UNISDR – Disaster Risk Reduction

In May 2013 I worked as a reporter at UNISDR’s 4th Global Platform on Disaster Risk Reduction. My mission was to attend daily sessions and write up brief reports for use by UNISDR. Below is a handful of my reports.

Parliamentarians’ Disaster Risk Reduction Consultation

In a meeting attended by MPs from 26 countries, it was agreed that as climate change and disaster risk reduction are profoundly human issues, parliamentarians, who are the only stakeholders constitutionally mandated to speak on behalf of the people, are uniquely placed to have an immediate impact on the lives of those who have elected them.

It is increasingly believed that community-based actions should be the starting point of disaster risk reduction. So by acting with and on behalf of their constituents, the world’s 45,000 parliamentarians can take the lessons learned at ground level and use them to create legislation, allocate resources and ensure that legislation is implemented.

There is an urgent need for such immediate action, with many countries seeing a changing pattern of disasters, with both frequency and impact on the rise. The rate of economic growth in some countries cannot keep pace with expenditure on disaster recovery, so money spent on prevention, resilience building and risk reduction must be seen as an investment rather than a cost.

To bring about the necessary coherence to achieve this, governance for risk reduction must be strengthened at local, national and regional levels so that committed individuals and groups can work together to apply science and knowledge to the creation of policy.

It is proven that education and planning are essential in preventing natural hazards from becoming natural disasters, especially in areas affected by overpopulation and urbanization. Parliamentarians are well placed to ensure that this ground-level action is taken, and that care is given to all aspects of planning, including education, health, agriculture and zoning.

Before the 1995 Kobe earthquake, the corporate sector in Japan did not wish to take responsibility for disaster risk prevention. Following that disaster, however, there was a paradigm shift in attitudes to corporate responsibility that the private sector in the rest of the world has followed with interest.

Private Sector Disaster Risk Reduction Consultation

Dr. Satoru Nishikawa has been successful in propagating the idea of Business Continuity Planning in Japan by using a positive rather than a regulatory approach, creating a win-win situation for businesses who participate in the development and implementation of disaster reduction and resilience strategies.  He has made it clear that businesses become attractive places in which to work and spend when they demonstrate corporate citizenship and take responsibility for the safety of their customers and employees.

Mr. Thomas Loster, chairman of the Munich-Re Foundation, agrees that the private sector must be involved in disaster risk reduction, and believes that if governments are able to encourage such participation then the activity will trickle down to customer level, creating much needed grassroots understanding and action.

Mr. Aras Papdopoulos, CEO of Titan America, also believes that the private sector should be encouraged to take a more active role in raising awareness of disaster risk. Companies should also be assured that when they invest in DRR, their investments will go towards the creation of resilient urban ecosystems in which business can continue to thrive.

EU Disaster Management – New Tools for Policy Making

During a conversation centring on the European Union’s new tools for policy making for disaster risk reduction (DRR), the room was reminded of the reasons for the importance of such policy making by Roger Bellers, Cooperation Officer for Disaster Risk Reduction and Resilience with the Humanitarian Aid and Civil Protection branch of the European Commission.

Resilience, Mr. Bellers believes, is not just a buzz word, but is a way of saving lives, and in a world in which disaster losses are increasing, we must create greater capacity for DRR, as well as targeting policies at the most vulnerable in order to improve resilience from the grassroots upwards.

In order to take a collective risk management approach, different regional and international stakeholders should consolidate the tools they use, such as guidelines, funding mechanisms, early response systems, crisis modifiers and safety net systems.

Such consolidation was discussed by Thomas de Lannoy, Policy Officer for DRR at the European Commission. While guidelines on risk assessment are being written independently by European member states, he said, they are then being communicated to the Commission and disseminated throughout the region. Examples of risk management and disaster proofing in areas such as transport, energy and climate infrastructure are therefore being utilized at a regional level.

Philippe Quevauviller, Policy Officer for Enterprise at the European Commission, discussed the importance of implementing bridges of cooperation to make sure that research findings and their application to disaster risk management are transferred to end users. The Disaster Risk Reduction National Platforms are an important tool for such dissemination.

Public Awareness and Education in Building Community Resilience

While one of the key messages of the 4th Global Platform for Disaster Risk Reduction (DRR) has been that our efforts must be focused on vulnerable communities, few members of those communities have been able to visit CICG this week. However, one of the conference’s most poignant moments was when an 11-year-old Vietnamese boy with severe disabilities asked the panel about education accessibility during the side event on the Role of Public Awareness in Building Community Resilience.

According to Ms. Kirsten Holst, UNESCO Liaison Officer in Geneva, it is just such children on whom we must focus our attentions at local, national, regional and global levels, with education for all being a key priority. UNESCO is working on building a comprehensive approach to education for disaster risk reduction and sustainable development, so that communities across the world can enjoy a culture of safety and resilience.

The right to education and safety are also top level outcomes for Save the Children, said the organization’s Senior Advisor for Education and DRR, Ms. Marla Petal. When children and youth are given access to comprehensive DRR education, they become pivotal in the dissemination of knowledge throughout their communities.

Also on the panel, Mr. Mohammad Munir Chowdury said that the need for DRR professionals in his country, Bangladesh, has led to the establishment of diplomas and masters courses in the subject, and many thousands of people have already trained in the management of disasters such as floods, cyclones and droughts. Their motto, he said, is one which could well be applied across the world: “Know risk, no risk.”

What Binds Us? – Civil Society’s View on Building Resilient Communities

If Sharmila Aminath of the Maldivian Red Crescent could impress just two messages on the attendees of the 4th Global Platform on Disaster Risk Reduction, it would be these: that we must focus on vulnerable people, and that resilience is a life-long and on-going process.

Through working directly with vulnerable people in Maldivian communities, the Red Crescent has established grassroots definitions of the priorities of resilient communities, which include access to services, education, information, infrastructure and health facilities in an environment where economic risks and natural hazards are understood.

Action Aid Afghanistan has learnt similar lessons in its work with vulnerable communities, and believes that community groups need to be empowered to improve their own situation. Those most affected by disaster risk – the poor, women, children, the disabled and members of linguistic minorities – must be empowered. By addressing the underlying causes of vulnerability, such as lack of governance, social exclusion and lack of secured access to services, assets and natural resources, civil organizations can assist people in bettering their own circumstances.

From the perspective of the Catholic Relief Organization, the answer to the question of what binds us is a thirst for useful resources, which is why it has worked with various stakeholders in disaster risk reduction to produce the Towards Resilience Guide. The Guide seeks to address the problem of the inaccessibility of information to vulnerable groups, using simple language that makes it both comprehensible and translatable.

With so many organizations working towards the common goal of community resilience, many are recognizing the need for a cohesive approach. The Dutch alliance Partners for Resilience has brought together five NGOs to work on the building blocks of resilience, which they see as anticipation, response, adaptation and transformation. Their aim, shared by everyone working towards resilience, is for communities affected by disaster to be able not just to bounce back, but to bounce back better.

UN University: Comprehensive Climate Risk Management

Recent case studies by the UN University Institute for Environment and Human Security (UNU-EHS) have concluded that what matters most to those affected by loss and damage at a household level are certainty, livelihood and food security, and how these things are maintained has a direct bearing on disaster risk reduction.

While it is essential that international organizations be involved with disaster risk reduction and management, especially in fragile or failed states, every group that suffers loss and damage must also be involved in their prevention and mitigation, which means that national and regional efforts should be coordinated with community-based actions.

National Platforms for Disaster Risk Reduction are an excellent mechanism by which to achieve this coordination. While national governments are at the frontline of risk management and communities must endeavour to prevent and respond to loss and damage, National Platforms could play a greater role in bringing lessons learned at a national level to a local context, and act as a median point between traditional top-down and more inclusive bottom-up approaches, bringing policy coherence, coordination and strategy implementation to all levels.

Working-class woman to world

“Choose a job you love, and you will never have to work a day in your life.”


We all know the gorgeous joys associated with taking a break from the daily grind. When you’re used to a hectic working life, there’s nothing more pleasurable than a holiday, when you can stay in bed for as long as you like (or have a more leisurely breakfast than usual with the kids), maybe visit an exotic location or two, and perhaps even have the luxury of switching your brain into a lower gear for the peaceful contemplation of your long-ignored navel. For those of us in the strange and unexpected position of un- or under-employment, however, a shift up a gear into even a short-term engagement can be equally refreshing.

There are very few witnesses to my daily routine, but my only interested observer, a friendly neighbourhood cat who seems to have decided he lives with us, was confused from May 17 to 23 to see me springing out of bed at five each morning, putting on makeup and a suit and heading out the door for at least the duration of the day. Pepé (à la Pepé Le Pew, so nicknamed because of his ineffable stink the first time he purred his pretty way into our home) was equally confused when I got home at seven or eight each evening and curled up on the sofa with a laptop to write up the day’s reports. What strange new behaviour was this?

Living room with cat

This, I failed to explain to my stinky little friend, was my week as a volunteer reporter at UNISDR’s 4th Global Platform on Disaster Risk Reduction. What a great time I had, pretending to be a valuable and contributing member of society once again! Each day I had to attend sessions and side events dedicated to the discussion of developing resilience to disasters, and the hope that preparedness can prevent natural hazards from turning into natural disasters, and the major challenges to disaster risk reduction, such as urbanisation and overpopulation. Or something. Then I had to write summarised reports of no more than 300 words…

I think it’s obvious to all that I’m prone to a little more verbosity than that, so needless to say this was something of a challenge. I managed to submit most of my reports within the 24-hour deadline, however, and was rewarded with the pleasurable task, on the last day of the conference, of conducting video interviews with fellow reporters and photographers for inclusion on the International Communications Volunteers’ website. Oh, and I was also tasked by UNISDR to report to them whenever there were interventions by 28 named parliamentarians, and I took it upon myself to join the media team in tweeting about the event whenever I had a spare moment.


(I was secretly rather pleased with this one: “How many parliamentarians does it take to change a disaster risk reduction strategy?”)

When using the Global Platform hashtag (#gpdrr13) I was, of course, obliged to accentuate the positive, but now that I’m my own boss again I can talk about some of the funnier/more controversial things that happened during that very exciting week…

This 4th Global Platform was the biggest event to have ever taken place at the Geneva International Conference Centre, and the venue was bursting at the seams with 3,500+ participants from countries all over the world. You can imagine the chaos, then, when some bright spark in the “market place” in the foyer decided to store his empty polystyrene coffee cups under his desk by the electrical cables, and started a fire which resulted in a mass evacuation. The good folk of Save the Children were busily in conference with a huge bunch of kids on the mezzanine level when the fire started, and the conference organisers were, of course, concerned about the kids in their care. Shouting up from ground level, they pleaded, “Save the children!”, to which the staff from Save the Children, calmly bundling up the young ones for whom they were responsible, shouted back, “We are!”

In the meantime, the fire engines amassing outside were battling to gain access to the building, as all the diplomatic vehicles had been parked in the no-parking zone by the entrance, their drivers having dispatched sundry VIPs, then presumably nipped around the corner for a sneaky cigarette.

These self-same VIPs, I’d learned to my shock earlier in the conference, also had priority access to the building. Before the conference was actually underway and I was not yet assigned to reporting tasks, I was stationed at the entrance and instructed to direct people to the appropriate queues for registration. The system was simple: Very Important People went one way, and All The Others, those, I guess, who are Not Very Important, went the other. In my own small, rebellious, egalitarian way, I challenged the elitist system by welcoming people with a cheery Bonjour! and leading them all the same way. I think my radicalism was noted, however, as I was soon taken off the task, presumably to be replaced by someone with the classist wherewithal to ask all comers whether they were significant or simply the scrapings from some Big Shot’s shoe.

All joking aside, though, it was a privilege to be involved with this conference, and I made some great new friends and was inspired by some amazing people. (Margareta Wahlström, Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Disaster Risk Reduction is, for example, my new hero.)

At OAS, Presentation of United Nations Assessment Report on Disaster Risk Reduction

(Thank you to http://www.unisdr.org/who-we-are/srsg-drr for this picture.)

And I must remember, when one day I find myself back in fulltime employment and hear myself complaining about having to go to work, that there was once a time when my fulltime holiday was punctuated by the happy pleasure of an honest week’s work, and few experiences brought me greater joy.