On 16 July 2004, a school fire in Tamil Nadu killed over 93 children, with some 105 who were in the building at the time surviving. Several officials have been charged with falsifying records related to the school's construction. This event highlighted the lack of safety standards in many schools in India, including the absence of basic fire safety precautions and fire-fighting equipment.
In disaster-risk reduction, school tragedies have particular poignancy, but they nonetheless often mask more general, endemic and unnecessary vulnerabilities that to some extent plague all countries. The Tamil Nadu fire was simply the worst in a long series of mass casualty fires across India: at least six other fires in the past five years each killed more than two dozen people. And while the world was lamenting the abhorrent toll from the school fire, hundreds were dying in floods around India. How many were children? How many schools were inundated? How did flood-risk reduction in affected areas compare to fire-risk reduction in schools? Two weeks after the school fire in India, more than 400 died in a fire at a Paraguayan shopping centre. Such catastrophes are not confined to less affluent countries. On 20 August 2003, 100 persons died in a Rhode Island night-club fire in the United States. And many more disasters other than fires also occur.
In examining disaster events and risk issues around the world, a pattern emerges of risk reduction often being side-lined until a disaster happens. Then demands are made about why nothing was done before it occurred. Not all case studies are so gloomy though; impressive successes can also be identified. A century ago, death tolls in the United States from Atlantic hurricanes listed thousands, whereas recent years have witnessed dozens per event. Such numbers are still high considering the resources that the United States puts into hurricane-related monitoring and awareness programmes, which nonetheless represent a significant improvement over time.
However, successes are not limited to more affluent countries. Belize and Cuba have also learned from past hurricane disasters to implement evacuation systems, which have saved hundreds of lives in recent years. Unfortunately, success stories and good practices do not preclude a future major disaster. In particular, success often leads to complacency, until another disaster happens. This attitude of thinking and acting only when it is too late...