INTERVIEW: Managing disaster risk vital for sustainable development, UN official stresses

Robert Glasser, Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Disaster Risk Reduction, briefs on disaster trends and losses in 2015 during a press conference in New York in February 2016. UN Photo/Mark Garten

10 March 2016 – Nearly 350 reported disasters, over 22,000 deaths, 98.6 million people affected, and $66.5 billion in economic damage. That was the devastating toll of disasters worldwide in 2015, according to the United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction (UNISDR). At the helm of the Geneva-based office is Robert Glasser, an experienced development official who took up his post at the start of this year.

As the new Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Disaster Risk Reduction, Mr. Glasser is leading the Office at an important time, following a series of critical agreements reached last year by Member States. These include the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction (2015-2030), which seeks substantial reductions in disaster losses including mortality, the numbers of persons affected by disasters, economic losses and damage to critical infrastructure such as schools and hospitals.

Addressing disaster risk is the single most tangible way we can make a difference in the lives of vulnerable people around the world.

Disaster risk reduction (DRR) aims to reduce the damage caused by natural hazards such as earthquakes, floods, droughts and cyclones, with a focus on prevention. It is fundamental, says Mr. Glasser, to achieving the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and the Paris Agreement on climate change. The Australian national recently sat down with the UN News Centre to discuss the need for integrating disaster risk reduction and climate change adaptation efforts, particularly given that 90 per cent of disasters are now climate-related; what the current priorities are in the area of disaster risk reduction; and what motivated him to accept his current post.

UN News Centre: What are some of the major trends in terms of disasters currently? Is it all bad news, or is there any good news?

Robert Glasser: There is some good news. Well, the first question is what is a trend? Because we certainly have seen over the last year relative to the previous decade that some losses from disasters are lower than they were compared to the average of the decade. It’s not really a trend though to talk about one year’s results. You have to look at the longer-term trends. And overall, as a result of climate change, as a result of population growth… these are all trends… that are going to increase the frequency and severity of natural disasters and exacerbate particularly the livelihoods of poor and vulnerable people around the world.

UN Special Representative Robert Glasser tells the UN News Centre why addressing disaster risk is vital. Credit: United Nations

UN News Centre: What is the role of disaster risk reduction in terms of achieving the Sustainable Development Goals and the Paris Agreement on climate change?

Robert Glasser: Disaster risk reduction is fundamental both to achieving the Sustainable Development Goals and to achieving the objectives in the Paris climate change agreement that was reached last year. The Secretary-General, for example, has said that sustainability begins with Sendai – the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction. And he says that because he realizes it’s absolutely impossible to achieve sustainable development without addressing the risks, and disaster risk in particular. Disaster risk is costing countries over $300 billion a year and that’s an initial estimate. The actual costs are far greater but we just can’t measure, actually quantify, a lot of the costs. For developing countries, if disasters strike, they can wipe out 20 per cent of GDP or more, so if we want to address sustainable development, if we want that to work, then disaster risk has to be incorporated in development planning and we have a long way to go to do that.

Climate change is probably the single biggest disaster risk moving forward. The most significant treatment to reduce disaster risk is to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Because if we don’t achieve a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions, we’re going to see a massive increase – we’re already seeing it actually – in extreme weather events. Those extreme weather events are not only going to cause food security crises, droughts, famine, huge unprecedented storms, and extreme weather, and 100-year events becoming 1-in-20-year events. But they’re also going to trigger people movements and be contributing causes of conflict as well around the world. So if we don’t get a handle on climate change, then all of the other efforts to reduce disaster risk are going to be extremely difficult to realize.

UN News Centre: The Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction 2015–2030 was adopted by UN Member States almost one year ago. What progress, if any, has been made so far?

Robert Glasser: The Sendai Framework, which was agreed last year, was the successor to the Hyogo Framework of Action on Disaster Risk Reduction. Countries have made a lot of progress and we see evidence of that in recent disasters. For example, there was a major storm that hit Bangladesh some decades ago and it resulted in hundreds of thousands of deaths. It was really devastating. A more recent storm that followed a very similar track resulted in some deaths, and in fact the news story was about the deaths, but it was in the hundreds rather than in the tens of thousands. The real news story in that was the improvement, which is a result of the Government of Bangladesh’s efforts working with donors, the UN and others to address disaster risk, with early warning, storm shelters, evacuation planning, a whole range of factors that have now decreased Bangladesh’s vulnerability to extreme events. Of course, there’s still enormous vulnerability but it’s just an example of progress that can be made with a concerted effort to address the challenge.

UN News Centre: What are the priorities for reducing unnecessary loss of life and livelihoods, and displacement, as a result of disasters, especially in least developed countries?

Disaster risk reduction is fundamental both to achieving the Sustainable Development Goals and to achieving the objectives in the Paris climate change agreement…

Robert Glasser: When people think of disasters and disaster risk reduction, they probably think of the immediate warning before a disaster, the response to the disaster to help people and the recovery of people after disaster. And of course, there’s a lot of important work that needs to be done on early warning, on planning evacuations, on humanitarian relief, on reconstruction afterwards, and those are all very high priorities. But the real challenge is actually well before that – to work with governments to incorporate disaster risk in their planning of their economic development.

Because if a country is not very careful, if it doesn’t understand the costs of disasters, if it doesn’t understand how the risks are changing as a result of climate change, if they’re not considering that in the investments they’re making, then it’s likely that they will be creating risk in future crises. For example, without having building codes in earthquake zones or in allowing settlements to take place in flood zones… There are a whole range of actual decisions that governments are making as part of their central economic planning that if they’re not incorporating disaster risk, we’re not going to get a handle on the actual humanitarian disaster. By that point, there are things we can do but it’s almost too late if we’ve embedded additional risk in the economic development in countries around the world. So the challenge is to get out ahead of the disasters… the challenge is moving from thinking of disasters in terms of humanitarian relief in the phases immediately before and after, to thinking about longer-term development and the choices we’re making.

UN News Centre: What are the goals for the next session of the Global Platform for Disaster Risk Reduction in 2017?

Robert Glasser: The Global Platform is the culmination of a series of regional events, regional platforms at which countries and stakeholders – civil society, the private sector, others – take stock of progress in reducing disaster risk, share best practice, share experience, identify gaps and increasingly, they will also be part of the formal network for monitoring implementation of the Sendai Framework. All of those regional platform meetings come together at a global platform and that’s where all of this is combined and we take stock globally of how we’re going. And ideally that information then is channeled into monitoring as an element of explaining how we’re tracking the Sustainable Development Goals… So that’s essentially what the Global Platform is, it’s a fundamentally important meeting of the key stakeholders around the world, including ministers and others, to talk about disaster risk and the challenges and opportunities.

UN News Centre: You are the second Special Representative appointed for disaster risk reduction. What motivated you to accept this position?

Climate change is probably the single biggest disaster risk moving forward.

Robert Glasser: Thank you for asking that question. For me, addressing disaster risk is the single most tangible way we can make a difference in the lives of vulnerable people around the world whose vulnerability is generally increasing because of climate change, because of population growth and because countries are not incorporating risk in the investments and the choices for the investments they’re making. I feel deeply concerned about climate change in particular because it will have such a profound impact on disasters and on the lives of, particularly, poor and marginalized people around the world. There are so many issues we talk about that at a political level are abstract or that seem more international political than practical. DRR is one of those issues that is extremely tangible. People understand it – whether you’re someone in New Orleans who’s just lived through Hurricane Katrina, whether you’re someone in Japan who’s just experienced the Great East Japan Earthquake, Tsunami and then Fukushima disaster, whether you’re an Australian like me who lived through the droughts and fires that threatened Australia’s capital city, Canberra, or whether you’re an Ethiopian farmer in East Africa who is experiencing the fourth deep, profound drought in less than a decade. Disaster risk reduction is something that is tangible, and is an opportunity to actually make a difference in those lives.

UN News Centre: Do you think your previous experiences have helped prepare you for this position?  And if so, how?

Robert Glasser: I hope so because it’s a big challenge and I think maybe one of the advantages I have in this job is that, because of the diversity of the previous jobs I’ve had, I may be able to see things from a variety of different perspectives, or maybe more easily than some others might. I’ve worked in a donor country, in the Australian Government aid programme, so I have a good view of the donors’ perspective and that’s key because the funding is fundamental to making other things happen. I’ve also worked closely in a developing country with the highest levels of government. So I’ve seen things from a developing country perspective in terms of the budget processes, the competing demands, how donors look from the outside… And I’ve worked in CARE, the international NGO which does both humanitarian relief and development, but focused at a community level to look at how whatever we’re working on is actually impacting people on the ground in developing countries. So for me, it’s already been quite useful in this job to examine issues we’re working on from those three perspectives and that I think will hopefully enable me to identify some initiatives and ways of dealing with existing initiatives that increase our impact and effectiveness. At least that’s my hope.

UN News Centre: What do you hope to accomplish during your tenure? 

Robert Glasser: There are a few things that are really important. One of them of course is implementing the Sendai Framework and UNISDR is mandated by Member States to be the custodian of that process of monitoring the implementation. Members are now agreeing to these indicators to monitor our progress in implementation and those indicators give us the opportunity to support Member States in achieving those objectives. So one of the key priorities for me is to not only, through UNISDR, manage the monitoring of these commitments that States have made but also to provide support to those States… to have an effective implementation and to move forward on that.

A second priority is one I know that the Secretary-General is very keen for me to promote and that is the integration within the UN system, to integrate disaster risk across UN programmes and to support the efforts of our colleagues at UNDP, at OCHA, WHO and elsewhere that are incorporating risk and across the programmes they’re supporting in their work in member countries around the world. We have a UN plan of action around disaster risk reduction that highlights how we’re going to do that, what the indicators of progress are, what the minimum requirements are, those sorts of things… and of course active engagement with my colleagues in the UN system will be key to implementing that effectively.


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