IRDR New Zealand director’s Sendai blog on resilience and development assistance

The following blog is from Kelvin Berryman, Director of the Natural Hazards Research Platform and Principal Scientist of GNS Science who shares his reflections from the 3rd UN World Conference on Disaster Risk Reduction. The Natural Hazards Platform is an IRDR National Committee in New Zealand.

While writing this, the negotiation for the Sendai Framework has just been completed after a marathon 30 hour final session of talks. The framework is a 15-year degustation menu which also includes a nod to the upcoming September 2015 Summit to adopt the Post 2015 Development Agenda, and the December 2015 Paris Climate Change negotiation.

What has been discussed in Sendai is very encouraging. Intervention is the key phrase.

It is critical to break the seemingly endless cycle of disaster followed by build back quickly (to appease public expectations), only to do it all over again when the next event arrives. Potential future losses may be beyond the ability of many countries to recover. The recovery from the Canterbury earthquakes has tried to break that mould by ensuring that there is improved resilience going forward by taking the worst land ‘off-risk’ (the residential red zones), improved technical specifications of the infrastructure rebuild, and a lot of community and business resilience efforts, encouraged by Christchurch’s status as a Rockefeller resilient city. The ‘build-back-better’ ethos has opened the politicians and city officials to tremendous pressure because of the seeming slowness in rebuild progress. The solution to the fraught nature of building resilience when in crisis is to be working on disaster risk reduction or DRR in ‘peacetime’.

This brings me to a reminder of what these acronyms should really mean. ‘DRR’, ‘DRM’ and ‘Resilience’ are used often, but I think the words have real meaning when expanded out.

DRR means ‘reducing the risk of disaster’.

In other words, looking forward to when disasters are not disasters, but instead events of lesser impact. The idealistic future is one of improved land use planning, engineering, and a well-informed public and private sector that can cope and in fact prosper in the face of adversity.

Similarly, DRM means ‘managing the risk of disaster.’

Expert panel at 3rd UN World Conference on Disaster Risk Reduction. Photo: Hannah Brackley, NHRP
Expert panel at 3rd UN World Conference on Disaster Risk Reduction. Photo: Hannah Brackley, NHRP

This emphasis on risk was one of the key messages from the Sendai conference. It can be found in the New Zealand position statement, in the ‘New Zealand Inc’ video developed by the advisory group of New Zealand stakeholders supporting MFAT at Sendai and in the ‘Resilience Dialogue’ – a high level panel discussion hosted by the EU, USAID, World Bank/GFDRR and the Government of Japan. In this dialogue the recognition that DRR is truly a public-private partnership shone through with calls for risk informed development going forward. This applies equally to developed, middle-income, and developing countries, and risk identification and management are now key criteria for clients of the World Bank.

The current emphasis in some quarters on societal resilience, important as it is, to the exclusion of other elements of DRR, does not recognise the opportunities for reduction and resilience in other sectors, and tends to ignore the opportunity to pluck the ‘low-hanging fruit’ where many assessments have illustrated a return on the reduction investment dollar of anything between 5- and 100-to-1. The realisation of this investment may not accrue in the term of an elected official, but foresight and strategic thinking is what we expect from our leaders, is it not?

This reflection cannot finish without mention of the perspectives from our Pacific nation neighbours. The tragedy in Vanuatu was unfolding as the Sendai Framework was being negotiated. President Tong of Kiribati eloquently presented his nation’s plight in the event of likely inescapable sea level rise over the next decades that may well require resettlement of his nation to other countries. It reinforces the coupling between natural hazards and climate change impacts, especially for Small Island Developing Nations. New Zealand needs to continue and extend its pro-active role in assistance on this topic. New Zealand has the capacity to offer technical assistance to Pacific neighbours to firstly scope the issues of sustainable development in the face of natural hazards and climate change, and in partnership develop effective risk management options. The recovery from Cyclone Pam in Vanuatu will be the first test for the ambition of the Sendai Framework.

A final word on the need to engage much more with the business sector in developing effective approaches to reducing the risk of disasters. Already businesses, particularly the large ones, undertake better risk management practices than most of the public sector. And the public sector must acknowledge that it is private enterprise that keeps people in jobs, business thriving and ultimately our towns and cities alive. The insurance industry is at the forefront of this sector, especially in New Zealand with its deep insurance penetration, but the formal arrangements for DRR need to go further to engage with the largest employers and the regional chambers of commerce.

What are the next steps?

Further dialogue (for a short while) is needed to instigate a national conversation and action plan to advance New Zealand as the most pro-active country embracing DRR as a cost-effective and sustainable approach to turning disasters into lesser impacts, so that the nonsensical expression ‘natural disaster’* disappears from our vocabulary.