Monday, January 28, 2008

Seoul and Water Disasters

I’m in Seoul, Korea attending the UN’s “Second Meeting of the High-Level Expert Panel on Water and Disaster” and I’ve learned a great deal in just a few hours. Participants around me are from Bangladesh, England, UNICEF, the Japan Water Forum and a dozen others, and the opening speech this morning at 9am was delivered by a man who was, unexpectedly, named Prime Minister of South Korea at 10:30.

I’ve been uncharacteristically quiet today, listening to the problems seen in Cyclone Sidr in Bangladesh, and the arguments for including slow-onset events under the label “water disasters” (like groundwater depletion and river contamination in southern India, for example) so that they can get the attention they need. It's a small room at a nice hotel (made smaller by a LOT of media cameras) and the participants seem to know each other fairly well. The conversation has been structured, but informal, and I've noted the remarkable range of problems we face globally that are rarely considered in the West. After one long description of the consequences of livestock loss in hurricanes, there was an extended discussion from Colombia, for example, on how to make Disaster Risk Assessments as much a part of development and reconstruction as an Environmental Impact Statement. And how to make disaster risk reduction as ubiquitous an effort within a population as seatbelts are for injury avoidance and safe sex for HIV transmission reduction.

I spoke on the place of InSTEDD and our partners in the aftermath of acute water disasters like floods and typhoons, including some of the tools we’ve found or built that might be helpful there. The talk was apparently very well-received and we’ve a new set of conversations underway with colleagues we’ve just met this morning. One discussion included a nice idea for linking a regional disaster response planning team in Central America using VSee (

After my talk (which was on requirements for effective response to disasters in general, not just disease reporting) I heard that peasants in Colombia, a country riven by violence from narco-trafficking, still consider floods a greater threat than anything else in the nation. And that India now gets 50% of her daily water from underground aquifers - water that’s been percolating slowly downward for millennia, is now being withdrawn at a far greater rate than it’s being replenished, and is clearly a disaster in the making.

One of the most interesting items I heard was that the Netherlands has a very clever initiative for improving global water and sanitation called AKVO ( They are using tools based on Wikipedia, Ebay, and RSS to help link local communities, trusted local partners, lenders, and donors in a mesh of small-scale funding that is directed to clean water and sanitation provisioning. It's efficient, and transparent, and a decent model for linking those who have to those who need. It’s a nice idea and I wish them great success.

My presence at this conference, requested by a respected colleague from the Canadian Foreign Ministry, is not directly related to the immediate efforts at InSTEDD, but the attendees apparently found what I talked about worth discussion and inclusion, and I’ve now learned a lot about topics I’ve never examined before. It’s just an extra overnight stay as I pass through Seoul since I’m on my way to Bangkok to join the team in Thailand for a few days.

We'll meet up in Thailand and, after talking with some members of the Mekong Basin Diseases Surveillance consortium in Cheng Mai later this week, we'll migrate into Cambodia for some deep-field epidemiology assessments near the Lao border and a large set of conversations with people and organizations already working in the region.

I'll leave Seoul tomorrow, but if anyone has thoughts regarding support to clean water and sanitation needs after disasters, please drop a note into the forums and we'll make sure your ideas get to the conference coordinators. Be sure to tell us if it's ok to have them contact you and how they should do it.



Gabriel Coch said...

"And how to make disaster risk reduction as ubiquitous an effort within a population as seatbelts".

Some entities in Colombia, specifically the
Regional Corporation of the Cauca Valley have spent many years and resources developing their Plan del Agua (Water Plan), which involves watershed management, structured data collection for both rivers and underground wells, training and many other activities, all of which contribute to mitigate the impact of natural disasters when the occur. By instilling a culture of proper resource management and constant awareness,they provide a good framework for distaster risk reduction.