'No Safer Tomorrow' without Planning Today, Warn Panellists

21 May 2013

'No Safer Tomorrow' without Planning Today, Warn Panellists

21 May 2013
Press Release
Department of Public Information • News and Media Division • New York

‘No Safer Tomorrow’ without Planning Today, Warn Panellists


GENEVA, 21 May (United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction) — The private sector’s potential role in building resilient societies, and especially in repairing vital infrastructure damaged by disasters, was highlighted by several panellists this afternoon at the Global Platform for Disaster Risk Reduction, which opened here yesterday.  Speaking at a plenary session on “Private sector for resilient societies:  ingredients for success”, several panellists warned that without such a role the world’s future was endangered.

Lyse Doucet, BBC Presenter and Special Correspondent, and Moderator of the plenary, said that with 190 countries represented at the Platform, it was a truly global event.  The bad news was that Planet Earth had a problem — or rather, a disaster.  This was real life and there were real losses.  Today’s theme was “invest today for a safer tomorrow”, but who was doing the investment?  If the private sector was neither building today nor planning for a safer tomorrow, there would be no safer tomorrow. 

Jan Eliasson, United Nations Deputy Secretary-General, said that the estimated global costs of disasters had been seriously underestimated.  The past five years had taught that global economies were at high risk when disasters struck, but the vast majority of damages to business were caused by recurrent local disasters that never made it into international statistics.  Another disturbing recent trend was that it was the fastest-growing countries that lost the most in disasters.  Resilient investments were not only good deeds, but also good business, and in shaping the future development agenda, where disaster risk reduction clearly had a place, the voices of all partners should be heard. 

Andrew Maskrey, Coordinator, United Nations Global Assessment Report on Disaster Risk Reduction, said that the way forward was through partnership between government and business.  People typically blamed nature for disasters, but it was not that simple.  Businesses would have to start taking risks into account when making investments, and Governments needed to attract those investments.  Disaster risk reduction, which had appeared on the horizon only in the past three years, was gradually becoming a priority for the business world.

Roger Sutton, Chief Executive, Canterbury Earthquake Recovery Authority,said that despite the high cost in damages of the 2010 New Zealand earthquakes, the Christchurch economy had never stopped functioning, which was a testament to investments in disaster resilience.  An alliance contract had brought five of the largest building companies together to rebuild infrastructure, but it was important to act while images of death and destruction were still fresh in people’s minds.  Speed really mattered, as did institutions and government. 

Aris Papadopoulos, Chief Executive Officer, Titan America, said that it was people, and not the planet, who were responsible for disasters, so the first step in disaster risk reduction was to acknowledge and take responsibility for humanity’s choices and actions.  Investing in assets always entailed some risk, but non-resilient investing was a bad risk, and nowhere was this more important than in urban settings.  Resilience to future hazards required resilience investing, an area where much could be learned from green investment.  Resilient investment remained so only when properly maintained.  Resilience carried a premium, but the more expensive choice was not having it.

Hans Sy, President, SM Prime Holdings, Inc., said that his company’s assets, which continued to expand, were subject to extreme weather in the Philippines, which had suffered a number of devastating typhoons and floods since 2000.  The company had thus made community resilience a priority in order to ensure its own continuity, increasing its profitability and expanding aggressively, partly through resilience planning.  It had used a collaborative and scientific approach to exploiting business opportunities while also minimizing risk.  Worldwide, the private sector appeared to be increasingly aware that disaster risk resilience made good business sense.

Emiko Okuyama, Mayor of Sendai City, Japan, said that the city had worked with various sectors to increase its disaster risk capacity even before the earthquake and tsunami of 2011, and had been recognized as a role model for disaster management by the United Nations.  Sandra Wu Wen-Hsiu, Chairperson and Chief Executive Officer of Kokusai Kogyo Co., Ltd., elaborated, noting the private sector had been especially active in disaster risk reduction in Japan in the past two years.  The 2011 disasters, which had led to extensive power cuts at a cold time of year, had pinpointed the importance of energy resilience, and the private sector had helped build an energy-diverse town, with additional resilience features funded by government subsidies.  The experience demonstrated that the private sector should be engaged at the local level, and that when it applied core business and core technology to disaster risk reduction it got innovative solutions of benefit to the entire community. 

Linda Yeung, Deputy City Administrator/Chief of Staff for the City and Country of San Francisco, said that the community should also be involved in disaster risk reduction, as was the case in San Francisco, where “lifeline councils” comprising city government and power utilities had been set up as part of disaster contingency planning.

Some disasters, such as drought and desertification, were neither sudden events nor seismic, but nonetheless affected people’s lives, the economy and global security, noted a speaker from the League of Arab States.  Other speakers then addressed how the interests of government and business could be reconciled in protecting countries against such disasters, be they everyday occurrences or otherwise.

Dale Sands, AECOM Technology, said that his company was cooperating with the city of San Francisco and local businesses to determine what investments, particularly in the field of construction, were needed to avert disasters or cope with their aftermath.  AECOM Technology had helped mobilize the community around five goals for urbanization and infrastructure development, taking due account of diversity and sustainable development.  Partnerships should be created between the public and private sectors, and preparedness plans drawn up.

Rowan Douglas, Chief Executive Officer, Willis Re/Willis Research Network, said that the insurance industry had become more resilient to the risk of natural disasters over the past 20 years, following heavy losses in the 1980s and 1990s, and was now applying science much more rigorously to understand the risk.

Participants were concerned about whether businesses were willing to make investments that went beyond their personal property, and asked how people could be incited to strike a balance between the economic and moral optimum level of safety.  The private sector needed to recognize its own role in disaster risk management.  Two thirds of humanity were living in coastal areas, where sea levels were slated to rise by one or two meters, with considerable consequences. Why was the private sector not working much more diligently on climate change?

Mr. Sy said he was always guided by the principle that what was good for the city and public was good for business.  His company had accordingly been working closely with government and invested in infrastructure, especially related to flooding, although not yet to power supplies.  Mr. Papadopoulos suggested that the United Nations should reach out to the private sector and also look into the San Francisco “lifeline councils”.  A similar collaborative process was taking place in Japan, where malls and department stores were asked to store water, food, blankets and generators for use by the surrounding neighbourhood, if necessary.

Mr. Maskrey said that a much more holistic vision of risk was needed, especially as climate change would dramatically aggravate disaster risk in the future.  “Risk is like a boomerang,” said one panellist; “if thrown out it will come back and hit us”.  In that spirit, the post-2015 framework for disaster risk reduction should move from platforms and frameworks to solutions.

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