Q&A with Margareta Wahlström – the importance of building resilience

Delegates from around the world will meet at the UN in Geneva from Nov 17-18 to finalize preparations for the post-2015 framework for disaster risk reduction which will be adopted at the World Conference on Disaster Risk Reduction in Sendai, Japan in March 2015.

Ahead of the two-day preparatory meetings, we interviewed Margareta Wahlström, the Special Representative for Disaster Risk Reduction, on how our understanding of disaster has evolved since the last framework was adopted in 2005, and what the new framework will look like.

In 2015 the world will get a new framework for action on disaster risk reduction, replacing the first Hyogo Framework which was adopted in 2005. In the last decade, we’ve gone from viewing disasters as events to be paid for , to long processes which require a much better understanding of risk. How will the new framework reflect this mind set shift, and translate that shift into recommendations for concrete action?

One of the key achievements of the HFA is to have generated a much better understanding of risk and this understanding will be the foundation on which we will agree the new post-2015 framework for disaster risk reduction. That new understanding is clearly reflected in the action priorities of the draft framework or HFA2. They are: understanding risk; risk governance; investment in social, economic, cultural ,environmental resilience; and, enhancing disaster preparedness, recovery and reconstruction. These priorities – which were developed in consultation with communities and countries over the past three years – will drive action on managing and mitigating risk, as well as building and investing for resilience.

Science was not sufficiently represented in HFA1, could you talk about how this will change in the new framework, and give a few concrete examples of how science can be a much more hands-on actor in not just informing our understanding of risk, but actually be a partner in the implementation of the new framework.

The zero draft of the post-2015 framework includes a strong call for an increased contribution from science and a strengthened evidence base to assist in understanding risk. The scientific and academic community can help by focusing more on the rapidly evolving nature of risk, working closely with all stakeholders to design solutions to help decision makers facing tough trade-offs. They are essential to identify and plan for scenarios which the world has yet to experience.

Can we talk about financial commitments? HFA1 was not sufficiently financed by many countries, and UNISDR depends on voluntary contributions. How can this gap be met for HFA2? Are you hoping that the private sector can fill some of that gap?

Significant progress has been made in spreading a culture of disaster risk reduction thanks to the HFA. Over 140 countries have reported on their progress. There is a decline in mortality due to weather-related events, particularly in Asia. Nonetheless, donor support is low compared with humanitarian aid, despite evidence of the return on investment from disaster risk reduction, notably in India, Bangladesh, China, Indonesia and many countries across Europe. We have reason to be a bit optimistic because most progress can be attributed to countries mobilizing their own resources, with some involvement from the private sector, local communities and local governments. The international financial contribution has been very small and has been more in the form of ideas and knowledge rather than financial transfers. This is a positive sign for the sustainability of the efforts.

Having said that, our hope is that HFA2 will generate more resources for the countries that most need financial and technical support. This would be a significant reinforcement of progress towards sustainable development and a practical channel for adaptation work. Opportunities will arise in 2015 and 2016 when funding for sustainable development initiatives and climate change adaptation will increasingly benefit disaster risk reduction through more pragmatic integration of policies, practices and use of financial resources for implementation. There are examples of how this is happening. For example, the Strategy for Climate and Disaster Resilient Development in the Pacific. The private sector and business interests were largely absent from the discussions around the Hyogo Framework for Action ten years ago and now they are very much on board. They are making recommendations for HFA2 and helping to identify incentives and triggers for the sustainability of investments.

This is a voluntary framework, unlike the UNFCCC. What are the main incentives for commitment and implementation?

The world cannot ignore the numbers and events especially when the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) is telling us that we can expect even more extreme weather events in the years to come as climate change continues. By conservative estimates, economic losses so far this century are probably in the region of $2 trillion. It is clear that our exposure to disasters, including those fuelled by climate change is growing exponentially with rapid urbanization, population growth and demand for manufacturing jobs. The proportion of the world’s GDP exposed to tropical cyclones increased from 3.6% in the 1970s to 4.3% over the last decade. During that time, the absolute value of global GDP exposed to tropical cyclones tripled from $525.7 billion $1.6 trillion. Total expected annual global loss from earthquakes and cyclone wind damage can amount to $180 billion per year and most of this exposure is concentrated in high-income countries. Clearly, every government has an interest in reducing this risk.

The last two years have not been exceptional in terms of disaster events but losses still exceed $100 billion annually. The real guide for the future is what happened in 2011 when recorded losses soared to $380 billion. It was a year which saw a significant spread of disasters across high and middle-income countries. These included the Brazil floods; the New Zealand earthquake; severe storms and tornadoes in the USA ; floods in Thailand; an earthquake in Turkey ; and a typhoon in the Philippines. In the same year, an estimated 260,000 people are thought to have died because of drought complicated by conflict in Somalia.

There has been a lot of discussion around how to connect the dots between this framework, the climate change and post-2015 development agenda. Where are the main areas of potential synergy?

The implementation of the post-2015 framework for disaster risk reduction will be done in synergy with other relevant frameworks including a new agreement on climate change and a new set of sustainable development goals. We do not work in isolation from these processes. UNISDR contributed significantly to the recent UN Climate Summit with a number of major commitments. DRR is a cross-cutting issue for the post-2015 development agenda and an essential feature of sustainable development efforts. These processes on sustainable development, climate change and disaster risk provide the international community with a unique opportunity for coherence and alignment across policies, practices and partnerships for implementation, something which has been emphasized over and over again by those who have engaged in the post-2015 framework consultations.

Editor’s note: The International Council for Science, sponsor of Road to Paris, is an organizing partner of the UN Science and Technology Major Group for the World Conference on Disaster Risk Reduction. 

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