The year of resilience

Global leaders need to commit to more ambitious goals when it comes to investing in and implementing measures to help countries cope with disasters, says Margareta Wahlström, head of the UN Office for Disaster Risk Reduction.

sendai city japan
The city of Sendai, Japan, bore the brunt of the earthquake and tsunami that struck Japan in 2011. UN Member States will meet in Sendai in March for the third World Conference for Disaster Risk Reduction. Image: Radu Razvan /

Ten years ago this month, representatives from 168 United Nations member states met in Kobe, the capital of Japan’s Hyogo Prefecture, to decide how to manage risk better in the wake of the devastating Indian Ocean tsunami, which claimed more than 227,000 lives. Over five days, which included the anniversary of the 1995 Kobe earthquake, they crafted the Hyogo Framework for Action (HFA), composed of a raft of measures designed to “reduce the losses in lives and social, economic, and environmental assets of communities and countries.”

In two months, UN member states will gather for the third World Conference for Disaster Risk Reduction in another Japanese city synonymous with disaster risk: Sendai – the center of the Tōhoku region, which bore the brunt of the 2011 earthquake and tsunami that led to the Fukushima nuclear meltdown. One question will be on everyone’s mind at the meeting: Has the world lived up to the HFA’s ambitious goals?

The evidence of the last decade – which has been marked by some of the worst natural disasters on record – is far from favorable. Port-au-Prince collapsed in an earthquake. Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans. Drought killed an unknown number of people in the Horn of Africa. Floods and earthquakes affected millions in Pakistan and China. Heat waves and wildfires ravaged countries around the world.

These disasters serve as a stark reminder of the need for instruments like the HFA, especially because the drivers of disaster risk – improper land use, non-existent or poorly implemented building codes, environmental degradation, poverty, climate change, and, most important, weak governance by inappropriate and insufficient institutions – still abound. That is why world leaders need to agree on an updated version of the HFA at the Sendai conference.

To be sure, there have been some important, albeit less noticeable, successes over the last ten years. In Asia, where 80% of the world’s disasters are concentrated, the number of people directly affected has dropped, decade-on-decade, by almost one billion, owing to measures like the Indian Ocean tsunami early-warning system.

Indeed, timely evacuations in the face of accurately forecasted major storm systems have enabled the Philippines and India to save thousands of lives just in the last year. And, over the last three years, China has worked hard to keep economic losses within its 1.5%-of-GDP target.

If the UN conference produces the right agreement, resilience can become the hallmark of 2015, setting the tone for agreements later in the year on climate change and sustainable development – both of which hold important implications for disaster risk.

Meanwhile, Turkey will have earthquake-proofed every school and hospital in the country by 2017. Ethiopia has developed a sophisticated data-management system to help guide its efforts to address not only drought but also other natural hazards. Both countries – and many others – have incorporated the study of disaster risk into their school curriculum.

In Latin America, a cost-benefit analysis in Ecuador has concluded that each dollar invested in disaster risk reduction, by eliminating recurring losses from floods and storms, ultimately provides $9.50 in savings. Similarly, the European Union estimates that €1 ($1.18) spent on flood protection brings €6 in savings.

In the United Kingdom, for example, investment in flood defenses meant that 800,000 properties were protected during last winter’s storms, significantly reducing the bill for response and recovery.

But more must be done. In the last 44 years, disasters caused by weather, climate, and water-related hazards have led to 3.5 million deaths. Though progress has been made in reducing disaster-related mortality – according to the Center for Research into the Epidemiology of Disasters, the number of disaster-related deaths has not increased significantly in the last decade, despite the uptick in disasters – this figure remains far too high.

Moreover, even where people’s lives are saved, their livelihoods are often decimated. Since 1960, disasters have cost the world more than $3.5 trillion, with both developed and developing countries paying a huge price in terms of lost productivity and damaged infrastructure.

That is why, at the upcoming UN conference in Sendai, world leaders must agree, through a revised HFA, to scale up their efforts to cope with the risks posed by rising sea levels, global warming, rampant urbanization, and rapid population growth. Only with strong political commitment at the highest level can real progress toward a safer, more sustainable future be made.

It should not be difficult to win support for a revised HFA. After all, there is no compelling – or even rational – reason why a finance minister or CEO would choose to pay for recovery but not to invest in prevention.

It is time for the world to embed resilience to disasters into the industrialization process and the development of towns and cities, accounting for factors like seismic threats, flood plains, coastal erosion, and environmental degradation. If the UN conference produces the right agreement, resilience can become the hallmark of 2015, setting the tone for agreements later in the year on climate change and sustainable development – both of which hold important implications for disaster risk.

Margareta Wahlström was UN Special Coordinator for Humanitarian Assistance to the Tsunami-Affected Countries (2004-2005) and is currently Head of the UN Office for Disaster Risk Reduction.

Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2015.

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