Summit aims to ‘substantially increase’ local strategies on disaster risk

Workers remove rubble in Port-au-Prince after a major earthquake struck Haiti, August 2010. (Marco Dormino/UN Photo)

Cities are set to receive key attention at a global summit this week on disaster risk reduction, as national governments, development groups and others seek to “substantially increase” the number of local strategies on the issue by 2020.

Not only will local authorities gathering Monday at the summit in Cancún, Mexico, be seeking to learn from each other on how to reduce risks posed to their citizens by natural and other disasters. Also high on the agenda will be learning better how to communicate with national governments and development organizations about their needs in this area — and making a series of new demands.

An expected 5,000 representatives from government, civil society and the private sector are meeting in Cancún for the first global meeting to review progress on a global accord called the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction. That 2015 agreement aims to curb disaster-related risk and the associated loss of lives and assets globally by 2030. Its adoption laid the groundwork for a series of global agreements, including the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) that went into effect last year.

It’s anticipated the meeting will increase momentum on the Sendai Framework’s near-term aim to “substantially increase” the number of national and local strategies for disaster risk reduction by 2020. Formally, the summit will be the fifth conference of what’s known as the Global Platform for Disaster Risk Reduction.

[See: ‘Sustainable insurance’: Seven takeaways from the first-ever summit of insurers and city leaders]

While no official accounting has been done on how many cities have such strategies in place, only about 5 percent of city master plans or urban development plans take current and future risks into account, says Abhilash Panda, who works on urban issues for the U. N. Office for Disaster Risk Reduction, better known as UNISDR.

“There are hardly any cities [that] actually take risk into perspective,” he said just ahead of the conference. “The main push is that these strategies need to be risk informed.”

Ominous trends

What does that mean? Key risks faced by cities go well beyond the sudden traumatic events of flooding, earthquake or storm. They also include those posed by climate variation, increased rainfall, dry periods, heat waves and human-linked hazards.

“There are hardly any cities [that] actually take risk into perspective. The main push is that these strategies need to be risk informed.”

Abhilash Panda
U. N. Office for Disaster Risk Reduction

Panda says cities should be looking to include those risks into their planning documents and identifying what changes need to be put into place to deal with those issues — for instance, altering construction practices or materials. Doing so can help make cities more resilient to disasters, thus reducing the loss of lives and livelihoods that occur when disasters strike.

[See: A ‘cure’ for catastrophe?]

Putting new strategies into play would take place just in time, as disaster-related implications for cities — financial, social and otherwise — have been spiking. In the recent past, disasters in cities were leading to global losses of around USD 100 billion a year. But that figure has more than tripled in just the past few years, says Joe Leitmann, the World Bank’s lead specialist on disaster risk management.

This, says Leitmann, is because the world is increasingly urbanized — more than half the world’s population now lives in cities, and that figure is set to hit 66 percent by 2050. That  means an increased concentration of people and assets in urban areas, as well as increased exposure of people and their economic assets to hazards, including natural disasters.

At the same time, natural disasters are pushing an estimated 26 million people each year into poverty, according to the bank.

And for cities, projections suggest things are going to get worse. For instance, climate change coupled with rapid population increase, economic growth and land subsidence could result in a ninefold increase in risk of floods in major port cities by 2050. The number of people vulnerable to cyclones and earthquakes, meanwhile, could more than double in developing countries’ cities between 2013 and 2050, due to urban population growth.

[See: Can a new ‘global alliance’ rethink disaster response in cities?]

Such trends have prompted the need for a far more proactive stance from policymakers at all levels.

“So often in the past, we took a kind of insurance, actuarial perspective, and we looked backwards to calculate risk,” said Leitmann. “But with climate change and with urbanization, the profile of risk is changing. It’s really becoming much more of an issue and a cost, and [is having] a higher impact in urban areas.”

Risk before loss

The Sendai Framework is the second major global accord on disaster risk reduction. Countries in 2015 adopted the agreement, which includes a new emphasis on reducing risk instead of simply losses from disasters. The framework’s introduction made “risk indistinguishable from development,” the United Nations Development Programme’s Jan Kellett noted in a recent article.

“So often in the past, we took a kind of insurance, actuarial perspective, and we looked backwards to calculate risk. But with climate change and with urbanization, the profile of risk is changing.”

Joe Leitmann
World Bank

Thus, the 15-year accord calls for dedicated action on tackling underlying drivers of risk — the consequences of poverty and inequality, for instance, as well as climate change, unplanned and rapid urbanization, and poor land management. It also focuses on exacerbating factors such as weak institutional arrangements, non-risk-informed policies and lack of regulation.

[See: New disaster-risk framework seen as first step toward sustainability]

The agreement carves out a solid role for local authorities in risk reduction. Its text notes that “while the enabling, guiding and coordinating role of national and federal State Governments remain essential, it is necessary to empower local authorities and local communities to reduce disaster risk.”

The framework outlines seven targets, including to “substantially reduce” global disaster mortality by 2030. A near-term goal, which will be in focus at the Cancún meet, is to increase the number of national and local strategies for disaster risk reduction by 2020.

Civil society groups have welcomed the Sendai Framework’s language around local engagement. But experts say more needs to be done in terms of on-the-ground action, especially when it comes to small and medium-size cities. They’re hoping to use the Cancún meet to make this point.

[See: In the Philippines, a model for confronting climate change and nearly every disaster you can think of]

While many governments have created disaster management frameworks in line with the framework (or its 10-year predecessor), the focus often has been on capital cities or regional capitals, said Mohamed Hilmi, senior coordinator and technical specialist for shelter and settlements with InterAction, a U. S.-based alliance of over 180 NGOs. “You often see … a smaller office in a smaller city. But practically, they really don’t have a lot of capacity to respond or do work.”

Development and humanitarian groups also are looking to local policymakers, as well as the U. N. system, to engage with them in a more systematic and long-term manner on disaster risk reduction. Hilmi says that would be a turnaround from the typical pattern that sees these groups working together only in the three to six months after disaster strikes.

How to craft a strategy

This week’s Cancún meeting offers a chance for city officials to learn about how local action and policy that can contribute to planning for and responding to disasters. In turn, those lessons can inform local strategies on reducing related risks — a key issue at the conference.

While each city’s strategy needs to be tailored to its circumstances, there are some common facets that each should address. For instance, such a strategy needs to enable cities to be prepared in case of disaster — of any kind. Likewise, it must reduce the risk connected to those catastrophes. For instance, cities in flood zones should not allow construction in areas where it may be severely impacted in the event of flooding, says Panda. Or if buildings already exist in an at-risk area, officials should explore ways to strengthen those structures.

Cities may incorporate these strategies into their existing master plans. Or they can develop standalone resilience plans as Lisbon, Hong Kong and Greater Manchester, among others, have done, he said.

[See: Urban risks: Where are the five biggest blind spots?]

For local policymakers thinking about how to reduce risk and increase resilience in their cities, there are five areas to consider, says the World Bank’s Leitmann. One element is identification — understanding the threats to a city’s people and economy across each urban sector. In turn, this means an increased focus on preparedness, figuring out risk financing and insurance, for instance.

In Haiti, Hurricane Sandy flooded towns, prompted a cholera epidemic and killed dozens in October 2012. (Logan Abassi/UN Photo)

A third element is improving the city’s ability to respond to disasters at the local level. Thereafter, resilient recovery is critical, including having the finances, policies and institutions in place to build back following a catastrophic event. Finally, officials need to think about improving early-warning systems so that cities can communicate to their citizens about impending threats, such as floods.

To help local authorities identify risks and capacity gaps, and then inform risk reduction responses, UNISDR’s Making Cities Resilient Campaign will release a tool, known as the city disaster resilience scorecard, on Tuesday. That day the campaign, along with the government of Mexico, UCLG and other partners, are putting on a daylong summit in Cancún for cities and regional authorities.

[See: Christchurch’s SCIRT offers a model for rebuilding after a disaster]

The tool is based on two dimensions, Panda says. First, it helps cities do a preliminary assessment that identifies the current state of play. Based on that assessment, it offers a more detailed assessment to identify areas for action, such as understanding risks and communicating those to citizens, with the ultimate goal of allowing a city to build its own resilience strategy. The campaign also offers a 10-point checklist for local governments to build resilience, based off the Sendai Framework’s priorities for action.

Local demands

Local and regional governments, too, are gearing up to announce a new commitment to beefing up action on this issue. Also Tuesday, officials will endorse a declaration of local and regional governments; in July, the final declaration will be a formal contribution to this year’s U. N. review of progress on the SDGs.

A draft version of the declaration highlights local commitments to incorporating new consideration around disaster risk into spatial planning, introducing specific budgets for related programmes, and setting up local coalitions for consultation and information exchange on disaster risks.

Local governments are committed to “stepping up our local action with a view to implementing the Sendai Framework”, according to the draft declaration. It warns that “cities and urban centres in developing countries are evolving rapidly without always being able to fund sustainable and resilient planning and infrastructure to protect populations and property.”

[See: What Surat learned from a preventable flood]

The declaration calls on higher authorities to provide cities with financial, institutional and legislative support to implement strategies around reducing disaster-related risks. For example, national governments can support local efforts through national regulation. Panda points out that after the deadly 2013 Typhoon Haiyan devastated parts of the Philippines, it made sense for cities there to take out individual risk insurance policies based on their needs — a move that would have further incentivized cities to reduce their risk, to get lower premiums. As it turns out, national regulation barred cities from doing so.

On the other side, when cities are seeking budgets for risk-reduction efforts from national governments, they need to have valid, evidence-based arguments, Panda says. Such processes are happening in many cities in Europe and Asia: When seeking support, local officials go to national government with evidence of historical losses in their cities due to natural hazards, and their future risk assessment looks at how climate change is going to add to those.

When talking with national governments, cities need to be able to show what they can do with their own financial capacity, he said. They also have to be clear about what they need higher-level assistance with in terms of financing or the creation of alternative funding opportunities like tax incentives.

[See: How risk accumulates in African cities — and ways to break the cycle]

As the Cancún meet gets underway, there are high hopes for what can be achieved in terms of planning for risk at the city level. “It’s a great opportunity to highlight just how important it is to get things right in cities,” said the World Bank’s Leitmann, “especially if we’re thinking forward and we’re looking at how risk transforms over time.”

Importantly, the Sendai deadline for getting more local disaster risk reduction plans in place by 2020 is just around the corner. That puts increased impetus on local officials, civil society and national governments to come away from this week’s discussions ready to prepare and implement such strategies, if they aren’t already doing so.

Back to top

More from Citiscope

Latest Commentary

Brendon Bosworth is a correspondent for Citiscope based in Cape Town. Full bio

Get Citiscope’s email newsletter on local solutions to global goals.