March 22 World Water Day to focus on water and disasters

Weather, climate and water resources can have a devastating impact on socio-economic development and on the well-being of humankind.

Jan. 28, 2004 -- Weather, climate and water resources can have a devastating impact on socio-economic development and on the well-being of humankind.

According to the World Meteorological Organization weather and climate-related extreme events, such as tornadoes, thunderstorms, storms, cyclones, floods and drought, account for nearly 75 per cent of all disasters.

They lead to an enormous toll of human suffering, loss of life and economic damage. Monitoring these events, predicting their movements and issuing timely warnings are essential to mitigate the disastrous impact of such events on population and economy.

World Water Day 2004 on 22 March focuses on the theme: Water and Disasters. The UN International Strategy for Disaster Reduction, http://www.unisdr.org/ and the World Meteorological Organization, http://www.wmo.ch/index-en.html have been charged with co-ordinating events on the day.

Natural and human-made disasters

Natural and human-made disasters (drought and war) have a devastating impact. Floods, hurricanes, droughts, civil conflicts or wars affect many people, their homes and their economic prospects. A local cholera outbreak can be a disaster for families living in a slum or a village.

Despite globalisation, we often do not hear about thousands of local disasters which devastate or destroy communities. Other local crises become internationally known because of one dramatic picture for the world's media.

Everybody remembers the dramatic pictures of the little girl in the mud during the Hurricane Mitch in Honduras, in October 1998. Or the image of the young mother who gave birth to a baby while trapped in a tree in Mozambique. Both mother and baby were saved by a helicopter during the floods that swept also through Botswana, Mozambique, Swaziland and Zimbabwe in 2000.

Link with other disasters

The HIV/AIDS epidemic is another disaster but its impact on water, sanitation and related hygiene provision and organisations is not widely known. Staff infection rates can be as high as 30% in some high prevalence countries, according to Evelien Kamminga and Madeleen Wegelin-Schuringa in the Thematic Overview Paper HIV/AIDS and water, sanitation and hygiene, published by IRC, see http://www.irc.nl/content/view/full/3462.

HIV/AIDS damages the sustainability of water and sanitation systems in a number of ways. In particular HIV/AIDS:

- reduces the ability of water users to pay water fees;
-reduces the ability of water users to spend time and energy on management activities;
- erodes management capacities due to loss of loss of knowledge and skills (social capital);
- damages the ability of households to participate in planning and decision-making, so risking the possibility that their specific needs may not be taken into account.

Turning the tide

What is the difference between a crisis and a disaster? In a crisis you need to take urgent action: after a disaster you are picking up the pieces. Often, being prepared stands between crisis and disaster.

Statistics including shocking death counts, costs and figures based on economic, social and property losses, are sobering enough to make us appreciate the extent of the impact of disasters. However, it seems that few of us take steps to act on this knowledge and adequately protect ourselves against the risk of disaster.

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