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African conference focuses on disasters.

AS ENVIRONMENTAL and man-made disasters continue to wreak havoc on a worldwide population of more than 5.3 billion people, death tolls continue to rise, particularly in overcrowded Third World countries. Some believe the magnitude of such recent catastrophies as typhoons in the Bay of Bengal, oil spills in Alaska and oil well fires in the Middle East demonstrates that the earth's mix of fragile ecosystems simply does not have the resilience needed to weather such an onslaught. Just how to successfully combat this dilemma by using scientific risk management theories and techniques was addressed by more than 300 engineers, scientists and environmentalists at the 13th International Congress and General Assembly of the World Federation of Engineering Organizations (WFEO) in Tanzania.

Tanzanian President Ali Hassan Mwinyi encouraged the conference audience to take a more active role in saving human, lives and property from devastation by natural disasters. "We cannot prevent earthquakes, windstorms, floods, volcanic eruptions and other natural disasters," he said. "But there is a great deal that can be done to give early warnings, provide better defenses and improve our preparedness in order to alleviate the impact of natural disasters."

Recalling that the U.N. General 'Assembly declared the 1990s to be the International Decade for Natural Disasters Reduction, President Mwinyi noted that the rate of lives lost through natural disasters had increased to 75,000 per year during the past decade, up from an average of 50,000 per year for most of this century. "Where mankind has changed the natural environment through the exploitation of natural resources for development purposes, the impact of natural disasters becomes more devastating," he said.

While President Mwinyi cited examples of natural disasters on different continents, he also enumerated other threats, such as wildlife poaching, bush fires, the destruction of water sources and the dumping of waste materials near residential areas, as examples of man-made disasters that lead to environmental ruin. President Mwinyi also stressed that it is especially important for Africa, where most people live under conditions of abject poverty, to use its resources more efficiently to raise living standards.

Other speakers also called for a multipronged assault on the situation. "We have an opportunity, as engineers and scientists, to advance the welfare of mankind," said J.C. McKenzie, secretary general of the WFEO. "With a little help from our colleagues in the scientific disciplines, and with the support of senior politicians, we have an excellent opportunity to show our worth."

One risk management practice used to detect the threat of natural or man-made disasters is found in the sky. Cort Durocher, director of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics, said space-based systems will play an increasingly important role in alleviating and preventing both types of environmental disasters.

Mr. Durocher explained that satellite communication links provide data collection from Earth-based instruments, such as flood-warning devices and seismic activity monitors, that observe and interpret natural phenomena. These space-based systems also provide voice-data communications where terrestrial links have been destroyed. He added that networks of meteorological satellites and landobserving systems have produced a wealth of data, monitoring such disparate changes in the environment as desertification and urban sprawl.

"The 1990s will see dozens of new programs of data collection using space systems," Mr. Durocher said. "Moreover, the field is of international scale and significance, calling for all countries to coordinate their efforts to realize the full potential of space capabilities. The expansion of these systems will enable us to determine the causes of disasters and help us minimize or even eliminate their toll on humans and the environment."

Scientific applications of risk management are now being explored in Taiwan. Ma Nan-Hsien, director of the planning and evaluation division of Taiwan's National Science Council, told conference attendees that, since 1982, his organization has conducted a scientific research program focusing on meteorology, flood mitigation, seismology, earthquake engineering and landslide prevention. A demonstration project has been planned for the next five years to apply research results effectively to disaster reduction.

Taiwan is the perfect location for such research, Mr. Ma said, because it is in the seismic zone of the Western Pacific and directly in the path of typhoons originating there. Furthermore, Taiwan has distinctive geomorphology and geology, with steep mountains and weak geological formations. "As a consequence, disasters resulting from typhoons, floods, landslides and earthquakes take place frequently," he said.

Created by Humans

NATURAL DISASTERS are not the only cause of environmental hazards. M.P. Grant, senior lecturer of the department of civil engineering at the University of Zimbabwe, argued that desertification poses a major threat to many nations. Mr. Grant said desertification results from prolonged misuse of land. Razing forests and overgrazing pastures can lead to loss of topsoil, depletion of groundwater supplies, siltation of rivers and, possibly, climatic change. "When famine occurs, people tend to blame it on the lack of rain or inherent shortcomings in their crops," Mr. Grant says, "but never that they themselves have ensured the failure of their crops."

Mr. Grant was critical of international education standards for engineering students, saying that mediocre teaching methods fail to address the gravity of man-made environmental hazards. His views were echoed by P.A. 0luwande, a Nigerian civil engineer and academician, who told conference attendees that the curricula of many engineering facilities in developing nations showed inadequate exposure to environmental impact analysis. Graduates, he maintained, are in-informed about the possible ecological disasters that could be brought about by certain engineering decisions. He further argued that because engineers are prime movers of economic activity and can manipulate natural forces that upset the ecological balance, it is vital for them to be exposed to current environmental concerns.

Glenio Bonder, an official with the U.N. Environmental Program (UNEP), stated that now is the time to design production processes and products friendly to the environment. "Poor waste management has led to the contamination of soil," he said. "The ozone layer, which screens out the lethal ultraviolet radiation from the sun, is being depleted and the Earth is being threatened with a rise in temperatures." He admitted that there is a lack of reliable information on existing environmental technologies, and that UNEP is developing an information center to correct this situation.

Aidan Cheche is a correspondent based in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania.
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Title Annotation:International Congress and General Assembly of the World Federation of Engineering Organizations
Author:Cheche, Aidan
Publication:Risk Management
Date:May 1, 1992
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