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Margareta Wahlström: 'It pays to be well prepared'

Source(s):  United Nations Department of Public Information (UN-DPI)

It pays to be well prepared, particularly where natural hazards and disaster risk reduction were concerned, the top United Nations official responsible for mitigating disaster risks worldwide, said today.

Addressing correspondents at a Headquarters press conference on the upcoming one-year anniversary of the Great East Japan Earthquake on March 11 2011, Margareta Wahlström, Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Disaster Risk Reduction, said Japan had shown the world that despite the major tragedy it had suffered on that day, prevention and preparedness paid off. “Building codes pay, early warning systems pay, it saves lives. Drills, training, public education and awareness also pay off and save lives,” she said.

If none of those things had been consistently implemented in Japan as they had been for decades, last year’s horror would have been much worse, Ms. Wahlström asserted. A remarkable testimony to the quality of the buildings was the fact that the tsunami, and not the earthquake, had been responsible for the main destruction to the buildings. Today, the main focus remained on the interaction between assets — in this case, the nuclear power plants and similar industries, such as the petro-chemical industry — with the potential to damage the environment.

She said there were many lessons learned from last year’s earthquake, and the marking of its first anniversary in a few days was an opportunity to again recognize the importance of Japanese education about disasters over hundreds of years, and to drive the work globally that was being done in the International Strategy for Disaster Reduction (ISDR) on how to reduce disaster risk in order to preserve the development assets of countries and communities.

The world had learnt, for instance, that the Japan disaster was one of the most globally destructive in history, she said. Last year was the peak year of disaster loses so far in recorded history, with total losses at a staggering $380 billion at least, two thirds higher than the previous record with Hurricane Katrina. The losses last year mainly stemmed from earthquakes in Japan and New Zealand, she said, explaining that earthquakes were the costliest and deadliest of disasters. In addition to those, the world had also experienced several other major events, including flooding in Thailand and many other countries.

“So the main message is that this is an increasing — and very rapidly increasing — trend, with increasingly economic losses,” she stated. Globally, the disaster mortality was proportionally declining because countries were getting much better at early warning systems and preparedness. But the economics of disasters was becoming a major threat to several countries, and today, 50 per cent of the world’s population lived in highly vulnerable areas and was thus exposed to hazards and disaster risk.

Development itself posed major risk accumulation to all countries, whether rich or poor, although clearly, the poorest ones suffered the most, she said. Looking forward to the Rio+20 Conference later in the year, the message for her office and the international community was that there could be no development framework that did not clearly recognize and plan for the climate risk and disaster risk on development investments, she declared.

All the challenges notwithstanding, much progress had been made, she said, pointing to the four major drivers of disasters, namely, environmental and natural resource depletion, shelter, food security and poor land-use planning. She said the world needed 50 per cent more food to feed the planet, 45 per cent more energy and 30 per cent more water – all critical assets that were already under threat and were the triggers of disasters. One billion people today lived in informal settlements sometimes called “slums”, and 1 billion people were hungry. Approximately 85 per cent of all low-income countries in the world reported that they were unable to utilize land-use planning as an instrument to reduce risk.

She said the one-year anniversary of the Japanese earthquake presented the opportunity to start the process on the next Hyogo Framework of Action, which had been agreed in January 2005, a few weeks after the Indian Ocean tsunami. Some 133 countries around the world were already reporting regularly on progress and there were more than 80 national platforms with the task of motivating disaster risk reduction agendas. There was also increasingly strong understanding of the economics of disasters and disaster risks, she explained.

With Japan, and in recognition of that country’s enormous contribution to the first Hyogo Framework of Action, her office was embarking on global consultations on a next such framework. She foresaw an intensive global collaboration on designing it in the next three years. Japan was scheduled to host a meeting this summer — the first high-level conference where the country would share the lessons it had learned from last year’s tsunami. Many other countries were also initiating their lessons learned from a decade of trying to reduce the constantly accelerating losses from disasters.

Responding to a correspondent’s question, Ms. Wahlström said Japan was one of the countries most vulnerable to disaster risk, both in terms of gross domestic product (GDP) and population exposure. That was a best guess, however, since very few countries — some 80 worldwide — kept accurate databases on disaster loss. Her office was working with 40 countries to introduce such instruments.

To a question about how the countries of Europe, especially those of the western Balkans, had fared in responding to the severe weather that hit the region, she said those countries cooperated very actively with her office on risk reduction matters. “Serbia, the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Slovenia – they were all very, very active and they have a lot of expertise, in fact,” she said, adding that Romania and Bulgaria were also traditionally active in that regard.

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  • Publication date 05 Mar 2012

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