Interview with Margareta Wahlström, Special Representative for Disaster Risk Reduction

Special Representative for Disaster Risk Reduction, Margareta Wahlström. UN Photo

19 November 2012 – The importance of reducing exposure to disasters took on a personal hue for the Secretary-General’s Special Representative for Disaster Risk Reduction, Margareta Wahlström.

The envoy had been due to present the Secretary-General's Report on the Implementation of the International Strategy for Disaster Reduction to the UN General Assembly in the first week of November – but the destruction caused by Hurricane Sandy in the New York area, where UN Headquarters is located, put paid to that.

Amidst the re-scheduling of her briefing to the Assembly, Ms. Wahlström was able to speak with the UN News Centre about the importance of local communities in disaster response, how countries’ attitudes on climate change have evolved over the past five years, and why women and girls should be encouraged to take more prominent roles when it comes to responding to natural disasters.

UN News Centre: In the wake of Hurricane Sandy, you were able to present the Secretary-General's Report on the Implementation of the International Strategy for Disaster Reduction to Member States. What are the report’s findings?

Margareta Wahlström: This report is actually an annual report to the General Assembly based on what countries are reporting as progress, but also based on what we see. It really aims to capture what are the disaster trends, and what are the costs, and what harm does it inflict on countries and on people.

[The report] also wants to instil a sense that there is a bit of progress here and there. One of theThere is no evidence that to be prepared you need a lot of money. Some of the poorest countries in the world that are used to living with disasters have really made enormous progress. main things that has happened since 2005 is that many more countries have early warning systems that work – and early warning systems save lives.

There is also a lot better preparedness in many countries. New York in itself is a good example, but also East Asia, where each time there is a typhoon approaching there are massive evacuations if deemed necessary, and, really, a sense of getting people out of harm’s way.

There has been progress in these last five years, particularly in the general understanding of what disasters cause. The main obstacle for disaster preparation is to recognize they are not events that just happen – they are things you have to plan for because you may not know exactly when it will happen, but every country in the world knows now it will happen at some point. So, how to ensure that societies organize to mitigate the impact, I think, is the key issue, and the awareness of that is clearly going up in lots of countries around the world and among the public.

Now, the instruments you have to plan for disasters and the readiness to make this a priority in social and economic planning is not equally high yet, and that is maybe the main thing that we want to put forward in this report: that there has to be a lot more attention to long-term planning for preventing and mitigating the impact of all kinds of disasters. The reality is that 80-90 per cent of all disasters are caused by weather – storms, floods, etc. What you just lived through here in New York [Hurricane Sandy] is a very good example of that.

The fragility of these warning systems is also something we need to look at because many times these systems are old, and because cities and countries never imagined that these things could happen.

UN News Centre: You mentioned that general understanding and awareness have increased. As natural disasters affect countries that previously were not vulnerable to them, have you seen a change in attitude from Member States towards disaster risk reduction?

Ms. Wahlström visits a flood-prone Cambodian province and gets a first-hand insight into the living conditions of the rural poor, listening to stories of how floods destroyed their homes. Photo: Jerry Velasquez/UNISDR

Margareta Wahlström: Yes. It is very clear. During the General Assembly discussion there was a very high degree of understanding that this is a major development challenge, among others, but it is certainly one that underpins the possibility of countries continuing to ensure their economic development and the welfare of their people. That awareness is there. From there to action, the step is a little bit longer.

Among the public, I would say that over these past four to five years, in particular, it has increased because it never stops now: it is forest fires, it is floods, and it is going on all around the world.

This constant pounding also drives recognition that there is something happening that we have to act on. I just saw an interesting public opinion survey in the United States, just published now, but apparently done in September, which says that people here think climate change is actually happening and the US should do something about it, which is a very interesting shift.

UN News Centre: There is a perception in some quarters that to be prepared for disasters, major financial resources are required. How can developing countries ensure they have access to the tools and instruments needed for disaster preparedness?

The Vice-Mayor of San Francisco, located in Cebu, the Philippiness, discusses disaster prepraredness issues with community members. Photo: UNISDR

Margareta Wahlström: There is no evidence that to be prepared you need a lot of money. Some of the poorest countries in the world that are used to living with disasters have really made enormous progress.

Take Cuba, for example, the neighbour of Haiti. With a very strong social organization, they have for decades managed to evacuate people and minimize the loss of lives. So it’s building systems that people trust and respect.

The big challenge with early warning is that people have the attitude of: “Last time nothing happened so this time I am not going to move” – but in Cuba they managed to overcome that.

For that you need three things: a clear system that organizes people at a community level, a very clear and constantly accessible information flow that people learn to trust and respect, and, when you do evacuate people you have to have a place to take them to which actually caters to them, where they can stay warm, have something to eat and feel that their property is safe, so that there will be no looting.

A similar experience to that of Cuba is that of Bangladesh. Thirty years ago they had several hundred thousand people die in some of the cyclones they had. But they also consistently said this is not acceptable and not feasible for their economic development, so they got to working on early warning systems, strongly community-based and dealing with the concerns that people have: property, land, housing, where to go, etc. Today, there are equally strong cyclones but very few people die and they are also able to deal much better with people’s social welfare.

Bangladesh is a country that has really proven that if you make it a priority for the central Government, for the local government and for the people and you work hand in hand, it works.

The same happened in Indonesia after the Indian Ocean tsunami, which was actually only seven years ago. Since then, all the countries in this region have built much better early warning systems. Of course there have been some investments, but it has clearly not been beyond the reach of countries.

UN News Centre: Community-level action seems to play an important role in disaster preparedness and response. What role do central Governments have, and what relationship do they have with local and international initiatives?

In Nicaragua, the municipality of Telica cooperates with its neighbours to improve their resilience and technical capacities, and to prepare a strategic development plan to protect the region. Photo: Jaime Valdes

Margareta Wahlström: As we have seen with the Thai floods, the Japanese disaster, and the floods in Australia – you cannot say disasters are local today. Almost any disaster, even if it is in a smaller country, makes it to international news.

The economic linkages and the communications between people matter. If someone in Haiti tweets and talks to his family members in New York, the disaster can become an international concern. From this perspective, action can be local but the repercussions are global – be it economic, political, social or other.

National governments are responsible for putting in place the political priorities, legislation, guidance and resources. It depends on the country because they have different political structures, but you can only really build a sustainable system in the medium-term if the central government takes the lead, while also ensuring that local government and communities are fully involved.

One real lesson learned is that no one can do it on their own. It is not sustainable. You also need the private sector and business, you need the media to be wise about these things and ask the right questions. You need science, you need people. So working in this direction is really an issue of having everyone sitting around the table, with representatives of all these parties.

Pakistan's Punjab region, under water in 2010, led to an increased influx of people to the cities. To improve urban risk reduction, the Provincial Disaster Management Authority encouraged efforts to build local resilience. Photo: United Nations

If I take the example of early warning systems today, there is always a lot of attention on early warning as a technology used for monitoring an approaching storm; with things such as signals, satellites, etc. But the last piece of that chain is if there is a social organization.

Once you have the information it needs to go somewhere and that is to people. It can be a mayor, a city council, or a community organization that people will trust. In New York City you see good examples of this, but you still have people questioning it and that will probably always be there – but, gradually, the willingness to engage and stay out of harm’s way will increase when they see the really disastrous impact this has had in New York, New Jersey and the environment.

UN News Centre: In the longer-term, should urban planning aim for less construction and residence in disaster-prone areas?

Margareta Wahlström: Very rapid economic development increases and drives risk. This is a phenomenon in evidence everywhere around the world. You need to build everywhere, and afterwards you realize that maybe this land should not have been built on. So urban planning is key.

The evidence of lack of urban planning and the evidence of what happens when you expand into really vulnerable and exposed land with highly prized assets in highly vulnerable areas, requires countries to prepare because something will happen.

Ms. Wahlström discusses some of the obstacles to improving preparations for disaster risk reduction. UN Webcast

And who is going to pay for that risk? Traditionally, maybe insurance companies would be willing to do that but they are suffering losses now. Their job is to make money. So that tension between increasing risk exposure and who is willing to pay for that is certainly going to help to look for more safety.

But having said that, in many cities the reality is that you do not have too many options anymore because they are “full.” So there is a critical question: can we rebuild in areas that have been destroyed and if we rebuild, how do we rebuild? Do we allow people to build houses or focus on other types of buildings?

These are things that, for example, came up in Japan, after the tsunami last year. One of the mayors in Japan, when I asked him if people were going to go back and build their houses where they were before, he said that he had done an opinion poll asking them and 70 per cent said no, they wanted to move up the mountainside, but he also knew that as time went by that 70 per cent would start decreasing.

It is a huge dilemma. It does not matter if it is a rich or a poor country. This sense that people want to go back is too strong and there is not a strong successful model to mitigate that instinct, but there are some successful examples of how it can be done by engaging people in taking decisions about their own future.

People feel completely disempowered by well-meaning emergency planning from the top. When governments say, “we organized this for you, we built these houses, now go,” people say “no, thank you very much.”

The rich cultural heritage of the Italian city of Venice faces the risk of flooding as sea levels rise. Copyright CORILA

That dilemma can only be solved by discussing options, coming up with suggestions, taking part in what is best for you within the Government’s limitations. This is not necessarily an easy process to go through, but it is worth the time.

Authorities are usually criticized first for being too slow and then for being too fast, and not involving people enough. You see this pattern everywhere. There needs to be a balance between these two because there are lots of economic issues involved.

The other issue is jobs. People lose their income, their foothold in life. There are a lot of social issues – tensions in families, difficulty in surviving, this also causes a negative impact. The issue of displacement might be solved, but the loss of employment really adds to the social impact of disasters, and many times we do not give enough attention to that.

We talk a lot about infrastructure, but at the centre of all this is the people factor, and the way people live through a disaster will also impact their perception of the next disaster. Every disaster is an opportunity to improve the preparedness for the next one.

UN News Centre: How is the UN providing guidance to countries on disaster risk reduction?

Margareta Wahlström: Different parts of the UN bring different types of expertise. We have normative technical organizations like UN Habitat which has worked on urban planning and urban development for decades. At the local level, we launched an advocacy campaign a few years ago focused on local governments called “My City is Getting Ready.” The purpose is really to put the limelight on what local governments can do, but also to put the limelight on the challenges they have.

Ms. Wahlström discusses the key role of women in disaster risk reduction. UN Webcast

The campaign allows big cities and tiny municipalities to form partnerships and network at a horizontal level, for example, a city like San Francisco in California, and a municipality in Indonesia. The dynamics that we see there are fantastic. People can not only get inspired and learn from others, they can also offer a lot from their own experience. As a mobilization instrument it is very helpful for local governments to also share knowledge with their many partners: businesses, non-governmental organization, and civil society and many other actors that can help solidify what they are trying to do.

UN News Centre: This year, the theme for the International Day for Disaster Reduction focused on the role of women and girls in this area. Why was this theme chosen and why are women’s contributions so important?

Margareta Wahlström: The most evident link between women and girls and disaster risk reduction is that, of course, a little over 50 per cent of the world population could add more knowledge and capacity to drive resilience, understanding an action.

Just like with the cities campaign, the purpose was to put the limelight on something that de facto is happening. Looking at your own urban communities, the community workers tend to be women. They are drivers, strong networkers, managers, organizers, caretakers, but when you talk about disasters at the highest level, the ones who are talking are men. The whole campaign is really to give a fuller profile of the importance of women’s roles, but also to look at why aren’t women in more driving positions here.

In Japan, after the tsunami last year, there was a government initiative to look at the areas where women were most represented. In all the caretaking areas, organizing at a community level they were there – but a very, very low percentage in decision-making and planning. That is exactly the point here. You will find the same in any country. We need to look at how can we improve and avoid one of the most common issues that emerge after a disaster: when women and girls, of course, but also children and people with disabilities go to evacuation shelters that are not equipped for them. The food is not appropriate for them; there is no privacy – you have more violence in some of these shelters because there is no one there thinking about these things.

You cannot just have one part of the community, in this case men, to design how these things happen because then you are inefficient and are not optimizing your resource base.

It is very concrete, these are the things that matter, and that’s why women have to be encouraged to step up to grab the chances of running the show, instead of running the back office.

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For International Day for Disaster Reduction, UN highlights key role of women and girls