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The toll from natural disasters is increasing. Since the 1960s, the economic cost of catastrophes has increased nine times. Last year, over 700 “large loss” disasters caused nearly $100 billion in economic losses. Were that the only price to be paid. According to the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent, the lives of over 126 million people were altered by disasters. Twenty-five million people were driven from their homes as a result of declining soil fertility, drought, deforestation and flooding. Natural disasters created more refugees than did war and conflict. The numbers are going to grow.

Climate change is making weather prediction more difficult. The El Nino and La Nina phenomena are two examples of the changing weather patterns of the future. Hurricane Mitch, which devastated Latin America and the United States, was a hint of the destruction that lies ahead. There are many questions about environmental change, but there is virtual unanimity that global warming will cause sea levels to rise. The World Meteorological Organization confirmed that 1998 was the warmest year in history since records were kept. One-half of the world’s population lives in coastal zones; 10 million are at risk of constant flooding. Flooding is not the only risk: Sixty percent of the world’s population will be living in potential malarial zones by 2100.

Japanese are painfully aware of the damage that can be wrought by earthquakes. The Great Hanshin Earthquake in 1995 caused losses that are estimated to reach $200 billion. Forty of the world’s 50 major cities are located in earthquake zones. The poor living conditions in many of the “megacities” will make the losses significantly greater when they hit.

According to the United Nations, over the last decade, natural disasters killed 128,000 each year and affected 136 million annually. Yet, at the same time, funds for assistance have plummeted. Over the past five years, emergency aid funds have been cut by 40 percent. Longer-term aid is also shrinking: Global aid from the donors of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development fell 7 percent last year. The supreme irony is that this occurred during the International Decade for Natural Disaster Reduction.

A serious and continuing international strategy to deal with natural disasters is clearly needed. Such a strategy will consist of two pillars: emergency response to catastrophes and disaster mitigation. Thus far, most disaster planning has focused on the first component, finding ways to get money and expertise to the people and places that need it quickly. Foreign ministries should be encouraged to set up disaster relief offices to be ready when catastrophes hit.

But it has become increasingly clear that reacting to disasters is not enough. Public policy must now focus on mitigating the effects of catastrophes before they occur. It is not as impossible as it might seem.

A first step is increasing coordination between the various international agencies that must deal with disasters. Of course, the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees should be involved, but so too should the World Meteorological Organization, the World Health Organization, the U.N. Development Program and even the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization. They must coordinate to introduce early warning systems and standardized procedures in the case of emergencies.

The public and private sectors will have to work together to create best practices and international standards for insurance, public works and home construction. Education, training and technology transfer will be vital components of any serious disaster mitigation program.

Japan’s unfortunate experience with earthquakes means that it should be a leader in this field. In 1994, the city of Yokohama hosted the World Conference on Natural Disaster Relief which reviewed accomplishments up to that date. At the close of the decade, Japan should offer to hold another such conference to assess what has been learned and develop a program for the future.

Some natural disasters will always be sudden and unexpected. That does not mean that we must wait passively for them to hit and accept the damage they do. Planning can cut our vulnerability to such losses; preparation will leave us better able to cope when they strike. Nature may be capricious, but we are guilty too if we leave our fates to, well, fate.

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