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Turning vague language into heroic acts

by Megan Rowling | @meganrowling | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Wednesday, 11 March 2015 10:55 GMT

An unidentified man, who calls himself Mangetsu-man (Mr. Full Moon), pauses as he cleans Nihonbashi bridge using a broom with a volunteer, while clad in a costume featuring a full moon for a head, in Tokyo August 25, 2014. While most superheroes fight crime, for one such Japanese hero the enemy is garbage and his "super" weapons are a broom, a dust pan and an army of volunteers who have joined his mission. REUTERS/Issei Kato

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

Can a new disaster risk plan lead a 2015 sustainable development charge?

Did you know that governments will meet in northeast Japan later this week to finish negotiating and adopt a new global plan to protect you better from disasters?

If not, why should you care?

The draft agreement - which will replace the 10-year "Hyogo Framework for Action" to reduce disaster risk - has been criticised for being too vague and written in language that's hard for non-experts to take on board.

Others have said it doesn't have strong enough links to the other two main deals due to be done later this year: a new set of global development goals and a global pact to tackle climate change.

But despite the griping, most experts agree on one thing: the disaster risk reduction conference in Sendai from March 14 to 18 needs to succeed to set the tone for the rest of this year, which is a crucial one on the road to ensuring a safer, fairer and more prosperous future for the world's poor and vulnerable people.

Announcing plans to attend the conference in Japan, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon noted last week that "sustainability begins in Sendai". This year, "the world must find solutions by reaching agreements on disaster risk management, long-term sustainable development goals and climate change", he said.

The head of the U.N. Office for Disaster Risk Reduction, Margareta Wahlström, told me earlier this year she was confident Sendai would produce an agreement.

Nonetheless it has been harder to get there than some had hoped. Heading into the conference, around 30 percent of the text remains to be negotiated, including thorny issues like how to set targets to measure progress and how to boost funding.

Just one day - this Friday - has been officially allocated to straighten out these sticky issues, and British officials are talking down what the discussions are likely to achieve.

"We now need to be a little bit more realistic and temper our expectations about what language we can get in Sendai, and what we can use that language for to move the debate on the other global policy forums that are going alongside," said Ursula Antwi-Boasiako, a policy adviser with the Department for International Development.

The draft text as it stands is "not sufficient" to bring coherence across policy agendas in climate change, development and disaster risk reduction, and the UK government sees Sendai as a "first stop on a rather long journey" to integrate those areas, she told an event hosted by the Overseas Development Institute (ODI) in London last week.

Others were less diplomatic about the lack of strong ties. Lindsey Jones, an ODI researcher, said that while the Sendai text recognises that climate-related risks are changing, it contains "nothing" on the substance of how to connect the three big agreements this year.

Neither does it refer to the special report on extreme weather risks issued by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change nor its flagship assessment report on climate science and climate change impacts issued in the past few years, he noted.


"There is still a reluctance within the UNISDR to focus on climate change," said Harjeet Singh, manager for resilience and climate change with ActionAid International.

He argued it was "shocking" that the Sendai framework does not mention the U.N.'s fledgling $10 billion Green Climate Fund as a potential source of financing for disaster risk reduction, nor an international mechanism to deal with the losses and damage caused by climate change, established at U.N. climate talks in Warsaw in 2013.

Three days after the ODI event, the UNISDR issued a statement pointing out that "climate-related disasters now dominate disaster risk management".

Wahlström said that while 70 percent of disaster deaths are caused by earthquakes, climate-linked disasters now account for over 80 percent of all disaster events and "contribute enormously to economic losses and short- and long-term population displacement".

The UNISDR described the Sendai agreement as "one of three mutually supportive processes which will be decided this year as part of the overall post-2015 development agenda".

The head of ODI's climate and environment programme, Tom Mitchell, said seven targets proposed for measuring disaster reduction progress in the Sendai agreement - yet to be agreed - are "a significant step forward" in providing specificity. Some are coherent with what is being put forward on disasters within the Sustainable Development Goals, which governments will debate in September, he added.

The Sendai outcome becomes "a lens through which you can test and look at these other processes," he said. The challenge now is to overcome the tensions between international politics and what's needed on the ground.

"Risk reduction will not be achieved through small, standalone projects, through international public cooperation or development assistance transfers," Mitchell said. "It will be achieved by integrating risk reduction into large-scale investment flows, primarily of the private sector."

Ben Wisner, a research fellow at Oberlin College, noted that the "flawed" Hyogo Framework for Action, adopted in 2005, had not been strong or clear, but governments and civil society had still done a great deal with it to strengthen disaster prevention and response.

Even vague language coming out of Sendai could be used as a cue for "heroic acts by everyday heroes to protect communities, the Earth and the cosmos".

"There is life after Sendai," he said.

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