Private sector and disaster risk reduction: Bedfellows after all?

by Thin Lei Win | @thinink | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Friday, 7 June 2013 09:04 GMT

An aerial view shows a resort island at the Male Atoll, on Dec. 7, 2009. Maldives is home to some 400,000 islanders, whose livelihood from fishing and tourism is being hit by climate change. REUTERS/Reinhard Krause

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* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

There has been concern the private sector is dragging its feet on reducing the risks of disasters, but the tourism sector shows it is leading the charge

BANGKOK (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - For years, the public sector and civil society have agonised over how to get the private sector, with its billions in cash and millions of employees, involved in reducing the risks of disasters and adapting to climate change impacts such as rising sea levels.

There’s been much handwringing that the private sector is too much about profit and not enough about lives. Based on my experience this week, however, I’d say the private sector is one industry at least at the forefront of disaster risk reduction (DRR).

On Monday, I hosted a roundtable discussion at the Asia Pacific launch of the 2013 Global Assessment Report for Disaster Risk Reduction, the flagship report of UNISDR, the U.N. agency on reducing disaster risks.

The focus was on the tourism sector, which contributes 9 percent to global GDP.

It’s an important sector for many Asian countries, too.

In Maldives, 35 percent of the economy depends on tourism, and one out of five people are directly employed in the sector, said Ahmed Salih, the country’s permanent secretary for the Ministry of Tourism, Arts & Culture and one of the panellists.

So when a devastating tsunami smashed into 13 Asian and African countries on Dec. 26, 2004, including Maldives, the economy tumbled back to what it was eight years before, Salih said.


At just 1.5 metres above sea level, Maldives is known for stunning resorts with luxurious villas that hover above the water. The threat of climate impacts and disasters, however, are forcing it to formulate new guidelines on development, Salih said.

The country is also looking at certifying the hotels based on how prepared they are for disasters, something the Bali Hotel Association (BHA), with more than 100 four- to five-star hotels, has already done.

According to Alexander Kesper, senior advisor of BHA, the Indian Ocean Tsunami was a wake-up call. They developed a toolbox of guidelines and information on how to make hotels ready for tsunamis.

“Everybody said, ‘It’s a fantastic idea. We’re going to do it’, but after one and a half years, nobody did it. Everybody thought their neighbour would be prepared and they didn’t have to do it,” he said.

BHA came up with a certification system through which “tsunami-ready” hotels - those that have implemented the guidelines, including being earthquake ready, and have conducted a successful drill - get a logo, are listed on the scheme’s website and gain a competitive advantage.

So far, 37 hotels are certified and “we can’t keep up with the demand,” Kesper said.


Lothar R. Pehl, the senior vice president of Starwood Hotels and Resorts in Asia Pacific, spoke of the different risks the company looks at for every single hotel they manage, including the specific hazards each country faces.

As one of the biggest hotel chains in the world - Sheraton, St. Regis, Meridien and W are just a few of the brands under Starwood - they could do these extensive risk analyses, but my question was, how about the small hotels?

“There has to be a strong sense of responsibility and personal accountability by the owner of a small hotel towards the safety of his future clients,” he said. “I think it’s important for (small and medium enterprises) to really look at the bigger picture.”

This means thinking twice when you think you’ve found the perfectly secluded beach for a resort, but it’s in a place vulnerable to weather extremes.

Meanwhile, the Pacific Asia Travel Association (PATA), with more than 7,000 members and 40 chapters around the world, announced during the panel that it would become part of UNISDR’s private sector partnership.

According to Bert van Walbeek, chairman of PATA’s Thailand chapter, PATA has already formed rapid response task groups to respond to and prepare for disasters.


Of course, there are still many challenges.

Like Lothar said, “Safety is very expensive”, and it’s going to be an uphill struggle to get small players with tiny profit margins to embark on programmes to reduce risk.

Both the private and public sector are still in their bubbles, too.

Communications need to improve. While it was a refreshing change from many similar panels in the past, in that three out of five panellists were from the private sector, there was almost no one in the audience from the private sector. It might have been a completely different discussion, too, if we had people from more opaque sectors, like for example, the extractive industries.

There are self-interests at play, but perhaps that’s the only thing that could get the world moving on DRR.

As Andrew Maskrey, the lead author of the Global Assessment Report, said at the panel, “The key word is urgency.

“The environment is changing faster than you can adapt, so we now have new hazards, more extreme hazards, things people have never experienced before.”

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