Interview with Margareta Wahlström, Assistant Secretary-General for Disaster Risk Reduction
The Gateway to UN System’s Work on Climate Change interviewed Margareta Wahlström, Assistant Secretary-General for Disaster Risk Reduction. The UN Office for Disaster Risk Reduction serves as the focal point in the UN system for the coordination of disaster risk reduction and ensures synergies among disaster risk reduction activities.
Gateway: You’ve said that Hurricane Sandy underlines global threat of climate change and more extreme weather events. How so, and do you see specific instances where climate change is actually linked to disaster risks?
Wahlström: Eighty-five to ninety per cent of the world disasters are weather-related, and weather is, of course, a short-term climate issue. Although the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) warns you that one single event isn’t a sign of climate change, we—both disaster practitioners and scientists—do know that the intensity of extreme-weather events is increasing and will continue to do so. These events may also increasingly occur in places where you never expected them.
It is like a convergence of issues and an accumulation of them. The Special Report of Extreme Events, which IPCC and disaster experts produced earlier this year, tells us that these are scientifically sound trends. If we don’t acknowledge and underline them, we are disempowering ourselves by not doing what we can in the medium-term.
In particular, there is strong evidence that sea-level rise will continue to cause increasing water-related challenges such as coastal erosion, the type of flooding we saw in New York during Hurricane Sandy, and increased precipitation in many parts of the world.
Let’s look at a country like Switzerland which many people think is extremely safe. The fact is that Switzerland is very exposed to hazards. The melting glaciers has an enormous impact on Switzerland, and the country has taken this very seriously in the past 20 years. For me, there’s no question mark in the link between climate change and the severity of disasters and the challenge of understanding these trends is slowly being met.
Gateway: What would you say to the climate change skeptics?
Wahlström: I say the causes [of climate change] are not our only concern. We can see first-hand the impacts of increased vulnerabilities, and that’s what we want to reduce and mitigate. We can continue to question the causes of climate change, but that doesn’t change the reality and what has to be done to address its impacts .
There are trends and new challenges that must be addressed. For example, there are many poor parts of the world that are still dependent on agriculture, where saline infiltration is destroying all possibilities of productive agriculture. This is contributing to food security crises in these areas. The destruction of dry lands and desertification combined with the increasing world population and consumption in certain countries is posing problems. Such challenges can only be tackled when you look at them as challenges.
Gateway: Is the problem that there are more risks and disasters, or are there just more and more people?
Wahlström: There are certainly more and more people living in harm’s way. This in itself accelerates and escalates disasters’ impact. But there are also more intense extreme events.
Scientific evidence shows that there is increased intensity of hurricanes, for instance. The Philippines experiences about 15-20 typhoons passing through every year, and some of these typhoons have been increasingly taking “freak” paths. For example, in 2011, when Typhoon Sendong (also known as Severe Tropical Storm Washi) made landfall over Mindanao and then Palawan a day later, the huge damage was not caused by extreme precipitation or heavy winds but by the fact that the unpredictability of the typhoon did not let early warning systems work effectively. What exacerbated the immense destruction was the environmental degradation caused by deforestation.
Gateway: Hurricane Sandy hit Haiti, Jamaica, the Bahamas and New York. What’s the difference in terms of the impact of a disaster in a developed country and a developing country?
Wahlström: Due to high exposure to hazards in the region, the Caribbean people expect several hurricanes every year. Cuba, for example, has always been a role model for effective early warning evacuation preparedness and for decades has had no or very little loss of life due to hurricane disasters. The challenge for Caribbean countries today is in fact the huge cost of recovery and reconstruction. Their economies are small, and highly vulnerable to this type of damage. Hurricanes happen so frequently in this region that governments are unable to pay back their loans any more. So countries have an accumulation of international debt which hampers with economic growth when it comes to the competitiveness of a country with very few sources of national income (tourism and agriculture). These economies are the most vulnerable ones even when they’re good at saving lives.
For the US, Florida is used to hurricanes, but further up the eastern seaboard, cities are less so. What really happened during Hurricane Sandy was a convergence of several factors, which made an extraordinary impact and caused tsunami-like devastation and great economic losses. Part of the challenge in the future in New York will be related to infrastructure and shaping smart investment for the areas that are most exposed to such events in the years to come.
Gateway: What are the practical steps governments can take to make each country more disaster resilient? And what can individuals do?
Wahlström: Depending on the political structure of the country, steps can entirely vary. Every now and then I ask people what would be the one thing they would consistently implement to improve resilience and safety in the future and surprisingly, governments and other actors point to public education and awareness as one important area of work.
There is a trust gap between the people and the governments today that needs to be filled in many parts of the world. I strongly believe that we need a source of reliable, trusted and authoritative information. So this issue of public awareness and education is also an issue of trust and accountability.
Climate change impact has to be tackled as an issue of the highest political priority. I think the opportunity for this work to mature presents itself in the deliberation process for a 2015 framework for action (the post-2015 framework for disaster risk reduction will succeed the current Hyogo Framework for Action 2005-2015: Building the Resilience of Nations and Communities to Disasters). I think that plan could be the one with which we consistently make progress in well-defined areas.
We are on the third cycle of the Hyogo Framework for Action Monitor, and approximately 50 countries are reporting on their progress in disaster risk reduction. And there is a sort of a baseline to assess relative progress. An impressive number of governments have passed regulations and legislations or are making efforts for mainstreaming early-warning systems and implementing better emergency response.
Gateway: Did Rio+20 help?
Wahlström: It did. Disasters were already discussed in the Earth Summit in 1992, but the issue did not have enough clout. The Rio+20 conference proved that this is now a high priority for a larger number of countries.
Gateway: What is the significance of the Fourth Session of the Global Platform for Disaster Risk Reduction in Geneva in May 2013?
Wahlström: The Global Platform will serve as the staging point of deliberation on the successor to the Hyogo Framework for Action. We’re encouraging countries and organizations to look at their accomplishments and constraints, what they want for the post-2015 development agenda, what would be helpful for them in their countries, and what would be helpful on an international level.
In the 2011 UN Secretary-General’s Report on ISDR, it is stated that there cannot be any future sustainable agenda that doesn’t recognize a plan for risks. I would like to see a post-2015 development agenda that frames its goals and aspirations in recognition of climate and disaster risks.