Chapter 6: Man-made Disasters

“Burn down your cities and leave our farms, and your cities will spring up again as if by magic; but destroy our farms and the grasses will grow in the streets of every city in the country.”

 William Jennings Bryan, 1826

Our Commission came together not only to better identify and understand some of the great humanitarian issues of our time, but also to press for action. In addition to examining past and present practices affecting human welfare, we also felt that we should look forward and try to anticipate the humanitarian issues of the future. Our work on man-made disasters is, thus, an attempt to understand problems of the future by looking at present-da y policies.

We were particularly concerned to understand the causes of the famine in Africa and the ways in which future tragedies of this kind might be averted or diminished. We believe that humanitarianism does not mean simply giving temporary relief to human-beings in distress. It also involves seeking with them ways to improve their future, which mea ns, on the one hand, recognizing the value of the human-being and, on the other, making human solidarity a central concept in reducing internal and external inequalities.

In addition to the processes of desertification and deforesta­ tion which are affecting tens of millions of peo ple, we also examined new man-made disasters. Tragedies, such as those of Bophal and Chernobyl. are warnings to us all that industrial and nuclear accidents can have widespread effects. We believe that early warning systems, better preparedness and disaster management are important humanitarian goals. Human folly can cause suffering; but a better understanding of root causes can help us mitigate if not avoid it. We firmly believe that it is not enough to analyse contemporary problems facing humankind exclusively from scientific. economic or political view-points. The humanitarian aspect, which is often neglected in the policy-making process, must be brought to the forefront. It is with this objective in mind that we reviewed problems such as deforestation and desertification as we examined contemporary food crises.


Contemporary Food Crises 

When we began our work on humanitarian issues, a serious food crisis was endangering the lives of millions of human­ beings in Africa. That is why we devoted our efforts in the first place to identifying the causes of that dramatic situation and the ways and means to prevent its recurrence. Following a Sectoral Report relating to famine, published in 1985, which emphasized the threat of environmental degradation and the decisive role played by humans in bringing about the disaster upon themselves, two further studies were prepared and published on desertification and deforestation. Their scope goes beyond Africa since both desertification and deforestation are global issues affecting the well-being of present and future generations.

Many of the conclusions and recommendations we made in the context of the African famine, particularly those concerning aid policies, the organization of development aid, the role of non-governmental organizations and the range of national economic and social policy options, are also relevant to Asia and Latin America.



During the 1980s, food crises occurred in the context of worsening terms of trade between developing and developed countries, an increasing external debt which was becoming unmanageable, growing domestic inequality and, in many cases, rapidly expanding populations. These factors, each at its own specific pace, combined to make national economies, particularly those in Africa, acutely vulnerable. The drought of 1984-85, which affected vast regions of Africa, exposed the structural weaknesses which exist in many developing countries on that continent and elsewhere.

In Africa more than anywhere else, the lack of a sufficiently credible early warning system, of dynamic innovation in inter­ state relations, and of adequately co-ordinated relief mechanisms, were factors which delayed the deployment of international aid. For millions of rural dwellers, aid came too late. Many had already died or were starving and those who had lost their livelihood were flocking to the cities in search of elusive odd jobs or crossing national borders to face an uncertain future in the refugee camps.

Food aid did, of course, enable many to survive, but it failed to replace the means of production lost during the crisis. Many farmers, for example, were unable to take advantage of the late 1985 rains because they had no seeds, no animals, and no money. To be realistic, one must recognize that for years to come the crisis caused by drought and famine will have the gravest consequences for the most vulnerable social groups and for African economies as a whole.

If the rainfall remains adequate in the coming years, it would relieve the economic situation to a certain extent. But it will take a long time for Africa to overcome the economic losses of recent years. People will not simply flock back to the farms. It will take a long time to repair the broken social fabric and even longer to roll back the desert or regenerate the forest. The consequences of good and bad years are not symmetrical. The structural problems still have to be faced, however good the rains for a time may be.

For a better assessment of the role played by climatic factors, it is not enough to go back a few years in time. Only decades or centuries can give a true perspective. History shows that there is nothing exceptional about the recent droughts. Six similar periods have been identified in the Sahel since the beginning of the 15th century, each lasting some 10 to 20 years. The period from 1790 to 1850 was particularly dry and another starting in 1895 culminated in the dramatic years 1911 to 1914. From the 1931 famine in Niger until 1950, Sahel countries suffered a number of droughts.

During these dry years, the mandatory development of cash crops, such as cotton and groundnuts, at the behest of the colonial administrations, adversely affected the fertility of the fragile soil. In 1936-37, the Franco-British Forestry Commission reported that the Sahara was on the move and called on the authorities to stop deforestation. The warning went unheeded. In retrospect, the 1950s and early 1960s in Sub-Saharan Africa look like very favourable years. They had, in fact, the highest rainfall since the turn of the century. During the 1950s the rainfall was above average in the Sudan zone, by 10 to 20 per cent, by 20 to 30 per cent in the Sahelian zone and by 50 to 60 per cent in the Sahelian-Saharan zone. The rain made it possible to extend cultivation northwards, particularly in the Sahel. More cash crops were produced without any apparent loss of food production. In this context, these points should be made:

  • Firstly, unlike any other part of the world , Africa displays remarkable spatial coherence in its climate patterns. Rainfall tends to be favourable or unfavourable all over the continent during the same periods. There can, of course, be relative variations. These tend to be greater in East than in West Africa.
  • Secondly, an important part of African rainfall comes from local evaporation, the rest being linked to the general circulation of atmospheric currents. Any dry year therefore means less evaporation and even less precipitation the following year, until the sequence is broken by a compensating mechanism which is one of nature’s secrets, not yet fully comprehensible to the experts. Meteorology is still unable to predict when this compensating mechanism comes into play. Nor can it be said that the climate has changed: a number of different assumptions have been made, none of which has been unanimously accepted by the world scientific community.
  • Thirdly, governments and planners quite wrongly consider a bad year unusual. But a normal climate is made up of good and bad years and an alternating pattern between them is quite common.

The rainfall records for West Africa show that in the mid- 1960s an irregular but persistent drier trend appeared. The 1972-73 drought in the Sahel, East Africa and Ethiopia and the events associated with it – famine, population movements, refugees etc. – highlighted the importance of climatic variability.

African governments, experts, and public opinion in the donor countries suddenly became aware of something farmers all over the world have always known: a normal climate has its ups and downs. But, of course, a drought in arid and semi-arid areas can cause famine when not enough food has been put aside , or when local prices fluctuate and not enough money is available to purchase what food is available.

The importance given suddenly to climatic variability was all the greater as the drought and food shortage in 1972-73 not only affected Africa, but also Asia and Latin America. This combination of factors gave the crisis a world dimension which was highlighted at the 1974 World Food Conference.

Many analysts tried to link the crisis to a single cause and two clearly distinct views prevailed. Supporters of the status quo blamed the weather while advocates of change blamed social and political structures.

Gradually, between these two extremities of theory, new studies began to stress the inter-relations between climatic, social, economic and political factors. Because it was so difficult to take all these factors into account, governments and experts came to treat the people who had been living in the intricate web of causative factors for centuries, namely the farmers, with a little more respect. The strategies they had devised over time to ensure survival in an uncertain and often hostile environment, were no longer systematically denigrated.

While planners still regarded bad years as unusual, early warning systems began to be developed to forecast potential bad harvests by monitoring rainfall data and the growth of crops. At the same time, research showed that cultivators and herders had their own warning systems.

The renewed droughts of 1984-85 were the final blow for the development theories of the I950s. Both African governments and donor countries now accept the need for adequate preparedness and the setting up of early warning systems based on weather data, crop monitoring as well as social and economic indicators. At the same time, detailed studies of traditional crops and livestock farming methods have been initiated in order to make them less vulnerable to climatic fluctuations.

These are small but important steps forward, but measures like them tend to be set aside when things improve. The pressure to revert to old habits remains strong. It is important, therefore, to remember that early warning systems are not simply a set of technological measures based on the vagaries of climate and agriculture. They also recognize something that has been forgotten for too long: the most humble cultivator or herder has a wealth of experience and resourcefulness.

Since our first plenary meetings in 1984, devoted largely to the food crises, we are pleased to note that many of our views and suggestions are increasingly reflected in national and international policies. Clearly, occasional food shortages in developing countries cannot be eliminated but famine situations can certainly be averted through foresight and timely action. For this purpose, we feel that there is continued need to develop and adopt efficient and reliable early warning systems. It is not enough to depend on the present national estimates, often based on unreliable assumptions about population size, national crop area and the likely yields. Famine forecasting should take into account human behaviour as much as crop behaviour. We recommend in this connection a monitoring system, particularly in the known vulnerable areas, based on a series of agreed indicators concerning the fluctuations of local market food prices and other warning signs, such as farmers selling livestock and household goods or migrating to other areas.

Satellite photography is beginning to play an increasingly important role in identifying areas where crop failures are likely to occur. Such technological advances must be coupled with socio-economic research at the local level. In other words, satellite engineers and meteorologists must join forces with agronomists and social scientists.

More often than not, food policies are made by urban people for urban people. Those living in rural areas, invariably the majority in the developing countries, have no voice and no role to play. In this context, the price structure and agriculture production policies become the decisive factors in precipitating, or averting, national food emergencies. We are firmly of the opinion that the needs and aspirations of farmers must have a decisive role in the planning of agricultural policies now elaborated by urban experts. There must be a concerted policy of turning the urban – rural terms of trade away from the cities in favour of the countryside by ensuring that small farmers in developing countries receive adequate returns for their products.

At the same time, while we are convinced that food aid should be provided generously to those in need, it is equally important that such aid be carefully controlled and managed. Food aid should be made available for a pre-determined and finite period of time in order to avoid undue dependency. In known vulnerable areas, local food storage depots should be established and special attention should be paid to problems of logistics, delivery and distribution.

Governments and banks should develop schemes to provide credit facilities directly to small-scale farmers so that they can get through difficult periods without feeling obliged to abandon their lands and move elsewhere. Donors would do well to offer collateral to local banks instead of providing straight hand-outs to governments so that financial support is provided, on a self-help basis, to farmers directly. At the same time, it is vital to reduce the debt burden of afflicted governments and allow them the time to recover. It would also be helpful if there were a more generous transfer of technology and a sharing of research, particularly on genetic engineering and agro-forestry, and assistance with the establishment of local gene banks.

The food crisis in Africa should sharpen our sense of common humanity. The problems faced by Africans are not theirs alone – whether in their making, their implications or the solutions that must be found for them. They are problems which Africans, like suffering people in other developing regions, share with the rest of the world. Global co-operation is thus not peripheral but central to the survival of millions of human-beings.

This is all the more so since, alongside the crisis of penury in the Third World, there is also a crisis of abundance in the First Wo rld. At the same time as hundreds of millions of our fellow human-beings suffer from malnutrition, or die of starvation, there is a glut of 400 million tons of surplus grain generated by Western Europe and North America. It is a crisis because government subsidies to farmers in the West amounting to billions of dollars and keeping the prices artificially high for the consumers are now becoming a serious economic, social and political problem. The European Community is reported to be considering destroying 20 million metric tons of beef, butter and grain because their storage alone costs some $4 billion. Last year, the United States was reported to have spent $6 billion on subsidizing the export of corn worth $2 billion.

This crisis of abundance is not going to subside. The spectacular advances in genetic engineering are going to help enhance the capacity to produce much more with much less effort. Commonsense calls for a global plan for food security which is based on a precise determination of world production levels coupled with levels of production for each country and region. But this requires a political climate at global level based on mutuality and human solidarity which at present is lamentably lacking.

Basic food requirements must not be allowed to fall prey to power politics. There is greater awareness of this among people than among governments. We are encouraged, however, by recent developments which show an increased sensitivity on the part of policy-makers to the importance of agriculture- a domain that has for decades been way down on the list of national priorities. The recently initiated Uruguay Round which will lead to agricultural policies being negotiated in the context of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT), is a step in the right direction. Adjusting prices and production systems, sharing the benefits of technological advances, promoting self-sufficiency among the poor nations are measures called for not merely by economic or political considerations. In our view, they are essentially humanitarian issues which demand the urgent attention of policy-makers.



“Our land, compared with what it was, is like the skeleton of a body wasted by disease.”

Plato, 360 B.C.

The great deserts like the Sahara and the Kalahari in Africa, the Atacama in South America, the Rajasthan desert in South Asia, and many others, are all growing. The term ‘desertification’ does not, however, refer only to the forward surge of the desert. It can also refer to the loss of the land’s viability due to soil erosion and reduction of vegetative cover and organic matter. These factors can affect all climatic zones, even humid, tropical and temperate ones.

In arid and semi-arid areas, the rapid loss of biological potential has dramatic consequences for the poor who live there. Desertification is accelerated by excessive livestock numbers which lead to overgrazing, by intensive farming in high climatic risk areas, and by the felling – without replanting – of trees for firewood or timber. Many proposals have been put forward to reduce livestock numbers. Most of them, however, do not take sufficiently into account the great variety of social, cultural, technological and economic factors and inter­ relationships which stimulate the growth of herds.

To reduce the consumption of firewood, fuel-efficient stoves were suggested. They are gradually being introduced but government officials often tend to neglect this type of effort. It is easier to plant 10,000 eucalyptus trees than to get families to switch to more effective stoves. Most governments are more receptive to the modern appearance of a carefully laid out

plantation, than to the need for stoves, however efficient they might be. Moreover a plantation, like a road, a new building or a dam, can be officially inaugurated, and there is much political capital to be made. But sometimes tree plantations can actually accelerate desertification by draining groundwater. In the best of cases, the plantation will yield only one product such as firewood, timber or pulp, and only a handful of by-products. It cannot be compared to a natural forest made up of different types of trees of all ages, serving all kinds of purposes.

Reducing the size of herds, lowering the consumption of firewood by fuel-efficient stoves and by substitution with other sources of energy, planting new forests with a variety of trees after consulting the local rural population , are some of the steps to combat desertification in arid areas.

Another general method is often mentioned- irrigation. One very important feature in all arid areas is the irregular rainfall. The drier the climate, the greater the difference between rainy and dry: years, and consequently the more vulnerable the crops and livestock. Therefore building dams and large-scale irrigation schemes would seem a logical answer to drought and desertification.

Unfortunately, ambitious irrigation systems can also be among the causes of desertification because salt accumulates in the surface layers when irrigation is not combined with appropriate dra in age. The irrigation of saline soil has been the scourge of many civilizations since time immemorial. But governments and the officials of financial institutions ignore the lessons of the past when embarking on grand, large-scale irrigation projects.

From the initial political, technical and financial decisions to the actual irrigation of the first plots of land, five to ten years ma y elapse. During the first few years of operation, many new factors come into play and may prevent a clear assessment of the project. By the time it is realized that something serious has gone wrong, fifteen or twenty years have gone by. That is much longer than any ordinary government’s political time frame. When serious difficulties do emerge, experts are sent to conduct a survey among the farmers who are held to be primarily responsible. Indeed, who else could be blamed for the failure? Certainly not the infallible experts!

Large-scale irrigation schemes are often presented as the most appropriate answer to the grave problems of arid and semi-arid countries. But in fact the planning, implementation and operation of those schemes too often take place without reference to the recipient communities who are treated as passive users unable to reason or speak for themselves.

There is, therefore, a tendency among decision-makers in planning agencies, banks and government departments to disregard human diversity and the wealth of experience it represents. Obscured by cost-benefit analyses which reflect their own criteria and values, they regard the end-users as economic objects moulded in their own image. Yet these cultivators and herders are the everyday users who make or break a project.

The greater the area covered by a given project, the more complex and time-consuming the process of consultation becomes. Initially those in charge may be sincerely intent on consultation, but material and time constraints soon gain the upper hand. Large-scale projects still follow the same pattern: as soon as financing possibilities appear, the project must be formulated quickly so as not to let the opportunity slip by. When financing has been agreed upon, credit agencies (for financial reasons) and governments (for political reasons) start pushing to get the job done. There is not enough time for a detailed stud y of the environmental, societal and cultural complexities in which those primarily concerned would take part.

Declarations favouring community involvement are made, but effective participation does not fit in with the time constraints of bankers, politicians and managers. Irrigation schemes do not fail because they are too large. They fail because hey are not supervised on a day-to-day basis and do not take into account the implications for the users. They fail also because they disregard the essential element of human solidarity. For there can be no sharing of water resources over space and time without a solidarity best expressed by groupings which institutionalize sharing as well as the settling of disputes. It has soften been observed that many deep wells drilled by government agencies to mitigate the effects of drought and desertification have actually led to overgrazing and accelerated desertification in the surrounding areas. This has occurred especially when the well s have not been specifically allocated to communities which could have regulated their use on a customary basis. Even small-scale water projects are subject to administrative regulations imposed without consulting the users. The same is true of many measures taken to combat desertification, such as tree planting and dune consolidation.

This kind of government attitude is particularly regrettable in the case of pastoral areas and nomadic herders for two different humanitarian reasons. Firstly, because- governments do not take into account the knowledge of people who have managed for centuries the highly complex activity of nomadic livestock-raising. Secondly, because herders, both individually and collectively, suffer the most during droughts.

Merely to help herders survive is a gesture which is both ethically incomplete and practically ineffective in the long run if there is no active recognition of, and respect for, their know­ how and social and cultural values. That recognition is essential if they are to adapt to new economic, social, technological and cultural conditions without being deprived of their integrity and identity. Facing up to the new challenges must not involve resisting all change any more than destroying past values and customs. Between the museum and the shanty town, there is a place for a kind of change ensuring mutual respect for the different customs of others, something nomadic societies have practised for centuries.

Nomadic pastoralism is a well-tried and successful use of and land. Imbalances causing a loss of fertility are brought about by externally induced changes: changes in herd structure geared to demand from cities and richer countries for cattle rather than the traditional camel which is better suited to local conditions; changes in the behaviour of settled farmers using pastoral land to plant more crops and themselves raising livestock; changes also in livestock practices with the emergence of new absentee landlords (civil servants and businessmen from the city) who see no better investment alternatives.

New landlords, keen on quick financial returns, contribute greatly to overgrazing and environmental degradation. Those who tend their herds find themselves in a new situation where their employer’s instructions or the government’s regulations are no longer consonant with social custom. In this situation, the remedies for desertification may not be found on the rangelands but in the cities where different investment incentives beneficial to the national economy should be provided. Desertification, therefore, is not only a self­ contained technical issue; it must be viewed in a wider perspective taking into account society and the economy as a whole.

The United Nations Conference on Desertification held in Nairobi in 1977 adopted a Plan for Action to Combat Desertification. In the Report we published on desertification, 1 we listed the errors of donors and recipients alike, analysed failures and successes, and stressed the lack of adequate financial resources and co-ordination. The recommendations made in the Report emphasize, in particular, community participation. Financial resources are insufficient and the co­-ordination between national and international bodies is poor. But what the Plan really missed was a recognition of basic human needs, rights, dignity and creativeness, as well as a framework for analysis of the national economy and its relationship with the world economy.

We are of the opinion that taking into account all these/actors, and in addition to the suggestions made earlier, desertification control must be organized around a completely different approach covering three main aspects:

  • The revision of policies which accelerate desertification, in particular export-oriented farming, forestry and livestock activities.
  • The mobilization of local human resources to ensure reorganization based on participation, and of agricultural, breeding and veterinary research, education and
  • More equitable sharing of resources between different social groups and nations.



“Trees are the earth’s endless efforts to speak to the listening heavens.”

Rabindranath Tagore, 1928.

The moist areas close to the Equator, far removed from the nearest desert, seem to run no risk of desertification. The forest belt around the Equator appears both powerful and fertile. But that picture is misleading. The higher the temperature, the quicker the degradation of organic matter. And organic matter is essential to maintain soil fertility. In colder climates, it accumulates on the ground in a thick layer which becomes a reservoir of fertility. Things are quite different near the Equator. With heavy and regular rainfall the year round, degradation is quick and continuous and the soil holds very little organic matter.

The most luxuriant forests are actually growing on the world’s poorest soils. This is a paradox due to a long adaptation process which permits almost all the organic matter to be recycled in the thin humus layer at the surface. If the trees disappear, the soil is rapidly depleted of its humus by rainfall, a process known as leaching. The moist tropical forest soil is also rich in iron and aluminium. When the forest, or the secondary vegetation which replaces it, is destroyed and the land cultivated, exposure to the sun and rain turns the soil surface into brick-hard laterite. The harm done is practically irreversible. Using the term desertification to describe only arid and semi-arid areas, one tends to forget that the loss of biological potential is also considerable in tropical zones.

Tropical forests are being cleared for lumber and to make way for plantations, pastures and crops. The importance given to different uses varies from country to country and over time according to the relative weight of the various interests involved. States, big national and international investors, farmers looking for more land, or landless peasants eager to get their first plot constitute some of the external forces accelerating deforestation. But the forests are not empty: people have been occupying them for centuries and, with very few exceptions, they have to suffer the disastrous consequences of deforestation because they do not have the political, social or economic power to preserve their livelihood, their way of life and their culture.

The theory that population pressure makes the gradual clearing of all forests inevitable must be carefully examined. Pressure is, of course, exerted by populations from outside the forest areas since the number of people living in or around the forests has barely increased at all, and in some cases has stagnated or decreased.

In some countries, landless peasant immigration into forest areas has been encouraged by the government. The landless and unemployed are given land, but after a few harvests the soil is depleted. The forests are also felled for wood. The main causes here are no longer population pressure but short-sighted policies resulting from governments’ balance of payments problems. Trees are felled for economic gain or repaying the external debt.

Cutting down trees for firewood is not a major cause of destruction in moist tropical forests, but it is an important cause of deforestation in dry areas. Where there is an established wood and paper industry, for example, business interests may be responsible for long-term damage to mixed forests.

In tropical countries, massive woodland clearing is a recent phenomenon. The consequences are more serious than in temperate countries because the environment is more fragile and many more people live in and from the forest. However, because they are culturally, economically and politically marginalized, they are unable to make themselves heard and to fight for their rights. Moreover, in tropical and equatorial areas, traditional forest dwellers are vulnerable to the diseases brought in by newcomers, who in turn pick up other diseases in the tropical forest or newly cleared areas. Neither group has the time to build up its immunity system.

Deforestation also modifies the habitat of animals which are a reservoir of tropical forest diseases (monkeys and rodents in particular), and of insects which communicate them to man (mosquitoes, flies , bugs, etc). The development of new human settlements without appropriate sanitation gives rise to other health problems such as the proliferation of intestinal parasites. The Sectoral Report we published on deforestation covers this often neglected field of the health consequences flowing from the clearing of tropical forests.

All large tropical forest areas shelter tribal groups. Often they are small groups of hunter-gatherers or shifting cultivators moving over large areas, adapting their life-style to the forest ecosystem, and ensuring their own subsistence without depleting forest resources. By adapting to forest conditions, these groups learned to control and cure endemic diseases in their own way. But any imported disease can have fatal consequences. Examples of this are to be found all over the world, but the most striking are probably in Brazil. There were six to nine million Amerindians there at the beginning of the 16th century. Today, barely 200,000 survive. The total number of tribes has dropped from 230 in 1900 to about half that number. Even ordinary and curable infections, such as measles or the common cold, can be fatal to tribal people, especially children.

The gradual clearing of forests has, of course, serious ecological consequences. Forests play an important part in regulating climate in general, and micro-climates and water flows in particular. On hills and slopes, when the trees are gone, there is nothing to prevent erosion and the loss of topsoil and the land becomes useless. Rainwater, which cannot drain sufficiently, swells the rivers and floods are more frequent. The water carries away the finer particles of earth which silt up dams and make them less efficient. Rivers widen because their beds rise and floods cover a greater area .

With deforestation, thousands of animal and plant species also disappear. Most of them have never been studied and their biological and economic potential has, thus, disappeared forever. Valuable genetic resources built up over millions of years have been lost. Some of them were used by forest dwellers who had come to understand their healing power or food value. The destruction of traditional ways of life means that value knowledge has disappeared not only about forest products and their uses but also, in large measure, about the management of the fragile ecological forest balance.

It is possible to use the surviving forests without destroying them. An appropriate combination of agriculture and forestry, agroforestry as it is called, can both ensure a maximum use of forest resources and preserve them for future generations. Similarly, wild fauna can be managed more efficiently than imported livestock.

Agroforestry is practised all over the world. The forest management techniques of tribal peoples must be studied scientifically. They must be regarded not as museum pieces but as living proof of world diversity.

Such studies must involve action-oriented research with community participation. They should help forest dwellers to cope more effectively with a changing way of life. Putting humanitarian concerns first does not mean sacrificing economic considerations, but merely re-orienting them. Governments must try to reduce the pressure for forest clearing by changing agricultural policies (land reforms, other technological opt ions, etc.) and by replacing destructive habits by sound resource management (gradual clearing, rotation, agroforestry, replanting, etc.).

We believe that humanitarian principles must play a central role in devising new solution s. Economists must be encouraged to take into account cultural and ecological diversity. They should recognize human creativity as well as the ethical and moral need for community involvement.

The overall review of contemporary food crises and the related problems of desertification and deforestation to which our Commission attached special importance have led us to the general conclusion that future policies and actions must take Into account three fundamental considerations: diversity, creativity, participation. We noted with deep concern that, since the late 1950s and early I960s, when many of them became politically independent. developing countries have suffered a consistent deterioration of their terms of trade. The prices of goods and services sold by industrial countries have risen or remained constant whereas the prices of commodities sold by developing countries have been stagnating or falling.

At the same time, bureaucracies in the newly independent States have expanded, sometimes beyond the limit which the economy could reasonably be expected to sustain. There certainly was a need for better education, health facilities and infrastructure, but the newly independent countries usually applied a Western-style model of development. The direct and indirect cost of that approach and its adverse effects on consumption patterns and life-styles are only now being recognized.

How can the best options be identified for sharing resources more equitably between rural and urban areas, improving food security for the most vulnerable groups and managing resources more carefully without depriving future generations of their rightful heritage? In order to choose the right options, a number of Third World leaders are now more inclined than ever before, to accept that there is an urgent need to draw up a checklist of all available technologies and organizational means. They also accept that experts alone are not enough and that all social and professional groups should be able to express their creativeness and put forward their own know-how, experience and perception. For instance, a systematic research programme should be undertaken with the main groups involved to analyse, and improve, agroforestry and nomadic livestock raising.

The development of scientific and technological thinking owes a lot to the practical knowledge accumulated by communities over centuries of observation and experience. After the first European scientific revolution, however, science distanced itself from folk sources. While there is no denying that scientific development since then has been spectacular, the classical scientist whose aim was to understand rather than dominate nature, actually dissociated himself from these traditions.

Scientists are now beginning to show more respect for approaches   which borrow from   Non-European traditions of agricultural , medicinal as well as livestock, water or forest management methods. They no longer ignore that knowledge but are scrutinizing it, disregarding what is wrong and keeping what could constitute more appropriate approaches for research and action in a given social and cultural environment. These approaches will become more and more acceptable in developing countries in the future as the historically limited scope of science and technology becomes clearer. So far, scientific and technological development has followed the needs of industrialized countries. Some research sectors were not needed in those countries. For example, industrialized countries only became interested when the price of nitrogenous fertilizers rose – following the oil price surge – and it was only then that they began research on how bacteria could directly provide plants with nitrogen, a subject of considerable interest to Third World agriculture. Other research sectors specifically concerning conditions in tropical countries dealt with cash crops of interest to colonial powers instead of food crops. Today, many scientific and technological fields remain to be explored to satisfy the needs of tropical countries: scientific ecology and biotechnology have given rise to considerable hope.

The Sectoral Reports we published on famine, desertification and deforestation all call for an approach which takes environmental constraints into account in agricultural and rural development. Such developments must be sustainable in the long run, and at the same time provide the poorest with better access to food. It must ensure food security from season to season and from year to year.

Technological decisions must therefore be made to meet three needs: maintaining long-term renewability of essential natural resources; increasing agricultural production, in particular food production; and increasing self-sufficiency and purchasing power of the rural poor. Technological change must not push the rural poor towards cities which cannot absorb the influx either because the existing urban infrastructure is already stretched to the limit or because there are not enough employment opportunities.

Solidarity implies deep changes in relations between nations, between rural and urban areas, and between dominating and marginalized groups. Solidarity with future generations implies changes in the management of natural resources. There will be new famines and more violence and armed conflicts if such changes do not start immediately to improve the lot of the poorest. These changes will have to follow new ethical rules governing the relationships between human societies and their environment, a new solidarity among human societies, and a new wisdom based on social as well as economic factors.

There is already a tendency to recognize the importance of cultural factors in development and the role of the so-called ecoculture combining cultural, social and environmental features. The way each group – forest dwellers, unemployed youth, nomadic herders – sees its own environment and makes the most of it can no longer be ignored in preparing aid and development policies and projects. Finally, the need for participation is gradually becoming more acceptable. The greater confidence being shown in these initiatives shows that the human-being is gradually coming to the fore, not only because of his suffering but also on account of his creative ability.

But favourable changes take time. New famines, armed conflicts and acts of violence are therefore to be expected and preparedness must be improved. Early warning systems are required to take timely action before a crisis occurs. While it is not easy to foresee armed conflicts and social violence, there is a well established sequence of events in famines which makes forecasting fairly reliable. Threatened groups have their own perception of such events. But they must be able to express themselves so that their views can be confronted with objective data. Early warning systems therefore require that cultivators and herders not be treated as objects. The systems must be credible enough for national and international solidarities to emerge before the outbreak of a food crisis, before panic sales of belongings, and before the population exodus begins.

Timely action also requires aid co-ordinating mechanisms. These can only be effective if relations between States and organizations are such as to give priority to humanitarian considerations. It is during the organization of aid distribution that government objection s arise. We believe it inhuman to invoke the argument of national sovereignty to prevent relief supplies from reaching starving populations, even if they are hostile to the government. Hunger must not be allowed to become a weapon, like food aid. We note with concern that more often than not politics takes precedence over humanitarian concerns. The proposal to open ‘mercy corridors’ under international supervision, in order to give access to famine areas , must receive the support it deserves. But that is precisely the type of operation which can ensure the primacy of humanitarian concerns and the survival of millions of people. In this context, it is worthwhile to recall the action of the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Organization (UNRRA) in China in 1945-47. A resolution by the UNRRA Council enabled it to distribute relief irrespective of who was controlling the territory. The resolution stated that at no time should relief and rehabilitation supplies be used as a political weapon, and no discrimination should be made in the distribution of relief supplies because of race, creed or political belief. That principle is as important today as it was then.

One of the practical problems with this approach is illustrated by the trials and tribulations of many development projects, including those of non-governmental organizations. NGOs, with their great diversity, can be divided into many categories , according to their local, national or international character, their sources of financing , their relations with national or international political forces. Where development projects use foreign volunteers – as they often do – the cultural gap is of course considerable, but it can be just as serious in the case of national officials belonging to another culture – city dwellers in rural areas for instance. When the authorities take the trouble to listen to rural populations and a true dialogue is established, projects are often successful. Many non-govern­mental organizations have learnt during the last 30 years to listen to the people they want to help. They have learnt that success is often dependent on respect for others and their different ways of life. Thus for practical reasons, the need for a mutually beneficial dialogue has emerged. That pragmatic realization itself has gradually given rise to an ethical assessment and to the recognition of universality through specificity. We believe that not only should that movement be supported, it should also be given a new impetus because successes have hitherto been local, partial and often temporary. Factors explaining the micro-successes achieved by non­governmental organizations are often to specific to be extrapolated to a whole region or country. International project officials must remember that their own presence is relatively short-term, that their sacrifices are temporary and that they will have other jobs to go back to in their home countries when their enthusiasm wanes. But their counterparts in local administrations have nothing else to turn to. It is easy to accuse them of being incompetent, indifferent or corrupt, but this only exacerbates the latent antagonism between non-­governmental and governmental organizations.

It should not be forgotten that the risks are of a different character and that failures do not have the same meaning. Non-governmental organizations can only play a pioneering role if their initiatives are copied, and in particular if they can provide new inspiration and motivation to governments and local authorities to ensure the general distribution of new ideas, methods or technology.

It is easier and more gratifying to recognize the human-being among the forest tribes, oppressed minorities, nomadic herders, poor farmers and shanty town dwellers than in local state officials and civil servants. A new effort is needed to expand the ethical framework to include the needs and human resourcefulness of all social actors who must endeavour to become partners, with rights and obligations, in their struggle for development. Instead of accusing and isolating the State, its representatives and bodies have to be enlightened and motivated to chart out this new direction.


New Man-Made Disasters

“The certainties of one age are the problems of the next.”

 Richard H. Tawney, 1926

Hazards of Commercial Nuclear Power

Few subjects have generated more confusion and anxiety in recent years than the future of commercial nuclear power. A series of accidents in the nuclear industry have caused widespread alarm and left governments searching for fresh ideas on how to handle nuclear energy. Never before have so many difficult questions been asked about the safety of nuclear technology for peaceful purposes and the ethics which underlie its use. This is why we paid special attention to this subject, particularly at our Stockholm meeting which took place at the time of the Chernobyl accident.

Nuclear power is championed as a politically and economic­ally attractive means for producing energy. Many industrial States want to reduce their dependence on coal and avoid the fluctuating price of imported oil. Other States with scarce fossil-fuel resources feel that nuclear power represents the only realistic option for production of an abundant supply of energy. In Third World countries, where forests are threatened by the use of wood as a source of energy, nuclear power has been heralded as a reliable, inexhaustible and cost-effective alternative energy source.

Many believe that opting for commercial nuclear power is humane and that safe reactors are environmentally benign. It is argued that few people have lost their lives from the production of nuclear energy, as compared to the high number of workers injured or killed in coal mines. Furthermore, nuclear reactors do not produce acid rain which destroys forests and lakes and causes respiratory diseases for millions of people.

Yet despite its promise as a viable energy source, no one can deny that commercial nuclear power suffers from serious problems of technological and human error which must urgently be resolved. The consequences of these problems can cause death and misery across continents. All of the world’s 374 commercial nuclear plants use uranium fuel which can melt down and spew out deadly radiation. Experts had predicted that the odds of a nuclear meltdown were one in 10,000 years. Now after Chernobyl and many other less widely reported accidents, many fear that nuclear disasters are a real, ever­ present possibility.

The consequences of a major commercial nuclear accident are not amenable to precise quantification, but human and material costs could conceivably climb to intolerable levels. Those working at a nuclear plant, rescue workers and thousands of people in the immediate area are the most vulnerable to radiation exposure. In countries where nuclear plants are situated close to densely populated areas, the threat is of course proportionally greater. Furthermore, contamination from a nuclear accident can afflict wide regions causing cancer, genetic disorders and birth deformities for millions. This is due to the fact that radioactive clouds, like winds, respect no national borders.

Major nuclear accidents can jeopardize far more than physical health. Fertile land may be contaminated, forcing region-wide quarantines on crops and livestock. Decontaminating a damaged nuclear power station and the surrounding area can also entail colossal expenditures. Moreover, the emotional pressures of evacuating entire communities, of families getting displaced or scattered, and the inconvenience of constantly having to monitor the radiation levels of cloth in g, automobiles and buildings can become unbearable.

Accidents are not the only dangers posed by commercial nuclear power. Scientists have discovered how to produce energy from nuclear fuel, but have not yet found a globally adequate answer to the problem of high-level radioactive waste material produced by nuclear plants. The term waste disposal as used in reference to radioactive materials is really a misnomer because, owing to technological constraints and human fallibility, safe long-term disposal continues to evade a satisfactory solution.

Compounding the nuclear waste problem is the process of decommissioning over 300 commercial nuclear reactors that will wear out during the next three decades. A nuclear plant cannot simply be abandoned at the end of its useful life. Retired nuclear reactors must be dismantled and disposed of safely to protect the public from radioactivity. But before the decommissioning can proceed, all the high-level nuclear waste which was built up during its operating life must be removed from the plant and securely isolated from people and the environment. No country is at present sufficiently prepared to handle the complex decommissioning process. The problem has been avoided because until now the need to dismantle major nuclear plants has not arisen. But time is running out for many reactors. Radioactive materials remain highly toxic for centuries.

They will be a lethal legacy for future generations. Few modern technologies are without some potential risk to human life and the environment. The prosperity of the last two centuries is a result of scientific innovations despite the heavy price which their side-effects exacted and which governments accepted to pay. Thus, the unresolved problems of the nuclear industry do not necessarily lead to the conclusion that commercial nuclear power be abandoned. Aside from ethical reflections, a plea for terminating nuclear power is not practical. However, given the extent of its potential harm, it is imperative to weigh seriously humanitarian considerations for safeguarding its use and determining its future.

International Safeguards: We believe that governments have been hesitant in recognizing the magnitude of global risks posed by the nuclear industry and the need for internationally respected safeguards. Safety concerns continue to be guided by national standards while the consequences of accidents are international. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), based in Vienna, does provide the nuclear industry with a set of safety recommendations, but governments have not agreed to transform them into mandatory obligations. Consequently, the IAEA in unable at present to prevent even gross violations of recommended safety standards at nuclear power plants. It is time for governments to recognize that nuclear technology is too dangerous to be left entirely to the internal discretion of individual nations.

An obvious possibility of redressing this deficiency in the nuclear industry is to enlarge the authority of the IAEA so that it can more effectively supervise the safety of commercial nuclear reactors. Steps in that direction are already being taken and recent experiences have brought to the matter a special sense of urgency. It is presently the practice of the IAEA to send special missions, on invitation, to inspect the operational safety of nuclear plants, although such an exercise is not widespread. We are of the opinion that, as an initial strategy, this procedure must be encouraged and further developed so that confidence established by voluntary inspections facilitates the acceptance of mandatory inspections compatible with sovereign interests. Certain compulsory safety standards should be viewed by governments in a context of self-interest. Without the eventual acceptance of minimum binding obligations, divergent safety standards are bound to evolve, particularly as the nuclear industry expands into developing countries.

Governments must be encouraged to become more amenable to recommendations from the IAEA aimed at increasing the standards of safety at nuclear plants presently under construction and planned for the future. Since accidents are most likely to endanger those living in the immediate area of a nuclear plant, governments should, to the maximum extent, keep new plants far away from densely populated areas and take measures for preventing large human settlements from growing up around them. Steps should also be taken to develop an international licensing system requiring the conformity of new nuclear plants to minimum international standards of safety. These standards will undoubtedly have to be enforced by some inspections which may be politically troublesome owing to sovereign pride or national security. We believe such considerations to be ethically indefensible in the face of threats to human welfare and global safety.

In addition to upgrading technological safety, the IAEA could play a more active role in raising the level of human competency at nuclear plants. Individuals who manage and operate nuclear reactors constitute an important safety factor. Risk studies show that human error accounts for one-third to one-half of all accidents. In this context, the IAEA should endeavour to persuade governments to follow guidelines establishing minimum international qualifications and provide mandatory training and re-training programmes relating to accident prevention and damage containment.

It is noteworthy in this regard that, while governments continue to hedge on   accepting minimum international standards for nuclear plants, they have taken swift action on developing an international response in the event of an accident. In a matter of months following the Chernobyl accident, two international conventions concerning an early warning system and multilateral assistance were drafted, adopted and opened for signature. Recognizing the great need for international co-ordination and co-operation in post­ accident situations, some 60 States, including all those with nuclear reactors, signed these conventions. The momentum of this progress in international nuclear security must now be channelled into the area of nuclear accident prevention by gathering support for minimum international safety standards. Nuclear power currently produces only 5 per cent of the world’s energy and 15 per cent of its electricity. At global level, the dependence on it is not such, that a gradual shift to other sources of energy would prove overly disruptive. However, several industrial countries have made substantial investments and become heavily dependent on nuclear energy, and it would be unrealistic in the short or medium term to expect a radical shift in their energy policies. Given the reality that nuclear power will continue to be a major source of energy for many nations at least for the next two decades, it is imperative that the process of developing an international framework for nuclear accident prevention be accorded the same priority as post­ accident co-ordination. The driving force behind national support for international safety standards should be wisdom and foresight , not regret and hindsight in the wake of another nuclear accident.

Coinciding with efforts to introduce international safety standards in the nuclear industry should be a serious programme of eliminating energy waste and increasing efficiency. Inefficient energy use and waste are key barriers to reducing the hazards which stem from reliance on existing sources of energy. Reduction in the use of all forms of energy not only contributes to a safer world and a less polluted environment, but can also increase a country’s standard of living. For example, as measured by their gross national products, Sweden and Switzerland consume much less energy per person and have higher standards of living than the United States. It is therefore only prudent that governments inform and educate the general public about energy saving techniques, and promote conservation at all levels.

.Ethical Dimensions: The present operation of the nuclear industry calls for an assessment of its ethical dimensions. To what extent are the governments of today bound to take measures to ensure a healthy environment for the generations of tomorrow? Does any country have the moral right to operate technology which has the potential of causing large-scale human suffering and irreparable environmental damage within, as well as beyond, its sovereign territory? How can the conflict between sovereign rights and the global risks posed by nuclear technology be reconciled? Nations must come to grips with these questions before they are overtaken by them.

Scientific innovation has always presented ethical problems, but nuclear technology introduces unique considerations into contemporary codes of conduct. History shows that the development of technology has often taken its toll on human life and the environment. Nuclear technology, however, poses conceivable dangers to human life and the environment on a scale never before imagined. It is imperative, therefore, that governments redefine their responsibility for the safety of our global community.

The humanitarian response to nuclear power is not a sweeping plea for its suspension. Of course, if nuclear technology could easily be replaced by safer, cost-effective sources of energy, considerations of ethics and human survival would dictate its being gradually phased out. The problem is that new sources of energy are decades away from being viable and could yield unforeseen problems and dangers of their own.

We are of the opinion that:

  • Sufficient investment of human and financial resources to assess alternative energy sources must be made before determining whether to promote nuclear technology for the future.
  • The twin problems of nuclear waste and the decommissioning of nuclear plants must not remain unresolved for too long. It is imperative for all governments with nuclear technology to allocate greater resources in these
  • Governments should take steps in a humanitarian context to collaborate on their research in the nuclear field and share their In terms of global responsibilities, each nation must assume its fair share and ensure that further delays in accepting international safety standards for nuclear power are avoided.

Scientific progress need not be forestalled, but if it poses dangers to the international community at large, it must rigorously be made subject to humanitarian constraints.


Genetic Engineering

Advances in bio-technology are opening up new horizons, as yet barely glimpsed, in improving human and animal health, energy· and food product ion. Developments in genetic engineering were sparked by the discovery in 1953 of the chemical structure of DNA – an organic molecule which carries coded within its chemical structure the information for controlling protein synthesis in all living organisms. It thus controls their physical structure, growth reproduction and functioning. Two decades later, further developments enabled scientists to introduce genes from one organism to another to give the recipient the desired characteristics. Through genetic engineering it is proving possible to enhance the nutritional or other values of plants and animals by increasing their product size and the ratio of edible to waste material.

However, before dreaming about re-shaping plants, animals and even human-beings, let us examine what is happening now, for instance in the plant kingdom. Scientists have made very significant progress in recombining genes, but as a result of environmental deterioration, deforestation and new agricultural practices we are losing thousands of plant species and varieties every year. Genetic combinations and genes themselves , which have taken millions of years to come into existence, are therefore being lost forever. In the future, extraordinary skills to relocate genes from one species to another might be developed. But it will be extremely difficult to anticipate what genetic material will be needed in order to face climatic changes, changes in pests and disease profiles or changes resulting from chemical, biological or nuclear catastrophes.

It is of the utmost importance to understand the silent revolution of gigantic dimensions taking place in the relationship between humankind and nature. For centuries agriculturalists have saved seeds for the next crop after each harvest, thus allowing some of the evolutionary process to proceed through the new genetic combinations resulting from the sexual reproduction taking place in the field. New agricultural technologies have gradually introduced commercial seeds throughout the world, while environmental degradation has contributed to the disappearance of the wild varieties. Co­ evolution between cultivated crops and other life forms is no longer possible: evolution continues for the latter, but is being interrupted for the former. Natural diversity influenced by millions of individual decisions of farmers is being replaced by man-made diversity in laboratories and experimental plots, located in just a few decision centres and responding to short­ term requirements in terms of yields and profits.

This gradual halting of the evolutionary process affecting cultivated plants has extremely serious consequences for the future of mankind, particularly when it takes place in the areas where the evolutionary process has been historically the most active and the diversity the greatest – in the centres of origin of food crops such as Africa for sorghum, Mexico and Central America for maize, the Middle East for wheat, South and South East Asia for rice, etc. As an example, India has probably grown over 30,000 different varieties of rice over the last half century. Experts predict that, ten years from now, this enormous rice diversity will be reduced to no more than 50 varieties , with the top ten accounting for over three-quarters of the subcontinent’s rice acreage. Such a genetic erosion has another consequence: increased genetic uniformity over whole regions makes crops much more vulnerable to possible changes in the environment (climate, pests, diseases, etc.), including those which could be part of biological warfare.

Food crops are essential to the preservation of human life on this planet. They have been domesticated through centuries of empirical observations by the farmers themselves, and only in the last few decades through scientific methods. The most domesticated of all is maize; it cannot survive without human help. New varieties, or even new species, produced by genetic engineering, will be entirely in the hands of large public or private seed corporations. This is already the case with hybrid maize, whose seed has to be bought every year. The seed industry is fast developing thanks to newly enacted plant breeders’ rights. Biotechnology will similarly develop if legislation patenting life forms enables firms to make sufficient returns on their research and development investment. Biotechnological advances for food production should therefore be assessed in their economic context, including the fact that new products may not be available at a price poor farmers can afford.

Seed firms are becoming fewer and fewer in number. Those surviving and thriving are powerful multinationals, most of them with agro-chemical interests. Third World leaders who intend to develop a self-sustaining agriculture providing food for all, view the growth of the transnational seed-chemical complexes with great concern. Selling seeds with one hand and pesticides with the other does not trigger research aimed at reducing crop vulnerability to pests and diseases.

Human survival is increasingly dependent on decisions taken by a few profit-oriented firms and a few States viewing plant genetic resources as a national security problem. The international community has come to understand the value of genetic diversity and of its conservation, but has not yet fully grasped the importance of disseminating gene banks in order to promote global food sufficiency and discourage increasing genetic control by a few.

We are of the opinion that:

  • Genetic diversity must be protected by various means: as many gene banks as possible; biosphere reserves, botanical gardens. community gardens , etc.
  • Farmers, individually or collectively, must also be called upon to protect varieties native to the region and should be adequately compensated for being the curators of such precious
  • Advance bio-technology applied to plant breeding need not be feared if an extensive network is built around the world based on the human-being as the custodian of diversity and the source of potential creativity existing in all countries , cultures and social groups. This potential creativity should be released not only in laboratories but in the fields through a constant interaction of farmers with scientists.
  • In view of the recent advances in so far as manipulation of animal and human genes is concerned. it is most urgent and important for governments to study rigorously the humanitarian implications before major scientific research and experimentation projects are undertaken .
  • Bio-ethics must keep pace with technological innovations. Scientific progress and technological breakthroughs lose much of their value if their relevance to human well-being is not clearly established. This is why we are convinced that human wisdom must not lag behind human knowledge.


Industrial Disasters

Industrial accidents are not new phenomena but their scale and the dangers they threaten are unprecedented. Factories producing dangerous chemicals are now bigger than ever; the processing methods have become more complex; and the number of chemical products has grown. Most important of all, the number of potential victims of any accident – people living within the danger zone – has risen dramatically. This is because urbanization, particularly in the Third World, has brought many more people into the vicinity of industrial zones, and because the chemicals themselves have become more hazardous, endangering the inhabitants of a wider area than before.

These factors have made industrial accidents more difficult to deal with and more extensive in their damage. Furthermore, they often have little-known and long-lasting effects on the environments they pollute and the people they poison. In some cases the illnesses may be detected years after the accident in people who lived outside what was then claimed to be the danger zone.

The hazard of industrial disasters is increasing with time, not only because of proliferation of major plants, but also because many factories built in the 1950s and I960s are now ageing. Due to lack of rigorous control and maintenance, especially in developing countries, the risk has proportionally increased.

We believe that it is vital to identify methodically the risk areas and hazards involved and to take measures to minimize the damage to human life and property.

We recommend that:

  • Measures be taken to ensure that full access to information concerning chemical plants is available to all interested parties. including local authorities and populations living in the areas surrounding industrial plants .
  • The storage of dangerous chemicals and the regular inspection of installations should be subject to rigorous international standards .
  • High-risk chemical plants should not be located in densely populated areas and governments should take strict measures to remove unauthorized urban migrants from the risk zones around industrial plants.
  • At national, regional and international level, including the United Nations, monitoring systems as well as emergency plans should be developed for the safety of people.


Disaster Management 

Statistics of the last few years show that, despite technological progress and the unprecedented means now available to prevent loss of life and contain material damage, the number of disaster victims is steadily increasing. More than one million people are estimated to have died in natural disasters during the period 1970 to 1981 and damage in excess of $46 billion was caused. Every indication is that disasters will increase and claim greater numbers of lives in the future. A global humanitarian consensus invariably emerges in major crisis situations to alleviate human suffering. But there has been a failure at all levels to mould this goodwill into effective and coherent policies to prevent, prepare for and respond to disasters.

The degree to which a particular occurrence constitutes a disaster, sufficient to warrant an international response, is determined in relation to such factors as the resources locally available to deal with its consequences the accessibility of the affected areas, and community experience in dealing with such situations. Attempts to define disasters in terms of casualties and material damage seldom prove useful unless they take sufficient account of local conditions. An event constituting a major disaster in an unprepared or poor country may pass unheralded in other nations which have the means and practical knowledge to deal with similar calamities on a regular basis.

Disasters requiring an international humanitarian response occur on average once every three weeks . They sometimes inflict irreparable damage on communities and tear apart the social fabric of whole societies. Yet most disasters are in large measure man-made and can be contained, if not prevented by man. Although they may be precipitated by natural forces, the majority of disasters striking those who are least able to cope with them are structurally linked to hazardous patterns of socio-economic development and environmental degradation. During an earthquake, for example, those residing in poorly constructed buildings are the most vulnerable.

Categories of Disasters: The line between natural and man­ made disasters has become increasingly blurred. However, in order to evaluate the existing framework for disaster management, identify lacunae and provide constructive recommendations, it may be helpful to separate disasters into four categories:

  • Elemental: for example, earthquakes, tidal waves, floods, volcanic eruptions and landslides. These are distinguished from other disasters because they are instantaneous and prompted by climatic or geological forces. Their destructiveness depends more on the number of vulnerable people in a given area than on their inherent severity. In many parts of the world, man­ made errors exacerbate the damage they cause.
  • Foreseeable: for example, famines and epidemics. These have complex root causes in which climatic and human activity interact over extended periods, leaving large numbers of people vulnerable. This interaction creates a vicious circle whose recurrence is often predictable.
  • Deliberate: for example, results of wars between States, civil wars , guerrilla warfare and insurgency activity.
  • Accidental: for example, industrial and nuclear catastrophes. These are a by-product of technological advances in the twentieth century. The recent accidents of Bhopal and Chernobyl attest to the threat posed by such disasters.

International Framework for Disaster Management: Recent research, supported by field data and experience at the grass roots level, demonstrates that neither conventional wisdom nor existing response mechanisms are adequate to face the growing challenge of disasters. The current international system of disaster management is increasingly becoming a non-system owing to chaotic organization, as well as duplication and waste due to the proliferation of ad hoc bodies which are keen to help but uncoordinated and ineffective in responding to real needs. At the heart of the problem, is the fact that the international community has failed to construct a viable modus operandi for dealing effectively with the humanitarian dimensions of disasters.

Theoretically, the United Nations system possesses the institutional and material capacity for effective disaster management on an international scale. Its response, however, has often been marred by internal problems of co-ordination and fallen short of the imperative need for swift and appropriate action. Instead of marshalling their efforts to maximize the impact of the United Nations system as a whole, its various components such as the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO ), World Food Programme (WFP), United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR), and United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), which hold mandates for different types of disasters, have focused on their own sectoral priorities and programmes. There is no central co-ordinating body within the United Nations bringing to a disaster the full potential of its technical capability and material resources.

In 1971, the United Nations General Assembly established the United Nations Disaster Relief Office (UNDRO) with the mandate to mobilize, direct and co-ordinate international disaster relief efforts and to promote disaster prevention, planning and preparedness. However, the Office needs to be considerably strengthened in order to establish its leadership vis-a-vis other major agencies of the United Nations system which have considerably larger human and financial resources. Of the four broad categories of disasters outlined above, DNDRO covers only one: the elemental. Other disasters in the three remaining categories are only partly covered in a haphazard manner by different bodies of the United Nations. In our view, this amorphous international framework for disaster management leads to poor co-ordination and inappropriate responses. There is a tendency for organizations to neglect policies of prevention and preparedness and address disasters only after they occur. As it is presently administered, disaster relief has been criticized as ‘quick-fix’ therapy which wastes resources that otherwise might have been used to resolve the root causes of a disaster. Too often, disaster relief has led to a dehumanizing dependency upon others for survival because it fails to include programmes for rehabilitation. It is often ill­ adapted to local needs and insensitive to the habits, culture and traditions of the victims. This affects negatively the credibility of aid agencies and donor governments which are blamed for dumping their surpluses rather than responding to the needs of victims. There is little effort to date to ensure, as a matter of principle, full local participation in disaster management strategies or to gather local knowledge for centralized data banks in order to facilitate speedy and effective responses.

A rapid and effective response to disaster depends upon accurate and detailed information reaching international organizations responsible for humanitarian assistance. Until recently, information has been poor in quality and slow to reach the competent authorities. However, a number of factors are changing this pattern. Satellites are being used to assess variations in climate and vegetation cover and can help forewarn of impending drought or food shortage. There is a greater use of computers to evaluate complex inter-related variables and make predictions. Probably most important of all is the growing awareness by those involved in disaster management of the importance of the local knowledge of people living and working in the threatened areas. Humanitarian behaviour is decisive in mitigating or aggravating the damage. Early warning systems should include this factor as a vital component.

The Political Factor: Systemic failures in the international network for disaster management are compounded by the existence of political maneuvering on the part of disaster­ stricken countries as well as prospective donor governments. There is a propensity on all fronts for sovereign prerogatives to prevail over humanitarian disaster management. There may, for example, be genuine ambiguity in determining when a chronic food shortage becomes a famine. But too often, governments concerned with internal political stability and other related factors have chosen to forego the mobilization of national and international relief rather than acknowledge that a disaster has occurred. Without a government’s acknowledge­ment that it needs help, most international response mechanisms are immobilized in the face of needless human suffering. Political considerations on the part of donor governments have also sometimes worked to obstruct sorely needed disaster assistance. Provision of food, medical and material aid by donor governments is often more dependent on the recipient’s political orientations than on the extent of human need. No effective legal constraints are in force at the international level to ensure the predominance of humanitarian over political considerations.

National Frameworks/or Disaster Management: Most national governments, particularly those of disaster-prone countries, have done little to enhance their own disaster-response capabilities in order to prevent or mitigate the debilitating effects of disasters. Studies indicate that countries where disasters strike most often are among the least prepared to respond. Many governments are without national disaster strategies and concomitant disaster management institutions to ensure optimal use of local resources and secure unhindered access for international relief in the event of a disaster. It may be that the most vulnerable countries feel they cannot afford to allocate severely limited resources to disaster prevention and preparedness schemes. But it is clear that national disaster management strategies are crucial if there is to be any hope of breaking the debilitating cycle of poverty and disaster.

Humanitarian Code of Conduct: We believe that the first requirement for a more effective approach to disaster management at both the international and national levels is a greater appreciation of the relationship between the elements in the disaster management continuum – prevention, preparedness, relief and rehabilitation – on the one hand, and the humanitarian priorities of saving lives and mitigating human suffering on the other. The foundation for a framework in which to fit the multiple responses required of governments and international and national organizations lies in the recognition that humanitarian criteria must at least mitigate and hopefully prevail over the constraints of politics and sovereignty, particularly during the limited emergency period. The elaboration and acceptance in law of a humanitarian code of conduct will help pave the way for overcoming many of the problems which currently plague disaster management efforts.

Adherence to humanitarian principles in disaster manage­ment will serve to clarify the context of disasters and re-order priorities around the human-being. The recognition of structural links between disasters and socio-economic develop­ment will necessitate a review of certain developmental policies and practices. Incorporating humanitarian considerations into revised policies and practices by including strategies for self­ reliance within relief programmes and by utilizing local participation in all phases of disaster management promises not only to ensure the most appropriate response in a given situation, but also to preserve and enhance human dignity. It is increasingly clear that it is not the inherent severity of the disaster but the vulnerability of the victims which counts most in developing effective disaster management strategies.

United Nations Co-ordination: Reliance upon humanitarian principles for disaster management at the national and international level must be coupled with a plan to bring together different United Nations bodies under one leadership for a pre-determined period of time in order to co-ordinate and optimize the capabilities and resources of the United Nations system as a whole. Whether the mandate of UNDRO is enlarged or a small body is established to take on this responsibility, the proposed entity should have the requisite authority to declare a disaster and co-ordinate United Nations staff and resources during the response period. It should maintain a central repository of information relating to all phases of disaster management and draw upon the resources of existing bodies for an effective early-warning system. Once the entity has determined, on the basis of well-defined criteria, that a disaster has occurred or is likely to occur, it would then request the UN Secretary-General to declare an emergency situation for a limited period of time and activate a co­-ordinated response. At the same time, the entity would have to work closely with governments and NGOs concerned with the emergency so that responses on all fronts are co-ordinated and complementary. A timely, co-ordinated international response of this kind is desperately needed to bring about the maximum alleviation of human suffering in disaster situations. Moreover, an effective response by the United Nations in this high profile field of disaster management would enhance its credibility with the media and governments and promote an extension of its reach in promoting human welfare.

A unified and co-ordinated approach guided by humanitarian principles to disaster management on all fronts has yet to become a reality, but its urgency cannot be denied. Owing to the squandering of natural resources, ill-planned urbanization, over-industrialization, distorted demographic growth, the proliferation of potentially dangerous technology and uneven patterns of socio-economic development, the coming decades are all too likely to be punctuated with the scourge of disasters unless a holistic, humanitarian strategy for disaster management is adopted. Incorporating humanitarian principles into the prevention phase of disaster management can also be a catalyst in helping vulnerable communities break out of the relentless poverty-disaster-poverty cycle. In view of the fact that no nation is immune to the potential threat of a large-scale disaster of one kind or another, it is in everyone’s self-interest to support a humanitarian approach to disaster management.

We recommend that:

  • The United Nations should elaborate and promote a special legal, administrative, financial and operational code of conduct to regulate the management of disasters. The cornerstone of the code should be the increasingly recognized principle that, during a disaster, humanitarian criteria ought to prevail over any political or sovereignty constraints for the limited period of the emergency. In practice, this will include concepts such as ‘mercy corridors’ entailing, to the extent compatible with minimum standards of hygiene and national security, relaxed procedures for the entry of relief personnel and import of goods to ensure unhindered access of assistance to victims.
  • The United Nations should designate a central co-ordinating body which is fully recognized as primus inter pares for a pre­determined period of time bringing to a disaster the full potential of the international network. It should have acknowledged authority to declare a disaster and to intervene
  • The designated entity should draw upon existing systems; adjust them to the requirements of each disaster category; monitor disaster-prone areas on a continuing basis; and make timely suggestions for disaster
  • This entity should maintain a central repository for information relating to all phases of disaster management, prevention, preparedness, relief and rehabilitation. National disaster assistance offices and humanitarian organizations should provide all relevant information particularly general accounts of practical problems actually encountered in these areas for inclusion in the data bank. Once the entity is satisfied on the basis of well-defined criteria that a disaster has occurred or is about to occur, it should request the United Nations Secretary-General to declare an emergency situation for a limited period of time. This should be determined according to the nature of the disaster, the place the circumstances and the requirements of the situation.
  • During the disaster period, the entity should have the authority to co-ordinate the receipt and disbursement of emergency funds based on pre-arranged formulae with donors and recipient officials and be empowered to establish priorities after assessing actual human needs. It should also have recognized authority to co-ordinate emergency relief provided by inter-governmental and non-governmental bodies concerned for a pre-determined period in order to ensure complementary
  • The entity should work closely with governments, particularly the disaster-prone nations, in formulating strategies to prevent disasters and in developing a pre-established modus operandi to ensure optimal use of local material and human resources in the event of a Bilateral legal commitments between the UN entity and governments establishing the extent of the entity’s authority within a nation’s sovereign territory should be considered to facilitate reception and distribution of relief.
  • The latter should maintain an up-to -date register of monitoring, communications and transportation technologies for effective surveillance of disasters as well as prompt delivery of personnel, equipment and supplies to the disaster area.
  • The United Nations should launch an education campaign sensitizing governments and the international community to the inter-relationships of disasters, poverty, underdevelopment, burgeoning populations and environmental degradation. Programmes of disaster management should establish closer links between these areas in their planning and implementation.
  • The United Nations should develop an effective media strategy which serves, on the one hand, to warn local people and decision­ makers of impending disasters and, on the other to lay the basis for accurate, long-term information on the causes and effects of disasters. This strategy will enable humanitarian action to be more visible to both recipient and donor governments thereby enhancing the credibility of the United Nations and its constituent agencies which depends as much on the public perception and media coverage of their action as on the speed and effectiveness with which it is taken.
  • Governments without national disaster plans or concomitant disaster institutions should re-think their priorities and allocate resources to fill this lacuna in their Where appropriate governments should be provided with technical and financial means to do so.
  • Governments which have advanced surveillance and communications systems should examine the means by which information relevant to all phases of disaster management can be gathered and made available to concerned countries via the designated entity so that swift humanitarian action can be humanitarian organizations and the international community should promote the progressive development of international law whereby States are obligated: to prepare for disaster relief within their own territory and to take preventive measures to minimize suffering resulting from disasters: to accept relief for their people from the international community after the occurrence of a disaster if their own resources are inadequate: and to make efforts in good faith to assist another State in the event of a disaster.
  • There should be greater reliance on disaster impact analysis by researchers and field-workers with direct personal experience of disaster situations in order to identify the key elements for disaster management programmes and to establish the most humane, yet pragmatic , priorities. Greater weight should be accorded to people with field experience in data gathering.
  • Disaster management programmes of prevention, preparedness, relief and rehabilitation must, at least in part, be devised and applied by insiders at the local level for optimal efficiency and Food consumption habits, traditional medicines, religious values and other local customs of communities should be researched for each phase of disaster management in order to avoid programmes which are inappropriate or demeaning to the culture of the people in need.
  • Donor governments, in collaboration with disaster-prone countries and the United Nations system, should help build stocks in strategically located areas in order to ensure ready availability of relief. Such stocks should consist not only of foodstuffs, medicines and other articles needed in emergencies but also of spare parts for vehicles and other appropriate materials which facilitate logistics in emergency situations.
  • The initial welfare phase of disaster response should give way as quickly as possible to programmes of rehabilitation and development to facilitate self-reliance for the preservation and enhancement of human dignity. Implementing income-generating programmes should have the dual purpose of guarding against a debilitating dependency upon others for survival and securing a better base from which to ward off the worst effects of the next disaster.

We recognize that many of these functions are already more or less assumed by existing inter-governmental agencies such as UNDRO and WFP and by non-governmental bodies like the League of the Red Cross and Crescent Societies and other major voluntary agencies. We urge that their human and financial resources be strengthened. Donor governments should provide for, as a few already do, special allocations that can be made at short notice when a disaster occurs. Early warning systems, immediate sharing of information with victims as well as neighbouring communities or countries, and the application of a comprehensive code of conduct, as mentioned above, should be a part of the package. This is particularly relevant in the case of the new man-made disasters that we have referred to earlier in this chapter.