"I see our work in disaster risk reduction being about building fences at the top of cliffs, rather than being content to place ambulances at the bottom." She highlighted the devastating effects of natural disasters on the poorest and most vulnerable and the urgent need for prevention and resilience for these communities.
In 2011 alone, almost 30,000 people were killed in 302 disasters, and 206 million people affected by floods, droughts, cyclones, and other natural shocks, according to the UN's Office for Disaster Risk Reduction (UNISDR).
These disasters have staggeringly high economic costs as well, hitting the most vulnerable the hardest. Global economic losses attributed to disasters caused by natural hazards last year reached $380 billion, an increase of nearly two-thirds over 2005, the previous record year.
Even more sobering:
* More than half of all cyclone deaths occur in least developed nations; and
* 85 percent of people exposed to disasters live in countries with medium to low levels of human development.
For the desperately poor, disasters disrupt hard-earned development progress and prevent people escaping poverty. Those who escape with their lives but are still affected by disaster are often forced to sell assets and rely on subsistence-level activity, keeping them well below the international poverty line of $1.25 per day.
Within poor countries, it is the most marginalized, including women and girls, who suffer the greatest impact
"Despite the growth in the intensity and number of natural hazards, the global investment in disaster risk reduction remains very low. The UN's 2011 Global Assessment Report on Disaster Risk Reduction, finds that most countries, across all geographical and income regions, reported relatively little progress in dedicating resources to strengthening capacities for disaster risk governance," Clark said.
Between 2000 and 2009, donors provided the world's 40 poorest countries with $363 billion in aid, of which one per cent went to fund disaster risk-reduction activities, she said.
Gains made by countries in human development are often at risk of being reversed by disasters, with children unable to make up for missed school time and spreading disease causing further suffering.
When Cyclone Sidr hit Bangladesh in 2007, 4,000 of the nine million people affected died. That was 35 times lower than in 1991, when 140,000 were killed when a similar-sized cyclone hit the country, she said.
"Among measures taken, UNDP provided support for the government to design better risk reduction policies, train people, and implement measures to protect livelihoods. These efforts included the building of small embankments to protect agriculture and steps to improve emergency response systems."
"Development partners overall helped support the development of infrastructure, including cyclone shelters. Civil society organizations, including the Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, worked with local government and the UN to improve community-based preparedness."
In 2000, Mozambique was battered by cyclones and floods that left 800 people dead, half a million people displaced, and more than one million without income. In 2007, when a similar-sized cyclone hit the country, the death toll and displacement numbers were significantly lower, with 29 people killed and 70,000 displaced. And in 2010 16,000 people were affected by flooding-less than 10 percent of the average number of people affected by floods in each year of the last decade.
"In the last twelve years, Mozambique, with UNDP assistance, has established a National Disaster Management Institute. It co-ordinates disaster risk reduction measures, and developed a nationwide master plan which was adopted in 2006," she said.
Key components of the plan are: standardized procedures for preparing communities for storms, cyclones, and floods; training of communities in methods to monitor water levels and to inform the authorities by radio communication of rising water levels; and the dissemination of evacuation warnings to exposed communities.
Indonesia's efforts on disaster risk reduction represent another success story: The Southeast Asian archipelago ranks second in the world for extreme natural hazard risk.
After the 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami, which claimed more than 126,000 lives in Indonesia and caused $ 4.45 billion worth of damage, the government made major policy changes to address disaster risks-including a UNDP-supported Safer Communities for Disaster Risk Reduction program.
"More broadly, UNDP has worked with Indonesia to integrate disaster risk reduction into its national five-year development plan, meaning that future activities to reduce disaster risk will be prioritized in the state budget," Clark said.
"Indonesia now has comprehensive guidelines and tools for assessing damage, loss, and needs for post-disaster recovery...The result of this investment in preparedness and recovery was demonstrated when a 7.6 magnitude earthquake hit Aceh province in January 2012. There was very little damage and, most important, no lives were lost."
"The earthquake in Haiti in January 2010 was about the same magnitude as the major February quake in Christchurch, but the human toll was significantly higher," Clark said. "The tragic deaths of more than 220,000 people in Haiti tell us that it is not the magnitude of the disaster or natural hazard alone which determines its impact."
While the loss of life and property was devastating, she said, it would have been immensely worse without New Zealand's significant investments in resilience, including through civil defense and emergency services preparedness, early warning systems, and investments in earthquake-resistant homes and other infrastructure.
From drought-prone regions of Africa, to regions prone to cyclones and flooding, to the impact of the January 2010 quake on Haiti's densely populated capital and the major seismic disasters in New Zealand, Japan, Chile, Iran, and elsewhere, natural disasters are causing untold levels of human suffering and environmental and economic harm.