UN to private sector: Change mindset on disaster resilience

Margareta Wahlström, United Nations special representative for disaster risk reduction. Photo by: UNISDR / CC BY-NC-ND

How much does the world stand to potentially lose from earthquakes and cyclones alone every year?

At least $189 billion, according to the 2013 Global Assessment Report on Disaster Risk Reduction, which the U.N. International Strategy for Disaster Reduction released on May 15 ahead of this week’s fourth session of the Global Platform for Disaster Risk Reduction taking place in Geneva.

The figure is expected to move the international community to invest more in disaster risk reduction and help build the resilience of their communities. Especially important is the private sector, which the report stresses is severely affected by natural disasters like floods, landslides or small-scale earthquakes.

“Disaster risk management must become part of the investors’ mindset,” Margareta Wahlstrom told Devex in an email interview.

The UNISDR chief discussed the Hyogo Framework for Action, the 10-year action plan developed in 2005 to reduce disaster losses, its impending successor and the vital role the private sector plays in building a more resilient world.

The HFA expires in 2015. What are its milestones so far?

The Hyogo Framework for Action was adopted by the UN General Assemlby in 2005 following the Indian Ocean tsunami. It responds to the need for a comprehensive, integrated, multi-disciplinary approach to identifying and implementing disaster risk reduction measures through its five priority areas for action.  I would say that progress so far has been qualitative. Since the HFA was introduced there has been a significant change in mindset. We are seeing lots more planning, legislation and new policies. To date 121 countries have passed legislation on disaster risk reduction. Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh last week inaugurated the 86th National Platform for Disaster Risk Reduction. There are 56 national disaster loss data bases and their numbers are growing all the time. Nearly every country in the world now has a HFA focal point. There is  plenty of evidence that the HFA is making a difference. The loss of life from weather-related disasters is on the decline generally, particularly in Asia. There is much more access to information and education on risk. Early warning systems have been strengthened and overall disaster preparedness is the area where countries report the most progress in implementing the HFA priorities.

I gather that UNISDR is preparing for a new framework to succeed the HFA. What are the prominent points being made for the new framework. And in what ways will it differ from the current one?

The U.N. Office for  Disaster Risk Reduction has  had almost 100 consultations over the last year on the shape and content of a post-2015 framework for disaster risk reduction. Many countries are telling us that we need to continue with the priorities for action in the current HFA which still has two years to run. This week we publish a major report on the implementation of the HFA which looks at the last six years and demonstrates that the foundations have been laid for more committed, organized action. The new framework should offer incentives for scaling up DRR activities to the point where they can make a real difference in people’s lives. Achieving this will require greater outreach to local communities and building on initiatives such as the UNISDR Making Cities Resilient Campaign which has been joined by over 1,400 towns and cities around the world.  The private sector will also have a central role to play in the success of the HFA2. The economic losses from disasters are staggering and disaster risk management must become part of the investors’ mindset as the private sector is responsible for 70 to 85 percent of critical infrastructure development. Many countries report challenges in inserting climate change adaptation measures into national policies so this is likely to be a continued area of focus for the HFA2.

What sort of activities should the international community be investing in more to mitigate the impact of disasters and become more resilient?

Governments are increasingly taking a multi-hazard approach to disaster risk reduction. Gender needs to be recognized as more of a decisive factor. Capacity development is also important and should be a central task for institutions engaged with this work. Existing and emerging environmental risks threaten everyone but the socio-economically vulnerable are the most exposed. Above all, disaster risk reduction requires strong community engagement.  A key on-going challenge is to reduce the underlying risk factors such as ensuring that the planning and management of critical infrastructure incorporates disaster risk reduction elements, including enforcement of building codes. This is critically important when you realize that 700,000 people have died in earthquakes and tsunamis over the last ten years. On average, over 200 million people are affected by disasters every year.

How do you plan to mobilize more funding for these activities amid austerity measures in many traditional donor countries?

Lack of resources is a recurring theme for many countries trying to implement the HFA particularly when it comes to addressing underlying risk factors. We have to continue demonstrating the postive return on investment for actions taken to reduce underlying risk factors and this will encourage public commitment to such initiatives. UNISDR’s 2013 Global Assessment Report on Disaster Risk Reduction whihc has just been published,  highlights a number of examples including Scotland where the public and private sectors have worked together to eliminate construction on flood plains since 1995. Only one of 29 local authorities did not participate and as a consequence now suffers serious problems with flooding and access to insurance.

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About the author

  • Jenny Lei Ravelo

    Jenny Lei Ravelo is a Devex Senior Reporter based in Manila. She covers global health, with a particular focus on the World Health Organization, and other development and humanitarian aid trends in Asia Pacific. Prior to Devex, she wrote for ABS-CBN, one of the largest broadcasting networks in the Philippines, and was a copy editor for various international scientific journals. She received her journalism degree from the University of Santo Tomas.