet central planning and Stalin's decision to withhold food from the Ukraine led to huge loss of life. At least five million Ukrainians were among the seven million victims of that famine.

1921. A Soviet famine in 1921 began with a drought that caused massive crop failures. The initial death toll was greatly magnified when Lenin refused to acknowledge the famine and sent no aid. The Soviets later estimated that 5.1 million died.

1918-1919. An epidemic of "Spanish Flu" spread around the world. At least 20 million died, although some estimates put the final toll at 50 million. It's estimated that between 20 per cent and 40 per cent of the entire world's population became sick.

Sources: U.S. Geological Survey, World Health Organization, Associated Press, disasterrelief.org, NOAA, Guinness World Records, Oxfam.

Copyright © CBC 2008

Evacuation by SecurityCornerMexico.com

 Natural disasters have made history by the unprecedented number of human lives lost. On the other hand, material losses are incalculable not only in Mexico but all over the world. In this article we are able to share extremely useful information, thanks to assistance provided by the National Center for Disaster Prevention, better known by its initials CENAPRED. This is an organization that works under the umbrella of the Secretariat of the Interior, National Autonomous University (UNAM) and with the auspices of the Japanese Government. Mr. Damon Darlin, columnist of The New York Times gives us details on How to Prepare for one Really Quick Getaway – for practical use at home, school, work. Links are provided to obtain Trainers Certification by FEMA and relevant universities in the US. La Jornada newspaper also provided valuable support.

Many years ago, in August 1977 I went to an International Meeting in Geneva sponsored by IFIAS (History of IFIAS at the end of this article) at the Henry Dunant Institute, I was there invited by the late Mexican economist Raul Livas Vera, in that moment Director of Social Sciences and Humanities Division of UAM-Xochimilco in Mexico City where I was teaching and doing research. The Meeting was about Droughts and Men (La Sequia y el Hombre) and several experts of a wide number of countries were present among them a Cuban Delegation.  
Since that moment I learned that natural disasters are not so "natural”: in the sense that when countries have social organization and policies of preventions the outcome of a natural disaster can be striking different. For example, infrastructure building such as small dams, areas where is forbidden to build houses that can be in high risk, etc and the main key issue: organization and guideliness to the population to evacuate or mobilize when needed.  
I was helping with the translation to the Cuban Delegation and I learned how different were the lost and damage done by droughts or floods in Cuba and other Caribbean countries. Cuba was since then better prepared that most developing countries. The People's Republic of China was also well organized if compared to India regarding the impact of droughts in those years according to a UN official present in that meeting.  
The account of damages and deaths of Hurricane Ivan in the USA and other Caribbean countries shows very clearly that Cuba has reached an outstanding level of disaster prevention and Cuba did not report one death person while the numbers of dead people are high for the US, Dominican Republic and Panama, The case of Haiti after Tropical Storm Jeanne is very tragic. It is true that the US through the Department of Home Security is well prepared with expertise and all kind of resources. However, I feel that the US and Latin America still have to learn and consider the Cuban experience with natural disasters prevention and preparedness. The recent impact of Hurricane Ike in Cuba and Haiti demonstrates that Cuba had very few human fatalities despite the material damage in many Cuban cities including Havana.
More than 1.2 million people were evacuated in Cuba and prevention preparedness was key for avoiding human deaths,    
On September 17th 2004 international and American media did not put much attention to the Cuban authorities estimates of Hurricane Ivan damages pointing out that “neither winds nor floods nor heavy sea left a single dead or injured person, proving the truth of the UN official´s remark that Cuba is a paradigm in hurricane-risk prevention”.
In that moment there were already 37 dead people in the US east coast. Its is fair to mention that some regions of the US Coast were also stroke by tornados and the kind of housing settlements were more vulnerable. However, when preventing damage, potential deads and accidents, governments have to do urban planning and regulate hunger of real estate investors building in high risk places and provide safe housing to poor families avoiding informal human settlements in unsafe urban or rural areas where floods can destroy and sweap houses and basic infrastructure that did not contemplate these natural disaster risks.
Unfortunately, many developing countries –including some well developed countries-, do not have wise and on-time prevention policies in natural disasters that have to start with rural and urban planning –that includes regulation of speculative real estate capital- and well organized social response. The extreme situation of natural disaster impact is Haiti, the poorest country in the Americas.
Most media accounts more than one thousand people dead by September 22th 2004 after Tropical Storm Jeanne hit the region of Gonaives, a quarter million Haitians had been made homeless. According to an Associeted Press report on September 21th, the US Embassy in Haiti announced 60 thousand dollars in immediate relief while the European Union sent aid and 1.8 million US dollars and Venezuela gave 1 million dollars and rescue supplies as reported by AP. The Haitian case is paradigmatical as an example of how extreme poverty has a direct consequence in high vulnerability of people. In other words, natural disasters are more risky if you are poorer in any place, this is true for a poor Mexican migrant families in South Florida or a poor families living in the hills and mountains in the outskirts of San Salvador or Mexico City.
There are many examples of different impact of natural disasters regarding prevention and good planning. The Mexico City earthquake of September 19th 1985 is an example of lack of prevention and organization including the building standards that were not respected according to the regulation for anti-seismic construction where very likely corruption was involved.
In the other hand, The City of Kobe in Japan had a much better response and much less victims after the January 17th 1995 Earthquake.  Most of the deaths and injuries In Kobe occurred when older wood-frame houses with heavy clay tile roofs collapsed. Note that homes and buildings are designed to be very strong in the vertical direction because they must support their own static weight. On the other hand, buildings can be very susceptible to horizontal ground motion. Furthermore, many of the structures in Kobe built since 1981 had been designed to strict seismic codes. Most of these buildings withstood the earthquake. In particular, newly built ductile-frame high rise buildings were generally undamaged. Unfortunately, many of the buildings in Kobe had been built before the development of strict seismic codes. 
It is fair to recognize that the Mexico City Earthquake was of greater magnitude and length than the Kobe Earthquake but still the Japanese were better prepared than Mexicans for this natural disaster. I want to finish this article quoting Japanese seismology professor Tsuneo Katayama  who wrote that he "had opportunities to observe the damages caused by the 1989 Loma Prieta and the 1994 Northridge earthquakes." However, he thought that Japanese structures would not collapse as U.S. structures had in those earthquakes.
Professor Katayama also wrote, "While our country was having a bubbling economy, we Japanese forgot to pay due attention to mother nature."
Good lessons for the USA, Mexico and many countries that these days are focusing on economic growth and seem to minimize basic rules for dealing with Nature and Environment. 
Update from BBC News September 9th 2008
Hurricane Ike has hit the Caribbean island of Cuba with torrential rain, high winds and powerful waves.
Hurricane Ike: SeptemberTropical Storm Hanna: SeptemberHurricane Gustav: August, SeptemberTropical  Storm Fay: AugustHundreds of thousands of people have been moved from areas which are in danger to shelter from the storm. Ike has already left at least 47 people dead in Haiti and reports say it has damaged most of the homes on the Turks and Caicos islands.  Ike comes soon after Hurricane Gustav caused devastation on the western side of Cuba and much of the Caribbean. The Cuban government is thought to be very good at preparing for storms, getting medical teams ready, opening emergency shelters and evacuating people. And Ike has weakened to a category two storm since it first struck Cuba. But it could still cause lots of damage, especially if it hits Havana, the capital city of the island. Widespread damageAnd Ike has already proved how dangerous it can be. It's the latest of four storms to hit the island of Haiti, one of the world's poorest countries.  The Prime Minister, Michele Pierre Louis, has called for international help in dealing with flooding, especially asking for helicopters to rescue people stranded on their rooftops. (BBC)

Granma Cuban News Agency, September 12th 2008

FROM up above, chaos seems to reign in Pinar del Río province. It is enough to go up a number of meters — this time 300 — in a Revolutionary Air Force helicopter to grasp the magnitude of the disaster.
In addition to the destruction wreaked by Hurricane Gustav’s furious winds, there is now the devastation of Ike’s floodwaters inundating towns and fields. Two hurricanes that have disrupted the lives and surroundings of the people of Pinar del Río. More than 100 homes in the neighborhood of Isabel Rubio in Guane municipality were flooded by the waters of the Cuyaguateje River, the largest river in the western region, making access impossible. The heavy rains also threatened the lives of more than 7,000 residents of Sanguily, who had to be hurriedly evacuated. From the air, the view of these two residential areas is shocking: one devastated by the force of a river that invaded it, the other by the solitude that prevails in its streets.
Some figures speak for themselves about the effects of the rainfall in Pinar del Río: when Hurricane Ike hit, reservoirs were at 63% capacity; after its passing, they were at more than 80%. Of the province’s 31 reservoirs, 18 of them are now overflowing, including La Juventud, the largest. Gustav’s powerful winds were followed by Ike’s floodwaters, halting recovery efforts. According to Marbel Piloto Hernández, a member of the Party Bureau in Pinar del Rio, in the days following the first hurricane, more than 3,000 homes were repaired and 1,500 temporary facilities created. Electricity had been restored to 70% of the province. "Now we are assessing the damage, work is beginning again, but with more efforts than before," she said. And it is true that activities have resumed with more impetus. That was confirmed by the tenacity of the 800 electrical line workers and 200 construction workers from other provinces who returned to work after the floods.
The housing repair brigades created in neighborhoods are also evidence of that. Jorge Luis Izquierdo and Juan Fernández, two men with skin burned by the sun after repairing so many roofs, are part of one of those brigades. And they proudly demonstrate the new roofs that Ike was not able to rip away.One might think that Nature was merciless with Pinar del Río. The fact that two hurricanes plowed through the same place in less than 10 days seems incredible. From the air, the image of destruction is repeated once again, but on the ground, the merits of the people of Pinar del Rio are confirmed once again, as they flood their province with their work.
Translated by Granma International
Upadate of BBC News, September 13th 2008
Hurricane Ike has slammed into Texas where it's caused serious flooding and damage to the area. The centre of the storm hit the town of Galviston late on Friday night local time, forcing thousands of people to flee their homes. But officials are worried that up to 23,000 residents have ignored orders to evacuate the area, deciding to stay put and see out the storm. Power supplies have been cut a number of houses are reported to be on fire. Authorities have also introduced an overnight curfew, ordering people to stay indoors until it gets light again in the morning when emergency workers can start work again. Emergency On Friday President Bush declared a state of emergency in Texas, and people are being asked to leave their homes. Hurricane Ike has already killed more than 70 people in the Caribbean and caused loads of damage. Nearly 800,000 people are in temporary shelters in Haiti, which has been hit by four tropical storms in three weeks.
Bernardo Mendez Lugo is a Mexican diplomat now posted at the Consulate  of Mexico in Tucson, Az, he is former Professor of Social Sciences and Humanities at UAM-Xochimilco in Mexico City. His views are personal and do not represent the points of views of the Mexican government.
(Information about IFIAS at the very end) I am sharing with you a wonderful article written by Ben Wisner who is a researcher in the Environmental Studies Program at Oberlin College, Ohio, United States, his piece shows very clearly the main idea of the title of my article: Natural disasters are not so “natural” neither an “act of God”. 
Articles: UN Chronicle, Winter, 2000  Disasters: What the United Nations and Its World Can Do  Ben Wisner Ironically, it was during a decade dedicated to natural disaster reduction (1990-1999) that we saw some of the worst losses of human life and the largest economic losses in living memory. Hurricanes and cyclones took large tolls in South Asia, the Philippines, Central America, the Caribbean and the United States.
There has been unprecedented flooding in Europe, China, Venezuela and the United States. Earthquakes in Turkey, Japan, China and the United States cost a surprising number of lives and billions in money terms. And, 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 filth of all school buildings rendered unusable. In India, the same scenario was repeated on an even greater scale in Gujarat: 12,000 bodies have been recovered from the ruins of apartment houses, hospitals and smaller residences. The final number could reach 100,000. An area the size of Wales or West Virginia has been reduced to rubble.
 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 disaster follows because of human action and inaction. In the case of the middle-income neighbourhood of Las Colinas in Santa Tecla, just outside El Salvador's capital San Salvador, 400 homes were lost beneath 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 in 2000 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 per cent of the multi-storey structures in Indian cities are built according to earthquake resistant norms. The earthquake didn't kill, but the buildings did. In Salvador and Gujarat, hungry rural people have been scorching for work in the cities, living in makeshift dwellings in some of the most potentially dongerous areas in on earthquake, with little resources or initiative to make their homes safer, on land they do not own. And the middle class is attracted to the rapidly growing edge of the sprawling cities. Developers 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 of chemicals for medical tests were not secured on their shelves with simple restraints. Forty per cent of El Salvador's health care facilities suffered disabling damage.
Yet it is very well known how to protect health care structures and their non-structural elements. So, what has me United Nations family been doing? Many agencies within the UN family joined with other international scientific and humanitarian organizations, national committees, non-governmental organizations and citizen groups in an effort called the IDNDR, or the International Decade for Natural Disaster Reduction (1990-1999). Point of fact: The combined cost of disasters worldwide, according to the Center for Epidemiology of Disaster in Belgium, was $741 billion in this period, in terms of human lives 589,000.
The number of deaths has climbed each year since 1994. Remember, these are officially reported deaths; the actual number could be even higher. But, another point of fact: This period was one of accelerated and intensive international exchanges 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. 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 IDNDA, 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 which 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.
The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) had a programme for strengthening schools, and the Organization of American States has on 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 in its lost 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 lzmir, 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 and the language is the same. Why, one has to wonder, were the methods developed by RADIUS in Tijuana not applied in San Salvador? In part the answer is that a terrible civil war raged in [epsilon]l Salvador until 1992. Since the end of that war, UN 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 the maintenance of peace and good governance.
These are the same institutions that are needed to apply existing knowledge to reducing the impacts of earthquakes and other extreme events such as hurricane Mitch (1998). After that hurricane, [epsilon]l 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 [epsilon]l 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 [epsilon]l Salvador, India and elsewhere in the world where disasters continue to plague humanity? All this said, what more could the United Nations family do? UN agencies hove provided three kinds of things so far: technical knowledge, support for institution-building, and financial assistance through grants and loans.
These are necessary, but they are not sufficient to initiate the sea change in how nations deal with natural hazards. 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 lowcost solutions based on available knowledge to prevent such tragic loss? There are networks of scientists and engineers who 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 has not been applied. Such an effort would require thousands of experts to work out the low-cost, minimum practices required to avoid further 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 on impossible task. It has happened before. One recent example is exchange among hundreds of agencies that work in humanitarian and disaster relief, which led to agreement on a very detailed set of minimum technical standards for relief. Known as the SPHERE project, its 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, airline and nuclear power industries, etc. It has already happened where global warming is concerned. 
The Intergovernmental 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 United Nations not create a parallel intergovernmental panel on natural disaster that would, in a similar way, act to mobilize existing knowledge and feed it into a treaty-making process? Such a body is necessary because so many different kinds of knowledge and expertise are required. No single existing specialized agency of the United Nations, such as UNESCO, the UN Environment Programme, the World Health Organization and the World Meteorological Organization, covers 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 and 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-cast solutions will filter out into society. Citizens groups will demand action by their Governments, as they did in Turkey, where it became clear that contractors had not followed building codes and had used low-quality materials; or in South Florida where it came to light that poor construction methods were responsible for much avoidable damage during 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 human beings who are supposed to enjoy these rights can be snuffed out because the Government neglected to enforce its own building codes. Ben Wisner is a researcher in the Environmental Studies Program at Oberlin College, Ohio, United States. 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 books and scientific papers. He also serves as an advisor to the emergency response programme of the American Friends Service Committee. Selected readings on disaster management, compiled by Ben Wisner: Blaikle P., Cannon, T., Davis, I., Wisner, B. 1994. At Risk: Natural Hazards. People's Vulnerability, and Disasters. London: Routledge.