Eileen Shea: In Disaster Response, Preparing Remote Communities Is Biggest Challenge

Date: 06-13-2005

HONOLULU (June 13) -- In the aftermath of the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami and the tragic loss of life and property, affected countries have been focusing on improving disaster warning systems, an East-West Center specialist on climate and risk management said, but the biggest challenge lies in alerting communities with the critical information.

"As we saw with the recent tsunami, many of the most vulnerable populations live in remote communities," said Eileen Shea, Climate Project Coordinator at the Center. In recent briefings on disaster planning and preparation in the Asia Pacific region, she emphasized the importance of providing warnings and forecasts in languages and formats that are readily accessible to these populations.

"We must pay as much attention to engaging and empowering the receivers of warnings as we do to addressing the needs of the technical institutions responsible for providing those warnings," she said. "In many parts of the world, there is a pressing need to translate into local languages and use relatively simple forms of communication -- radio, phone, facsimile and visual and auditory cues such as warning flags and sirens."

Many of the countries that suffered the greatest loss from the recent tsunami are also prone to other natural disasters. This makes it even more essential to strengthen their anticipation, preparation and response, as well as recovery, from tropical cyclones, floods, landslides, drought and high winds and waves, she said.

"If we focus only on the tsunami hazard itself, I fear that we will be like the proverbial general planning for the past war," Shea said.

Increasingly, international and regional development bodies like the United Nations, the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank are recognizing that managing the risks associated with a variety of natural disasters is an essential part of an effective, long-term development strategy, she noted.

Shea called for "a comprehensive, multi-hazard approach that establishes the human, institutional and political, as well as scientific and technical, infrastructure necessary to anticipate and manage future risk."

"Good warning systems are only part of an effective risk management program," she said. "We need to concentrate on providing technical and leadership training and getting educational materials in the hands of the public."

Government officials, community and business leaders, non-government organizations and other elements of civil society need to understand their responsibilities in emergency situations, Shea said. She recommended education programs be developed that enable communities to assess their vulnerability to and communicate warnings about future threats. Also, the media has a vital role to play in the process.

As the overwhelming response to the December tsunami demonstrates, a risk management team involves a large and diverse number of players, ranging from individual community volunteers to international organizations like the United Nations.

The East-West Center has adopted a multi-hazard approach to comprehensive risk management, she said. According to Shea, this integrated program of research, education, training and policy dialogue focuses on reducing the vulnerability of at-risk communities. It advocates partnerships among government, civil society and local communities in disaster warning, response and risk reduction.

"Building and sustaining these partnerships will be a critical factor in our success going forward," she said. "It is my hope that a lasting legacy of the disaster will be the emergence of a comprehensive and coordinated risk management program to protect people and their communities, not just in the region, but around the world."

Eileen Shea can be reached at (808) 944-7253 or sheae@eastwestcenter.org

This is an East-West Wire, copyright East-West Center