OPINION: Six years on from Sendai disaster accord, pandemic shows need to reset priorities

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By Mami Mizutori

It would take 500 years to invest as much in preparedness as the world is now losing because of impacts of COVID-19 on health, the global economy and social well-being.

There was something prophetic in the text agreed on this day six years ago by UN member States meeting at the World Conference on Disaster Risk Reduction in the city of Sendai, the ground zero of the destructive earthquake and tsunami which hit Japan in 2011.

Experiences of Ebola, SARS, HINI and other disease outbreaks ensured that for the first time a global agreement on disaster prevention would include a direct reference to epidemics and pandemics, the threat of biological hazards and the important role that health plays in reducing disaster risk.

The Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction adopted on March 18, 2015, also recognized the critical distinction between managing disasters and managing the risks that drive them. UNDRR research tells us that if you invest in prevention the benefits in avoided losses and cost of reconstruction can be as high as 15 to 1.

In the case of COVID-19 it has been estimated that it would take 500 years to spend as much on investing in preparedness as the world is now losing because of the cascading impacts of the disease on health, the global economy and social well-being.

Since Sendai six years ago and the subsequent adoption of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, the world has lost ground in the battle to reduce disaster losses by failing to act on early warnings, eliminate risk and invest in disaster prevention.

COVID-19 was a disaster that the Sendai Framework was intended to prevent with its clear focus on the importance of health measures for reducing disaster risk. The failure to put words into action on biological hazards has resulted in 120 million cases of COVID-19 so far and 2.6 million deaths.

It is a tragedy which has dwarfed all other major disasters experienced so far this century including the Somalia famine, the Indian Ocean tsunami and the Haiti earthquake which together claimed a total of over 700,000 lives.

The world – low income and middle-income countries in particular – continues to be devastated by a mistaken notion of human progress.

The global use of fossil fuels, the destruction of the environment, rising poverty and hunger, inequality in the distribution of COVID-19 vaccines are all symptoms of a deep malaise.

It is a failure to understand and put into practice the age-old wisdom that “no man is an island entire of itself.”


Those who drafted the Sendai Framework also proposed some solutions to curb our enthusiasm for going it alone in the mistaken belief that a nationalist approach is the best way forward in the response to existential threats like the climate emergency and pandemics.

The Sendai Framework recognizes the importance of spreading a greater understanding of disaster risk among the public at large to ensure that civil society works in partnership with governments to advocate for and enact measures to reduce risk, whether it is a switch to renewable energy or sensible health measures.

The success of that effort depends very much on the quality of disaster risk governance which is now in need of a serious overhaul given the failures of recent years. We need a new vision and clearer understanding of just how important it is to have well-resourced autonomous institutions acting solely in the public good to manage disaster risk.

To quote the Sendai Framework: “Disaster risk governance at the national, regional and global levels is of great importance for an effective and efficient management of disaster risk.”

In light of the pandemic and the growing intensity and frequency of extreme weather events, that seems like an understatement but it means that when UN member states gather this year at the World Health General Assembly, the UN Biodiversity Conference, COP 26 or the regional meetings convened by the UN Office for Disaster Risk Reduction, that there is agreement on concrete actions to stop the planet’s destruction.

International cooperation in support of developing countries must go hand-in-glove with strengthening disaster risk governance to manage the planetary emergencies which affect countries that are climate-vulnerable, struggling to cope with disaster losses, lack adequate health services and early warning systems.

The recovery from COVID-19 is an opportunity to reset priorities to ensure that the 21st century is one in which we act decisively to reduce the existential threats that threaten our survival as a species.

Our focus now must be on leaving a safer, more resilient planet for future generations.

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