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Is it such a bad thing disaster talks got political?

by Harjeet Singh | harjeet11 | ActionAid International- India
Friday, 20 March 2015 00:35 GMT

Residents hold on to a floating plastic cover in a neighbourhood flooded by the Acre river, after weeks of heavy rainfall, in Rio Branco, Acre state, Brazil, March 4, 2015. REUTERS/Odairl Leal

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

The politicisation of the disaster risk reduction negotiations in Sendai will be positive in the long term

Many of you who were in the Japanese city of Sendai this week must be suffering like me from the post-conference blues. After the intense negotiations in the final days, it is time to take stock of what we have achieved by developing the 15-year Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction (DRR).

For me, there are three things that stand out from the conference, which impressively attracted 187 states:

1. Agreed global targets will be ineffective unless complemented by robust indicators and national ambition

This is the first time global targets have been created in the area of risk reduction, which clearly form the nucleus of the framework. These seven targets, to be achieved by 2030 are:

Substantially reducing global disaster mortality, the number of affected people, economic losses in relation to global GDP, damage to critical infrastructure and disruption of basic services; and substantially enhancing the number of countries with national and local DRR strategies by 2020, international cooperation to developing countries, and the availability of and access to multi-hazard early warning systems.

But by compromising on proposed numbers and percentages during negotiations, and replacing them with “substantially” reducing or enhancing, the targets look ambiguous and are open to different interpretations.

The ray of hope is the proposed process for setting up an intergovernmental working group in the U.N. General Assembly session in September 2015 to develop indicators to measure global progress.

These will be developed in conjunction with the work of the inter-agency expert group developing indicators on the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), with the involvement of “relevant stakeholders”. This is an opportunity for civil society to get involved with the global process and ensure the indicators are meaningful.

As a next step, we also need to build pressure back home so that countries set ambitious national targets and strong indicators to achieve the global targets in the framework.

2. Increased support from developed countries for the successful implementation of the framework is a must

The resistance by developing countries to agree on quantitative targets for reducing disaster impacts and increasing preparedness efforts was undoubtedly linked to the support required to achieve them.

Right from the beginning of negotiations, rich countries refused to agree to increase their support to developing countries. They ignored the fact that close to 90 percent of disasters we now face are weather-related. The role of human-induced climate change in the increasing trend of these disasters has been confirmed unequivocally by scientists.    

International cooperation remained a sticking point until the very end of the negotiations, and rich countries finally did not agree to any additional and predictable funding support.

Developing countries, such as Vanuatu and the Philippines - which are being hit by unprecedentedly intense and frequent climatic shocks and stresses - are struggling to cope with the impacts. They need more resources to strengthen their infrastructure, improve their communication and early warning systems, and increase the skills and capacities of their people.

In Sendai, rich countries also fought tooth and nail to block the provision of technology transfer to developing countries but finally agreed to it on concessional terms, which will still be a burden for many poor countries.

As the Sendai framework remains a non-binding agreement like its predecessor, rich countries can easily get away without concrete commitments.

However, as per the “common but differentiated responsibilities” (CBDR) principle under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), they are obligated to assist poor countries in dealing with worsening climatic disasters.

We need to recognise there's a lot of commonality between DRR and climate change adaptation interventions. Efforts must be made to link the two processes in terms of planning and funding mechanisms to avoid duplication of efforts and resources.

The U.N. Office for Disaster Risk Reduction (UNISDR) and the Adaptation Committee under the UNFCCC must come together and link implementation and financing vehicles, such as the Green Climate Fund, with the Sendai framework.

Similarly, national governments need to establish clear mechanisms, such as commissions or joint committees, bringing together disaster management and environmental departments to develop resilience strategies linking adaptation, risk reduction and development.

3. The politicisation of the DRR framework is good in the long term

Several of my civil society colleagues were disturbed and frustrated with the highly political discussions and deeply divided position among countries in Sendai. It may be normal for people who follow climate change negotiations, but for the action-oriented DRR community who are champions of implementation, it is a rare sight.

But I do feel that somehow, along the way, the DRR community has become too engrossed with implementation and has invested very little in influencing policies.

Politics leads to political will - which is seriously lacking in the sector - and therefore the issue received limited attention. Primarily because of this reason, in the last 10 years, we saw the least progress on tackling the underlying causes of risks and vulnerability.

The politics climate change has brought into the picture is therefore a welcome addition.  The climate change community regularly deals with the vocabulary of equity, justice, fairness, ambition and accountability. And it doesn’t shy away from asking questions such as who is causing harm to whom, and who should pay to avert the crisis and compensate for the loss and damage caused?

In that regard, I welcome the politicisation of the DRR discussions. It is high time the DRR community shed its hesitation and started demanding strong action from governments, the private sector and others, and holding them accountable.

Besides the three main takeaways, I should also highlight that in the final agreement we lost all reference to the issue of conflict.

However, we did get a few golden nuggets: protecting and promoting human rights; recognising climate change as one of the drivers of disaster risk; strong language on enhancing health care and health systems; and the involvement of civil society in the planning and implementation of the framework.

Now that the UNISDR has steered this challenging process to its conclusion, I urge national governments to use the Sendai framework effectively to build resilience for all.