Our Perspective

Disaster risk reduction

Why is disaster risk governance so essential?

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In Nepal, UNDP's Comprehensive Disaster Risk Management Programme includes initiatives such as the training of first responder including rope-climbing for emergency response and search and rescue volunteers in flood-prone areas of the country. Photo: UNDP Nepal

It has come as a bit of a surprise to me that the recent UN negotiations on the post-2015 framework for disaster risk reduction led to serious discussions among member states about whether the term ‘governance’ should be included in the text. I was particularly surprised given that the Hyogo Framework for Action (HFA) 2005 – 2015 already included the term, and a big portion of the work at country level these last 10-20 years has focused on strengthening governance arrangements for DRR. By the 1990s, numerous countries had established dedicated national disaster management authorities—often with the support of UNDP—and devised corresponding policy, legal and planning frameworks, so as to enable DRR action. At the time, I worked for the UN in the Pacific and saw first-hand how the focus was gradually shifting from emergency preparedness and response to disaster risk reduction. As the understanding of the complex causes of disasters grew, more actors entered the fold, including representatives of academia, NGOs, civil society and local communities. These actors all had a stake in influencing risk levels, and so needed to be a part of the solution. As vulnerability to natural hazards was increasingly understood to be more than just physical... Read more

Bringing about the 'Good Change' (together)

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A woman washes clothes outside her flooded house. Heavy rains in 2013 resulted in floods in 20 provinces throughout the north-west and along the Mekong River in central and southern Cambodia, killing 188 people and affecting more than 1.7 million. Photo: Thomas Cristofoletti/Ruom for UNDP

In the last decade, Cambodia has halved its poverty rate and improved the living conditions of its population. Yet because of extreme climate events that regularly descend on the country, Cambodia remains one of the most disaster-vulnerable countries in Southeast Asia. In 2013 alone, losses caused by floods added up to USD $356 million. Disasters are tragic because of the consequences on human life and well-being, but they also present an opportunity to promote what UNDP now calls “risk-informed development.” Various actors and communities can—and should—work more closely together to create effective, multi-disciplinary approaches to respond to disasters and promote disaster risk reduction.   Take the 2013 floods as an example. A combination of heavy rains and the swelling of the Mekong River caused widespread damage to infrastructure and crops. 168 people died, most of them children, and 20 provinces were devastated, with thousands of hectares of rice destroyed and hundreds of kilometers of rural roads badly damaged. Following the floods, the Cambodian government requested that UNDP work with various partners to carry out a Post Flood Early Recover Needs Assessment. Drawing on the expertise of UNDP’s country office, as well as the skills and knowledge of government partners, NGOs, and... Read more

Can data better focus risk reduction strategies?

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Monsoon rains and tropical storms bring terrible flooding to Cambodia, but lighting strikes rank as the second highest cause of mortality in disaster-related deaths. Photo: OCHA/Andrew Pendleton

It’s widely known that floods are a major cause of mortality in Cambodia. Nearly 53 percent of total disaster-related deaths between 1996 and 2013 were caused by recurring floods. What’s less well-known is that during the same period, 35 percent of disaster-related deaths were due to lightning, the second-highest cause of mortality in Cambodia. Understanding the impacts of disasters, their frequency, intensity and recurrence patterns are key to addressing them systematically. In Cambodia, such analysis has been possible with the use of data provided by CamDi (Cambodia Disaster Loss and Damage database), an online system established by the National Committee of Disaster Management in partnership with UNDP. In July 2014, CamDi, with English and Khmer interface, was launched by the Government of Cambodia and an analytical report was shared with all line ministries and provincial agencies, as well as with the donor community, international non-government organizations and other relevant groups.   I remember my initial consultations and discussions with the government and stakeholders. At the time, we were largely focused on flood-related issues, and lightning, seen as an isolated event, went unmentioned. Exhaustive disaster data collection, however, revealed the team the severity of the impact of lightning on the lives of... Read more

Good governance for disaster recovery

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Heavy rains in Haiti's northern city of Cap Haitian left streets, homes and fields flooded and hundreds of people homeless and up to 15 people dead. Photo: Logan Abassi UN/MINUSTAH

In 2007, when I began my career with UNDP in Ecuador, I thought I knew the ins and outs of disaster recovery. I had the technical background as a civil engineer, researcher and professor of earthquake engineering. A year after starting at UNDP, a major challenge arrived: intense and concentrated rains battered Ecuador’s entire coast for four months. Thirteen provinces were reporting major damage, with some urban centers remaining under water for two months and landslides closing roads and leaving many communities completely isolated. Two percent of the Ecuadorian population was affected, with damages accounting for nearly 2.5 percent of the country’s GDP that year. I received a crash course in the complexity of recovery. Before a single shovel could hit the ground or a brick laid, dozens of meetings and consultations had to be held and dozens of plans formulated. While we had created a recovery strategy based on four pillars (social, productive, infrastructure, and environment and sanitation) and three cross-cutting elements (institutional reform, community participation, and land use and planning), we still had to implement an extremely complex, comprehensive recovery plan: arranging and channeling funding; establishing ad-hoc implementation bodies; putting line ministries and regional development entities in charge of... Read more

Technological hazards: From risk reduction to recovery

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Chernobyl exclusion zone in the town of Prypiat, Ukraine. Most of the Chernobyl-affected areas suffer from high unemployment and poverty, while residents suffer from victim syndrome, a dependency culture, and lack the information. Photo: UNDP in Ukraine

This past December marked the 30th Anniversary of the Bhopal disaster—3,000 people were killed and another 170,000 injured when a pesticide plant in Bhopal, India, leaked chemical substances into the air. Regarded by many as one of history’s worst industrial accidents, Bhopal remains a horrific reminder of risks we continue to face today in an ever-industrializing world. According to the Centre for Research on the Epidemiology of Disasters, 192 technological disasters were reported worldwide in 2013.  Technological hazards are expected to grow as urbanization and industrialization spread, and as climate change brings increasingly unpredictable threats to technological infrastructure. To date, no global agreement is in place for preventing and preparing for technological disasters. While there are a number of regional and sectoral frameworks, as well as mechanisms and policies to address various types of technological disasters, we lack an overarching framework that is equipped to address the sheer complexity of issues and diversity of actors involved. The post-2015 framework for Disaster Risk Reduction (DRR) offers a unique opportunity to address precisely this, and it gives us a real opportunity to strengthen national coordination and legislative frameworks, and to expand the capacities of all stakeholders for all risks, including technological ones. If... Read more

How do we tell the story of Disaster Risk Reduction?

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Sushma Kandi received a new, stronger home for her and her daughter after the 1999 super-cyclone in Odisha. Photo: Ruhani Kaur/UNDP India.

Capturing the work of disaster risk reduction (DRR) is difficult in the best of times. As in other development fields, jargon has clouded the DRR narrative. Terms like “risk governance,” “resilient recovery” and, my favorite, “comprehensive community based disaster risk management,” have made it a struggle to impress upon non-UN types what it is exactly that we do. This isn't helped by the fact that a lot of what UNDP does is behind the scenes, governance-type work. So many times, after a disaster somewhere, a friend has asked me, "You must be really busy?" Explaining the nuances of pre-disaster DRR can be challenging.  Nuance just isn't an easy sell, and that's the hard truth of our work. Relief agencies can throw bags of food from helicopters and take pictures of it, but what can we do? Snap a picture of the new district disaster management plan?  But while the type of work we do makes communications harder, it doesn’t make it impossible. Our task is to look further down the service line and show how that district plan is helping people on the ground. All of this was very much on my mind as I travelled around south India filming videos... Read more

Building on the Pacific’s culture of resilience

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In Samoa, the problem of coastal erosion and inundation directly impacts people’s livelihood. (Photo: Joe Hitchcock and Luke McPake for UNDP)

When I first arrived in Samoa in 1998, I lived on the larger, less populated and more traditional island of Savaii, where things were ordered and everyone filled a very particular role. For example, to build a canoe, I first needed to find a tree, get permission from a local chief and go to the plantation to cut it down. Then a canoe builder for that area was commissioned and a small dedication ceremony was required before the canoe went to sea. Over time I came to understand the organization of life in Savaii, and how that organization was, in fact, the community’s foundation for resilience. After a cyclone, for example, the community sends young men to gather the fallen coconut for safe drinking water and specific root crops that heavy winds have not damaged. In my 13 years working on climate change and disaster risk management in the Pacific, I have learned that the foundation of resilience for these communities is their culture and way of life. Unlike many in international community, who see climate change and disaster risk management as two separate issues, these communities experience them as a single issue that reaches across all aspects of life. The... Read more

2015: Many things could go well!

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The 3x6 approach in Burundi allows people, through an integrated approach to control the development process themselves. (Photo: UNDP Burundi)

This year is iconic, and has been branded as a year of opportunity. Like Y2K, it could be an annus mirabilis (year of miracles). UNDP can make a serious contribution: the Strategic Plan (2014-2017) is designed to chart the way forward in the major conferences ahead, and in the final definition of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). 2015 is the European Year of Development, the UN’s 70th Anniversary and the 20th Anniversary of Beijing (the platform to advance women’s rights).  In 2015, the African Union Summit will focus on Ebola and beyond, and the Turkish G20 Presidency priorities are focused on Inclusivity, Implementation and Investment for growth. We are on the road to Sendai for the 3rd World Conference on Disaster Risk Reduction (DRR), to Addis for the 3rd Conference on Financing for Development (FfD). The events complement each other leading to the General Assembly (GA) on Post 2015 and the CoP21 in Paris. UNDP is ready for the challenge. It is strong, fit, and cost-effective. It is state of the art in development thinking and is in the lead of the UN Development System. What will be our key messages? I suggest the following five: UNDP is ready to support... Read more

Bigger cities don’t have to mean bigger risks

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An aerial view of the city of Sehwan Sharif in Pakistan's southern Sindh Province, which was heavily affected by countrywide flooding in 2010. (Photo: Amjad Jamal/UN)

The majority of the world’s population is urban, and it’s easy to understand why: Urban settings often offer better economic opportunities and better access to essential services (such as healthcare and education), as well as a wider variety of entertainment and leisure options. But urban environments are also uniquely vulnerable to disasters. Many towns, cities, and urban sprawls stand in coastal zones, on riverbanks, or in mountains– settings that are exposed to geological and hydro-meteorological hazards like earthquakes, storm surges, and cyclones. In addition, rapid urbanization often brings poor land use planning, unsafe construction practices, and damage to natural resources (like waterways and mangroves). Urban centers can suffer from ‘intensive risk,’ because a large number of people, facilities, services, and assets are condensed in one place and at risk of substantial losses and damages from a disaster. As the world becomes more and more urbanized, urban risk reduction becomes more and more of a necessity. The post-2015 framework for disaster risk reduction, which will emerge at the upcoming UN World Conference on Disaster Risk Reduction in Sendai, Japan, can help elevate this concern at the highest levels and push for disaster risk reduction to be built into urban planning and development.... Read more

Five years on, Haiti builds back better

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(Photo: UNDP/Haiti)

Five years after the earthquake that devastated the country, Haiti celebrates major development gains while acknowledging that immense challenges still remain. In spite of the political and structural fragility, social and economic progress is evident. Like many countries, the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) have galvanized positive action in Haiti. The country has steadily boosted the net enrollment rate in primary education from 47 percent in 1993 to 88 percent in 2011 and achieved equal participation of boys and girls. The number of underweight children under five years old has been halved, the prevalence of HIV/AIDS has stabilized, and nearly 70 percent of households now have access to an improved source of water. Clearly, however, much remains to be done. Six million Haitians (60 percent of the population) still live on less than $2.50 a day. And while women head almost 50 percent of households, they hold only 4 percent of parliamentary seats. Deforestation and the loss of biodiversity are also continuing challenges, and the condition of poor urban slums, which house at least 62 percent of city dwellers, remains worrisome. Yet, despite these challenges, Haiti’s progress must be commended. First, this progress takes place in spite of the devastating 2010 earthquake... Read more

Lessons from the past help to prepare for the future

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We have seen that involving communities in the recovery process brings special commitment and speeds up recovery. UNDP Photo

In China there is an old proverb that goes: “If you are planning for a year, sow rice; if you are planning for a decade, plant trees; if you are planning for a lifetime, educate people.” Helping countries better deal with disasters has long been part of our mandate. But that objective took on new urgency following the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami. Since then we have worked closely with governments in Asia and the Pacific to try to better protect communities, and provide those at risk with early warnings about approaching disasters. We have drawn on our  experience and encouraged South-South cooperation, for example, by facilitating a visit of experts from the Indonesian government – who managed the Banda Aceh reconstruction – to the Philippines so they could share expertise and ideas. These types of exchanges, support, training, and education have had an impact. Most recently, in the case of Typhoon Hagupit (Ruby) - while not as strong as Haiyan – preparedness and planning was reported to have played a vital role in saving lives, when the typhoon made multiple landfalls on the East coast of the Philippines. In recent years we have witnessed, when cyclones and storm surges have hit-... Read more

National finance helps Asia-Pacific lead the way on Climate Change

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With UNDP's support, rural residents in Bangladesh now have the resources and capacities to build back better and become resilient in the face of environmental threats. Photo credit: UNDP Bangladesh

A vital round of United Nations climate change negotiations is underway in Lima, Peru, from Dec. 1-12. This marks a significant milestone for the crucial Paris Summit on climate change that is a year away. At the climate talks in Lima, climate finance will again be at the forefront of negotiations and key in reaching a new global climate agreement. Initiated at the Secretary General’s Climate Change Summit in September, pledging towards the Green Climate Fund almost reached $10 billion. So far, countries in the Asia Pacific region have received a quarter of all global public climate finance. India and China are the largest recipients. Nineteen dedicated climate funds and initiatives have approved more than $2 billion for projects in the region, since 2003. With many countries in Asia Pacific at the frontline of climate change, bolstering resilience of low lying deltas and small islands, and reducing emissions from fast industrializing nations is a good investment. While this international financing is crucial, for it to have a sustained impact and leverage the investments needed it is also important that planning and budgeting systems are revisited through a climate lens. With the support of the United Nations through the Poverty and Environment... Read more

Meaningfully reducing disaster risk requires borderless efforts

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A boy looking at an eroded canal in Jalal-Abad province, Kyrgyzstan. Credit: Kairatbek Murzakimov/UNDP

It is fair to say that disasters, whether natural or technological, are not limited or restrained by borders. Floods, storms, environmental degradation and the ramifications of industrial or radiological waste affect multiple countries at once when they occur. National and local efforts to prepare for this, while necessary, are simply not sufficient or efficient. The reality, however inconvenient at times, is that regional threats require an equally regional effort to prepare and respond. Preparing communities along a river or waterway for possible flooding should not stop simply because of a political boundary; efforts, therefore, must be made to integrate and coordinate actions for optimum results. This understanding is quickly taking root in the Central Asian region; between 1988 and 2007 at least 177 disasters affected the region, causing more than 36,000 deaths. In 2000 alone, at least 3 million people regionally were affected by droughts that caused serious economic losses. Looking ahead, the threat of climate change means that weather related disasters may only increase in severity and frequency. Equally as threatening, though thankfully rare, is the threat of technological or industrial disasters stemming from aging but critical infrastructure, such as dams, irrigation nets and uranium mines. Reducing and managing these... Read more

Against all odds: Egypt's fight against Climate Change

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Residents of Alexandria enjoy the seaside in Egypt. Photo credit: Dylan Lowthian/UNDP

It’s less than a week to COP20, the UN climate change summit where nearly 200 governments will meet in Lima, Peru. This is an important opportunity for the global community to make progress on a universal and meaningful global climate change agreement, to be agreed in Paris in 2015. Reaching an agreement is often a hard process, but if everyone is committed to it we can break through. Egypt is one example. The Nile delta is the richest farmland in Egypt. It is fascinating that, while it covers only 5% of the total area of the country, it is home to 95% of its population. But this beautiful area dotted with tourist sights and industries faces a harsh reality: Coastal erosion caused by sea-level rise threatens low lying lands and has a direct and critical impact on the country’s entire economy. In 2010, we started working on coastal protection, with a grant from the Special Climate Change Fund.  Our project promotes the idea that we should work with the sea rather than trying to fight nature. “Living with the Sea” became our strategy, as we aimed to strike a balance between protective, hard, infrastructure such as seawalls, and reinforcing the protection... Read more

Protecting development requires an ambitious, actionable framework for disaster risk reduction

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Participants receive training on disaster prevention in Puerta Plata, Dominican Republic to protect the people and infrastructure of the municipalities of the province. Photo credit: Benjamín Pérez Espinal/UNDP Dominican Republic

This week, representatives from Member States, civil society, the UN and the private sector are meeting in Geneva to continue work on a Post-2015 Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction. This Framework, a successor to the Hyogo Framework for Action (HFA), will shape how national governments and the international community undertake disaster risk reduction and resilience building for the next 20-years. Given its longevity and (hopeful) impact, a great deal rests on making this Framework as strong and efficient as possible. I would like to offer a few recommendations: First, HFA2 must recognize that disaster risk is first and foremost a development concern. While hazards, such as floods, are a given in the world we live in, whether or not that flood turns into a full blown disaster really depends on the quality of development that’s been undertaken. HFA2 must acknowledge this fact and ensure that the actions it recommends clearly enable risk-informed development.   Second, climate change is going to seriously exacerbate the threat of disasters; we must therefore see this as a game-changer in disaster risk reduction. HFA2 should position itself as a disaster risk roadmap, clearly complementary of any future climate change activities. Like many agencies and partners UNDP... Read more

Preparing for disasters must include all citizens, especially the older persons

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On the international day for disaster risk reduction, let’s make sure that we include and empower older persons as well. Photo: UNDP Ukraine

Whenever a disaster occurs, be it Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines or Hurricane Sandy here in New York, we stress the need to invest more in disaster preparedness. Early warning systems, contingency planning, evacuation routes and training for response teams – these are all things that can, and should, be set up well in advance of a disaster in order to save lives. However, we need to remember that there is no one-size-fits all approach. Everything we do, from early warning to shelter provision, has to be tailored to the needs and capacities of community members. Older persons in particular are disproportionately impacted by disasters, as they often have limited capacity and less access to available systems. Difficulties in hearing or seeing, for instance, may limit access to emergency announcements; chronic health issues or special needs may delay or prevent escape and evacuation; and an absence of transportation may limit the ability to stock up on food, water and supplies. For older persons unfamiliar or unaware of the gravity of the crisis, there may be reluctance to reach out or seek shelter. So what can we do? First, we can recognize the specific vulnerabilities of the older persons and take measures... Read more

Can small islands expect a sea-change from the latest UN development conference?

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New irrigation methods revive farming in a Comorian village. Photo: UNDP/Comoros

This week, the tiny Pacific island of Samoa is hosting the UN’s 3rd international conference on small island developing states – or SIDS. It’s a novelty for sure; an island nation of less than 190,000 people suddenly plays host to over 3000 people from around the world. But the island’s embrace of the event is also indicative of the scale of what’s at stake; it’s about survival. Climate change threatens to not only undo many years of impressive development progress but to erase whole countries and cultures. A few days ago, the Prime Minister of Samoa wrote simply, ‘we are drowning’. So what will be achieved this week? With small populations and limited international influence many islands often slip through the cracks in larger – and wealthier – countries’ list of priorities. Most SIDS have underscored their significant fragility and vulnerability, especially to shocks such as extreme weather events. In 2004, Hurricane Ivan laid waste to the tiny Caribbean island of Grenada. The devastation caused over US$1 billion in damages, equivalent to over 200% of the country’s GDP. In addition to the terrible human cost of such disasters, there are also significant reconstruction costs and some countries have seen their debt... Read more

One number that tells a much bigger story in the Pacific

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With support from UNDP and funding from the GEF, the Government of Samoa has stepped up to integrate climate risks into the agriculture and health sectors and into forestry management. Photo UNDP/Samoa

Small islands face big challenges. This week’s Small Islands Developing States (SIDS) Conference in Samoa probes some of the most pressing ones. How do we protect our ocean resources for future generations? How do we prepare for the destructive forces of climate change on fragile islands? How can countries find the human and financial resources to sustain productive businesses, homes, schools and health services? How can countries stem rising youth unemployment? The list is as long as the oceans are wide. There is one important, often overlooked development indicator that lurks behind these larger issues and is a pre-condition for development progress in all countries. This worrisome indicator which is under discussion this week is mentioned in a new United Nations report, The State of Human Development in the Pacific: a Report on Vulnerability and Exclusion in a Time of Rapid Change. The report is being launched days ahead of the SIDS Conference in Samoa. What is it? Life expectancy. It provides a simple measure of the overall health status of a population. And the picture in the Pacific is not good. An average person in New Zealand or Australia can expect to live about 10 years longer than a person... Read more

A new global framework for disaster risk reduction

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Barbados: Members of the community doing practical exercises in disaster management. Photo: UNDP in Barbados & the OECS

It is well recognized that disasters are an impediment to the eradication of poverty, so it is no surprise that the upcoming Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) include indicators related to disaster risk reduction. However, while most attention is on the post-2015 development framework, momentum is also building towards a new framework for disaster risk reduction – a successor to the Hyogo Framework for Action (HFA). Adopted by 168 countries in 2005, the HFA pledges to reduce the impact of disasters through prevention, preparedness, and capacities for emergency response. Over the last nine years, the HFA has been instrumental in galvanizing global support for tackling disasters. And the results during this time have been significant. Countries in all regions have made progress and some have truly transformed the way they undertake development, mainstreaming risk reduction throughout institutions, policies and programmes. However, while a great deal of progress has been made, especially in disaster preparedness, other areas, such as risk-governance, still require a concerted push. In July, I had the opportunity to participate in the first preparation meeting for the successor of the HFA (dubbed ‘HFA2’), and its adoption in March 2015 at the World Conference on Disaster Risk Reduction. Organized by UNISDR... Read more

Haiyan six months on: A promising start on the long road to recovery

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Typhoon Haiyan affected more than 142,000 fishermen, with some areas losing 95 percent of their commercial boats and equipment. Photo: UNDP in the Philippines

Six months after one of the strongest tropical storms ever recorded on earth slammed into the Philippines last November, killing more than 6,200 people and displacing over 4 million, the physical signs of recovery are increasingly visible. Roads have been cleared, over 120,000 households have received help to rebuild, and nearly all the damaged schools and hospitals have re-opened. While the costs of the disaster are better understood after six months, the human suffering continues to take its toll. People who were already tackling extreme poverty, including many living in the Eastern Visayas region, now face a future without the security of their farms, employment opportunities, or long-term economic prospects. Rebuilding these communities could span a decade or more. While the response of the international community to the immediate emergency has been generous, post-disaster recovery requires long term engagement. Recovery is about more than the vital task of building homes and structures. It is also about building greater resilience to natural hazards. The Philippines, battered by an average of 20 large-scale storms a year, is no exception. Investments in preparedness for these events and adaptation to ongoing risks are vital. Improved infrastructure design, for example, can help save lives and protect... Read more

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