International Day for Disaster Risk Reduction 2021: interview with Jenty Kirsch-Wood
For IDDRR 2021, the DRM PPG spoke to Jenty Kirsch-Wood, Head of Global Risk Management and Reporting at the UN Office for Disaster Risk Management, on a range of topics around disaster risk reduction, the importance of the IDDRR campaign, and the skills geographers bring to disaster risk management.
Why is it important that we mark the International Day for Disaster Risk Reduction (IDDRR)?
The day is an opportunity to remember those who have lost their lives to preventable disasters, and to remind us of the importance of working together to make true progress towards a safer and more resilient planet.
There has probably never been a more important moment in history to make the point that an investment in disaster risk reduction is an investment in the future safety and resilience of people.
COVID-19 has claimed over 4.5 million lives, wreaked havoc on the global economy and upended people’s lives. Wildfires and floods have been devastating communities around the world, and due to global climate change we have just recorded the warmest decade in human history.
The focus of this year’s IDDRR is on Target (f) of the Sendai Seven targets: to “substantially enhance international cooperation to developing countries through adequate and sustainable support to complement their national actions for implementation of the present Framework by 2030.”
This seems particularly timely given that that IDDRR is just weeks before COP26, a climate change conference that must deliver increased levels of ambition and international cooperation on reducing greenhouse gas emissions and climate change adaptation.
What have we achieved to date in disaster risk reduction?
Some four years after the adoption of the 2030 Agenda and the Sendai Framework, countries have taken concrete steps towards meeting the ambitious aspirations of these transformative plans. Early lessons from the first years of reporting – using the Sendai Framework Monitor – show the highest toll of disasters being experienced in the most vulnerable segments of the world’s population, underlining the gross inequality of burden sharing among countries. Low- and middle-income countries bear the greatest impact in terms of mortality and yearly average economic loss relative to GDP.
On the positive side, we know that risk reduction efforts have played a role in the reduction of disaster related deaths recorded in recent decades. Data availability and quality are improving each year. The landscape of statistical capacity building is opening up to accommodate collaboration and synergies across increasingly complex data systems. International attention and focused funding across different targets and indicators are increasing and slowly starting to yield results (e.g. data availability and study of agricultural losses by crop type). And we see greater interest and action across governments, cities, and citizens to take action towards truly sustainable development. This interest had led to DRR mainstreaming through a range of entry points such as policy, organizations, knowledge, stakeholder engagement and finance.
However, several key challenges remain. The capacities and skills to drive mainstreaming and risk reduction processes over a sufficient length of time are still not adequate. Despite many innovative financing mechanisms and regulatory advancements, bottlenecks persist in financing the demanding risk reduction goals that countries have set for themselves.
Unfortunately, in many areas such as urban resilience, risk is increasing, as is the number of people affected by disasters. Despite the evidence that investing in disaster risk reduction brings great benefits only a small fraction of international cooperation is being channelled to support these efforts. Of overall aid financing between 2010-2019, the $5.5 billion spent on DRR accounts for just 0.5% of the total amount spent on international aid. So there is much work to be done.
What is the UN’s role in increasing resilience against disasters, and what impact does this have at the local scale and for the most vulnerable? How is success determined?
The UN Office for Disaster Risk Reduction is the custodian of global efforts to reducing risk and focuses its work on accelerating action in four priority areas:
- understanding disaster risk;
- strengthening disaster risk governance to manage disaster risk;
- promoting investment in disaster risk reduction for resilience;
- enhancing disaster preparedness for effective response and to "Build Back Better" in recovery, rehabilitation and reconstruction.
Within UNDRR we measure progress through the Sendai Framework indicators and through wider UN sustainable development tracking systems. We also work with countries to undertake action reviews, and a Mid-Term Review of Sendai Framework implementation is getting underway now.
Other UN organisations are active in reducing risk and building resilience through their work across all seventeen sustainable development goals target areas, which span from increasing food security to reducing climate change risk.
All post-2015 agreements – namely the 2030 Agenda, the Paris Agreement on climate change, the New Urban Agenda, the Addis Ababa Action Agenda and the Agenda for Humanity – highlight the necessity of action to achieve disaster risk reduction and resilience. They also all point to the interconnection of global challenges and risks. In each, countries have asked for the UN to support them in their efforts to build resilience to a wide range of hazards, and to make sure that no-one is left behind in the efforts to protect people and the planet form the impacts of extreme events.
But risk reduction and resilience are everyone’s business. It is important that governments, the private sector, citizens and other stakeholders all take action to reduce risk where they can. We live in an increasingly risky and interconnected world, and its only through working together that we will be able to reduce risks and ensure the resilience of global sustainable development.
How can the most vulnerable communities be best assisted to increase their resilience against disasters?
Disasters disproportionately impact low- to middle-income countries, particularly in terms of mortality, numbers of people injured, displaced and homeless, economic losses (as a percentage of GDP) and damage to critical infrastructure.
Stepped-up action and international cooperation is essential to ensure that no vulnerable people are left behind in disaster-prone settings. It is important that children and youth, people with disabilities, the elderly, migrants and indigenous people’s needs and voices are heard in the design and implementation of disaster risk reduction actions. It is also important that women's and men’s perspectives are heard equally, and that disaster risk reduction efforts encourage women’s leadership at all levels.
Accelerating achievement of the Sendai targets is a powerful way to make sure that vulnerable communities are assisted to increase their resilience. This means helping communities take action to improve their risk understanding, their risk governance structures, their investments and their actions to increase preparedness and build back better.
Harnessing technologies can also be a powerful tool for risk reduction as highlighted by current efforts towards pre-financing and anticipatory action in disaster response, or looking at more sustainable, resilient housing and infrastructure.
How is climate change influencing DRR approaches to support of the most vulnerable countries and communities?
Without real action on climate in the next ten years, extreme weather events will be overwhelming, especially for developing countries. As the Secretary General pointed out when he launched the UN's recent report, Our Common Agenda, “from the climate crisis to our suicidal war on nature and the collapse of biodiversity, our global response is too little, too late”. We can either continue the path to global breakdown or back the solutions that will lead to a global breakthrough and deliver a safer, more inclusive and sustainable world.
The climate emergency is the biggest economic, social, and environmental threat facing the planet and humanity today. Climate-related disasters have almost doubled compared to the previous twenty years, exacerbating inequalities within and between countries, with those contributing least to global emissions often experiencing the worst impacts of the climate emergency. Driven by climate and conflict, often interrelated, humanitarian needs are at their highest-ever with one in every 33 people globally in need of humanitarian assistance and protection.
We are at a crossroads. Impacts of the climate emergency are increasingly affecting all nations and exacerbating inequalities, eroding resilience and rapidly rewriting the global resource map for assets such as water, arable land and energy while driving migration, displacement and instability.
Transitioning to a sustainable net zero carbon world will require further rapid systems-level changes, including in key sectors such as energy, food, and health. Urgent actions are needed by the G20 countries that are responsible for 80 percent of greenhouse gas emissions. Managing the risks inherent in this change is essential to ensure that no one is left behind, and everyone enjoys the benefits of continued sustainable development.
We need urgent collective action, political leadership, and financing to keep the global average temperature well within 1.5 degrees safer limit outlined in the Paris Agreement. However, prudent risk management also requires us to consider and prepare for a range of possible outcomes. We need to urgently accelerate resilience building to not only cope with a 1.5°C degree world, but also to be ready for the possible breaching of this target and to effectively manage unexpected concurrent threats, such as the current COVID-19 crisis.
Which specific skills can geographers bring to the challenges of disaster risk reduction?
Managing a more complex risk landscape with greater systemic and cascading risks driven by climate change is, in my view, perhaps the greatest challenge and opportunity for DRR. Climate change affects disaster risk both through increasing the frequency and intensity of hazards, and through increasing the exposure and vulnerability of communities and individuals, and reduction in water and food availability. To help accelerate action, I’d highlight the following areas for action where geographers in particular can play a key role.
Business as usual is not an option
Reducing greenhouse gas emissions require governments and the private sector to make hard political and investment choices. A ‘business as usual’ approach will prevent us from reaching the global temperature goal and risk breaching of planetary boundaries. The resultant crossing of tipping points could have high impacts that are expected to be interconnected across different biophysical systems, pushing the world to long-term irreversible changes.
So, we need urgent action to enable us to reach a zero carbon goal, while simultaneously investing in stepped-up resilience building measures to cope with a more volatile and extreme climate future. Geographers can help accelerate action both on the technical and social side of this challenge- helping identifying innovative solutions, monitor progress, but also improve the development of consultation methods to makes sure that communities are involved.
Galvanising investment in risk-informed adaptation
Considering the pace of climate change, current levels of adaptation along with disaster risk reduction, preparedness and infrastructure resilience are insufficient. Risk-blind planning can - and in some cases already has - created new risks and resulted in maladaptation. A radical scale-up is required in adaptation measures, with a comprehensive approach to risk analysis and risk management that better accounts for a full range of hazards.
Better risk analytics can also lead to improved anticipatory action and play an important role in reducing the humanitarian impacts of climate-related disasters. Geographers can help develop ways of better measuring progress towards adaptation, and in showing how physical and social impacts are inter-linked, and how investment choices matter.
Stepping-up action to manage long-term impacts and residual risks
Not all risk can be prevented or avoided, and climate crisis impacts such as sea-level rise or ocean acidification are new global challenges that have been chronically under-addressed in current climate and development planning. Failing to account for these has both hindered effective risk-calculation and therefore planning, and vastly under-estimated cost benefits of rapid climate action.
The exponential rise in extreme weather events and the likely impact this will have on population displacement, loss of livelihoods, access to health and other basic services would overwhelm the disaster management capacities. Concentrating on understanding risks is essential and is an area where geographers could have a key role.
Ensuring that investment and financial systems are fit for purpose
As climate emergency impacts are already being felt, stepped-up investment is required to ensure we can reduce and manage the impacts from more intense and frequent disasters of the climate future. Financial systems urgently need to adapt to be able to quantify the extent to which their assets will retain their value in the climate future. Undervaluing climate change risk is a particular concern for longer-term investors and sectors including insurance, pension funds, infrastructure, and agriculture. If geographers can work more closely with other disciplines, such as economists to better explain and advocate for action in this area it can send a powerful message.
Currently disasters are reinforcing inequalities
The impacts of disasters are not felt uniformly within communities. Climate change, vulnerability and inequality operate as a vicious cycle - disadvantaged groups suffer disproportionately from the adverse effects of climate change, resulting in even greater inequalities, because it decreases their ability to minimise their exposure, avert potential effects, cope and recover from climate and disaster impacts. So it is essential that our actions focus on tackling the root causes of vulnerability, not just the humanitarian needs they create. Social geographers can have a key role in getting those messages across, and also in measuring what works and how good practice can be scaled up and replicated.
And finally, we need to focus on the connection between development and risk. The decisions we take about our governments, our policies, our regulations and resources, our behaviour all matter. We can reduce disaster risk but it is a matter of choices. Reducing the impact of disasters requires having the means, investing in early warning, prepositioning supplies and ensuring safety nets are in place and well resourced. It takes working across our current silos to look at how systems function, and also requires continuous learning and communication to ensure that our solutions evolve and improve over time.
UNDRR recently cooperated with IRDR and the ISC on development of a research agenda for DRR that was developed in consultation with a wide range of scientists and experts from around the world. It would be great to see geographers contributing to taking forward relevant parts of that agenda and to taking to action to accelerate risk reduction globally.