Geneva, Switzerland

21 May 2013

Deputy Secretary-General's remarks to the Opening Ceremony of the Fourth Session of the Global Platform for Disaster Risk Reduction

Welcome, everyone.  Thank you for bringing your expertise to this Global Platform for Disaster Risk Reduction.

Across the United Nations system, Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and I are trying to foster a culture of resilience.  We know from bitter experience that waiting for catastrophe to strike before acting is not tenable and not morally acceptable. 

Let me use a metaphor.  There is very little a fire engine can do when you send it to a house that has already burned down.  But if you fortify that house, if you check it often and keep it up to standards, you may not need a fire engine at all.

This Fourth Session of the Global Platform for Disaster Risk Reduction is functioning as a global “forum” where partners can meet.  I am impressed to see here such a great diversity of participants: officials from national and local governments, NGOs, civil society, the private and public sectors, international organizations, parliamentarians, scientists and academics.

This gathering shows the cross-cutting nature of disaster risk reduction.  All of you are key to building resilience to disasters and making our communities safer.

This is our collective and shared responsibility.

I saw it during my visit to Japan earlier this year.  It has been two years since the “triple” disasters: the devastating earthquake, the tsunami and the nuclear disaster at Fukushima.

The area was still marked by the devastation when I was there. But the people were in the midst of rebuilding.  I visited an elementary school in the city of Ishinomaki.  The structure had been hurt, but the children showed great strength and hope for the future.  They had endured shocks and suffering – losing their parents, neighbours and friends. 

The people of Ishinomaki did exactly what they were told to do over generations – when the tsunami comes, climb up the hill.  So I climbed up the same hill to try to grasp the situation two years earlier.  It was truly frightening to realize that the waves had reached almost 20 meters.

I left Japan impressed by the efforts and work of recovery.  But my visit was also a lesson on the urgency of reducing the risks for disasters.  Japan is leading a model of disaster risk reduction – but even in this advanced country the deadly combination of multiple hazards, was overwhelming and catastrophic. 

And this morning we heard news of the tornado that hit Oklahoma. It particularly affected children with estimates of over twenty killed in a school.  Our thoughts and hearts go to the people of Oklahoma and we hope that help will reach those in need soon.

The impact of this disaster was evident for one of the world’s most economically developed countries.  Think how much more dangerous the situation is in places where people are poor and living in fragile homes with insufficient water and health services.

Least developed and small island developing States face the added burden of climate change, high vulnerability and exposure to hazards. Salt water is entering fresh water sources in outlying islands and the very existence of these islands is threatened.

The risks are higher in poor countries and for poor people – but the strategies are the same.  Everywhere on earth, we reduce risks by identifying and addressing which factors drive the risks and what we can do about them.

In this effort, we need to mobilise the private sector.  How they utilise and invest their resources can mean the difference between life and death.

I strongly claim that business has a strong interest in disaster risk reduction.  I saw this last month during a trip to Bangkok.  Industrial areas had been badly hit by the flooding in 2011.  This was just one example of how disasters affect supply chains and markets.  Forward-looking business leaders know that it pays to address and reduce risk.

In Bangkok, I also saw the devastating effects of floods in the ancient capital city of Ayutthaya, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.  I am gratified that the Thai Government is developing a flood-risk mitigation plan for this historic city, with support from the United Nations and the Asian Development Bank.     

Let me finally also make the case that disaster risk reduction is essential to reach the Millennium Development Goals.  There can be no sustainable access to safe drinking water and basic sanitation if water sources and latrines are vulnerable to natural hazards.  Hospitals and other community structures must be resilient.  It is not acceptable that so many people die in disasters because of weak and neglected building standards.  We have seen several such tragic disasters in recent times.

The Hyogo Framework for Action has been a valuable guide for international cooperation.  Now we must build on the achievements, and address the gaps and challenges.

Our meeting here in Geneva is an opportunity to exchange ideas, build consensus and mobilize political momentum ahead of the World Conference for Disaster Risk Reduction which will hopefully adopt a practical vision for the future.   This will guide our work in this area for decades to come.

As you know, we are also now shaping a new global approach to sustainable development.  Disaster risk reduction should be an important component in this work as well as in the post 2015 development agenda.

I am proud to announce that the United Nations is accelerating its support to countries through a joint Plan of Action to reduce disaster risk and build resilience.  This is our response to the mid-term review of the Hyogo Framework for Action.

We are committed to do everything we can to reduce the risks stemming from disasters in communities, nations and our world.  I look forward to listening to and building on your ideas and initiatives in these common efforts.

Thank you.