Failure to link up with other global agreements in 2015 could spell disaster for Sendai deal

The World Conference on Disaster Risk Reduction in Sendai is a 2015 litmus test, coming ahead of the Sustainable Development Goals and U.N. climate deal, says ODI head of climate change Tom Mitchell.

ban ki moon sendai
United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon opens the Third UN World Conference on Disaster Risk Reduction in Sendai, Japan. Image: UN ISDR Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Every ten years Japan plays host to the World Conference on Disaster Risk Reduction. The third such event, which kick offs this week in Sendai, will have particular resonance for local residents. Four years ago this week, the most powerful earthquake on record to hit Japan triggered the Fukushima nuclear disaster and sent a tsunami tearing through the host city, killing over 15,000 people.  As the city welcomes 10,000 delegates to share lessons on reducing disaster risk, all eyes will be on negotiators as they hammer out a deal on a new 15-year international framework to reduce disaster losses.

As a forerunner to this year’s global agreements on Financing for Development, the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), and the UN climate deal, Sendai is somewhat of a 2015 litmus test. Unfortunately, the process has not all been smooth sailing. The draft text of a new agreement has been under negotiation since last summer and governments will arrive in Japan with about 70 per cent of the text agreed and 30 per cent left to negotiate.  The remaining 30 per cent is all the hard stuff, like finance, international cooperation and accountability. On the bright side, much of the 70 per cent forms a detailed recipe for what constitutes effective action to reduce disaster risk.

So what would success in Sendai look like? The following are six key points that my colleagues and I from the Overseas Development Institute, a UK-based think tank, will be taking to the conference:  

1.       Countries must agree DRR targets and an appropriate way of measuring and monitoring progress toward them

The current draft presents seven global targets with a range of options for each. Some are numerical targets, others are more qualitative, and there is a reasonable degree of overlap with what is proposed for the SDGs. All are still under negotiation, including how the baselines will be created and what form of monitoring, if any, will emerge at different scales. It is vital that the targets become a key focus for assessing progress on disaster risk reduction (DRR) and that a robust, detailed monitoring framework emerges. One crucial element is ensuring that baselines sufficiently recognise that disasters don’t take place at convenient time intervals and that a sophisticated approach is used for assessing the risk of losses, not just counting the impacts of recent disasters.  

2.       Coherence between post-2015 processes is crucial and must be recognised in the final text

The current draft includes cursory mentions of other 2015 processes; the SDGs and Green Climate Fund are noticeably absent. While it is obviously difficult to prejudge these other processes, leaving out how they will work together is of great risk to the Sendai agreement as it will be heavily dependent on other 2015 agreements to raise political visibility. Kicking coherence down the track for someone else to deal with is not going to work. The Sendai agreement needs to make clear propositions about how joined-up monitoring and reporting frameworks should emerge, how finance will link together, and how countries might serve to prioritise overlapping and interlinked DRR-related targets and goals.

3.       The link between disasters and conflict must feature, with an  emphasis on DRR in fragile and conflict-affected states

As a forerunner to this year’s global agreements on Financing for Development, the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), and the UN climate deal, Sendai is somewhat of a 2015 litmus test. Unfortunately, the process has not all been smooth sailing.

Conflict barely gets a look in - just one mention in the negotiating draft (and in square brackets) - despite the fact that disaster losses are highly correlated with conflict-affected settings. The language on conflict needs to improve, including recognition that conflict and disaster risk are often heavily interrelated and a joined-up approach is needed; as a minimum through the application of conflict sensitivity and Do No Harm, and at the most, to combine DRR with efforts towards conflict prevention and peacebuilding.

4.       The agreement must present the incentives for investing in disaster risk management

The business case for DRR is not just about avoiding losses. It is also about the additional benefits and development advances that a disaster resilient society brings – this is vital for convincing cash strapped ministries of finance to prioritise integrating DRR investments across all sectors and encouraging the private sector to do the same. These points are outlined in our new publications produced for Sendai; The Triple Dividend of Resilience published in partnership with the World Bank and 10 things to know about finance for reducing disaster risk published with UNDP. Both will be made available at 

5.       The agreement should look beyond narrowly-focussed DRR projects and promote disaster risk management across public and private investment decisions

Presently the draft agreement is pebble-dashed with references to domestic finance and private finance, but far greater emphasis is placed on flows of international development assistance to developing countries suffering from disaster impacts. While key, it threatens to draw attention away from the need to build a strong case for national investment. Accordingly, strong, reliable institutions are needed to support the integration of risk management in all investment decisions across sectors and scales, and governments need to set the right policy and regulatory frameworks to underpin action.

6.       Maintain positive text on the role of science, women, and the inclusion and empowerment of ‘at risk and vulnerable’ communities in the agreement

Positive inclusion of the key role of science in DRR and the prominence given to the inclusion and empowerment of at risk and vulnerable communities has already been agreed. There are still further aspects to agree, however, including how progress on social and cultural dimensions of DRR will be promoted, accounted for, and by whom, and the nature of follow-up processes on DRR terminology and on the specific actions around science co-ordination. It will be important not to backslide here, and this case is made in a recent ODI paper on science coordination in other policy and practice areas.

There are other aspects too that will likely pose troubles, including language around human rights and on the specific role of different parts of the UN (particularly on potential changes to the mandate of the UN Office for Disaster Risk Reduction). There are also concerns that the coverage of climate change and its relation to disaster risk is underplayed, and that the links between growing greenhouse gas emissions and increasing disaster risk is largely ignored.

Although somewhat dwarfed in comparison to other major processes in 2015, Sendai must not fall under the radar of the international community. Getting the agreement right could help us start this pivotal year as we mean to go on and ensure that all the 2015 global agreements are aligned and recognise the importance of building resilience to disasters. 

Tom Mitchell is Head of the Climate and Environment programme at the Overseas Development Institute in London.

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