While hazards may be natural, disasters are not. The choices we make can either increase or decrease risk. As the planet slowly warms, parliamentarians can help. Indeed, they can L.A.B.O.R. for resilience.
The global pandemic caused by Covid-19 has been a wake-up call for the whole world. Appalling losses of life, economic devastation and ripples of insecurity have touched every corner of the planet. No one has been immune and the power (or lack thereof) of the state to prevent, prepare and respond has been severely tested. While there’s no way to guess how the pandemic would have unfolded had the world been more prepared, research repeatedly shows that disaster risk reduction and preparedness mitigate losses by large margins. Just 24 hours warning of a coming storm or heat wave can cut the ensuing damage by 30 percent.
As public tolerance for risk is decreasing; citizens around the world are increasingly exposed to growing and compounded risks, with losses now reaching between $250 and $300 billion annually, up from about $50 billion in the 1980s. Climate change interacts with other hazards - technological, biological, chemical and geopolitical, among others – which creates greater risk complexity. The impacts of disaster know no bounds, but those living in more vulnerable circumstances tend to be the hardest hit, with poorer countries registering the highest post-disaster mortality rates.
While hazards may be natural, disasters are not
Flood, earthquakes, landslides or storms become disasters because of the exposure and vulnerability of people and places. The choices we make can either increase or decrease risk. Therefore, each stakeholder has a role in reducing disaster risk. Parliamentarians are uniquely situated to help societies weather all kind of disasters with more resilience and preparation. Last year, the United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction (UNDRR) and the Inter-Parliamentary Union (IPU) launched a toolkit for parliamentarians detailing how they can help build resilience for their communities. The guidance features ten recommendations grouped into five categories: Legislate; Advocate; Budget; Oversee; Represent (L.A.B.O.R.).
Read below for a snapshot of how parliamentarians can L.A.B.O.R. for their constituency’s resilience.
Creating legislation is one of parliamentarians’ key jobs. In this regard, using risk and vulnerability assessments, they can create both DRR (disaster risk reduction) legislation, as well as amend existing legislation to reflect and support international DRR commitments.
Parliamentarians can advocate for governments to shift from their current event-centered, response and recovery approach to DRR to a multi-hazard approach that considers vulnerability. They can also advocate for the use of data, expertise and experience from national and international institutions, as well as from other countries, to inform their own DRR frameworks and strategies. Finally, parliamentarians can advocate for DRR to be integrated into climate change plans and initiatives.
Budget (and finance)
Determining budget allocation is another vital task for parliamentarians and here they can focus on funding long-term DRR initiatives – including allocating funds for the oversight of data collection, reporting purposes and regulation enforcement – at all levels of government. Parliamentarians can also integrate and mainstream DRR into public and private investment decisions, ensuring that investments are risk-informed.
Accountability is an important aspect of any government investment decision. Parliamentarians can use their oversight role to evaluate government performance, effectiveness and spending for DRR initiatives, thus demonstrating their effectiveness. They can also make people aware of the impacts of regulation, enforcement and penalties. In order to support ease of use and to compare different initiatives, parliamentarians can ensure information is provided in standardized, consistent formats.
Finally, as elected officials, parliamentarians are responsible for representing all of their constituents and ensuring that DRR policies and plans meet their specific needs. This all-of-society approach must include those most vulnerable in disasters: the poor, women, girls, ethnic minorities and persons with disabilities. Parliaments can ensure that DRR strategies and commitments are durable and will survive electoral changes by using a non-partisan, holistic approach to developing DRR plans.
Using the L.A.B.O.R. framework, parliamentarians can help create disaster-ready communities, both saving lives and protecting economic resources.
For days leading up to the disaster, Mr. Harisaran Shrestha had been listening to warnings about floods in the Melamchi, a river that flows through the foothills of the Himalayas in central Nepal. At least one local FM radio was repeatedly broadcasting notices about the possible release of water from the reservoir of a nearby drinking-water project and urging the public to avoid river banks and to refrain from activities like fishing, sand mining, and gravel collecting.
The local police and representatives were also issuing similar warnings around the town via microphones and loudspeakers.
Owing to these forewarnings, when the flood eventually hit his hometown, Melamchi Bazar, northeast of Kathmandu in Sindhupalchowk district, in June 2021, Mr. Shrestha was better prepared to react to the deluge. “As soon as it became apparent that the flood was going to sweep the entire town, I used my bus to ferry women, children, and disabled people in the neighbourhood to a safer location,” said Mr. Shrestha.
On June 15, just an hour after the final warning from the radio and police announcement on loudspeaker, massive floods near the confluence of the Melachmi River and the Indrawati River swept through the settlements near Shrestha’s hometown, killing at least five people and destroying property worth millions of rupees. At least a dozen people remain missing more than two months after one of the worst disasters in the town's history.
Despite saving many lives, Mr. Shrestha could not save his belongings because he had underestimated the scale of the disaster. “Our home was at a considerable distance from the river. It never occurred to me that the swollen river’s waters would reach this far,” Mr. Shrestha recalled in an interview.
Now displaced by the flood, Mr. Shrestha, 38, has been living with a family of six in a temporary shelter. The river, which has changed its course, now runs through his home and farmland.
“The river took everything. Thankfully, all of us are safe,” said Mr. Shrestha.
Mr. Dev Raj Subedi, the manager of Radio Melamchi, which issued the flood warnings, said that the alerts had proved effective in saving hundreds of lives, although only a few households managed to save some of their possessions--those they could carry with them. Radio Melamchi has been ritually providing flood-related warnings to the municipality’s estimated 50,000 inhabitants for the last few years, especially after the Melamchi Drinking Water Project gathered momentum in the 2010s.
“We issued the warning as soon as a government official informed us about the flood upstream. The warning proved especially helpful in the town area, whose inhabitants had the means to access the warning. That was one of the reasons there were no deaths in the town area,” shared Mr. Subedi.
Melamchi’s case is the latest example of how the growing use of mass media and early warning systems through data collected from meteorological and hydrological stations and rainfall-runoff model is proving effective in saving lives in Nepal, which is highly susceptible to disasters, owing to its topography and its hundreds of big and small rivers.
Every year, floods and landslides wreak havoc in Nepal, leading to huge numbers of casualties and untold destruction of property. Hill settlements are particularly vulnerable to landslides and flash floods, while riverine floods routinely deluge the lowland areas bordering India.
Every year during the rainy season, hundreds of families lose their house, agricultural yield, and means of livelihood, pushing them further into poverty.
Between 13 April to 16 October in 2020, floods and landslides killed at least 337 Nepalis, wiped out thousands of houses, and destroyed property worth billions of rupees, according to an estimate by Nepal’s Ministry of Home Affairs. More than 100 people remain missing on account of those floods.
Numerous factors including the 2015 earthquake, infrastructural projects and climate change have contributed to increasing disasters, according to experts. For instance, Sindhupalchowk district, the epicenter of the 7.8 magnitude earthquake that rattled Nepal in 2015, has seen a marked increase in landslides and floods following the tragedy that killed over 9,000 people.
Mr. Bikram Shrestha Zoowa, a senior Divisional Hydrologist at the Department of Hydrology and Meteorology, in Kathmandu, said that climate-induced hazards and unplanned development are emerging as challenges in recent decades.
Examples include recent disasters such as the Setigandaki flood in Kaski, Jure landslide-Sindhupalchowk in 2014, a Glacial Lake Outburst Flood (GLOF) in Tibet immediately above the Bhotekoshi River in Sindhupalchowk in 2016; a dry landslide in the Kaligandaki Corridor after the 2015 earthquake, another GLOF in Barun valley obstructing the flow of Arun River in 2017, and numerous climate-induced landslides during the 2020 monsoon and this year, said Mr. Shrestha Zoowa.
“Human interventions such as road construction in hill slopes without considering geological studies are certainly the causes of the region’s geological fragility, which results in small and big landslides in hilly regions. This is the man-made effect in addition to earthquakes responsible for hazards.”
According to the latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report, global temperature is expected to reach or exceed 1.5 degrees Celsius of warming averaged over the next 20 years. In 2019, a landmark report
by the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development, an intergovernmental center based in Nepal, warned that a two-degree temperature rise could melt half of the glaciers in the Hindu Kush Himalaya region, destabilising Asia’s rivers.
In recent years, to minimise loss of life and property, an increasing number of communities vulnerable to disasters have begun to integrate social media platforms--such as Facebook and Twitter--and other technologies to provide early warnings. And as with Radio Melamchi, more than 500 FM radio stations across Nepal are being used to disseminate news and timely warnings. Many other local bodies are integrating SMS text messages to provide real-time alerts for people living in disaster-prone zones.
In Kailali, a western Nepal district bordering India’s Uttar Pradesh, flood warnings through SMS alerts and phone calls have proven effective in saving lives in settlements spread along the Karnali River Basin.
“When massive floods hit our village in 2016, most of the villagers with mobile phones had received SMS alerts three hours before the disaster. Those three hours gave us ample time to save not just our lives, but also our livestock and essentials like some grains and documents,” said Ms. Sajita Tharu of Laxmipur village in Kailali district. “Thankfully, we have not faced that kind of flood in recent years but we continue to receive alerts if water rises above the danger level. That allows us to remain mentally prepared and save essentials in case the flood hits us.”
As part of the community-based early warning approach, residents living in catchment areas constantly pass on information about the water level in their area to residents of villages downstream. The community groups also get constant flood alerts from the Department of Hydrology’s regional station. The alerts--including text messages, phone calls, and information from weatherboards--are widely circulated by the members of the Community Disaster Management Committees, which were formed by programs designed to enhance the communities’ flood resilience. Most members of these user committees are women, as many working-age men migrate to India or other countries in search of jobs.
Ms. Manakala Kumari Chaudhari, the deputy mayor of Rajapur Municipality in far-western Nepal, said that the timely early warning system in his area has been instrumental in saving lives and properties. As soon as the water level rises above the danger level upstream, several people who own mobile phones in his municipality--a delta created by the Karnali River--receive warnings.
“Save for some exceptions, most locals respond to warnings and take the required safety measures. The timely alerts also provide ample time for all stakeholders to make the necessary preparations for disasters,” said Ms. Chaudhari.
Such timely warnings are critical because they provide enough time to save lives. The area is susceptible to constant floods from big rivers like the Karnali and Babai and from small streams, which are usually dry in other seasons.
In preparation for the seasonal floods, communities in western Nepal have also built community shelters, animal sheds to shelter their livestock and grain-storage facilities to save grains.
Since Nepal adopted federalism in 2015, there have been efforts at all three levels of government to embrace disaster-resilience policies. The central government, the provincial government, as well as many local governments have adopted policies related to disaster risk reduction. Recently, under the Home Ministry, the National Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Authority prepared the National Monsoon Early Preparedness and Response Work Plan
2021. However, questions remain around the implementation of these policies and the authorities’ ability to handle large-scale disasters, especially owing to their lack of resources. Moreover, growing landslides along newly constructed highways, hydropower projects and other infrastructures-- many of which were cleared after proper Environment Impact Assessment--- have reinforced the need for better policies to promote resilient infrastructure.
But overall, the early warning systems seem to be reducing the impacts of floods in many parts of Nepal. Mr. Shrestha Zoowa, the hydrologist, said that early warning systems have proven effective in saving hundreds of lives every year, especially in vulnerable settlements along big rivers such as the Karnali, Babai, Narayani, and Koshi. The data gathered from weather stations, rainfall-runoff models are disseminated in form of daily bulletins through various media platforms, while the weather forecast relies on the Weather Research and Forecasting model, an advanced numerical weather prediction framework designed for operational forecasting and atmospheric research needs.
In recent years, the Department of Hydrology and Meteorology has been working with various non-governmental organizations in developing disaster information management systems and online databases to provide real-time information to augment its early warning systems.
The Disaster Risk Reduction Portal and Nepal Government GeoPortal, among other platforms, provide information gathered from various hydro-meteorological stations in Rasuwa, Solukhumbu, Kaski, Dolpa, Humla, Dolakha, Jumla, Sankhuwasabha and Manang districts.
“For most flood events, we have effective plans, technologies, and historical information to issue timely and reliable warnings to vulnerable settlements. But we lack an effective early warning system for flash floods in the hills and for settlements along small rivers, which are highly unpredictable,” said Mr. Shrestha Zoowa.
Nepal also needs to do more to ensure that people respond to early warnings. Although many local communities are making good use of weather forecasts and flood alerts, some are unable to take advantage of the information, often because they lack the economic means and/or technical knowledge to know what to do. Often the warning messages come with technical jargon and they may not effectively relay the impact information of the disaster relevant to people’s day to day life and experience. “The early warning systems have become much better over the years but there is still a lot to be done,” said Mr. Shrestha Zoowa.
The Asian Disaster Preparedness Center (ADPC) and the United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction (UNDRR) have signed a Statement of Cooperation to strengthen the implementation of the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction 2015-2030 (Sendai Framework), promote climate and disaster resilience, encourage knowledge sharing for informed decision-making, and improve risk governance across Asia and the Pacific.
ADPC and UNDRR reaffirmed their commitment to promote climate and disaster resilience as core components of risk-informed sustainable development. Both organizations will work together to enhance the dissemination of regional knowledge on disaster risk, address disaster damage and loss data challenges, and strengthen the analytical and evidence base for regional cooperation to implement the Sendai Framework and the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.
They will collaborate in scaling up the support to countries for the development and implementation of national and local disaster risk reduction strategies in line with national climate change adaptation and national development plans.
The Statement of Cooperation will also strengthen existing collaboration between ADPC and UNDRR in many areas, such as developing online courses on Sendai Framework Monitor, devising a COVID-19 Small Business Continuity and Recovery Planning Toolkit, and the development of disaster risk reduction status reports of countries in Asia and the Pacific.
Promoting transboundary disaster risk management is one of the key points of this Statement of Cooperation, thus both organizations will leverage their existing networks to promote transboundary risk management and fortify collaboration with other regional organizations.
The collaboration will in turn strengthen the implementation of the four Sendai Framework priorities for action and enhance the science-policy-practice interface in disaster risk reduction and climate resilience in Asia-Pacific and beyond.
In 2019, the United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction’s (UNDRR) Global Assessment Report called on countries to abandon “hazard-by-hazard” risk management, in favour of a holistic approach that examines risk in the context of its impact in systems, including cascading impacts.
A year later, the COVID-19 pandemic presented the world with an unfortunate case study of how systemic risk, if left untreated, can snowball into a disaster and a global crisis.
However, the pandemic was not the only disaster of the year, as 2020 saw countries in Asia-Pacific deal with a perfect storm of dual and multiple disasters, including droughts, floods and typhoons.
For countries in the region to guard against future disasters and mitigate the compounded impact of disasters, a fundamental shift in risk governance at national and local levels is required.
The post-COVID recovery process is one avenue to embed this new approach in socio-economic development processes, to avoid the creation of new risks while risk-proofing development gains.
However, some preconditions need to be met to facilitate this transformation, including committed leadership, investments, engagement of all sectors and stakeholders, and an embrace of science-based multi-hazard risk reduction. All of these elements are in line with the commitments that countries made in the adoption of the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction 2015-2030.
The 2021 Asia-Pacific Ministerial Conference for Disaster Risk Reduction (APMCDRR), as the first major UNDRR regional platform since the onset of COVID-19, offers countries and stakeholders an opportunity to determine how these conditions can be met to achieve a transformation in risk governance.
With that goal, UNDRR and Australian Government, as the convener and host of the APMCDRR respectively, completed this week a major step in the roadmap to the ministerial conference, the organizing of the Asia-Pacific Partnership for Disaster Risk Reduction (APP-DRR) Forum.
The APP-DRR was organized on 1-2 December as a virtual meeting with 175 participants from 30 Asia-Pacific governments, over 10 intergovernmental organisations, several UN and international organizations, and stakeholder groups.
The Forum was kicked off with a statement by Ms. Mami Mizutori, Special Representative of the UN Secretary-General for Disaster Risk Reduction, who exhorted the participants to “think big and out of the box”. Opening remarks were made by the Australian Government:
"This forum is an important opportunity to take stock of how we're progressing against our Sendai commitments and to work together to accelerate this process," said Ms. Rebecca Bryant, Assistant Secretary at the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, adding:
"Australia is firmly committed to working with countries to further enhance our region's resilience to disasters and to learn from each other's experience."
Of importance to the APMCDRR is building the disaster resilience of small island developing states in the Pacific. These countries are often the most vulnerable countries to extreme weather events, and still have to mobilize resources to counter a global pandemic.
Speaking on both aspects, the Honorable Dr. Ifereimi Waqainabete, Minister of Health and Medical Services in Fiji, said:
“Our coordinates cannot change... we need to understand as a nation that we are prone to disasters. We are prone to cyclones, droughts and other extreme weather events, almost every year,” emphasizing that “as leaders in our own right, we must continue to make better decisions in building resilience to ensure that the devastating impacts of disasters are mitigated and reduced.”
To make the right decisions, countries need to strengthen their data collection systems and understanding of risk, which in turn contributes to the development of sound national and local disaster risk reduction strategies.
On that front, UNDRR noted that the region was making progress in reporting on several Sendai Framework indicators, as 67% of countries in Asia-Pacific have reported some data as of October 2020.
However, challenges remain around the collection of data that is disaggregated by sex, age and disability, which hinders the effectiveness of planning to ensure no one is left behind.
Moreover, countries continue to face challenges in adopting integrated approaches that combine climate change adaptation with disaster risk reduction and expanding their risk governance mechanisms to other sectors.
As the availability of funding is often a hindrance to the implementation of risk reduction strategies, UNDRR presented recommendations on how countries could finance risk prevention.
Green investment offers a particularly effective way to fund climate change adaptation and risk reduction measures, as is highlighted in a report that was launched by UNDRR at the APP-DRR, titled ‘Ecosystem-Based Disaster Risk Reduction: Implementing Nature-based Solutions for Resilience.’
However, as a result of the downturn in economic activity caused by the COVID-19 crisis, it might be necessary for governments to increase their support for green investments as part of their recovery efforts.
“Financially constrained firms have weaker environmental performance and COVID-19 could be detrimental to environmental investments. Going forward, there will be a need for some forms of public support to encourage green recovery,” said Dr. Hiroko Oura from the International Monetary Fund.
The APP-DRR was also an opportunity for countries and stakeholder groups to voice their priorities and concerns. These reflections were posted on the event page and will help inform planning for APMCDRR.
The United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction (UNDRR), within its project “Strengthening disaster resilience and accelerating implementation of Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction in Central Asia”, engages with the capital cities of Central Asia with the aim to support local governments to reduce risks and advance a holistic and systemic approach to urban resilience. The initiative is funded by the European Commission.
A network of focal points at the city administrations and interagency technical working groups are being established, including representatives of various departments of local and national governments, as well as risk analysis institutions, public councils and private sector. UNDRR will support assessments of Local Resilience Strategies and Action Plans of the five capital cities in Central Asian.
The initiative will contribute directly to the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goal 11 (SDG11) and other global frameworks, including the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction, the Paris Agreement and the New Urban Agenda in the region. The importance of engagement with local governments is emphasized by the fact, according to the UNECE estimates, 65% of the total SDG targets globally need to be delivered by local authorities and actors.
Increasing climate and disaster resilience is a priority for the Governments of Central Asia. The region is highly vulnerability to climate change and exposed to a range of natural and technological hazards.
UNDRR will also provide support to the capital cities of Central Asia through its Making Cities Resilient 2030 (MCR2030) launched in October 2020. Building upon the MCR Campaign success and lessons learned, it represents a new and unique multi-stakeholder initiative for improving local resilience. It lays out a broader offer of support to the cities than the MCR Campaign and enhances local resilience through advocacy, sharing knowledge and experiences, reinforcing city-to-city learning networks, injecting technical expertise, connecting multiple layers of government, and building partnerships.