Top United Nations Officials Stress Need to Invest in Advance Planning, Sound Prevention as General Assembly Holds First Debate on Reducing Disaster Risk

9 February 2011

Top United Nations Officials Stress Need to Invest in Advance Planning, Sound Prevention as General Assembly Holds First Debate on Reducing Disaster Risk

9 February 2011
General Assembly
Department of Public Information • News and Media Division • New York

Sixty-fifth General Assembly

Informal Thematic Debate

AM & PM Meetings

Top United Nations Officials Stress Need to Invest in Advance Planning, Sound

Prevention as General Assembly Holds First Debate on Reducing Disaster Risk


Expert Panellists Recount Experiences,

Discuss Importance of Building Local Resilience in Urban Areas

As the General Assembly convened its first-ever informal thematic debate on disaster risk reduction today, senior United Nations officials called urgently for investment in advanced planning and sound policies to help countries avert natural hazards that would cost more in human and financial terms than steps to prevent them or reduce their impact.

“By wiping out major development gains, such as school buildings, hospitals and energy grids, disasters perpetuate a cycle of underdevelopment, poverty and disempowerment,” said Assembly President Joseph Deiss (Switzerland) as he opened the debate.

Mr. Deiss noted that increasingly frequent natural hazards of growing intensity were wreaking havoc throughout the world: earthquakes as in Haiti, Chile and New Zealand; and flooding as in Pakistan, Brazil and Australia.

“Disaster risk reduction is crucial for protecting progress made towards the Millennium Development Goals and for achieving sustainable development,” he continued, emphasizing that increasing resilience had positive multiplier effects, especially for developing countries.  Reducing vulnerability to natural hazards was therefore a high priority requiring committed efforts by all stakeholders, from local governments and international financial institutions to civil society and the private sector, he said.

Much progress had been made in implementing the 2005 Hyogo Framework for Action on building resilience, he continued.  However, the benefits had yet to be felt locally by the most vulnerable and poor communities, due partly to the global economic and financial crisis.  Rapid urbanization, coupled with ecosystem degradation and weak infrastructure, further heightened vulnerability.  Cities therefore needed to make extra efforts to mitigate disaster risk.

Welcoming the five-year campaign by the United Nations International Strategy for Disaster Reduction to make cities resilient in that light, he expressed hope that today’s discussion would provide greater momentum towards risk reduction.

Risk reduction would grow even more important as climate change and other hazards made it likely that the years ahead would be just as costly as 2010, United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said in his own opening remarks, describing 2010 as “one of the deadliest years in more than a generation”, in which more than a quarter of a million people had been killed in disasters.  “Experience and common sense agree: we must invest today for a better tomorrow,” he declared, echoing a refrain heard throughout the day.

He noted that investments towards the creation of more resilient societies were already paying off in Peru, China, Jamaica, Viet Nam and Madagascar.  “We need to take lessons from cities and countries that have shown how to reduce risk — as well from those less fortunate, whose examples of calamity should give us all pause for thought.”  A truly global response that made the most effective use of resources was needed.  Risk reduction would be a major focus of upcoming development conferences, he said, adding that global resilience would require courage, vision and leadership.  “Reducing disaster risk is a job for all.”

Among today’s events were two panel discussions moderated by Zeinab Badawi, international broadcaster and journalist, and presenter of BBC World News and HARDtalk, in which various experts from civil society and Government, including local authorities, focused on the question of promoting investment for disaster reduction, and building local resilience in urban areas.

Wrapping up the informal debate this afternoon, Margareta Wahlström, Assistant Secretary-General for Disaster Risk Reduction, said the discussions had been extremely impressive, generating ideas that would certainly add value to the work of the United Nations in the area of disaster risk reduction.  She highlighted several of the main calls heard during the debate, including the need to elaborate principles for monitoring achievements in disaster risk reduction.  That exercise was already under way, she said, pointing out that the Hyogo Framework contained a mechanism intended to take stock of progress made and remaining obstacles.

She said she had also been pleased to hear appeals for urban planning, which had, “sadly, gone out of fashion”.  Participants had also called for the enhancement of data collection and the scaling-up of investments in education, the sharing of information and technology, and the raising of awareness, especially to ensure that specific disasters, and the needs of victims, remained high on the international agenda long after they had dropped from the news headlines.

“We must keep the memory alive,” she emphasized, noting that the international community could make better use of such experiences to craft better resilience and prevention polices and strategies.  It was also to be hoped that today’s discussions would bolster efforts to place risk analysis at the centre of all sustainable development initiatives, she said, highlighting the upcoming Third Session of the Global Platform for Disaster Risk Reduction, which would take place in Geneva from 8 to 13 May.

Mr. Deiss noted in his closing remarks the words, phrases and themes that had resonated with him during the day.  The panellists and other participants had stressed, among other things, awareness-raising; better use of shared experience; the importance of prevention and advanced planning, rather than blaming nature for upending weak or poorly planned resilience and risk-reduction strategies; and investment, including the means to mobilize resources.

A comprehensive “President’s Summary” of the informal thematic debate would be issued in a few days, he said, adding that it would feed into the Third Global Platform.

Panel 1: “Invest Today for a Safer Tomorrow”

ZEINAB BADAWI, international broadcaster and journalist, and presenter of BBC World News and HARDtalk, moderated both panels and opened the morning’s proceedings following a video presentation on the efforts by city officials in Saint-Louis, Senegal, to make the town more resilient to floods and other natural hazards.

“Now, we can all sit back and put in place band-aid responses or we can take concrete actions that will really make a difference,” she said, noting that disasters were becoming more regular and intense.  Acknowledging that the “what, where, when and how” of investing in disaster risk reduction was “a bit of a question mark”, she urged the panellists to use their interventions to start the conversation on ways in which the international community could prepare today for the future.

The panellists were Tioulong Saumura, Member of Parliament from Cambodia and Vice-President of the Inter-Parliamentary Union (IPU) Standing Committee on Sustainable Development, Finance and Trade; Abebe Haile-Gabriel, Director of Rural Economy and Agriculture, African Union; Toni Frisch, Chair, UNEP/OCHA Advisory Group on Environmental Emergencies; Rubem Hofliger, General Director, Natural Disaster Fund (FONDEN), Mexico; and Thomas Loster, Munich Re Foundation.

Mr. FRISCH said that once a disaster occurred, mounting an adequate response was always a challenge, especially for developing countries.  That was why preparing in advance for such events — whether floods, droughts, earthquakes or climate-change-driven weather anomalies — was so crucial.  Coming up with the money was not always the main hurdle to such responses, he stressed, noting that broad and effective prevention strategies were scarce chiefly because they were not very media-friendly and politicians often found them difficult to explain — or defend — to their constituents.

Indeed, because the “value” of disaster risk reduction strategies could not necessarily be proved before they were needed, they frankly did not make for “good television”, he continued.  Politicians and international actors, therefore, should make every effort to stress to the wider public that effective mobilization of resources for hazard and disaster risk reduction actually saved significantly more lives and money than post-disaster resource mobilization.  Awareness-raising events like the one convened by the General Assembly today were an excellent way to start “changing the conversation” on disaster response, he said.

Sadly, establishing the frameworks for putting much needed prevention and response strategies in place were not well coordinated, he pointed out.  A key way to make better use of all the plans and initiatives that would be discussed today — and, more importantly, making sure they targeted localized priorities — was to train the major humanitarian actors to lay the foundation for disaster risk reduction.  Furthermore, the notion of “building back better” must be the foundation for such actions, as well as for enhanced broad international cooperation.  Lessons learned, especially regarding the impacts of climate change, must be better used and shared with other vulnerable countries and relevant organizations, he added.

Ms. SAUMURA said disaster risk reduction was actually about prevention; indeed, experience had shown that $1 invested in preparedness programmes routinely saved about $7 in post-disaster rebuilding and reconstruction costs.  The poorest countries were always the worst prepared, she said, noting that when a natural hazard struck a poor country, a disaster generally followed.  She highlighted the stark difference in the impacts of the earthquakes of similar magnitude that had respectively struck Haiti and New Zealand in 2010 — the 7.0 magnitude one that had hit Haiti on 12 January had killed more than 250,000 people and left nearly 2 million homeless, whereas no lives had been lost in the aftermath of the 7.1 magnitude temblor that had struck New Zealand in September.

“Politicians need to stop thinking in the short term,” she said.  “Safety is today and tomorrow.”  She called for greater emphasis to be placed on international cooperation, especially South-South cooperation, in order to raise the level of preparedness in developing countries.  Further, all sustainable development programmes and strategies should include measures for funding disaster risk reduction, she said, stressing that ensuring preparedness was as much about changing mindsets as about “generating dollars”.

National philosophies regarding responses to national hazards must be changed, she continued, emphasizing that perhaps the best way to do that was for parliamentarians and other politicians to work more closely with local and community officials, who always knew best the myriad ways in which a natural hazard could slide into a disaster for themselves and their neighbours.

Mr. ABEBE, agreeing on the crucial need to change mindsets, said disaster risk reduction and response must be mainstreamed into the international sustainable development agenda.  Indeed, it was becoming ever clearer that where such response plans were “wished away or ignored”, massive suffering and loss of life was often the sad result.  Spotlighting the situation in Africa, he said there was emerging political commitment to taking a more long-term view.

He said the issue was becoming more prominent in the work of the African Union, as evidenced by “risk pooling” initiatives among the continent’s drought-prone countries, among others.  Emerging opportunities and challenges provided incentives for making greater strides in disaster risk reduction and response, and regional cooperation was key in that regard.  Finally, he cautioned against merely “reacting” to a natural hazard rather than laying the groundwork to prevent hazards from ever becoming true humanitarian disasters.

Mr. HOFLIGER, focusing on his country’s disaster risk reduction and response policies, said that over the last decade, Mexico’s legal and policy structures had been putting in place instruments and financing mechanisms to address a wide range of key issues, from enhanced training initiatives and infrastructure improvements to programmes targeting pre- and post-disaster interventions in the poorest communities.  The overall aim was to transform from a “reactive system to a preventive one”, he said.

He went on to state that the Government was aiming to decrease significantly the costs of addressing disasters while strengthening the resilience of society, by eradicating social risks and ensuring that resources were applied in diligent ways, among other measures.  Mexico also aimed to ensure that risk reduction was seen as generating enormous savings that could be allocated to meeting society’s wider development goals.

Mr. LOSTER, describing risk awareness as the most important investment, stressed the importance of putting in place insurance mechanisms and risk mapping ventures that would raise bottom-up awareness about the impacts of disasters and the importance of prevention.  At the same time, insurance tools were not “bullet-proof”, he cautioned, noting that it was also necessary to invest in education, awareness-raising and information-sharing.  Importantly, there was also a need for international groups and organizations to better coordinate their expertise and experience, he said, emphasizing: “We need to bundle our experience if we want to counter the problems we’re debating today.”

In a brief exchange with the Moderator, panellists agreed that without serious efforts to put disaster risk reduction plans in place, it would be very difficult for poor countries to achieve the Millennium Development Goals.

While Ms. SAUMURA said she believed that not a single target could be achieved unless more attention and energy were devoted to disaster preparedness, Mr. ABEBE cautioned that the issue must be de-linked from humanitarian intervention, which was “reactive” in nature and often led to dependency.  On the other, risk reduction and preparedness “is about ownership and sustainability”, he said.

Ms. SAUMURA responded by saying that disaster preparedness should be part of a holistic approach to sustainable development — “a matter of taking our own destiny in our hands” — and, more broadly, that raising the level of disaster preparedness was a key element of good governance.  She also called for greater investment in research and development, as well as enhanced efforts to share scientific and technological expertise.

Mr. FRISCH disagreed with Mr. Abebe’s contention that humanitarian agencies were “merely responsive”, pointing out that prevention activities were increasingly being introduced into the mandates of such groups and that relief workers were being trained to place more emphasis on preparedness.

When the floor was opened to comments by delegations, speakers representing both developed and developing countries underscored the need for better coordination in disaster responses and more information-sharing among international agencies and disaster-prone countries.  One delegate called for actions to improve the global community’s disaster knowledge base, including costs, so that Governments could make clear and transparent assessments of what was needed.  Another speaker stressed that natural hazards were going to occur, but stakeholders could and must do more to ensure that countries were prepared to offset their impacts and recover completely.

Another speaker noted that even as the frequency of disasters increased, the pool of resources set aside for humanitarian assistance was shrinking, making it difficult for relief organizations to carry out their respective mandates.  As such, he agreed with the panellist who had stressed the need to raise awareness about the vital necessity of risk preparedness.  Indeed, since even the slightest delay in post-disaster response could turn a relatively small crisis into a complex emergency, the better prepared a country was, the more lives and livelihoods could be saved.

Panel 2: “Addressing the Challenges of Disaster Risk in Urban Settings

The afternoon panel featured Joan Clos, Executive Director, United Nations Human Settlements Programme (UN-Habitat), the keynote speaker; Kadir Topbas, Mayor, Istanbul, Turkey; Oscar Ortiz, Mayor, Santa Tecla, El Salvador; Mawardy Nurdin, Mayor, Banda Aceh, Indonesia; and Mary Jane Ortega, Secretary-General, CITYNET.

Mr. CLOS said the challenges were immense; the urban population was now reaching 50 per cent of the global total and last year, for the first time in history, urban disaster victims had outnumbered their rural counterparts.  Since that was a continuing trend, there was no excuse not to act in advance to take the basic measures to boost the resilience of cities.  Prevention was extremely important and cheaper than recovery, he added.

He said there were five basic “commandments” for prevention and resilience, which were also the rules for avoiding slums: never build on a slope with a gradient of more than 10 per cent; never build in river basins, and allow for a security zone of at least 200 metres; never build in lowlands without proper drainage; never build in urban space without leaving 30 per cent of the land for streets and 10 per cent more for green spaces; and never build with streets less than 25 metres wide.

Emphasizing that there was no excuse for not following those basic commandments, he noted that 30 per cent of Manhattan was allocated to streets, under the 1811 plan.  The ancient Romans had allowed 18 per cent and it had taken 2,000 years to advance to 30 per cent.  The provision of public space was crucial to allowing for future infrastructure, even if there was no money to do build it in the present.  In response to a question from the Moderator, he said slums that had streets were “recoverable”, adding that, as Mayor of Barcelona, he had ensured public space stood at 50 per cent.

Mayor TOPBAS of Istanbul agreed that urban populations had suffered greatly from lack of proper planning, which left them at risk.  How to rehabilitate existing settlement areas and how to plan new settlements were the two questions that must be considered in light of the dangers, he said.  All countries must collaborate, with Governments devising the approach and displaying the will to get the job done, supplemented by non-governmental organizations and the public, who should be aware of the dangers of specific buildings.  The private sector must also contribute, he added.

Built on fault lines, Istanbul was initiating a project that focused on ways to improve existing settlements and buildings in areas chosen for urban transformation, he said.  Political problems ensued when people thought their homes were threatened, but eventually the project had gone forward.  Concrete steps must be taken through a clear road map, he said, adding that cities must cooperate with each other because they all faced the same dangers.  There was no time to lose because the loss of more lives and property threatened.  According to Istanbul’s experience, urban settlements must be transformed, but community members must be included in the project.

“It’s not just top-down; it’s also bottom-up,” the Moderator underlined as a message from the Mayor’s statement.

Mayor ORTIZ of Santa Tecla said many responses to natural hazards were local, but it was also a national and regional problem.  Eighty-one per cent of El Salvador had been designated at risk, including Santa Tecla, which had been struck by two devastating earthquakes in the recent past, one of them hitting soon after he had taken office.  He had been forced to think deeply about what could be done.  A single mudslide had resulted in more than 700 casualties, property values had plummeted and many people had wanted to leave.  At a town hall meeting on building back better for the long term, the city had taken responsibility, he said, adding that 10 years later, Santa Tecla was rated second for development indicators.

Drawing on his experience, he said it was most important to ensure proper land-use management and zoning through planning, adding that improvisation was not an option.  Also crucial was the broad participation of stakeholders and institutions, including strong grass-roots support and awareness.  Local authorities must act as a counterweight to national authorities by having their own capacity on the ground, including instruments allowing not only response but also risk mitigation, developed through lessons learned in actual disasters.  Any infrastructure development must account for risk reduction, he emphasized.

Asked by the Moderator how public awareness could be raised in cities that had not experienced disasters, he said inter-city exchange was important in multiplying and globalizing efforts and in sharing experiences.

Mayor NURDIN of Banda Aceh said that about 60,000 people had died in his city alone during the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, as it was the nearest major city to the epicentre.  It was also vulnerable to many other kinds of seismic and weather risks, he said, recalling that in the past six years, Banda Aceh had been mostly rebuilt and in many cases improved.  Citizens were grateful for international assistance and the local government had learnt many lessons.  Institutional machinery had been built up to conform to the national disaster risk reduction plan, addressing both risk reduction and reform.

He said there was a standard operating procedure for tsunamis, as well as funds allocated for tsunami mitigation in the education, communication, welfare and health sectors.  Drills and community-based action teams were other factors, as was the monitoring of progress and ongoing review of existing measures.  The main challenge was to change mindsets from reactive to proactive at all levels, he stressed.

Asked by the Moderator about the importance of coordination with and among the donor community, he agreed that it was extremely important and described the institutional body created in Banda Aceh for that purpose.  The Mayor’s leadership was useful in that regard, he added.

Ms. ORTEGA, a former mayor in the Philippines and a member of numerous mayors’ networks, said that no matter a city’s carbon footprint, when it was hit by adverse events, it was normal for other cities to sympathize.  However, local action and awareness was most critical.  She said she did not merely pursue bilateral cooperation between cities, but also comprehensive networking that included international assistance, since cities could not do all the work themselves.  She described successful partnerships, such as that between Yokohama and Banda Aceh.

Asked by the Moderator whether early-warning systems were the most essential risk reduction factor, she said they were, although they were expensive, adding that education and good urban planning were crucial to the necessary holistic approach that should be pursued.

In the ensuing discussion, delegations raised issues of disaster insurance, evacuation routes, drills and city planning.  Most speakers agreed that local ownership of risk reduction was crucial.  There was also extensive discussion of the relative value of economic development, as opposed to regulation, for risk reduction.

Mr. ORTIZ stressed, with regard to the latter, that local regulations should not be seen as a block, but rather as necessary for sustainable development.

Mr. TOPBAS said it was important to accomplish local management within a national plan in order to fend off undue political pressures.

Mr. CLOS noted that builders all over the world dreamt of quickly increasing the value of rural land through rapid urbanization without regard to resilience and other sustainability factors.  That added value must be shared by the community and proper investments must be made, he emphasized.

However, a speaker from the private sector noted that poor regions suffered much more from natural hazards than more affluent ones, and asked whether economic stimulus was not equally, or even more important than regulation in reducing disaster risk.

Ms. ORTEGA agreed that poverty reduction was indeed an important part of the equation, while Mr. ORTIZ stressed that the important thing was to determine what kind of city one wanted, adding that regulation was not necessarily at odds with development and prosperity.

Mr. NURDIN, comparing two cities in Aceh, said per capita income was sometimes less important than zoning regulations.

Mr. CLOS said that while development was necessary, disaster mitigation in poor cities could not wait.

There was a need for public-private partnerships as well as development and risk mitigation, all participants finally agreed.

Accordingly, the representative of Haiti said, it was clear that underdevelopment was a major factor in his country’s losses, as was rapid urbanization, which was itself a consequence of poverty in the countryside.  However, respect for building standards was also a major factor.

The representative of Gabon affirmed the importance of directing development back into rural areas.

Also contributing comments were representatives of El Salvador, Japan, Australia, United States, Indonesia and the Dominican Republic.

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For information media • not an official record
For information media. Not an official record.