Interview with Margareta Wahlström, Assistant Secretary-General for Disaster Risk Reduction

Margareta Wahlström, Assistant Secretary-General for Disaster Risk Reduction

20 November 2009 – Last November UN chief Ban Ki-moon appointed Margareta Wahlström as his Special Representative to step up action and global cooperation on disaster risk reduction, as climate change steadily increases the number and intensity of natural disasters worldwide. She leads the Geneva-based Secretariat for the International Strategy for Disaster Reduction (ISDR), which promotes greater awareness of the importance of disaster reduction in order to build more resilient communities and reduce the human, social, economic and environmental losses due to disasters. Among her previous posts, the Swedish national has served as the deputy UN envoy in Afghanistan, the UN Special Coordinator for Humanitarian Assistance to Tsunami-affected Communities, and UN Deputy Emergency Relief Coordinator.

UN News Centre: How does the ISDR assist countries in reducing the risks associated with natural disasters?

Margareta Wahlström: During the first UN International Decade on Natural Disaster Reduction (IDNDR) in the 1990s, the focus was very much on building knowledge. When the ISDR was established nearly 10 years ago, the focus became much more on people and how to create change. We are using the Hyogo Framework for Action [global blueprint for disaster risk reduction efforts for 2005-2015] to advise Governments and organizations on how to assess and reduce risks through planning, training, and better public education. All of these things canWe can expect more extreme weather events, more water and more drought situations. help individual citizens, organizations and Governments to observe the environment better and understand what we can control and probably what we cannot control, but can reduce the impact of.

UN News Centre: Are countries more receptive to this now?

Margareta Wahlström: There have been two major paradigm shifts. The first one resulted from the 2004 tsunami. The tsunami brought home to people around the world that even though they were geographically distant, they could be touched. Even in some European countries, the tsunami had a significant impact on Governments’ efforts to build much better crisis management systems.

It [tsunami] was also something that happened in the media, in people’s face. The enormous tragedy that happened there brought home that there are many things that can, and must, be done. And immediately after that, the Kobe conference happened, which generated the Hyogo Framework for Action. It wasn’t planned, obviously, but it became the impetus for a much stronger strategic framework than probably otherwise would have emerged.

The second big shift is the very strong focus on climate change and the climate risks, since 80 to 90 per cent of all disasters are related to weather, water – too much water, too little water. And when you begin to look at how to adapt and adjust to the changing climate, risk reduction is the tried and tested methodology which is already well known. So that was the second impetus to look at and better understand risk as a factor that impacts social-economic development for countries.

UN News Centre: What practical steps can countries and communities take to minimize the loss of life and damage during a disaster?

Margareta Wahlström: It’s knowing that disasters do happen, understanding and assessing the risks, and assessing how much resources you have to avoid them. There are simple measures communities and local governments can take, such as not building or rebuilding a bridge or school close to a river which floods every year. It’s having an awareness about earthquakes – that it’s not the earthquake that kills people, it’s the buildings – and having drills and assembly places and being prepared for dealing with the impact.

And if you move up the ladder to national governments – knowing the risks and planning for the risks; and making investments that pre-empt potential future costs to disasters; making sure that schools, hospitals, and public infrastructure meet certain safety standards. All these are very concrete issues that countries are increasingly taking on.

If you look at Indonesia, India and China, they are very disaster-prone countries that also have resources to take these measures. You can find many communities and governments that can speak to their successes. Iran, which is extremely disaster prone, particularly to earthquakes, has just initiated a large programme to ensure that all schools are assessed for safety in order to protect schoolchildren and staff from unsafe buildings. This is happening in many countries around the world.

UN News Centre: What are the priorities in the first few hours after a disaster strikes?

Margareta Wahlström: The priority in the first few hours is of course to make sure that people get immediate help, and they will get that from their own communities… knowing who is injured, where people are, making sure that there is an organized plan to identify people’s location. There is also first aid and rescue if it’s necessary to pull people out of buildings. And then quickly organizing for the care of people, not only their material needs but also other needs.

These first few hours do not need to be confusing. If you have a well prepared community, they will know what to do and quickly come to the rescue of those that are injured and maybe even killed. If it’s a major emergency, then as the hours and even days pass, there is assistance coming from outside these communities. But those first few hours are really crucial for the stability of the rescue effort.

UN News Centre: What are some examples of countries that were prepared and fared well in the face of a disaster, and others that did not?

Margareta Wahlström: The classic example in terms of countries that have worked hard to reduce the impact of their natural vulnerability is Bangladesh, a low-lying country that is subject to annual cyclones, and where some 300,000 people were lost in a cyclone in 1970. But over the decades, there has been a lot of work put into cyclone shelters, preparedness of the population, early warning systems and rescue efforts, so that in today’s cyclones, regrettably, maybe a few thousand people die, but nothing like what happened 30 years ago.

The other one that is very often cited is Cuba. Every year hurricanes strike Cuba, and very often we compare it with one of its neighbours, Haiti, which is such a vulnerable country. Extremely good preparedness and evacuation of people in anticipation of hurricanes has meant very minimal loss of life in Cuba. The physical destruction has also been quite minimal because they tie down roofs of houses and make sure that the physical infrastructure is as protected as possible. Haiti has been extremely hard hit by hurricanes because it has not been able, with all its conflict and extreme poverty, to organize the same preparedness and anticipation.

And we have many small countries that aren’t necessarily in the headlines everyday but that can successfully keep their populations safe. But then there are very rich countries that, for reasons that are not necessarily linked to their wealth and their ability to be prepared but more to institutional issues, have not been able to do that. The classic example is Hurricane Katrina, during which there was a surprising lack of functioning of systems. The United States Government is now looking into these types of issues.

Similarly, the earthquake that hit Kobe, Japan, almost 15 years ago had a shocking impact on a highly sophisticated, urban area. After that, the Japanese Government has become one of the prime examples of governments that have worked extremely hard in a determined manner to ensure that the country is safer.

Margareta Wahlström visits Sri Lanka in the wake of the 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami

UN News Centre: How has ISDR been helping countries in Asia which are very prone to disasters in terms of mitigation and risk reduction?

Margareta Wahlström: It is probably our single most active region. We’ve been deeply involved in Japan for the past 15, 20 years on all areas of risk reduction. When it comes to these highly disaster-prone countries that had emergencies such as with the tsunami, one of the areas that we were deeply involved in was to strengthen the early warning systems. We worked with many other organizations, not least the Indian Ocean Commission, a UNESCO-affiliated organization that worked on the technical side of the early warning system, whereas an organization like ours works on the social side, on how to connect the warning signals from the technology to the communities and make sure that they react appropriately.

UN News Centre: How will climate change affect disaster risks in the future?

Margareta Wahlström: In the long term, it’s not very clear. More research needs to be done. But as far as we can judge now, and based on what the IPCC [Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change] has already told us, we can expect more extreme weather events, more water and more drought situations. I think that those of us that have worked with disasters for a long time have already seen these extremes developing.

We are getting wealthier as a world, so the economic impact of disasters is increasing. We are also living in more sophisticated, very large urban areas where more and more people are converging. They are growing so fast that local authorities do not have the capacity to increase the resilience of the cities as quickly as they are growing. You can see very large cities like Manila in the Philippines and Mumbai in India that are flooding every year or several times in a year. This is because the drainage systems are not good and houses are being developed on very vulnerable ground. We have landslides in major cities because houses are built on unstable ground that should not be built on.

UN News Centre: What do you want to see emerge from the Copenhagen climate change summit in December?

Margareta Wahlström: What I really hope comes out of Copenhagen, whether we have a legally binding agreement or not, is a determined sense by world leaders that they have to continue to pursue practical action and to provide strong support for the collaboration that is required to move forward. And, above all, not to let up until they have hopefully within a very short time frame a legally binding agreement.

UN News Centre: Growing up did you think that you would be working in the field you are today? If not, what were your career aspirations?

Margareta Wahlström: Actually, my first career choice was to become a librarian, which was my dream for many years. But then I became interested in international affairs. I don’t think that I could have imagined this particular trajectory but I knew very strongly that I wanted to work with international issues in one shape or another.

UN News Centre: What has been your most challenging post so far?

Margareta Wahlström: I think my most challenging but also the most rewarding so far was when I was in Afghanistan for over two years. It was a very positive period, in its complexity and the multitude of issues, and I learned a lot from the Afghans and from the situation there. I felt it was a very positive moment to be there. I hope that Afghanistan will make it back to that kind of situation of hope again as soon as possible.

UN News Centre: What do you enjoy most about your current job?

Margareta Wahlström: What I do enjoy very much is working directly with countries on finding solutions to their resources and their aspirations to deal with disaster issues. I think that we are right now in a very interesting period because… working with disasters you see the same situation repeated over and over again. You very quickly come to understand that it doesn’t have to be like that. You can do things to reduce the impact of disasters, and you can move people out of harm’s way.

So it’s getting those that can influence, the citizens themselves and governments, to move from a situation where disasters are always surprises, to taking a view that we can plan for disasters and therefore reduce their costs and impact. That’s what I find particularly enjoyable and interesting with my current position, to move that agenda forward.

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