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How can we lower disaster risk? Have a strategy, look for vulnerability and be accountable

by Katie Peters | @katiepetersodi | Overseas Development Institute
Friday, 19 May 2017 12:02 GMT

A rescuer looks for bodies in a destroyed area after flooding and mudslides, caused by heavy rains leading several rivers to overflow, pushing sediment and rocks into buildings and roads, in Mocoa, Colombia April 4, 2017. REUTERS/Jaime Saldarriaga

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

As the world’s governments meet in Mexico to discuss efforts to cut disaster risk, good options for progress exist

When the world’s governments meet in Cancun next week, they will reaffirm their commitment to protecting their citizens from disasters.

Most will likely report to the United Nations International Strategy for Disaster Reduction that they are well on their way towards achieving the first global disaster target of having in place national and local disaster risk reduction strategies by 2020.

The global ambition to make the world safer from disasters by 2030, by delivering the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction (SFDRR), is achievable.

Over the past 10 years a tremendous amount of progress has been made towards helping communities prepare for and respond to floods, earthquakes, drought and other events that threaten their lives and livelihoods.

But a report on the pace of this progress – since the landmark first internationally agreed framework on disaster risk was passed in 2005 – reveals some stark lessons that governments would do well to take seriously if they are to achieve their 2030 ambitions.

I think there are three key areas to be developed:

1. Working towards a coherent strategy

Undertaking lots of activities without a coordinated or coherent strategy to describe how initiatives contribute to a longer-term aim will continue to have short-lived impact.

Evidence from nine countries of varying levels of wealth and disaster experience shows that many were successful in delivering a whole range of activities, from integrating emergency preparedness into school curricula to setting up early warning systems for cyclones.

But what governments haven’t been as good at is understanding how “the whole is more than the sum of its parts”, or the need for an overarching vision so efforts are gauged against their contribution to that goal, and seen as steps on the way to longer-term systemic risk reduction.

2. Understanding exposure and vulnerability

The requirement under the Sendai Framework to track disaster losses and report on them in 2030 provides governments with the impetus to act. But reporting losses does not outweigh the importance of tracking vulnerability and exposure to natural hazards.

Accurately tracking disaster losses is very difficult, but it provides better understanding of people’s exposure and vulnerability to hazards, and thereby offers more in the way of a direction for the future.

It can help to turn our attention to tackling the creation of new risks, such as building homes in risk prone areas, for example, or the destruction of mangroves, which provide natural barriers to coastal hazards.

3. Achieving accountability through risk assessments

Disaster risk reduction is an endeavour that requires input from the whole of society. But to take collective responsibility we need to understand the changing nature of risk and we need intuitions to be transparent and accountable to this information. This can be achieved through publishing risk assessments.

Governments alone cannot achieve a reduction in disaster risk; private companies make choices about where to build and whether to risk-proof buildings. Bringing business, citizens, voluntary groups and others into discussions and strategies in a meaningful and sustained way could help generate collective responsibility for reducing disaster risk.

Publishing risk assessments will provide a foundation for greater awareness of current levels of exposure and help generate the transparency needed to hold decision makers to account for decisions that impact disaster risk.

Great expectations

So what can we expect from Cancun?

Governments attending the Global Platform should consider stepping up a gear in their commitments to protecting their citizens from disasters.

This requires having a disaster risk reduction strategy in place well before 2020; comprehensive and systematic tracking of exposure, vulnerability and disaster loss; and enhanced accountability through collaboration with civil society and the publishing of risk assessments.

Mexico, the host of next week’s meeting, is no stranger to natural disasters. The Mexican government is leading the way in many areas of disaster risk reduction: ensuring disaster and climate change laws are coherent, linking disaster risk reduction plans to national development priorities, and providing municipal level funds for reducing disaster risk.

Yet, even for Mexico, the pace of change needs to be accelerated to deliver on global commitments by 2030.