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The Media and Disaster Reduction:

Roundtable on the Media, Scientific Information and Disasters at the United Nations World Conference on Natural Disaster Reduction.

Fred H. Cate

In the face of extraordinary and increasing human and economic costs of natural disasters, the United Nations designated the 1990s as the International Decade for Natural Disaster Reduction (IDNDR). Initiated by Dr. Frank Press, then-President of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences, the IDNDR explicitly recognized that humankind possesses the means to reduce the impact of disasters--to save lives and reduce damage to property.

Effective, reliable communications are vital to disaster reduction and an important focus of the IDNDR. Communications technologies, skills, and media are essential to link scientists, disaster mitigation officials, and the public; educate the public about disaster preparedness; track approaching hazards; alert authorities; warn the people most likely to be affected; assess damage; collect information, supplies, and other resources; coordinate rescue and relief activities; account for missing people; and motivate public, political, and institutional responses.

The vital role of communications in all phases of disaster mitigation was highlighted at the recent World Conference on Natural Disaster Reduction, May 23-27, 1994, in Yokohama, Japan. The Conference--the largest disaster-related meeting ever, with more than 5,000 participants and delegations from 148 countries--was the key mid-decade event in the IDNDR and the first United Nation's event in which the Republic of South Africa participated.

In addition to discussions throughout the Conference and in the final report concerning the importance of communications, the World Conference featured the Roundtable, The Media, Scientific Information and Disasters, organized by The Annenberg Washington Program, in cooperation with the IDNDR Secretariat in Geneva. At the Roundtable, senior journalists, relief officials, and scientists explored the involvement of the media in disaster mitigation and practical means for improving relationships among the media, disaster relief and scientific communities. This report is based on the Roundtable and the wide range of related discussions at the World Conference.

The Growing Threat of Natural Hazards

The number and impact of natural disasters are increasing at a dramatic rate. Between 1963 and 1967, the world experienced 16 disasters that took the lives of 100 or more people and 89 disasters that caused damage of 1 percent or more of national GNP of the countries affected. Twenty-five years later, between 1988 and 1992, the world experienced 66 disasters that killed 100 or more people and 205 that cost 1 percent or more of national GNP. Over three million people have been killed by disasters in the past two decades. In constant (1990) dollars, the total economic cost of natural disasters has tripled in the last 30 years, from $40 billion in the 1960s to $120 billion in the 1980s. In the first three years of the 1990s, natural disasters caused more than $85 billion in economic losses, and the figures continue to increase.

Although 90 percent of all people affected (95 percent of all people killed) by natural disasters live in the developing world, more developed countries are not immune from this deadly trend. In the United States, insurance payouts from natural disasters since 1990 already have more than quadrupled payouts for all of the 1980s. The actual economic cost of natural disasters occurring in the United States in 1993 and the first three months of 1994 is expected to exceed $100 billion--more than the nation's investment in research and development during the same period.

The Focus on Disaster Prevention and Mitigation

As recognized in the Yokohama Strategy and Plan of Action for a Safer World, adopted by the World Conference on Natural Disaster Reduction, many of these costs--both in terms of lives lost and property destroyed--could be avoided:

Natural disasters continue to strike and increase in magnitude, complexity, frequency and economic impact. Whilst the natural phenomena causing disasters are in most cases beyond human control, vulnerability is generally a result of human activity. Therefore, society must recognize and strengthen traditional methods and explore new ways to live with such risk, and take urgent actions to prevent as well as to reduce the effects of such disasters. The capacities to do so are available.
Dr. Frank Press, who was acclaimed an Honorary Vice President of the World Conference in recognition of his role as the founder of the International Decade for Natural Disaster Reduction (IDNDR), has written: "Disasters are tragic, not only because of the great losses to the victims, but also because they are often avoidable. The means to reduce disasters' toll and ensure a safer future are available." Science and engineering provide effective, reliable means of identifying hazard-prone regions, predicting most natural hazards, and significantly protecting people and property from the fury of earthquakes, floods, winds, landslides, avalanches, cyclones, tsunamis, locust infestations, drought, and volcanic eruptions.

In short, natural hazards do not have to result in natural disasters. As Vice President Al Gore has noted: "Natural hazards are inevitable. They represent the earth's normal way of doing business. . . . Natural disasters are determined as much or more by societal behavior and practice as by nature per se. They can and should be reduced." Disaster reduction takes many forms. It may involve discouraging building in hazard-prone regions, such as flood plains, or investing in hazard-resistant building styles and materials, such as flat roofs in high wind areas. Most disaster prevention and mitigation, however, involves assuring effective, reliable communication.

The Central Roles of Communications in Disaster Reduction

Communication plays many vital roles in disaster reduction. While they often overlap, these roles may be divided into five broad categories: Technical communications systems, such as satellites, remote sensing devices, and computer networks, and other technology-based communication systems research, predict, track, and provide early warning of natural hazards. Disaster site communications maintain links with disaster response officials, the government, affected populations, and sources of emergency relief supplies. Organizational communications are essential for the effective, dependable operation and interaction of private, governmental, and multinational disaster prevention and relief organizations. Communication for scientific development and policy formation, between scientists, engineers, government officials, other disaster response officials, insurers, the media, and the public develop our knowledge of natural hazards and how to keep them from becoming disasters. Public education and communication--through electronic and print media, wired and cellular telephones, and alternative media--educate the public about natural hazards and disaster prevention, warn of approaching hazards, and facilitate participation in public discussions about disaster preparedness and response.

Each of these uses of communications in response to disasters has attracted the attention of scientists, disaster relief officials, and communications specialists. Technical communications systems, disaster site communications, and organizational communications, in particular, have been the subject of ongoing international discussions and reports, a number of which are reprinted elsewhere in this volume. The importance of communications in disaster mitigation has played a significant role in the IDNDR. One of the earliest meetings on communications and disasters in the 1990s was the International Conference on Disaster Communications, convened by the United Nations Disaster Relief Coordinator in Geneva, March 19-21, 1990, and funded by the Federal Republic of Germany. Stephen Rattien, whose contribution to The Annenberg Washington Program's report, Communication When It s Needed Most: How New Technology Could Help in Sudden Disasters, captured the theme of these many discussions when he wrote that communications are "central" to the effort to "save many lives and reduce human suffering, dislocation and economic losses" in the face of disasters. Dr. Rattien, now Executive Director of the National Academy of Sciences Commission on Geosciences, Environment and Resources, concluded: "Mass communications is inextricably entwined with disasters and hazard mitigation."