Preparation can save lives, resources and energy from the havoc of water disasters
New York, 6 March – When water-related disasters strike, preparations are key to saving countless lives and resources, United Nations officials said at Headquarters today.
"Preparing for the worst can save lives," United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said at the day-long United Nations Special Thematic Session of the General Assembly on Water and Disasters. "That is why we need early warning systems, disaster education and resilient structures."
The world also needed to address the fundamental threat of climate change when considering water-related disasters, he said. Countries must work together to manage water resources, with the International Year of Water Cooperation providing an opportunity for States to forge partnerships to reduce the risks and impacts of water-related disasters.
Over the past decade, water-related disasters have not only struck more frequently but have also been more severe, hampering sustainable development by causing political, social and economic shocks in many countries.
Driven by factors such as climate variability, poverty, poor land-use planning and management, disaster risk levels were rising as more people and assets moved to high-risk areas. Over the past 30 years, the proportion of people living in flood-prone river basins increased by 114 per cent and on cyclone-exposed coastlines by 192 per cent, according to the United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction.
Poignantly underlining some overwhelming challenges, 18-year-old disaster survivor Honoka Miura shared her story at the meeting.
"Real water disasters look like a scene from a movie," she said, describing how her house was swallowed by the 2011 earthquake in Japan that killed more than 18,000 people and left thousands homeless, with many scared for the future.
Following the earthquake, the local government invited junior leaders like Ms. Miura to share their ideas for reconstruction plans in their town, Minamisanriku. "At first, they thought that children can not help with the construction," she said.
However, when she and others organized social activities, including concerts and setting up a park, to help to comfort the community’s children and elderly, the local government learned that children can make their own special contributions as the town rebuilt itself.
"We can and we will make a new and better Minamisanriku," she said.
Better preparedness was indeed essential, said Crown Prince Naruhito Honorary President of the Secretary-General’s Advisory Board on Water and Sanitation. "By making use of available means and learning lessons from history, I believe we can create a society more resilient to disasters," he said. "We can turn chains of destruction into chains of recovery."
A coordinated approach to focus on building resilience to water-related disasters was needed to do that, said Han Seung-soo, former Prime Minister of the Republic of Korea and the Founding Chair of the High Level Expert Panel on Water and Disaster.
"It is high time for the global community to strategically respond to disaster reduction and resilience," he said, emphasizing that the Hyogo Framework for Action must be implemented. "Water-related disasters are no longer a matter of if, but a matter of when."
Many ministers agreed that water-related disasters were among the biggest obstacles to human development, with a number noting that prevention was crucial, including early warning systems and evacuation plans. Wang Min, a representative of China’s Ministry of Water Resources, explained that his country had taken the measures needed to ensure safety when facing water disasters. He also said it was important to make use of new technologies and learn experience from other countries.
United Nations Deputy Secretary-General Jan Eliasson added that the acute need for safe water and satisfactory access to sanitation in disaster situations presented a formidable challenge, such as the spread of waterborne or water-related diseases, including cholera and malaria. Without sanitation, waterborne diseases could spread, he said, adding that diarrhoea was also a killer and had been proven to contribute to stunting in children.
“We must mobilize and change this shameful situation for communities, societies and the world,” he said.
Highlighting that sanitation targets lagged furthest behind in the achievement of the Millennium Development Goals, sanitation was sorely needed especially in the event of disaster, said Advisory Board Chair, Prince of Orange Willem-Alexander of the Netherlands. While water-related disasters could not be prevented, the world could ensure that there are adequate water and sanitation services for those affected, including more than two billion people that still lacked access to sanitation facilities, he said.
“It is time to make the right to sanitation and drinking water a reality,” he said. “We need global objectives to wastewater management and ensure there is a reliable supply of clean water.”
Lack of clean water, flooding and drought were some of the harshest realities in many parts of the world, inside and outside the context of water-related disasters. Egypt’s Minister of Water and Irrigation Mohamed Bahaa El-Din, also President of African Ministers’ Council on Water, said water-related disasters were among the biggest obstacles to sustainable human development.
He pointed out that hundreds of severe flooding incidents in remote areas in Africa are often left out of global statistics on major water-related disasters, yet it was those communities that faced the most dire recovery challenges.
Often the question in these remote areas is “when will the next flood occur?” he said. Further, he said drought was also causing many casualties and economic losses, affecting hundreds of thousands of people, exacerbating famine and multiplying cases of malaria and cholera.
In his closing statement, Mr. Ban reiterated that water is a human right. Addressing its challenges presented an important opportunity to work together to shape a better future for all, he said. Emphasizing that preventing the devastating, deadly damages caused by disasters can save a lot of lives, energy and resources, he said water and disasters are also among the core challenges that have to be addressed and kept in mind in shaping the post-2015 development agenda.
The outcome of today’s meeting will be presented at the Fourth Session of the Global Platform for Disaster Risk Reduction to be held 19–23 May 2013 in Geneva. The Global Platform was established in 2007 as a biennial forum for information exchange, discussion of latest development and knowledge and partnership building across sectors, with the goal to improve implementation of disaster risk reduction through better communication and coordination amongst stakeholders.
The Advisory Board was established in 2004 by then Secretary-General Kofi Annan to galvanize global action on water and sanitation issues.
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