Rio+20 Feature: Seven Issues, Seven Experts – Disasters

15 June 2012

Disasters – Envoy for Disaster Risk Reduction, Margareta Wahlström

World leaders, along with thousands of participants from governments, the private sector, non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and other groups will come together in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, to take part in the UN Conference on Sustainable Development (Rio+20) later this month.

The Conference seeks to shape how countries and their citizens can reduce poverty, advance social equity and ensure environmental protection to achieve long-term growth.

Seven key areas have been identified by the UN as needing urgent attention: creation of jobs, access to energy, building sustainable cities, ensuring food security and sustainable agriculture, access to water, managements of oceans and disaster readiness. But what do each of them entail and how can people contribute to a sustainable future?

In our Seven Issues, Seven Experts series UN officials tell us what we can expect and how we can contribute to each area to make our planet more sustainable.

In the third installment, the UN News Centre spoke with Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Disaster Risk Reduction, Margareta Wahlström about what countries and communities can do to prevent disasters, and why it’s important to start with disaster risk prevention in our homes.


Residents of the flood-affected Icaco community in El Salvador collect energy cookies provided by the WFP. Photo: WFP/Tania Moreno

News Centre: How does disaster readiness fit into the sustainable development picture? Margareta Wahlström: It is right at the centre of it because every time a disaster hits, whether it is flooding, an earthquake, a hurricane or landslides, it destroys people’s property and, too often, takes lives. Schools collapse along with bridges, roads, hospitals, people’s homes, and in most countries of the world people have no insurance. There is nobody to pay for this so every time there is a disaster, however small from the global perspective, it destroys people’s investment for the better life that they want to have.

Something is lost and that I think is the core of sustainable development - that in an equitable fashion all people in the world will be able to benefit from the enormous economic and social development.

News Centre: There’s a sense that disasters are difficult to predict and therefore hard to prepare for. What can governments do to plan ahead of each disaster?


Victims of the worst floods to hit Pakistan in several years are pictured with some of their belongings in the northwestern city of Nowshera. UN Photo/WFP/Amjad Jamal

Margareta Wahlström: It depends on the country. There are countries that are disaster-prone where every year there are several events, and there are some countries that are not so disaster-prone even though the frequency of disasters is increasing due to climate variability, and higher population density. But let’s start with the most disaster-prone countries. They need to have a very strong public education system. People need to know about the risks so that they can self-organize.

They must also have early warning and alert systems, which save many many lives today. If a hurricane is approaching you can actually follow it on a map and say where it will land in five days. This allows people to start preparing by evacuating properties for example. This saves lives and money.

Another thing that many countries have already done is to strengthen their capacity to respond to a disaster when it happens. They train people, they have supplies and they have means of transport and communication ready to respond.

The more medium-term issue is how governments and people actually prepare to diminish the impact of the risk itself. This entails planning so that people don’t live on highly vulnerable land, next to river banks that flood every year, or next to the ocean shore. These are issues of land use planning, quality of infrastructure and risk assessments. These are things that have already happened in many countries but certainly not enough, and they are linked to education as well. Something Japan is doing very effectively is making sure is that children already engage at a really early age to understand the risks of Japan, and not only learning how to behave during a crisis, but also how to reduce the risks in their daily lives.


An IAEA fact-finding team examines devastation at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant in May 2011. Photo: IAEA/Greg Webb

UN News Centre: You said the number of disasters keep increasing. Why this is and can we expect this trend to continue? Margareta Wahlström: There are quite a few reasons. Part of it is due to development itself and this may be a bit contradictory, but because so many people live in such highly vulnerable areas, that means that the exposure of human societies is increasing and is already costing enormous amounts of money, and will cost even more in the future.

A simple example is that urban flooding is increasing very rapidly because we are building over the natural waterways of the water so that it can no longer flow off. Cities are not building good drainage systems, so when it rains water doesn’t go away, it just keeps building up in the urban area.

The very rapid urbanization by itself also creates risks because cities either do not have resources or cannot just keep up with the rapid growth.

In addition, the change in patterns of weather, unpredictable rain, new drought patterns, all of this of course increases the incidences of extreme events that cause disasters in human society.

Just remember what has happened in the past two years. The impact of disasters is not just national but affects entire geographic regions through the interconnectedness of trade relationships.


A view of a street in downtown Port-au-Prince illustrates the extensive damage wreaked by the earthquake that struck Haiti on January 2010. UN Photo/Logan Abassi

If you think of the floods in Bangkok, Thailand, last year, there was an enormous disruption to global trade, of airports, of mobile telephones and other electronic goods, which impacted the economy. So it’s important now to think of the accumulation of risks and how we can make society more resilient. That is something governments really need to put at the centre of their priorities. News Centre: You mentioned countries need to make their cities more resilient, which is another key issue of Rio+20. Are you working in partnership with urban planning organizations?

Margareta Wahlström: Yes, we have this big global campaign called Resilient Cities, where we work with UN-Habitat to prepare cities for climate change and disasters. Because it is about cities - many of which are in vulnerable areas - and local governments, we are really combining forces there.

We find that cities are missing out in maximising the use of urban planning, urban re-planning and urban redesign. They must know where the vulnerabilities are, but also make maximum use of their planning knowledge to make sure that they manage risks better.

UN News Centre: You talked about Japan as a country already focused on disaster risk education. What other examples of a country successfully addressing this issue?


A herder pours water for his camels at a water catchment point in Harshin district, Ethiopia, which is affected by drought. Photo: IRIN/Siegfried Modola

Margareta Wahlström: Well, one of the more extreme disaster-prone countries is the Philippines. They have cyclones, earthquakes and volcanoes. A couple of things that the central government has done is to issue very strong legislation on how the country must manage disaster risk, and also equally strong legislation on managing climate risks. Of course, the Government at a central level needs to cooperate with the national climate commission and the people that manage disaster risks, but even more important is the implementation of this legislation at the local level. Both pieces of legislation are very clear on the necessity to channel resources to the local level to make sure that it can build preparedness systems to take measure to reduce the impact of climate change.

All these institutional mechanisms are in place and there are several places in the Philippines where the local government, with these resources and these mandates, has built a very strong plan for how to achieve their development goals taking into account disaster risk and its costs.

There is for example a province called Albay in the northern Philippines where the governor himself has said the objective is zero people killed and to achieve the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) and he is monitoring very carefully how they achieve these objectives. It’s very concrete, and the goal is sustainable development, but he says very clearly that they have to take into account the costs of disaster losses and its consequences such as changes in agricultural output.

UN News Centre: Is there a specific goal at Rio+20 regarding disaster risk?

Margareta Wahlström: Yes, our hope is that it will be recognized as a strong strategic issue, and that we need to mitigate for risks in order to be able to achieve all our positive development objectives.


Personnel of the UN Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) attend to an injured person during an exercise on large-scale disaster response. UN Photo/Pasqual Gorriz

UN News Centre: Is there anything that individuals can do? Margareta Wahlström: Absolutely, that is where it starts, with individual citizens and ourselves. You can think about it this way: if I do not care about something in my daily life will I care for it in a larger scale? If I throw garbage on the street, if I do not keep the drains around my own house clean so that water can go away, then I will not have enough awareness to understand that these things accumulate and become a threat for my community and my country.

The first part of awareness and knowledge is very significant because if in your own community you are willing to provide leadership, maybe in your family, or your school, you can contribute to making your neighbourhood safer. That’s the first step to make sure you can support global action.

I sometimes compare what we do to the environmental movement. It took them some time, but it has been one of the most successful achievements of social mobilization around the world

and it was thanks to the many people that mobilized to express strongly that the environment needs to be protected if people are going to be healthy in the future.

Disasters are quite predictable, they are costing too much, and it is not acceptable that we just keep paying for them. We can prevent them.

News Tracker: Past Stories on This Issue

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The United Nations office for disaster risk reduction today launched a new initiative to help cities across the world manage risk following the worst year on record for economic losses caused by disasters.