Asian Institute of Technology Graduation Ceremony - Address by Margareta Wahlström

Asian Institute of Technology Graduation Ceremony, Bangkok, Thailand - Address by Margareta Wahlström, Special Representative of the UN Secretary-General for Disaster Risk Reduction (check against delivery)

20 January 2012 - Excellencies, Representatives of the Diplomatic Community, President of the AIT and the Board, Faculty members, Students, Guests, Ladies and gentlemen,

Thank you for inviting me to this graduation ceremony today. It’s a great pleasure and privilege to speak to future managers, engineers, urban planners; soon you will make the decisions that will have a decisive impact on reducing or increasing the impacts of disasters. And of course, today at this delayed Graduation ceremony, I will speak with you about disaster risk and how to reduce its impact in a difference manner from what I would have done only four months ago – before you experienced in a very direct and practical way how disasters disrupt, destroy and also mobilize cooperation.

Just two days ago, the Centre of Research for the Epidemiology of Disasters released the disaster figures for 2011. What those figures tell us confirm the predictions: the frequency and intensity of weather related disasters such as floods, droughts, and cyclones are increasing and causing devastating economic damages everywhere in the world and particularly in this region.

137 of the 302 reported disasters that happened globally last year occurred in Asia. 26,000 of the 29,000 people who lost their lives to disasters last year came from Asia. A total of 205 million persons were affected by disasters last year, 175 million of whom were from this region. Last but not least, of the $365 billion economic losses caused by disasters worldwide, Asia shouldered the lion’s share of $274 billion.

These figures in terms of general trends are not very different from 2010 and they confirm what we already know: less and less people are dying because of disasters as we have managed to make natural hazards less deadly over the years through better early-warning systems and more preparedness measures.

Nevertheless, the number of people, the growth of economic, social and cultural assets that are exposed and vulnerable to risk to disasters in the world is increasing very rapidly as population grow in flood prone river deltas, in vulnerable coastal areas, on flood plains and in cities located on seismic fault lines or very close to. Many times, compelling socio-economic needs leave them with no other choice – land, for example is often cheaper on slopes and flood zones. But there is also compelling economic reasons – in the short term at least – for proximity to water ways, to central population centres. Growth generates more growth.

As urban growth and human consumption spread along coasts, wetlands, rivers, and natural barriers are destroyed, rivers are re-routed, we put our society in harm’s way without acknowledging and perhaps yet fully understanding the risks accumulating as a result of those many individual and partial decisions. The world population has increased by 87 percent in 30 years. During that same period the population growth in flood prone river delta regions had increased by 114 percent and in cyclone, hurricane prone coastal regions by 195 percent.

The disasters in the world and in Asia in 2010-2011 in particular highlighted the exposure and costly losses to highly developed countries and also to the high degree of interdependencies of modern economies. The earthquakes and flooding in Australia, in Japan and Thailand all having resulted in disrupted supply chains in a modern production system that is built on an open world with effective means of transport. All assumptions having demonstrated to be highly exposed to the sequential and extreme impact of natural hazards.

The 2011 figures tell us is that economic losses due to disasters have reached a new record year (the latest one was 2005). In fact, research demonstrated already early in 2011, that economic losses in the OECD countries are growing faster than in other countries, that the middle income countries with the fastest growing economies are the most exposed but also that the poorest countries suffer proportionally the most damaging impact on their economies. But no country, no economy is sufficiently protected from the increasing losses.

Our socioeconomic, cultural and business growth is centred in high risk areas, because this is where we see opportunities. Urban centres are producing most of the world’s economic output, but at the same time cities are highly vulnerable and very exposed to risk from natural, technological and environmental hazards.

Whereas the scenario that statistics depict is a challenging one, there are many practical things that can be done. Reducing the impact of disasters and reducing the risk and its causes is possible. How to do it?

In 2005, following the Indian Ocean Earthquake and Tsunami, the United Nations General Assembly adopted the Hyogo Framework for Action – a very practical strategy to devise policies and plans to manage disaster risk. The Hyogo Framework and the last 6 years of implementation have shown us that:
- Sound multi hazards disaster risk assessment and sound mechanisms to record loss data are critical to support decisions on development planning.
- Access to and availability of risk information is critical.
- Multi-hazards early warning mechanisms which can reach the community are a critical measure in the overall disaster management system.
- Scientific knowledge, often available, needs to be transformed into actionable information for use by politicians, business, and people in general.
- Disaster risk proof business continuity plans save jobs and economic losses.
- Land-use planning and a well-managed urbanization are critical. Choosing the locations of plants and factories has a direct implication on where entire communities live and work and can avoid job losses due to natural hazards. Investing in mitigation measures such as zoning, mapping, urban planning pays off.
- Education, including higher education, play a fundamental role in advancing the necessary knowledge, and therefore improving current professional practices, and foster a culture of risk management. It is critical that curricula at all levels of education, including courses for professionals, include disaster risk reduction.
- Securing schools and hospitals from disasters is a fundamental step to ensuring the continuity of critical services in times of disasters.
- The institutional and regulatory frameworks are critical to coordinate and guide the work. The further development and elaboration of sectoral codes in building, land use, and other important areas of work needs to be pursued.
- Above all, cooperation is a must. Effective disaster risk reduction action requires close and innovative partnerships between the public and private sector; a renewed understanding between politics and science and technology; an increased understanding across sectors.

And finally, while we do possess the science and technology expertise, and the ability to design solutions to most of our known problems, the main source of uncertainty is in fact , people, and the society that we together shape. Why? Because our risk perception and our way to taking decision is a lot less well understood and predictable than science. Hence I do not hesitate to say the greatest opportunity to build societies, communities and corporations that are better adapted to our current and future challenges and risks, and thus more resilient lies in working with a people focus, and getting to understand and be guided by the ways people may actually get the best laid plans to turn our very differently. A call for more, much more, cooperation between technology and social sciences in both research and application of research.

And while we cannot prevent natural hazards from occurring, we can manage the risk associated. Doing this is a shared responsibility and a collective effort. Every decision counts and can make us more or less vulnerable to disasters. You will have an important role to play through your future profession.
My very best wishes for your success and opportunities to work together for a resilient community.

Thank you.
VI Regional Platform for Disaster Risk Reduction in the Americas, Cartagena, Colombia 20-22 June 2018 VI Regional Platform for Disaster Risk Reduction in the Americas, Cartagena, Colombia 20-22 June 2018.
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