U.N. seeks to avert half of natural disaster deaths

GENEVA (Reuters) - The United Nations called on Friday for more aid funds to help countries prepare for -- instead of respond to -- natural disasters, saying simple steps could halve the number of deaths they cause.

A man collects bricks at the ruins of houses which were destroyed by the earthquake in Qingchuan, Sichuan province December 16, 2008. REUTERS/Christina Hu

John Holmes, the U.N.’s emergency relief coordinator, said that 10 percent of humanitarian aid and 30 percent of climate change response money should be used to help fortify schools and hospitals and teach people how to survive crises.

“You can’t stop the disasters happening but you can make an enormous difference to whether they kill people and, to some extent at least, have their livelihoods destroyed,” he told a news conference in Geneva.

Speaking at the end of a week-long U.N. disaster response meeting, Holmes said that smarter spending of foreign assistance could go a long way to shield lives in countries that are highly exposed to storms, earthquakes and cyclones.

Last year, natural disasters killed nearly 236,000 people and caused $181 billion in economic damage, mainly in China, according to U.N. estimates.

Bangladesh and China are considered most at risk from deaths from floods, landslides and other hazards that are expected to increase in frequency alongside global warming.

While death rates swing wildly from year to year depending on the storms that occur -- in 2008, Cyclone Nargis hit Myanmar and China experienced the big Sichuan earthquake -- Holmes said that preparation measures could bring down the long-term toll.

Among the recommended measures endorsed at the U.N. meeting were plans to review the structural soundness of all schools and hospitals in disaster-prone areas, and to ensure building and land-use codes better reflect natural hazard risks.

About $3 billion a year of aid funds should be used to lower disaster risks, Holmes said, noting that Australia, Sweden, the United States, Britain and Germany already in principle allocate 10 percent of humanitarian aid to such efforts.

Some life-saving measures can be accomplished at very low cost, so long as governments keep natural hazard preparedness high on their agendas, the U.N. official said.

“It can be extremely low-tech. It’s people on bicycles and bullhorns,” he said, describing successful steps undertaken in flood-prone Bangladesh to inform people about how and when to seek shelter from rising waters. “That is not something that requires huge financial outlay.”

(Editing by Mark Trevelyan)

(For a table of the most and least risky places for natural disasters, see the interactive map at:

For more information about humanitarian emergencies and natural disasters, see: