Lessons from Disasters - Keynote address by Margareta Wahlstrom

13th National Conference on Science, Policy and the Environment on "Science, Preparedness and Resilience", USA - Keynote address by Margareta Wahlström, Special Representative of the UN Secretary-General for Disaster Risk Reduction (check against delivery)

Good morning. I must say that I am really honored and very impressed to have been asked to come and speak to this audience. I know you are a powerful group of scientists and I think a lot of students here today as well. And so, we have the both the advantage of accrued wisdom and hope for the future here today.

So the one idea that Peter [Saundry, Executive Director of the National Council for Science and the Environment ] wanted you to come up with after three day's work is let it be three ideas for the future. So I'm going to go on and of course to speak here today with [FEMA Administrator] Craig Fugate who I think is an extraordinary practitioner and you will be very impressed by what he will tell you today.

But I wanted to start with just a quote that I am a little bit engineering for the benefit of this audience, "This conference," it says, "is at a crossroad in human progress. In one direction lies the meager results of an extraordinary opportunity given and the other direction, the world community can change the course of events by reducing the suffering from disasters. Action is urgently needed."

Sounds good, yes. This was a document 20 years ago. So let me say that I'm really pleased that you have my disasters as topics of this year's conference. I know that the National Council for Science and Environment meets every year in this setting and that you pick themes. And I think the opportunity for us to bring together the practical disaster impact with the science and the insights is very opportune.

I would also like to use the theme of your conference, science, preparedness and resilience as the framework for my short comments this morning. And science has, for many decades, looked at disasters as a scientific issue well before the international strategy of disaster reduction was established, scientists had worked for a minimum of four decades to get attention to the accrual of risk and accumulation of how disasters are impacting society because it's society that creates the disaster, disasters are of course not in themselves anything but the disturbance of nature.

So after this, some of you will be familiar and may be even have worked with the International Decade for Disaster Reduction which came to an end in the '90s but I think that very distinguished group, the United States was very, very active in this regard. That distinguished group of scientists reached a point where they felt no one is listening. There was something about the strategy to try to bring to the attention of the citizen makers that we were in front of a very dangerous trend of undermining the significant development impacts that countries were achieving all around the world.

And so, and there were a lot of geo-scientists of course but also a very strong understanding that climate change was not only happening. It had been happening for a long time and that that was going to be a clear determinant for future disaster risk evolution.

So when the organization that I represent is a relatively modest office within the U.N. secretariat but what is not modest I would say is the multi-state international partnership that was built around the International Strategy for Disaster Reduction, the ISVR which I can simply say has got one foot in the U.N. and one foot in the rest of the world because we can only work in partnerships. We can only build on the knowledge of science. We have to work with governments, of course with local governments, with business and with parliamentarians, with any stakeholder that understands and is willing to engage in education and managing the risks for the future.

And the first product or the first idea of the people that get together in the earliest parts of the decade of 2000, so we needed an instrument for an international cooperation, Peter mentioned cooperation is the key here. And they started working on what became the Hyogo Framework for Action. And I hope that at least 10 percent of you have heard about this, maybe.

I'm used to it that it's not being very familiar but I'm also very used to that people actually know what's in it when we start describing it. The Hyogo Framework for Action was a continuation of the work of the previous decades. There had been the Yokohama Strategy which was very strongly science based. So there have been all these strategies.

So the new strategy was really about outreach, advocacy, mobilization. It was really setting a framework for one outcome, three global strategic goals and five priorities. And the sense of the people who put this together is if you could actually tackle these five things, you will be a safer nation and a safer world.

The adoption of the Hyogo Framework for Action happened to coincide. It was a coincidence, a tragic one, with the Indian Ocean tsunami which took place in December, as you remember, 2004. In 2005, people met in Kobe, Japan to adopt this framework. And I can assure you, even though I wasn't there, I was in Aceh, in Indonesia, at that time, but I can assure you that the Hyogo Framework for Action gained a completely different political impetus by the tsunami, which was, of course, in all that tragedy, a strength that we have lived on a lot because it really forced the mind of many countries around the world.

But having worked on the Hyogo Framework for Action for now, it also set up a voluntary reporting system with countries biennially reporting on the progress according to the framework. These are quite unique things. You know, you have 140 countries voluntarily making reports into a system that is quite discreet. Establishing fairly discreetly, I would say a kind of baseline for global disaster risk, and above all, what countries are doing about it. We just finalized the third cycle now.

So I think a little bit, so I'd say that the very strong emphasis on science has disappeared a bit during this decade. And what I would like to see is that we revitalize the science input, in particular, in economic and social sciences. And I think the physical sciences are there although I don't know what the case is in United States, but I know for sure, everywhere else in the world, we ask these question(s)... Are you teaching risk at the academic level? Are your engineering students learning about risk? And the answer is all too often no.

So just as a message to you, I'm trying to mobilize academic networks to make sure that the curricula get more and more informed by risk. Business schools are teaching risk, financial risk, of course. But are our universities around the world really looking into a future where they can equip their future leaders of countries and decision- makers at every level to consider risk? Not yet.

So where we come today with the help of scientists, of course, that we need to re-engage and we need to revitalize the very strong interest in risk that we have seen during many decades. And that the Hyogo Framework for Action 1, as I call it, the first generation, I think when I look back now at the work that has been done and the evolution of risk and disaster losses, I think we've been in a period of preparedness as you call it. It's been a period of building systems, of reaching out, of bringing up the evidence base, of learning more and particularly about the economics of managing risk and big questions today about how are we going to pay for disaster losses in the future.

It's a very critical period now. I know you're surely going to hear from the administrator, forget about this. But everybody around the world, there is a clear message from governments that we cannot cope with these costs anymore. And the other message that many governments, you will hear many governments say, is we have to ask for citizens to take a much bigger responsibility for their own safety.

Now, they can call that a kind of risk transfer mechanism. But I think it is -- it's a very important shift in the attitude of many governments and seeing it really as their role to really take care of citizens very fully. So how this is going to take place, it's quite a novel message. But how it's going to play out I think will be a very important point for how we manage future risk.

So I think just to conclude on the risk evolution, there's a fundamental recognition that is still a gap. But if the world should continue to maintain the idea of a sustained and equitable economic and social development but also will be inclusive, it is absolutely critical that risk is recognized and managed in all sectors of society. And that it's done on a clear recognition. But in the absence of this, there will be increasing losses, there will be social instability and there will be radical changes in society. And add to the risks on these disasters that you recognize visually. There are many other silent disasters and one of the most critical, I'm very convinced by now, is the longer term impact on individuals of disasters.

Not enough is known about the 5, 10, 15 and 20 years after disasters and the effects on education, health, income. Many people, 15 years, talk about the worst thing that they remember after disaster is the unemployment and the economic losses. And they were not able to ever get back to where they were in disasters, and this is in rich countries. So this perspective is where I think we will find the model for resilience. We have to look at it really as an all of society obligation. It has to, of course, be a much higher political priority to look at all the aspects of resilience and safety.

You are very familiar with the drivers of disaster risk. It's -- the Hyogo Framework for Action was very clear -- climate change, technological risks, poverty, weak governance, silent and very slow- moving but dramatic disasters you're suffering a lot here in the United States like drought and current and future water shortages.

Very often, urbanization is talked about as a risk. And I think you cannot just say risk because urbanization is also economic growth. It's modernization, it's opportunity, it's education. And it's also, as many climate specialist will say, it's the most economically efficient way of managing climate risk. Because you have so many people in one place, it becomes feasible financially from a different perspective. But in themselves, all these factors, of course, drive risk very rapidly.

Internationally, if we just take a quick look at the disaster trends, you will, if you follow disasters, you will see the frequency and type of disasters happen more and more everywhere. And people ask themselves what's the reason for this. And when you work in disasters, you tend to less ponder the reasons and you have to address it. But you also have to say if this is a persistent trend, which it really has been for 40 years now, and what is it that we do in societies that actually do not make us more capable to anticipate and mitigate the impacts of this frequency of disasters.

And about six or seven years ago, I met a group of meteorological and climate specialists and, you know, there was the discussion about what does this mean. And they said that simply, you know, you can't say with any certainty, you've heard that, but for sure it means more of the same, more extremes and more unusual events. And I think that's not a bad planning paradigm. It could be very expensive if you have to build in redundancies in it.

Do not be complacent, don't assume that every event is a final event, and really take seriously that it's not the event that creates the disaster. It's the society that it impacts, that's the basis for disaster. So it's how we organize society, how we design and build infrastructure and where we put our industries. And there's a lot also about the governance and authority that goes into manage risk in society as we will see.

The knowledge base that we work with is actually getting rapidly stronger. Different kinds of global risk models, multi-hazards are being developed. Strong models for how to project future losses and understanding various risk mitigation instruments are being developed. And the IPCC, I hope you noticed, issued a report in 2012 on the extreme events. That's the language for disasters.

And they did an IPCC study, a good solid peer-reviewed scientific study together with disaster experts from all around the world, to actually see, if we put these things together, what are the trends? Can we validate what the disaster practitioners said? The answer was largely yes. And except for in a few cases where they say we don't have enough data to project anything for the future. But nothing that we've seen after that has really shown an indication that we are not continuing in the same direction.

The economic losses are going up, caused by disasters everywhere in the world. Poor countries, rich countries, middle income countries. It's a very rapidly increasing trend. And of course , the richer the country, the higher the value of the losses. But the relative impact on the GDP is smaller.

Poor countries are still in a position where, particularly if they are dependent on only one or two areas of economic basis, they can easily suffer 12 percent annually to the GDP, like from a hurricane in the Caribbean. And increasingly, they are in this situation, that they barely rebuild their infrastructure before the next hurricane comes and hits the same infrastructure. So many countries, in fact, today -- I'm not saying that they are happy with their ability to prepare and respond to disaster, but compared to where we were 20 years ago, for sure, the capability to respond is much improved globally. But what they see ahead of them is the fear of how are we going to pay for this reconstruction. Over and over and over again, we don't have the financial means to tackle this.

And where will the future instruments develop, how will households, people but governments also, and how can business cope with the losses that they are incurring in the same context, so I think these are the questions that will have to bring us together internationally and nationally to really look at what's the viability of the model for development we have and who -- how do we keep innovating, what's the rate of innovation in financial instruments. I don't think it's very quickly right now. We are so much taken up by responding and worrying about today's events.

So in the end, the second factor is population growth. You will see not only economic losses are going up, but you can also see that the population is growing two or three times as quickly in the most vulnerable areas. Coastal zones, river basins, flood-prone river basins, and why is that when it's very obviously because that's the basis of a strong economic growth. So this combination of economic growth driving accumulation of future risk is very clear everywhere and the evidence is strong. Now, all this means that we actually could know how to plan for the future. We could give priority to looking at these areas.

And finally, when we're looking at future resilience, I'd like to share with you a couple of things that we have learned through the reporting of countries into the Hyogo Framework for Action Monitor, as it's called. Three reporting cycles, and what are they saying the successes. Well, one success is building preparedness and response systems, early warning system improvements. Lots of legislation has been issued around the world.

The big challenge is to get into this arena of development planning. It's in agriculture, water, land management, urban planning. And this is what the framework calls reducing underlying risk. It's whole development paradigm where I think we are still in the preparedness phase of getting the guidance and the strong direction, that this is a high priority because the damage to society is not acceptable. And therefore, we need to ensure that all parts of society, be it private or public, in fact considers to manage this risk.

So that's one aspect that come through this report. They also report, in fact, that they have great challenges with information flow. Not that they don't have access to information. But the way the information exists in the public space, it's such an enormous volume. And it's not really accessible for us as a decision-maker to use rationally. So how can we, in fact, tell people who want to use all the knowledge that is out there to have easier access and to be able to manage their risks in a rational manner.

Third point, lots of issues around governance. Why is that? Well, it's different in different countries obviously. But still all too often, there is, the responsibility to drive, manage, and lead on risk thinking mitigation is left with the national institutions that are in charge of emergency management.

And if you are an emergency manager, unless you are extremely well-resourced, you're also extremely busy. And in many countries in the world, you actually do not have, to be very frank with you, you don't have the influence in the government institutions to coordinate and lead and drive the innovation. So it's not so easy to be in that position, nor do you necessarily have strong political access to be able to draw down and put it behind the necessary decisions.

The advantage with emergency management, they are very close to people. They really know what the issue. It's also a practice that can be a very strong driving force for this. But most countries in the world comment on governance. They also command on public policy issues and similar areas.

Key two messages from them. The Hyogo Framework for Action, we are now in 2013. In 2015, we come to the end of the first working period so to say. And as of last year, we've been requested to facilitate discussions on the post-2015 framework, and so this has already started in all the regions in the world on, of course, here in the United States with our partners.

We're also trying to motivate, look into the future what will risk look like in 25 years. What are the critical areas that we, if we work together internationally can really be helpful to countries, regional organizations in motivating a shift in the perspective of how risk is managed? Here are two things that come to say clearly so far. One is they say we really have to tackle the issue of climate change and disaster risk reduction.

Disaster risk reduction traditionally and what has so far being called climate adaptation, 70 percent is the same thing you do, the timeframe issue. So why do we have separate policies and practices? Why don't we make more rational use of the resources of the competencies that exist? So they say please, come to grips with this in the next Hyogo Framework for Action which we call Hyogo Framework for Action 2.

The second thing, and I believe this is a major what many people call "emerging risk" is really to understand that the more complex society becomes, the more vulnerable we are becoming at the same time. The more exposed our infrastructure, and many of the fears that the Fukushima accident after the earthquake and tsunami in Japan raised are of course not only limited to nuclear power plants. It's also chemical industries is living side by side with all the technological advances and what impact the combination of a major earthquake, major hurricanes will have when hitting infrastructure that we are not quite sure about resistance to these things, and in fact, I think we are increasingly clear that this one of the major risks economically, socially, and by that means, politically. Also, to how we manage future disaster risk.

So with that, I wish you a very successful conference and I look forward to hear what are the three things that you're going to do after the conference. Thank you very much.
The Asian Ministerial Conference on Disaster Risk Reduction 2018, Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia 16-19 July 2018 The Asian Ministerial Conference on Disaster Risk Reduction 2018, Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia 16-19 July 2018.
  • Where We Work Our regional office is in Nairobi, Kenya.
  • Where We Work Our regional office is in Panama City, Panama.
  • Where We Work Our regional office is in Cairo, Egypt.
  • Where We Work Our regional office is in Brussels, Belgium.
  • Where We Work Our regional office is in Bangkok, Thailand.

Where We Work


See our photos on Flickr Watch our videos on YouTube Follow our Instagram Subscribe to our RSS feed