Author: Omar Hussein Amach
Since the start of the International Decade for Natural Disaster Reduction in 1989, the world has seen great progress in reducing disaster losses. Most notably, in the area of reducing disaster-related mortality. Many of these advances were a result of changes in how countries approach and govern disaster risks, which in turn were spurred by lessons learned from devastating disasters that challenged old ways of thinking.
The world now stands at a similar crossroad as a result of COVID-19. This pandemic’s prolonged and far-reaching impact on all aspects of life is causing countries and organizations to reassess how to best manage complex risk.
“Considering these profound changes, it is only right that we use the occasion of this year’s International Day for Disaster Risk Reduction to ask hard questions about our capacity to manage risk,” said Ms. Mami Mizutori, the Special Representative of the UN Secretary-General for Disaster Risk Reduction and Head of the UN Office for Disaster Risk Reduction (UNDRR).
Ms. Mizutori made this point at a webinar organized by the UNDRR Asia-Pacific Regional Office, titled ‘Disaster Risk Governance in Context of COVID-19.’
Held in part to commemorate the International Day for Disaster Risk Reduction, the webinar was attended by 641 participants and featured a diverse panel with representation from national governments, the UN system, and civil society.
Elaborating on Ms. Miztuori’s point, the host of the webinar, Mr. Animesh Kumar, Officer-in-Charge and Deputy Chief of UNDRR Asia-Pacific, said:
“COVID-19 has demonstrated that a narrow focus on a small set of hazards, by one or two government agencies, is not enough to prevent or even respond to complex disaster risks. All of this points to the simple question – why, despite knowing more, we are not doing better?”
For national disaster management agencies, which are at the frontlines of disaster risk reduction efforts, the COVID-19 pandemic has caused them to reassess their current risk governance approaches with an eye towards building on the lessons gained thus far.
“The pandemic has raised new questions about the legislative arrangements we have for disaster risk management,” said Mr, Kamal Kishore, Member of India’s National Disaster Management Authority, adding:
“We are going from managing risks, to how do we manage uncertainties. Classically, we know what we are dealing with, but with the pandemic, there are many unknowns… we have to become comfortable with uncertainty and come up with governance mechanisms that make the best possible decisions even in a highly uncertain environment.”
The island nation of Fiji, which was one of the first countries to be impacted by a major cyclone while dealing with the pandemic, is similarly looking at how it can strengthen its risk governance mechanism through legislative changes, noting many countries in the Pacific are considering the same.
“We have had a few discussions with heads of Pacific NDMOs on the need to strengthen our legal frameworks to ensure that we embrace the new normal, in this case, pandemics occurring with disasters as well,” said Ms. Vasiti Soko, the Director of Fiji’s National Disaster Management Office.
One of the key reasons for why countries were not better prepared for COVID-19 was offered by Mr. Christophe Bahuet, UNDP’s Deputy Regional Director for Asia and the Pacific, whose office recently published a study titled “Recovering from COVID-19: Lessons from Past Disasters in Asia and the Pacific.”
“There is an imperative need to include pandemic response and preparedness in countries’ legal, regulatory and policy frameworks. The striking thing here is that for years we’ve been warned that a pandemic could happen, and yet very few countries, if any, included it in their plans, but hopefully now, many will,” said Mr. Bahuet.
This point was supported by the results of a review of disaster risk governance mechanisms in Asia-Pacific conducted by UNDRR Asia-Pacific, according to their Risk Knowledge and Analysis Officer, Ms. Iria Touzon Calle, who said:
“Risk governance requires multi-sectoral and multi-stakeholder approaches that go beyond the role national disaster management agencies and there is a need to elevate the role of planning and finance ministries in risk governance to foster this multi-sectoral responsibility.” As part of this examination of how risk governance can be strengthened, it was also highlighted that mitigating the impact of disasters requires a whole-of-society approach that includes all relevant actors, including civil society organizations (CSOs).
“CSOs can strengthen the capacity of the government and institutions to recognize and analyze the needs of the poor, the marginalized and vulnerable sectors,” said Mr. Jerome Balinton, the Humanitarian Manager for Save the Children Philippines.
Mr. Balinton also called on governments to employ participatory approaches to ensure CSOs can participate in conducting assessments, implementation, and monitoring of disaster risk reduction programs.
Without a transformational change in how countries manage their risks, they risk allowing their development gains to be lost to disasters, thus falling further behind in the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals.
“The next 10 years are going to be crucial to what the Secretary-General has called as the Decade of Action, which will determine to what extent we can achieve the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development,” said Mr. Kumar, adding:
“We must acknowledge that while COVID-19 has posed significant challenges to the achievement of the Sendai Framework, the Sendai Framework also offers solutions to recover from COVID-19 and move the world towards resilience.”
The deliberations and outputs of the webinar will be incorporated by the UNDRR Asia-Pacific Office into its soon to be published regional review, which will offer countries a number of recommendations to strengthen their risk governance.