Australia leading the world in disaster risk reduction

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By Margaret Wahlström, Special Representative of the Secretary-General (SRSG) for Disaster Risk Reduction

Last month UN Secretary-General, Ban Ki-moon, warned that ‘’economic losses from disasters are out of control’’. Losses to date this century are in the range of AUD2.7 trillion, at least 50 percent higher than previous estimates.

Yet, while economic losses have gone through the roof there is some good news, and that is that fewer lives are being lost to weather-related disasters in most parts of the world.

One of the main reasons for this is the growing use of risk assessments and early warning systems based on accessible data of better quality. This was an important emphasis in the current global agreement, the Hyogo Framework for Action, which was adopted in 2005 just three weeks after the Indian Ocean tsunami.

Australia’s work to integrate disaster risk reduction, climate change adaptation and environmental considerations in AusAID programs abroad, consistent with efforts improve disaster resilience at home, tells me that Australia’s commitment is long-term as well as high-profile.

This week, UNISDR co-hosted with the Australian Government, a workshop on Using Risk Information to Make People More Resilient: Recommendations for a Post-2015 Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction’. Consultations like this, organised with strong partners like AusAID, are vital as we seek new paths to resilience.

Only two years remain until the current term of the Hyogo Framework for Action (HFA) comes to a close, and indeed much has been achieved. As momentum builds to forge a new agreement on disaster risk reduction, the world is looking to Australia for continued global leadership in sustainable development, which is by definition disaster-resilient.

We see the need for disaster risk reduction demonstrated on a daily basis – the tragedy of lives lost this week in flooding in India is evidence of the need to improve our understanding of risk at all levels of society. We need to factor disaster risks in the decisions we make every day – including where to live, how to design our houses, and how to make a living.

The UN’s 2013 Global Assessment Report on Disaster Risk Reduction provides some good examples of how access to, and use of risk information, saves money and builds resilience in the real world.

Prior to the 2010 and 2011 earthquakes in Christchurch, New Zealand, a study on public-private partnerships prompted the city to incorporate disaster risk management into the daily practices of their utilities. As a result, after the disasters, the Port of Littleton was able to quickly reopen, telecommunications buildings remained operational despite being damaged and most of the city’s retrofitted bridges survived intact.

Similarly, local electricity supplier Orion invested USD6 million in earthquake protection measures, a decision that saved the company USD65 million in the wake of the earthquakes.

Recent progress reporting shows how far we have come. Since 2005, 121 countries have established policy and legal frameworks for disaster risk reduction, and almost 90 percent of countries report that disaster risks are considered within their public investment and planning decisions.

But the report also shows how far we still need to go. Addressing the underlying drivers of risk remains a challenge as does finding the resources to ensure that policies translate into action.

Last month more than 3,500 people from a wide range of backgrounds – from Heads of State and Ministers to local NGOs and community groups – came together at the 4th Global Platform for Disaster Risk Reduction to agree on the way forward. The Chair’s Summary highlights the ‘‘consensus that the new instrument – informally known as HFA2 – should build on the HFA and introduce the innovations necessary to address the challenges of increasing risk over the next 20 to 30 years.”

Australia’s extensive and varied experience of disaster risk management can help us to get there.

About the author: Margareta Wahlström

Margareta Wahlström has over 30 years of extensive national and international experience in humanitarian relief operations in disaster and conflict areas, and in institution-building to strengthen national capacity for disaster preparedness, response and for risk reduction.

In November 2008, the United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon announced her appointment as the first Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Disaster Risk Reduction. Ms. Wahlström is based in Geneva and heads UNISDR, the United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction.

Ms. Wahlström has an academic background in economic history, political science, social anthropology, archaeology and philosophy of science. She speaks English, Swedish, French and Spanish. She is from Sweden.

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