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Contributing to a global post-2015 disaster risk reduction framework

28 February 2015
UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon delivers the opening remarks during the Third UN World Conference on Disaster Risk Reduction in Sendai, Japan and reminded the world that global annual damage resulting from disasters now exceeds US$ 300 billion. “We can watch that number grow as more people suffer.  Or we can dramatically lower that figure and invest savings in development.” Photo credit: UN ISDR

UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon delivers the opening remarks during the Third UN World Conference on Disaster Risk Reduction in Sendai, Japan and reminded the world that global annual damage resulting from disasters now exceeds US$ 300 billion. “We can watch that number grow as more people suffer. Or we can dramatically lower that figure and invest savings in development.” Photo credit: UN ISDR

Philippine Working Group on Disaster Risk Resilience

As the current global blueprint for reducing disaster risk, the Hyogo Framework for Action 2005-2015: Building the resilience of nations and communities to disasters (HFA) is nearing its end this year. Countries are coming together from 14 to 18 March in Sendai, Japan for the Third UN World Conference on Disaster Risk Reduction to review the framework’s progress, and to prepare for a post-2015 development agenda.

Countries will report on their progress on the five priorities for action that the HFA outlined:

  1. Ensure that disaster risk reduction is a national and a local priority with a strong institutional basis for implementation
  2. Identify, assess and monitor disaster risks and enhance early warning
  3. Use knowledge, innovation and education to build a culture of safety and resilience at all levels
  4. Reduce the underlying risk factors
  5. Strengthen disaster preparedness for effective response at all levels.

In the Philippines, considerable efforts have been undertaken in implementing these five priorities for action at both national and local levels. But the disasters that occurred since 2005 also reflect that these efforts are not sufficient in reducing risk for the most vulnerable and in ensuring greater security for all.

The impact of typhoon Yolanda (international Haiyan), described as the strongest typhoon recorded that made landfall and that struck central Philippines in November 2013, is both global and local. The devastation on the landscape and on people’s lives and livelihoods brought about one of the most massive global humanitarian responses, provoking as well discussions about the effect of global warming on tropical storms. Locally, there is a greater awareness of the risks faced by people living with hazards in the landscape because they have no other option but to live in exposed areas.

The Philippine Working Group (PWG) on Disaster Risk Resilience, a gathering of people from various sectors in the Philippines, public and private, and keen to pursue ideas and actions that contribute to developing attitudes and capacities to meet the needs of 1.2 million people at risk to flooding and landslides shares the following points for consideration in the development of a new disaster risk reduction (DRR) framework.

1. There is a diversity of disaster risks and we must understand this diversity to better plan and respond.

Identifying hazards and improving warnings and advisories on weather events continue to improve, yet there is still a need to refine our understanding of disaster risks and the elements that contribute to and exacerbate such risks.

Beyond the frequency and severity of hazards and human exposure to these hazards, there are also the different levels of social vulnerability that combine with the hazards, resulting in different kinds of disaster risks.

Countries like the Philippines reckon with a diversity of hazards and while there is increased awareness of weather-related events, there still is significant limited understanding of the hazards and risks associated with such events.

Beyond the weather and climate, there is a need to understand the form of the land and how the landscape relates to water flow. We need learn to understand risks in relation to hazards triggered by a given event, and in relation to the vulnerability of a particular community.

Different hazard events will have varying levels of impact on different populations. Events such as typhoon Yolanda are low-frequency, high-impact events. These are the extreme events that overwhelm people’s capacity to respond, regardless of their level of vulnerability.

It is critical to have the mechanisms in place to respond to such events, but perhaps it is even more important to improve the way we respond to high-frequency, low- or medium-impact events that repeatedly affect the most vulnerable sectors of society.

Unfortunately, these are the “disasters” that do not make the news nor receive national or international attention. If there is to be real effort to reduce risk, it must be done at precisely this level. Only in this way can we begin to build a culture that appreciates safety, a culture of resilience.

There also needs to be a certain level of flexibility on how to respond to risks. Often, there is not enough analysis on the adaptation strategies that would allow for better management given the context. While large-scale infrastructure solutions are the usual response, there may be more appropriate, cost-effective strategies that will allow for greater participation by affected communities.

2. Safe infrastructure and social preparedness must enable and empower local communities.

Attention has been given to the practice of early evacuation as a strategy for reducing risk, particularly for communities in hazard-prone areas. However, many evacuation centers are not built specifically for this purpose. Schools and churches are often the first options identified for evacuation, but these still need structural assessments to ensure that these are safe and suitable for use. Evacuation centers and strategies for moving people to safe places are also specific to particular types of hazards.

Social preparedness is critical in this process, as well as strategies for communication and early warning. Communities need access to information about the hazards they will face, the access routes, and locations of evacuation centers. Local communities are the first-responders in the event of a disaster and they must have the information that will allow them make the necessary decisions for their own safety.

3. Strengthened local capacities and broader participation in governance lead to reduced risks and greater human security.

The Hyogo Framework for Action recognizes that good governance is critical to disaster risk reduction efforts. Many of the basic considerations in a comprehensive approach to disaster management are elements of governance: land use plans, budgets and investments, housing and settlements. However, DRR is yet to be mainstreamed effectively into governance.

While the policy framework for DRR is in place at the national level, its local implementation is still limited. Local government units are the front-liners in terms of disaster and building their capacity to take on these tasks is critical and capacity to undertake DRR initiatives varies widely. Often DRR is taken on as a “project” and not institutionalized as a long-term program of work. Permanent positions for local government DRR staff should be created to ensure that activities and achievements in DRR are sustained beyond national and local political timelines.

There is also a need to build in a much broader participation in DRR. The Philippines recognizes the need to integrate a wide range of perspectives and adopted a “whole of society” approach to DRR but how this is put into practice is not so clear. Populations at greatest risk often do not have the political voice nor do they have the financial or technical capacity to engage in the processes set by government. Deliberate effort must be made to integrate local perspectives in the crafting of disaster risk responses to ensure that those at risk are included in decisions that affect them.

4. Social and economic inclusion is critical in reducing risk and creating resilience.

Social inclusion is important in DRR action. Again and again, experience has shown that there are some people who are in much better positions and therefore have much greater capacity to respond to risk. It is those who are least able to respond who are the most at-risk: those living in hazard-prone areas, those whose livelihoods are based on fragile natural resources, those that do not have the community organization and institutional arrangements that will enable greater security.

While there is a clear priority in terms of rebuilding physical infrastructure for greater disaster resilience, it is not so clear what investments are being made to ensure that livelihoods and economic opportunities are able to withstand the impact of disaster events. Areas such as Eastern Samar that are historically not well-connected to markets or integrated effectively into supply and demand chains, have less capacity to recover from the impact of extreme events such as typhoon Yolanda.

At the national level, there must be a strategy for reviewing what livelihoods are at risk and for building options. Business and private sector play an important role in this, and government must help create an environment that will encourage investment.

5. Disaster recovery and “building back better” need to integrate not only safety of physical infrastructure but also a broader understanding of human security: basic needs and services, livelihood and economic opportunities, and community relationships.

The rebuilding of homes and other physical infrastructure is of great concern for those involved in the rehabilitation of post-disaster areas. Increasingly, there is recognition that greater care is needed in identifying areas for housing and settlements to avoid relocating displaced communities from one disaster site to a potential one.

Apart from securing safe sites, there are other challenges to rebuilding. After typhoon Yolanda, there was a strong push to revise and increase building standards to withstand 300-kph winds. Engineering associations maintain that existing standards are sufficient if complied with and properly enforced. Often, responsibility for monitoring construction falls on local building officials and engineers who may not have the capacity to oversee all aspects of infrastructure development: from issuing permits to monitoring construction.

The proliferation of sub-standard building materials in the market is also a cause for much concern. Greater efforts must be made to control the materials that are allowed into the market and to demand greater responsibility and accountability from both suppliers and consumers.

Infrastructure, however, is only one aspect of rebuilding and recovery. Often, resettlement is undertaken in off-site areas where land is available but without links to livelihood and basic services. These areas are far from people’s original locations where they were previously linked to their livelihoods and basic services. For communities that must transition to these new settlements, this lack of support and connectivity can be viewed as another kind of disaster. Failure to address these real and practical needs hinders the recovery process.

The Environmental Science for Social Change (ESSC), a Jesuit research organization in the Philippines that also coordinates and facilitates PWG activities, sent key staff Wendy Clavano and Mariel De Jesus to join the Philippine delegation to the Third UN World Conference on Disaster Risk Reduction where they participated in workshops and contributed to discussions.

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