This month, the United Nations is holding a global conference in Sendai, Japan on disaster risk reduction. What is disaster risk reduction, and why is it so important to not only saving lives, but ending poverty?

To learn more, I recently talked to Jo Scheuer, the Chief of Profession for Climate Change and Disaster Risk Reduction in the UN Development Programme’s Bureau for Policy and Programme Support.

His takeaway message: Disaster risk reduction is about more than responding to emergencies; it’s about doing development right so people are safer in the first place – for example, making sure schools meet building standards so they can withstand an earthquake. As he says, “If it is not risk-informed, it is not sustainable development.”


Photo credit: UNDP

Jenni Lee: Can you explain “disaster risk reduction” for people like me who aren’t experts on the topic?

Jo Scheuer:  When we talk about disaster risk reduction, what comes to mind for many people is a disaster – a hurricane in the Philippines or an earthquake in Haiti. People assume we are the people that go in after the event as part of the immediate response and recovery. Of course, that is part of the work we do, but that is not what disaster risk reduction overall is about.

Disaster risk reduction fundamentally is about doing development right. Building a school in a seismic zone that is not in accordance with building codes, and therefore crumbles when an earthquake happens, is a process of development and governance.

Disaster risk reduction can be grouped into three categories. The first is understanding and communicating risk for effective decision making. Second, it’s about developing appropriate solutions and putting in necessary measures to reduce risk and avoid building new risk. And lastly, it is about dealing with residual risk because natural hazards and disasters will continue to happen, and we do need to ensure effective and efficient preparedness and recovery efforts in a way that will further strengthen risk reduction in the future.

JL: Why is this topic so important right now?

JS: It’s extremely important for several reasons. First and foremost because of the impact it has on lives and livelihoods: Over the last 20 years, roughly 1.3 million people have been killed by disasters that have impacted over 4 billion people and cost the global economy roughly US$2 trillion.

While we are doing better at saving lives and moving people out of harm’s way, economic losses have been increasing and are projected to continue to increase. And the reason is really because development is risk-blind as opposed to being risk-informed. We have better emergency preparedness systems, which is why we’re saving lives, but most development is still not risk-informed.

Secondly, it is very important because of the opportunity in 2015 to undertake global policy changes. What is often referred to as the “post-2015 processes” give us an enormous, unique opportunity to reform the way we do development, starting at the disaster risk reduction conference this week and continuing through the financing for development discussion in Addis Ababa; the Sustainable Development Goals in September at the UN General Assembly; and the climate agreement discussion in Paris in December. This will continue into 2016 with the World Humanitarian Summit and Habitat III Conference next year.

Because of all of this, we can set up an international architecture that ensures disaster and climate risk is fully integrated as a development concern and the way we continue to do development is sufficiently financed and therefore can be truly sustainable.

JL: What role does climate change play?

JS: Climate change is truly a game-changer for this whole issue. Roughly 80% of disaster events are climate-related. The other 20% are geo-physical hazards such as earthquakes.

What the scientists are telling us is that severe weather events will become more unpredictable and the storms or events will become more frequent and intense. Looking into the middle of the century, scientists predict that a weather event that typically happens every 10 years will start to happen every year.

So it is truly a game-changer and a big reminder that we have to build resilience into our development interventions.

JL: As we talk about ending poverty in the post-2015 agenda, can we get there if we don’t address this issue?

JS: I don’t think so. If you look at Haiti or the Philippines, large parts of GDP were wiped out with during disasters. In the case of Haiti, in the decade preceding the major earthquake, the number of poor fell by 8% and after the earthquake, that number was right back where we started in 2000.

We also have been able to establish that for many countries and communities experiencing minor, local events, they are in a poverty trap because their investment into their livelihood, their assets – be it their houses, agriculture, livestock, education gains, housing sectors, all these things – are being
eroded by disasters. And we simply throw people back into poverty by being affected by these disaster events. We cannot solve the issue of poverty unless we build resilience to disaster events.

JL: What is the UN Development Programme doing to help countries reduce risks?

JS: UNDP works at the country level in support of national governments preparing, mitigating, and preventing disasters.

Going back to 2005, UNDP has invested, with its government counterparts, nearly $2 billion in disaster risk reduction, and we’ve worked with over 150 countries in a variety of activities. This includes everything from early warning systems to setting up the institutions you need to manage a disaster event, working on legal frameworks, mainstreaming disaster risk into the different sectors, and more.

Going forward, we have a new strategic plan that has fully integrated climate and disaster risk across all development outcomes. We hope to now announce in the course of this year a new program called 5-10-50: 5 major priority areas in the next 10 years in 50 countries where we want to focus efforts and investments in disaster resilience.

What we’re really focusing on now, with government partners, is to address the underlying development processes. Because they’ve gotten reasonably good at managing the event itself.

Take an area that is earthquake-affected: You have good building codes to ensure that buildings meet standards so they don’t crumble in an earthquake or are broken down by the storm or washed away by flash floods. But in many countries, corruption and collusion between government authorities and building and construction companies leads to substandard construction and a disrespect of building codes. Every time we put up a bad building, we increase the risk.

So we need to work with governments on these development decisions to ensure that they are risk-informed, so that we avoid building new risk and also focus on reducing existing risk. This includes, for example, retrofitting school buildings and hospitals that are currently not up to standard so when an earthquake happens or a storm hits, they will not be destroyed.

Going forward, the focus is really on ensuring that all of these development decisions are risk-informed.

JL: What’s your message as you head to the UN conference on disaster risk reduction, and what do you hope comes out of it?

JS: The message is really that disaster issues are not a humanitarian concern alone; disaster issues are fundamentally a development issue.

At the world conference on disaster risk reduction, and through the other events I mentioned earlier, we must truly make disaster risk and climate risk a central concern of the development community.

Because, if it is not risk-informed, it is not sustainable development.