Global Action Too Slow to Curb Rising Risks Says Ex-UN Disaster Chief

BARCELONA, Jan 11 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – The world’s preparations to deal with disasters are not yet keeping pace with the growing threats to people and societies, said the former U.N. disaster prevention chief.

Aerial view of flood affected areas of Kanchipuram District in Tamil Nadu, where the Indian Air Force has carried out rescue and relief operations. Photo: Indian Ministry of Defence
Floods in Tamil Nadu, November 2015, which caused over $3 billion damages and left 347 people dead . Photo: Indian Ministry of Defence

Margareta Wahlström, who served for over seven years as head of the United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction (UNISDR), said big changes could be made to limit the physical impacts of natural and manmade disasters like floods, earthquakes and industrial accidents.

“If we included risk as a factor into all the plans and visions we have for the future, we will gradually catch up – then we will be able to reduce risk,” she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation in an interview soon after leaving office.

Last March, at a conference in Sendai, Japan, governments adopted a new global framework to ramp up efforts to deal with disasters, setting seven targets to measure progress.

They include “substantially” reducing the numbers of people killed and affected by disasters, as well as damage to infrastructure and to services like health and education, and decreasing economic losses – all by 2030.

The preceding international agenda for tackling disasters was agreed in 2005 on the heels of the Indian Ocean tsunami, which killed at least 226,000 people.

That massive disaster triggered a huge focus on saving lives, leading to major investment in early warning and evacuation systems, Wahlström said.

At the time, however, it did not drive understanding of “why development is the key factor in how we create risks for ourselves”, she added.

But that has shifted more recently, as climate change has begun making weather disasters more frequent and severe.

“The awareness and, to some degree, the understanding of risk has increased dramatically and we have been unfortunately helped by the external environment,” Wahlström said in a telephone interview from Stockholm.

When she talked to governments in preparation for the Sendai negotiations, they showed a “very strong anxiety about how risks are increasing, (saying), ‘We don’t have a sense of where we are going’,” she added.

Key to getting disaster risks under control is communicating to officials, businesses and individuals that failing to do so limits their ability to achieve economic growth and sustainable development.

They need to think through what they must plan for if current trends for worsening extreme weather, together with expanding populations and cities, continue in the next 50 years, Wahlström said.

And when trying to persuade politicians to invest in stronger, smarter infrastructure to keep people out of harm’s way, it is crucial to explain how that can bring short-term returns too – like avoiding millions of dollars in damage when the next big flood hits, she added.

That applies in both poor and rich countries.

“This is a truly universal issue,” she said. “Every country has an interest in reducing the cost of (disasters), so they can use (the money) for other issues.”

Conflict Complications

During her stint as disaster reduction chief, Wahlström witnessed tangible change at the local level – from alerting and evacuation systems that protected people when Typhoon Haiyan hit the Philippines, to Canada deciding to build a disaster prevention mechanism that starts with communities.

Yet there are also places where the international community failed to follow through on its newfound global enthusiasm for disaster risk reduction, such as in Afghanistan, she added.

Wahlström, a former aid official who worked at the U.N. Assistance Mission in Afghanistan as it was emerging from conflict, said wealthy donor governments missed an opportunity to make the fragile state more resilient to natural disasters.

Foreign military trucks and equipment were used to help Afghanistan rebuild and recover from war, and little funding went to shoring up national institutions to manage hazards like earthquakes and annual flooding.

“The Afghan authorities now have no capability to deal with this issue,” Wahlström said. “That was not part of the development investment and it should have been.”

While U.N. and other aid agencies have improved protection against disasters for conflict-displaced people, labour rules and mindsets need to be changed so that migrants and refugees can use their own skills to keep themselves and their communities safe, she noted.

Wahlström’s hope is that the international agreements sealed in 2015 – from the Sendai framework to new Sustainable Development Goals and a climate change deal – will foster a more joined-up approach to the world’s problems, including disasters.

“What (the agreements) hopefully have achieved is a much stronger policy drive from the global side” to showcase country progress and ensure international development aid addresses disaster risk, she added.

This month, Robert Glasser, an Australian who was previously secretary general of development agency CARE International, took over from Wahlström as head of the UNISDR.

Reporting by Megan Rowling; editing by Laurie Goering for the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women’s rights, trafficking, corruption and climate change.