Governments can take action before disasters strike – it should be a legal requirement they do so

by Emily Wilkinson | Overseas Development Institute
Wednesday, 31 October 2018 16:18 GMT

A man gestures towards a search and rescue team while looking for victims in the earthquake and liquefaction affected Balaroa neighbourhood in Palu, Central Sulawesi, Indonesia, October 11, 2018. REUTERS/Darren Whiteside

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Warnings of floods and major storms get pretty accurate within three days of anticipated impact, and a lot can be done in that timeframe

Emily Wilkinson is a senior research fellow in the Overseas Development Institute (ODI) Risk and Resilience Programme.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report earlier this month warned there will be severe consequences even if warming levels are kept to below 1.5C. But the fact of the matter is we are already seeing these consequences. Worldwide, the humanitarian and economic costs of storms, floods and droughts continue to spiral, but governments are not doing enough to mitigate against this. As we move towards a future where extreme weather events are only likely to increase in number and intensity, it is time for bolder and braver action to avoid the devastating impacts. 

Technology is not the problem: extreme weather is often very predictable. And its impact is by no means inevitable. Hundreds of millions of pounds have gone into supercomputing over the last decade to upgrade weather models around the world, so scientists can warn people of an impending hazard.

But in most countries, nothing gets done until disaster strikes. In many cases, the reason is simply that governments don’t have to.

There is an international agreement to reduce disaster impacts - the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction 2015-2030 -  but unlike the Paris Agreement on reducing carbon emissions, there is no legal obligation for countries to act. The Sendai Framework has no teeth. Surprising as it may seem, most states do not have to protect their citizens from the harmful effects of extreme weather.

In 2008 this changed in Europe. In a landmark case, Budayeva v Russia, the European Court of Human Rights found that the Russian authorities were aware of the risk of mudslides threatening the town of Tyrnauz, the fact that protective infrastructure like mud-retention dams had been damaged (and not repaired), and the need to take preventative action to avoid casualties. Despite these repeated warnings, no action was taken. The town was then hit by a succession of mudslides in which eight people died and many more were injured. The Court found that the European Convention on Human Rights put a “positive obligation on States to take appropriate steps to safeguard the lives of those within their jurisdiction,” which the Russian state had not fulfilled.

These same rights and obligations were considered by a Dutch Appeals Court when it upheld a decision requiring the government to further reduce carbon emissions and a similar result was recently reached in an advisory opinion of the Inter-American Court of Human Rights regarding transboundary environmental harm.

On 1 November 2018, the United Nations General Assembly will consider adopting a binding legal convention on the Protection of Persons in the Event of Disasters, recommended by the Internal Law Commission. This was proposed and rejected last year, pending further consideration, due to concerns about the complicated administrative procedures such laws could create and doubts as to whether there  would be sufficient support from member states.

But the IPCC report raises the stakes – the costs of inaction on greenhouse gas emissions and on acting early to protect people from extreme weather will be extremely high. Rather than leaving it up to states to decide whether to act or not, the UN General Assembly needs now to take on board the International Law Commission’s recommendation for a binding convention to protect people.

It should require states to use the scientific advice that is available and act on it. Warnings of floods and major storms get pretty accurate within three days of anticipated impact, and a lot can be done in that timeframe including evacuating people from high risk areas, tying down roofs with hurricane straps, clearing blocked drains to reduce the amount of flooding in cities. These actions can reduce loss and damage, but all this needs to be planned ahead of time. Greater pressure now needs to be put on governments to do so.

Taking early action seriously will require more money to be spent up front before a disaster, but studies suggest it’s worth it in financial terms – £1 spent upfront is estimated to save at least £5 in responding to a crisis.

Rachael Steller provided input and advice on the legal aspects of this opinion piece.