New disaster-risk framework seen as first step toward sustainability

Survivors in Vanuatu rummaged through what was left of their houses following Cyclone Pam, 14 March. (UNICEF Pacific/Flickr/cc)

What is expected to be a historic year in defining a new global development paradigm was formally kicked off in Japan in mid-March with negotiations — and agreement — on a topic that may strike many as technical or abstract: how to reduce the risk of natural disasters to human communities.

Major talks in Sendai on 14-18 March raised little notice from the public, but their results could have far-reaching impact. The summit certainly gained the attention of the world’s governments, with all 193 members of the United Nations General Assembly gathering in Sendai.

Following days of discussion and 30 hours of reportedly hectic final negotiation, the representatives agreed on a new global approach to what’s commonly referred to as disaster-risk reduction. That agreement, the Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction 2015-2030, is made up of seven main targets, four priorities and a series of guiding principles. (An accompanying declaration is available here.)

The non-binding framework seeks to “substantially” reduce deaths and financial losses from disasters over the coming decade and a half. It also offers a set of hard-fought metrics by which to measure this progress.

The 15-year Sendai Framework replaces an earlier agreement that had been in place for the past decade. Yet it has also been struck at a particularly potent time in international planning, with the global community today increasingly mobilized around defining the idea of “sustainable development”. U. N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon opened the disaster-risk meetings by suggesting that “sustainability starts in Sendai.”

The timeframe of the new accord overlaps exactly with the new Post-2015 Development Agenda, which is to be finalized at a watershed U. N. summit in September. The outcome from that meeting, the new Sustainable Development Goals, will incorporate specific reference to the Sendai text.

The Sendai agreement also leads directly into the new global climate treaty expected to be agreed upon in December. Climate, of course, is perhaps the paramount new disaster-related concern — one that is facing poor countries and urban areas in particular, and thus one that has massive potential to influence development gains.

According to official data, disasters have increased by a factor of eight over the past 40 years, during which time the costs incurred have also more than tripled.

Urban areas today are facing the most significant losses. Some 80 percent of the world’s largest cities are considered vulnerable to severe damage from earthquakes, and 60 percent from tsunamis. Indeed, the capital of the Pacific island nation of Vanuatu, Port Vila, experienced what humanitarian workers described as “unbelievable destruction” caused by a large cyclone that hit during the Sendai talks.

The impact of a changing climate, meanwhile, has yet to be fully understood.

Importance of decentralization

In Sendai, the world has now committed to substantially reducing both the human and economic impact of disasters. Yet much remains to be done to offer even the opportunity for success in this pledge.

Much of the strategizing around implementation will come as the international community formulates a new development approach this year, a process that will be solidified at next year’s Habitat III conference on cities. Indeed, the agreements made in Sendai will directly inform the contours of the Habitat III outcome document, the New Urban Agenda.

Yet squaring the circle of fast-increasing urbanization alongside stepped-up disaster risk is also going to take significant financing. In the aftermath of the Sendai agreement, many civil society groups expressed frustration that clear financing strategies weren’t included in the new framework. Only Japan made specific financial pledges during the mid-March event.

“Seven global targets agreed in the new disaster risk deal is a step forward,” Harjeet Singh, a climate change campaigner with ActionAid International, a watchdog group, said. “However, weak targets without numbers and no commitment to finance make them meaningless for those most vulnerable in developing countries.”

Still, some working on urban issues see important progress having been made in the new framework’s landmark acknowledgment of the importance of devolution in disaster preparation.

“[T]he Sendai Conference has been a major political and technical [opportunity] for local governments worldwide to strengthen their role and capacities in prevention and reduction of disaster risk,” United Cities and Local Governments, a global network, said. “The Sendai Framework recognizes for the first time the crucial role that local authorities play in disaster risk reduction.”

Following the Sendai talks, the mayor of Banda Aceh, Indonesia, Illiza Sa-Aduddin Djamal, formally put forward an official position of local governments, agreed upon by a body known as the Local Authorities Major Group. That statement again lauded, and underscored, the Sendai Declaration’s focus on devolution.

“Cities are the first level of governance dealing with disaster risk reduction,” the position document stated. “Central governments must develop strategies together with local governments in order to build their capacities. This can only be done if [the] decentralisation process in all countries is strengthened to give the necessary power and competences to local authorities.”

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