Top scientist appeals for better communication of risk

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Date: 21 Jun 2012

Source(s): United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction – Regional Office for the Americas (UNISDR - AM)

RIO DE JANEIRO, 21 June 2012 - The UK's Chief Scientific Adviser, Sir John Beddington, used yesterday's UNISDR "Resilient Cities" event at Rio+20 to make an urgent appeal for scientists to use plain language if they are to play a larger role in policymaking on climate change.

"The next fifteen years are really problematic. We'll have a billion more people on the planet. Those people will be living in cities that are vulnerable and on top of that climate change will be happening," he said.

"Climate change and better weather technology allow us to predict extremes well in advance and to do it well. But if we move from the purely physical and biological sciences to include behavioral and social sciences, we can improve also how we communicate risk and help communities to improve their response."

Addressing the event, "Resilient Cities: Local Action to Achieve Sustainable Development", Sir John said there was a strong role for science to play in disaster risk reduction and resilience building, including prediction and the use of historical data in designing cities in vulnerable areas. He concluded that scientific and technological support should be offered in the context of local community engagement.

The event was moderated by Margareta Wahlström, the UN Special Representative for Disaster Risk Reduction, who said: "Sustainable development cannot be sustainable unless you look at the risk, and the risk is from disasters and climate risk."

Mary Jane Ortega, Secretary-General, Regional Network of Local Authorities for the Management of Human Settlements, (CITYNET) said: "Cities have gained ground through the years and are now recognized by the United Nations as a major stakeholder group. The challenge is to build the capacity of local government officials to interact with other stakeholders to create a future that's sustainable, such as national government and the private sector."

CITYNET is one of 24 partners working with UNISDR to shore up community resilience through a worldwide campaign called "Making Cities Resilient" which has over 1,000 members in over 80 countries and aims to save lives and reduce the economic impact of disasters.

Ms. Ortega lamented the lack of trust investors show towards local governments, saying that CITYNET works on building their capacity and improving good governance. She stressed the importance of city-to-city cooperation, saying these efforts need to be scaled-up.

The Making Cities Resilient campaign, which began two years ago, is focusing attention on actions that local governments -- rich or poor -- can take to strengthen resilience in a collaborative fashion, said Ms. Wahlström.

"The Ten Essential actions that underpin the campaign do not pretend to do everything, but outline actions that, if taken, can help cities make huge progress in a time frame that makes sense to both the population and city leaders," she explained.

Graciela Ortuzar, the mayor of Lampa, Chile, joined the UNISDR campaign to help her improve the city's resilience after the Chile earthquake in 2010, and since then has been championing its collaborative approach to other cities.

Mayor Ortuzar said: "I think this is a topic that we should try to promote in every space we have available. Besides trying to make people aware of disaster risk reduction, I think that what's most important is to sensitize the public on its importance through different types of dialogues, both political and social.

"Last year, we held a workshop with many cities in Chile to promote and present the idea of disaster risk reduction to community leaders. We spent the next few months convincing networks across different fields of its importance -- farmers, entrepreneurs and schools. Generating the required social capital is crucial in this campaign."

Ms. Ortuzar said well-designed legislation could provide the right framework in which mayors can operate, which Saber Hossain Chowdhury, Bangladeshi Member of Parliament, said was the case in his country.

"Population density is a major problem in Bangladesh," said Mr. Chowdhury, who explained that Bangladesh's capital city, Dhaka, is set to be the third largest city in the world by 2020 with as many as 30,000 people per square kilometers in the next few years.

"The more assets you have, the more important your city becomes and the higher your exposure. In Bangladesh, we are creating space for political ownership over the issue of risk, where political coalitions are very important. The best policies in the world won't amount to anything unless there is joint action on the ground." He added that cities contribute 60% of GDP in Bangladesh.

Also emphasizing the importance of partnerships, Guiteau Jean-Pierre, Director General, Haitian Red Cross, spoke on Red Cross interventions in informal settlements in Haiti to support government policies and provide communities with clean water, health care and shelters. Jean-Pierre underlined the importance of an integrated approach when working closely with local governments.

He said: "We've built tens of thousands of shelters, and in the process, we've learned how to work closer with the political establishment. Mayors gave us land on which to build. Partnership is key."

Peter Gruetter, Cisco Systems, presented examples of promising resilience partnerships, including: public-private partnerships to provide emergency services in Japan; the U-City concept in Korea, based on the use of technology to address urbanization challenges; Urban EcoMap in San Francisco and Amsterdam, enabling citizens and business to compare their climate relevant behaviors; and the Planetary Skin Institute in Brazil, which addresses issues of resource scarcity.

He also discussed proactive interdependence as a recipe for disaster risk reduction and resilience building. He concluded that private sector initiatives to support DRR are not a matter of reputation management, but a business, and stressed that resilience is mission critical.