Margareta Wahlström, United Nations Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Disaster Risk Reduction

Why is disaster prevention so important?

Margareta Wahlström, Assistant Secretary-General for Disaster Risk Reduction at the UN, explains why disaster prevention is an obligatory part of efficient disaster risk management, especially in cities.

Why is the ISDR Making Cities Resilient Campaign so important?
Margareta Wahlström:
Hardly a day goes by without seeing a news report on a city or town, large or small, being hit by a disaster of one kind or another. It can vary from dramatic events such as an earthquake or a flood. Or an all too frequent fire racing through a slum or informal settlement where wooden buildings are too close to each other. The loss of life in a city can be on a dramatic scale, such as the death toll of over 200,000 in Port-au-Prince in January 2010 in Haiti.
 
Economic losses can be enormous as we have seen recently in Thailand where floods devastated industrial towns in the north of the country putting some 700,000 people out of work, with all the economic hardship that implies for their families. The result was that Thailand's industrial production index dropped by 35.8% in October. I have seen with my own eyes the devastation in Bangkok as a result of the floodwaters. Flooding means that you cannot move out of your house without a boat, that you have no immediate access to drinking water, clean toilets and sometimes electricity, and that you have to continue living and working surrounded by tons of rubbish and filthy water.
 
The situation is particularly bad for elderly people and young children who are among the most vulnerable and most exposed to diseases. When disaster strikes, schools are often closed or turned into shelters – putting at risk the education of children who may drop out of the education system. It is harder for people to access health facilities, which may be damaged or destroyed. Roads and other critical public infrastructure can be badly affected. All the things that we take for granted in a normal well-functioning urban environment are no longer in place.
 
Urban planning and the care and maintenance of public infrastructure are central to creating cities and communities that are resilient and where disaster risk is reduced. For the first time in human history, the majority of the world's population now live in urban settings and this is a key reason why this campaign is so important. The 21st century will see urbanization accelerate further and we need to become smarter at planning this rapid growth in our cities to avoid building risk through poor decision making and neglect of good practice in urban planning. There are about one billion people living in informal urban settings around the world and this is a major driver of risk in a world becoming more exposed to extreme weather events driven by climate change.
 
Urban risk reduction provides opportunities for capital investments through infrastructure upgrades and improvements, building retrofits for energy efficiency and safety, urban renovation and renewal, cleaner energies, and slum upgrading. Local governments are the institutional level closest to the citizens and to their communities. They play the first role in responding to crises and emergencies and in attending to the needs of their constituencies. They deliver essential services to their citizens, such as health, education, transport, water and so on, which need to be made resilient to disasters.
 
Cities need support from the national government, the private sector, academia and research institutions, civil society and other partners to implement the Ten Essentials of our campaign. The Campaign provides a framework for these actors to work together and build resilience as they implement the ten principles which the campaign has identified as essential for cities to manage disaster risk. The Campaign is proving to be hugely successful with over a 1,000 cities and local governments already signed up. Our role model cities are a source of inspiration to others and the sharing of experience is a key element of the campaign's success. It is important also to recognize best practice and draw attention to it.
 
We are also producing a Handbook for Mayors that will come out next year, which provides further guidelines for turning the Ten Essentials into practice.  We will be introducing a local government self-assessment tool next year which will help cities to benchmark their progress in building resilience.  Those that want to improve can do so with the help of their peers, through city-to-city exchanges.
 
The first RISK Award is dedicated to “Early warning in urban areas” – what do you expect?
Margareta Wahlström:
The best prepared cities have one important thing in common: citizens who are well informed by their local government about the hazards they face, and who know that it’s a shared responsibility between themselves and the government to manage that risk. So, when they receive early warning from the authorities that a big storm or other potentially catastrophic event is about to hit, citizens take it seriously and are ready to follow the government’s advice. Thousands of lives were saved when the Great East Japan earthquake struck one of the most heavily urbanized countries in the world earlier this year. Children and adults alike were well-drilled on what to expect in the event of a tsunami and many managed to flee to safety despite the overall tragic loss of life.
 
Another thing that best prepared cities have in common is a local government that has the necessary machinery to collect information about the hazards and create hazard maps for their communities. They analyze that information to discover the strengths and weaknesses of their population vis-a-vis the hazards they face. They understand what part of the community is most resilient, and they also put plans in place to respond to the needs of more vulnerable groups such as the elderly, the young, and groups living in marginal areas. They ask the right questions about scaling-up risk management and include everyone in their plans regardless of class, ethnicity, gender or age. They ask where is the community vulnerable, and where can the different sectors of society come together to help reduce vulnerability.  This way, when an early warning is issued it is effective and everyone – from the most prepared to the most vulnerable – will know what to expect and respond appropriately.
 
I am very much looking forward to hear what the nominees are proposing and I hope that they will have some new and innovative suggestions.
 
The RISK Award is a partnership prize (MRF, GRF, ISDR). Why are partnerships crucial for DRR?
Margareta Wahlström:
Everybody needs partners to be successful. For our Cities Campaign to succeed we need to partner with mayors and their local governments who are both the key targets and drivers of the campaign. Making cities safe from disaster is everybody's business. National governments, local government associations, international, regional and civil society organizations, aid donors, the private sector, academia and professional associations as well as every citizen needs to be engaged. We need everyone on board for disaster risk reduction if we are to truly make a difference.
 
At UNISDR, we always stress the importance of partnerships because reducing the risk of disaster requires expertise of different kinds. For example, it’s important that city officials get support from corporations to implement disaster risk reduction policies because the life of a bustling city is linked closely to industry and the private sector. In many cases, corporations have a hand in deciding how land is used, what infrastructure gets developed, and where workers live and the conditions they live in. Building a network of engaged private sector partnerships increases the opportunity to pool data and resources. These are all important factors to consider when trying to manage risk.
 
Similarly, it’s important for city officials to receive information from the scientific and research community about changing hazards and vulnerabilities, because cities are dynamic ecosystems, changing as people flow in and out; changing in degrees of exposure as the weather fluctuates because of climate change; and as development causes the nature of settlements, industrial zones, and the use of public land to change.
 
The potential for good partnerships does not end there. The most successful governments also benefit greatly from good relationships with civil society, the media, and donors. Partnerships are crucial to our joint success, and we are pleased to count the MunichRe Foundation and Global Risk Forum Davos among our strongest partners.

12 December 2011
 
 

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