No immunity to disasters

As we commemorate the anniversary of the Wenchuan earthquake in Sichuan province, which is also designated as National Disaster Reduction Day in China, it is timely to reflect on how we can reduce the risk of such devastation in the future.

We all hope China will never experience another Wenchuan, but Japan’s recent earthquake and tsunami are a sobering reminder that around the world catastrophic events continue to threaten the lives of millions, while, less immediate disasters – such as prolonged drought – erode the livelihoods of many more. No country is immune to the elements.

In recent decades, the frequency and intensity of natural disasters has escalated and many experts predict this rise in climate-induced extreme weather events will continue in the future. However, the human and economic costs of natural disasters could be mitigated if we reduced our vulnerability to such hazards.

In China, natural disasters impose staggering human and economic costs. In 2010 alone, disasters affected some 430 million people, killing nearly 8,000 and destroying 3 million homes. Direct economic losses exceeded 500 billion yuan ($77 billion) and nearly 40 million hectares of crops were damaged.

But as UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon stressed at the General Assembly’s inaugural debate on disaster risk reduction in February, disasters are as much man-made as they are natural and unplanned urbanization and environmental degradation add to the challenges facing governments around the world.

Poverty is a fundamental cause of people’s vulnerability to the power of nature. The poor often live in areas that are ecologically fragile, reside in substandard housing, are susceptible to disease and have few options to cope with the loss of productive assets. Inappropriate development processes and/or weak governance may also exacerbate disaster risks.

Disasters compound the effects of impoverishment, stretching poor communities beyond their limits. Meanwhile, the pressures of disaster recovery may divert public resources away from poverty reduction efforts and development may be disrupted – or even reversed – for years.

We therefore need to view disasters as a fundamental threat to development and place development at the core of disaster prevention. This means not only building poverty reduction into post-disaster recovery efforts, but also integrating disaster risk-reduction strategies into broader development processes. As China recognized in its 2009 White Paper on Disaster Reduction, this needs to occur at both the national and local levels.

In the three years since the Wenchuan earthquake, China has made tremendous progress in exploring ways to help vulnerable groups avoid lapsing into poverty and to build resilience to future disasters

China’s experience in Sichuan offers many lessons. First, early measures to restore social services and livelihoods help prevent further crises and accelerate future development. Disaster response strategies need to bridge the gap between initial emergency relief and the longer-term challenge of reconstruction.

Second, recovery strategies need to target the poorest and most vulnerable groups, which are often the hardest to reach and at most risk of exclusion from recovery processes. These include women, children, the elderly and ethnic groups.

Third, recovery is most effective when a strong government response is matched by community participation. In Sichuan, civil organizations played an unprecedented and instrumental role in the recovery process, demonstrating that ordinary people can save lives and restore the dignity of those most in need.

Fourth, sustained recovery relies on economic growth driven by private enterprises. Robust, well-prepared businesses bring resources, expertise and information to the recovery process, creating jobs and strengthening local economies.

Finally, complex emergencies benefit from international support and expertise, even in highly capable countries like China. In Wencuan, China’s decision to request and facilitate international emergency relief and longer-term support enhanced the pace and quality of recovery.

One such international partner, the United Nations, mobilized nearly $80m million to help the affected communities “build back better” through early recovery frameworks, livelihood assistance, public health response, educational and environmental rehabilitation, as well as capacity building in community-based disaster risk management.

Leveraging its 30-year presence in China, international development expertise and strong relationships with government and civil society partners, the UN will continue to help China promote more resilient development by strengthening national, regional and local capacities for disaster risk management.

Disasters are, increasingly, global issues that demand global solutions. Through its development programs, the UN is committed to building global partnerships to combat the trans-boundary economic, social and human security dimensions of disaster risk.

Over the next five years, the new UN Development Framework (UNDAF) 2011-2015 will support innovative government, private sector and civil society partnerships to promote risk-conscious development, community-based disaster risk reduction; climate change adaptation; and market-based solutions for disaster prevention and preparedness.

An enduring legacy of the Wenchuan tragedy will be the heightened contribution China can make to this goal, by sharing its experiences internationally, helping other developing countries devise better disaster prevention policies, and supporting efforts to create strong regional institutional arrangements.

Wenchuan has taught us that overcoming catastrophe requires vision and leadership from all levels of society. This is not an insurmountable challenge if we work together. The more closely the international community cooperates to create a truly global response to disasters, the better prepared we will be when they strike – as lamentably, they inevitably will.

Renata Dessallien is the UN resident coordinator and UNDP resident representative in China.

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