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Start managing disaster threat or risk development gains - experts

by Megan Rowling | @meganrowling | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Monday, 16 March 2015 14:44 GMT

Survivors of Typhoon Haiyan wait for transportation out of a devastated part of Tanauan November 16, 2013. REUTERS/Damir Sagolj

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The rising cost of disasters threatens to destroy infrastructure and reverse social gains, officials at UN meeting warn

SENDAI, Japan, March 16 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - When Typhoon Haiyan sent storm surges and high winds across the islands of the central Philippines in November 2013, it wrecked homes, schools, hospitals and roads, as well as killing more than 6,000 people.

"The investment that was put into the community - from the point of view of the families that were affected - was all gone, and we have to rebuild again," said Dinky Soliman, Secretary of the Philippines' Department of Social Welfare and Development.

Her country has since learned the importance of using hazard maps to plan infrastructure better to withstand storms or earthquakes, Soliman said during a debate on resilient development at a U.N. conference in Sendai.

But even with good construction standards in place, corruption could still undermine safety, she warned. For example, when an earthquake hit Bohol Island in 2013, substandard steel products used in homes and other buildings were blamed for the deaths of hundreds of people, she added.

The Sendai summit is due on Wednesday to adopt a new global plan to reduce the risks of disasters - and protecting development investments across the board is a key aim.

"By firmly placing disaster risk reduction at the center of the design and implementation of public policy, development becomes risk-informed," said Helen Clark, head of the United Nations Development Programme, as she launched a report on Monday about how best to make that happen.

UNDP is planning an initiative that will bring governments and their development partners together with businesses and communities over 10 years in 50 countries to consider and address risks in development planning and disaster recovery from the national level down to the local level.

The agency already collaborates with businesses and aid groups to cut disaster risk - for example, working with logistics firm Deutsche Post DHL in some 25 countries to get airports ready for disasters.

Since 2012, UNDP also has been involved in a joint effort with the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) to improve domestic legislation around disaster risk reduction.

But the report points out that passing legislation does not automatically result in lower levels of disaster risk. "Many plans are not implemented, and legislation goes unenforced," it said. Extra resources and capacity are often needed to put laws into practice, it said.


One of the sticking points in the negotiations toward a Sendai disaster risk reduction agreement has been where sorely needed funding will come from.

Some developing states, such as Bolivia, argue they cannot be expected to meet new goals to substantially reduce disaster deaths or economic losses without an increase in aid from richer nations.

According to research from the Overseas Development Institute and the UNDP, spending on disaster risk reduction totalled $13.6 billion between 1991 and 2010, but five times more was spent on emergency response, while spending on post-disaster reconstruction and rehabilitation was almost twice as large.

Cash-strapped developed countries have been largely reluctant to put new financial commitments on the table - although Japan announced on Saturday it would provide $4 billion for disaster prevention and recovery in vulnerable countries over the next four years.

Rachel Kyte, the World Bank's special envoy for climate change, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation that most future development investment would come from resources mobilised domestically, private investment attracted by smart economic policies, and highly leveraged development and climate finance.

But "for the poorest and most vulnerable, for some least developed countries - including some of the poor small island states - the green bond market is not going to be the solution to their resilience," she emphasised.

They will need access to funding from public sources, "and this is a difficult economic time for the donors," she said.


Officials and experts in Sendai say a more joined-up approach is the answer - and many are pinning their hopes on an international conference in July in Addis Ababa that will discuss finance for sustainable development.

"We must do things differently," said Ertharin Cousin, executive director of the World Food Programme. "We must come out of Addis with a package of financial tools that go beyond official development assistance."

Whether protecting the poorest with insurance schemes and social safety nets or changing how farmers grow crops, the approaches used must be affordable and suited to local people's needs, she said.

Didier Burkhalter, Switzerland's minister of foreign affairs, argued that putting money into disaster resilience is "a safe investment with excellent returns".

But much funding for disaster risk reduction to date has come from humanitarian budgets after disasters, when attention spans are short and the means to build resilience vanish quickly, he noted.

"We need to change our perspective from managing disasters to managing disaster risks," he said.

(Reporting by Megan Rowling; editing by Laurie Goering)

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