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What's new about the Sendai plan for disaster risk reduction?

by Kashmala Kakakhel | LEAD Pakistan
Tuesday, 17 March 2015 03:51 GMT

United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon delivers a speech during tje opening ceremony of the third United Nations World Conference on Disaster Risk Reduction (WCDRR) in Sendai, northern Japan, March 14, 2015, in this photo taken by Kyodo. REUTERS/Kyodo

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

Reports from conference that subjective targets have been agreed without specific indicators are disappointing

“Acts of God” have been around since time immemorial. Every major global disaster that occurs - whether an earthquake, flood, tsunami or drought - provides proof of humankind’s collective failure to systematically confront such events. 

In 2005, as part of a global effort to shift disaster risk management efforts from post-disaster response to preparedness and prevention, 168 countries signed a voluntary 10-year disaster risk reduction (DRR) framework known as the Hyogo Framework for Action (HFA). This is due for renewal this week at the Third World DRR Conference in Sendai, Japan. The new deal is expected to cover global progress on DRR to 2030.

How much has the new DRR framework moved on?

The original HFA aspired to substantially reduce losses from major disasters globally. In principle, it had five priorities for action, including (i) making DRR a national and local priority with a strong basis for implementation, (ii) assessing and monitoring risk and increasing early warning capabilities, (iii) using knowledge sharing and education to build a culture of safety and resilience, (iv) reducing the underlying risk factors, and (v) strengthening disaster preparedness and response.

But a cursory read of the text reveals that while in broad strokes much was said about what needs to be done and who does it – at global, regional and national level - there were no details on how or when. The HFA was short on the specifics required to be implementable. Not surprisingly, progress has been mixed.  

It is therefore important that the post-2015 DRR framework goes further, driving more progress at a quicker pace. The draft text of the new framework, the result of three years of preparatory work, is only partially encouraging.

In many ways, not much has changed. The aspired outcome remains basically the same, and instead of five there are four reframed priority areas. These include: (i) understanding disaster risk, (ii) strengthening governance, (iii) investing in DRR for building resilience, and (iv) enhancing disaster preparedness for effective response and to build back better.

Much more encouraging is the decision to include seven global targets to measure DRR. These include (i) a substantial reduction in disaster mortality, (ii) reducing the number of people affected by a disaster per capita, (iii) reducing direct economic losses as a percentage of GDP, (iv) reducing disaster damage to critical infrastructure, (v) increasing the number of countries with national and local DRR strategies, (vi) increasing international cooperation and support to mobilise resources, and (vii) improving access to disaster risk information and early warning systems.

Disappointingly, the draft text that was taken to Sendai for each target defined two options from which one would be chosen: one in which a quantitative target was defined, and a more subjectively worded alternative. This meant for example, on early warning systems, there was still ambiguity about what percentage of population coverage to achieve by 2030.

Based on the latest reports from the conference, all indicators except one on international cooperation which includes finance, have been agreed. It is frustrating to see that the subjective options have been considered, with no commitments to quantified indicators.

This simply signals a lack of commitment. It almost wouldn’t matter how aggressive the targets are, as long as they are quantified. However, if countries are not even ready to quantify targets, remaining comfortable with phrases such as ‘substantially reduce’ and ‘substantially enhance’, then what is the point of a new framework and how does it really go beyond what was agreed to 10 years ago?

Furthermore, while there is a set of activities linked to each of the four new priority areas, these come across as a broad laundry list, with very little prioritisation of the most critical activities, or very little specificity on how and when developing countries should go about implementing them. Again, the draft text falls short on specifics, and given the need for consensus in such things, is likely to remain that way.

Where to from here?

In the end, the classical issue still remains. Developed countries want to focus the framework on increasing the ownership of developing countries to strengthen their disaster management through improved governance systems.

Meanwhile, developing countries continue to frame the problem in the context of obtaining increased financial support. Many other stakeholders want to further expand what the agreement covers, incorporating more discussion on related issues such as climate change and conflict.

This lack of focus and specificity is the real issue. For the new DRR framework, it is not critical to debate which point of view is right. The key to success is to understand that reducing disaster risk will be done not by being broad-based or consensus-driven, but by ruthlessly prioritising the actions that will help to reduce the impact of the next major disaster that hits - not just by 2030, but in 2016, 2017 or 2018.

To make the new DRR framework a genuine success, that is the question it must answer.