Our Perspective

disaster

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

How can we save the world’s forests?

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Clearing forests is a significant source of greenhouse gas emissions. Borjomi Forest in Georgia. Photo: UNDP

The crucial role of forests in tackling climate change is high on the agenda this week at the World Economic Forum (WEF) in Davos. Conserving the world’s forests is critical to climate change mitigation. While forests absorb carbon dioxide, when cleared or degraded they become a significant source of greenhouse gas emissions. Over 13 million hectares of forests are still being cleared each year. That’s an area around three times the size of Switzerland. This destruction is contributing up to 20% of global greenhouse gas emissions, and threatens our common future. With a global climate agreement scheduled to be finalised at the Paris Climate Conference at the end of the year, keeping up the momentum on forest conservation is essential. We also need to maintain and build upon the progress made last year, including at the UN Climate Summit in New York hosted by UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon in September, in the COP 20 “Lima Call to Action,” and through the deforestation-free supply chain commitments made by many corporations. I was proud to be involved in the Climate Summit’s forests action area, which UNDP facilitated and which saw the launch of the New York Declaration on Forests (PDF). This process... 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

Ebola: Recovery needs to start now

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A worker poses for the camera at a dressing station in Freetown, Sierra Leone. (Photo: Lesley Wright/UNDP)

The social and economic impact of the Ebola crisis will be felt up to a decade after the disease has been eradicated. In Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone, virtually every sector has suffered as a result of the epidemic. For example, based on UNDP’s most recent estimates, Liberia could experience negative GDP growth for the first time since the war ended 11 years ago, reaching -1.8 percent. In all three countries, air traffic is down, mining and palm oil concessions have been badly affected, and so have farming and small trade, crippled by quarantines and movement restrictions. The crisis is impairing the ability of governments to raise taxes and invest in infrastructure and social services. For instance, more than 800,000 women will give birth during the next 12 months. But with the severe shortage of health facilities and professionals, compounded by the fear of getting infected in a clinic, many could die without proper care. Millions of children are out of school because their classes have shut down. Whereas life before Ebola was starting to improve following years of crisis and political conflict, people are now struggling again with uncertainty. Besides the personal loss, the immense majority are finding it difficult... 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

Collaboration must be at the heart of climate action and sustainable development

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UNDP Administrator Helen Clark visits a fair organized by the Small Grants Programme of the Global Environment Facility and UNDP at the COP20 in Lima, Peru. (Photo: UNDP/Peru)

We have unprecedented opportunities – now and in 2015 – to strengthen co-operation on tackling climate change. On the one hand current climate change talks in Lima should advance negotiations on the new global climate deal, to be agreed in Paris at the end of 2015. On the other hand, discussions are currently taking place at the UN in New York for a “post-2015” development agenda, in which tackling environmental degradation will be prominent. Also, at Sendai in Japan next March, the UN 3rd World Conference on Disaster Reduction will address issues directly related to adaptation to climate change. These are crucial opportunities, since climate change poses a pressing challenge for advancing poverty reduction in developing countries. Also, the most recent report by the international scientific advisory panel on climate change, known as the IPCC, reminds us that the poorest and most vulnerable people bear the brunt of the impacts of climate change. Meeting this challenge head on will require collaboration across the public and private sectors and the full engagement of civil society and indigenous peoples. From my work as Administrator of UNDP, an organization which supports more than 140 countries to design and implement their own solutions to climate... 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

Cambodia turns climate change crisis into opportunity

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Ms. Khel Khem, a member of the Older People Association Bak Amrek village of Battambang, shows how she adapted her home garden to floods. Photo: UNDP Cambodia

Cambodia is ranked among the top 10 countries most vulnerable to climate change. This is not only due to climate risks, but also to lack of capacity to adapt and respond.  Eighty percent of the population lives in rural areas with limited knowledge, infrastructure and opportunities; and more than 70 percent rely on agriculture that is heavily sensitive to climate change, putting the country’s economic and social development at risk. Cambodia’s efforts to fight climate change began in 1995 when the country ratified the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) and later acceded to the Kyoto Protocol in 2002. In 2006, the Cambodia national adaptation programme of action to climate change (NAPA) was developed. In late 2013, the country launched its first-ever comprehensive Climate Change Strategic Plan, recognizing climate change as a challenge to development requiring urgent and joint attention. This is the highest political commitment in combating climate change in Cambodia. Now the crucial question is “What’s next?” – How will the strategic plan be effectively implemented in order to achieve its vision and strategic goals? We, at UNDP, have been providing technical and financial support to the Government to develop climate change policies and plans. One of... Read more

Bhutan continues to face the risk of glacial lake flooding

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The film crew seen here during the production of the 'Himalayan Meltdown' documentary. Photo: UNDP Asia/Pacific

In Bhutan, about 5,000 meters above sea level, meltwater trickles down from glaciers to form some of the greatest rivers in the world and provide freshwater and energy to nearly 1.3 billion people throughout the Himalayas. But with the effect of climate change, glaciers are melting too fast, jeopardizing an economy mostly based on hydropower production, but also endangering lives. Water can accumulate in unstable lakes on the glaciers, and when these lakes become too heavy, their natural barriers burst , setting loose a massive volume of water, boulders and mud, causing significant damages in the valleys below. Between 2008 and 2013, the Government – with our support and financial assistance from the Least Developed Countries Fund, the Government of Austria and the World Wildlife Fund – successfully lowered the water level of Lake Thorthormi, a glacial lake that ranked as one of the most dangerous in the country. Bhutanese men and women trekked to an altitude of 4,500 meters above sea level to excavate moraine and rocks in near-freezing water against the strikingly cruel contrast of beautiful ice-capped Himalayan Mountains. It is an image that vividly depicts the unfairness associated with climate change and the fact that these communities who... 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

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