The IDNDR – for the uninitiated
by Humanitarian Practice Network March 1994

In 1987, the UN General Assembly passed a resolution designating the 1990s as the International Decade for Natural Disaster Reduction (IDNDR) and the Decade formally began on 1st January 1990.

The Decade is now almost half way through and in just a few weeks time a large international conference will take place at Yokohama, Japan, and this will form an important component of a mid-term review of the Decade (see Conferences section, in PDF).

Despite the Decade having almost reached its half-way stage, many personnel within NGOs involved in disaster mitigation and relief activities seem to be barely aware of the IDNDR and its objectives. This article is intended to brief RRN members on the origins, goals and activities of the IDNDR.

The idea of a UN Decade on this particular subject was first suggested by Dr Frank Press, President of the US National Academy of Science, at the 8th International Congress of Earthquake Engineering in 1984.

The idea was taken up by key individuals and bodies within the international scientific community and resulted in the 1987 General Assembly Resolution. An ad hoc international Group of Experts, chaired by Dr Press, was appointed by the UN Secretary General to help the UN prepare for the Decade. A definitive resolution was adopted by the General Assembly during December 1989.

The goals of the Decade are to:

  1. Improve each country’s ability to mitigate the effects of natural disasters;
  2. Devise guidelines and strategies to mitigate the effects of natural disasters;
  3. Foster scientific and engineering endeavours to reduce loss of life and property;
  4. Disseminate existing and new information about the assessment, prediction, prevention and mitigation of natural disasters;
  5. Promote programmes of technical assistance and technology transfer, demonstration projects and education and training tailored to specific hazards and locations.

Since the start of the Decade, considerable effort has gone into establishing a framework for these goals to be achieved.

The principal elements of the framework are: a Special High Level Council composed of ten international notorieties including serving and former Presidents and Prime Ministers; a Scientific and Technical Committee (STC) composed of 25 international experts (principally research scientists) and a network of National IDNDR Committees.

Currently, 130 countries have established National Committees, though not all have been very active. Both the Special High Level Council and the STC are serviced by the IDNDR Secretariat in Geneva which is also responsible for carrying forward the programme of work agreed on by the STC.

The Secretariat works in close association with the UN Department of Humanitarian Affairs and reports to the Secretary-General through the Under-Secretary General for Humanitarian Affairs.

The Secretariat initially had a staff of three but this has been increased to 15 in the period leading up to the Yokohama Conference.

The range of activities planned or being undertaken within the IDNDR framework is very broad. The STC has selected a long list of ‘international programmes and demonstration projects’ including:

  1. The development of techniques and mechanisms for improved warning of tropical cyclones;
  2. The comprehensive monitoring of ‘high-risk’ volcanoes;
  3. Programmes for reducing earthquake vulnerability;
  4. The improvement of international statistical databases on natural disasters;
  5. Educational and training activities;
  6. Mapping health emergency preparedness and response in Africa;
  7. Studies on the impact of disasters in large cities.

The more active National Committees have commenced a broad range of activities, the full extent of which are becoming apparent in the papers prepared by the National Committees for presentation at the Yokohama Conference.

In addition, numerous international and regional meetings of IDNDR Committees and technical specialists have been held.

In September 1993, for instance, ECHO hosted a meeting of the IDNDR Committees within EC member.

In conjunction with the Osseratorio Vesuviano (Italy), the IDNDR Secretariat has been producing a Newsletter Stop Disasters every two months which is distributed free to anyone with an interest in the Decade programme.

Thus far, the IDNDR can certainly claim to have increased awareness of the need for disaster mitigation and the ways this might be achieved among UN agencies, the scientific community and multilateral and regional lending institutions such as the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank.

However the following points may also be made:

    • That the Decade originated within the scientific and engineering communities continues to be reflected within the approach and range of activities being undertaken. The social sciences have, so far at least, been greatly under-represented in many IDNDR activities.
    • The emphasis of the Decade has been upon the mitigation of ‘sudden impact’ natural hazards (cyclones, floods, earthquakes, etc.). The position of ‘slow-impact’ natural hazards such as drought within the IDNDR was, until recently, ambiguous.
    • As drought is the principal natural hazard type in Sub-Saharan Africa, this region has been largely by-passed by much of the IDNDR activity so far – a fact reflected in the number of countries that have not formed National Committees in the region and the low level of activity among many of those that have been established. However, this may be about to change as drought has been accorded a higher priority by the Scientific and Technical Committee, and has been allocated a Technical Committee session at the Yokohama Conference. In addition, as a result of a joint OAU/ECA/WHO disaster mitigation initiative, IDNDR-related activities will be developed on a regional basis in Africa.
    • As a result of the UN’s emphasis upon links with member governments and the Decade’s emphasis upon scientific and engineering ‘solutions’, the NGO community has not been closely involved in the IDNDR, though in some cases NGO representatives do participate in the National Committees. Consequently, the potential contribution by NGOs, in particular for instigating disaster mitigation initiatives at the community-level, has not been exploited.
    • The fact that the start of the Decade coincided with the end of the Cold War period was unfortunate. At a time when the international community’s attention and humanitarian resources have been largely focused upon the mitigation of the effects of conflicts in Africa, Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union, the IDNDR’s focus upon the prevention and mitigation of ‘natural’ disasters has, at times, appeared of limited relevance. Perhaps reflecting this, many of the international programmes and demonstration projects selected by the STC have experienced difficulty in obtaining sufficient funding.

Those wishing to find out more about the IDNDR or those wishing to receive copies of Stop Disasters should contact:

IDNDR Secretariat
Palais des Nations CH-1211, Geneva 10 
Switzerland
Tel: (41 22) 798 8400
Fax: (41 22) 733 8695