Klaus Toepfer
United Nations Under-Secretary General and Executive Director, UNEP

The international responses to natural and man-made disasters – such as Hurricanes Mitch and George in the Caribbean and Central America, the floods in Mozambique, the earthquakes in Colombia and Turkey, the cyanide leakage in Romania and the disastrous oil spill on the French coast – highlight the need to reassess our disaster management strategies. This reassessment should also encompass the effects of armed conflicts on the environment.

The incidences and scope of these disasters are spiralling. About 50 per cent of the world’s largest cities are situated along major earthquake belts or tropical cyclone tracks. The average number of victims during disasters is 150 times larger in the developing world than the developed world, and the economic loss as a proportion of gross national product is 20 times greater. Let us also not forget that the effects of disaster are long-lasting.

Clearly, there is a pressing need for a shift in emphasis from post-disaster rehabilitation to pre-disaster prevention. UNEP is currently consolidating its capabilities and resources to ensure a more comprehensive approach to disaster management. The consolidation process will address major elements of the disaster management cycle, including prevention, preparedness, assessment, response and mitigation.

UNEP’s fundamental goal is to reinforce the centrality of environmental concerns in disaster management. The other cornerstone of UNEP’s disaster management programme is the adoption of preventive strategies and practical measures to reduce the potential loss of human lives and property, as well as destruction of the environment.

The success of this approach depends on increasing public awareness of the risks that natural, technological and environmental hazards pose to societies, and on educating people about the value of existing approaches for prevention and preparedness. UNEP contributes to this process through its programmes on environmental law, early warning and assessment, and Awareness and Preparedness for Emergencies at Local Level (APELL), alongside cleaner production.

Environmental law is an important tool for building long-term capacity in preventing and reducing environmental emergencies and their effects. UNEP has played a catalytic role in developing and promoting the enforcement of and compliance with multilateral environmental agreements. The Programme for the Development and Periodic Review of Environmental Law for the First Decade of the Twenty-First Century (Montevideo Programme III) has set out a plan in this regard.

UNEP’s APELL programme, developed in conjunction with governments and industry, recognizes that the reduction and elimination of the effects of environmental disasters are possible through the implementation of prevention and preparedness initiatives at the local level. The APELL concept has been successfully introduced in more than 30 countries and in over 80 industrial communities worldwide. UNEP’s strategy in this regard also takes into account the promotion of cleaner production processes and technologies and assisting countries in establishing cleaner production centres.

UNEP also recognizes the indispensable role of emergency response, cooperating closely with the Office of Coordination for Humanitarian Affairs and other organizations in carrying out its emergency response activities. The objective of this element of disaster management is to ensure the timely and efficient provision of assistance to countries experiencing environmental disasters and to mitigate the environmental consequences of such occurrences.

A major objective of the UNEP early warning and assessment programme is to evaluate the increasing vulnerability of human society due to widespread environmental and climatic change in order to emphasize the need for sound integrated environmental management, and to provide early warning of emerging threats for preparedness and response.

Prevention and preparedness can go a long way towards alleviating the human, social, economic and environmental costs of disasters


This issue:
Contents | Editorial K. Toepfer | Learning from disaster | Being prepared | The way forward | Breaking the cycle | Flip-flop to catastrophe | Nature's warnings | At a glance | Competition | Insuring against catastrophe | Recreating sustainability | The legacy of conflict | Ask us, involve us | The poor suffer most | Through a slanted lens

Complementary articles in other issues:
Issue on Climate and Action 1998
Issue on Climate Change 1997
Issue on Hazardous Waste 1999
Issue on Small Islands 1999
Issue on Chemicals 1997