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Disaster mitigation: the world’s best-laid plan

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After 30 hours of negotiation in Sendai, Japan, representatives from 187 United Nations member states – including Australia – put their names to a 15-year framework to tackle global disaster risk.

It’s a huge step forward, and a successful conclusion to the third UN World Conference on Disaster Risk Reduction.

But, as the Scottish poet Robert Burns once so eloquently noted, it’s one thing having a plan, entirely another to make it work.

The Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction 2015-2030 sets bold targets.

It aims to “substantially reduce” the number of people killed or affected by disaster over the next 15 years. It also aims to cut economic loss, and reduce damage to critical infrastructure by improving resilience.

The number of countries with national and local disaster risk strategies should be substantially increased by 2020, with enhanced international support for developing countries.

Access to multi-hazard early-warning systems should also be substantially increased.

The framework includes four priorities for action: understanding disaster risk, strengthening disaster risk governance, investing in disaster risk reduction for resilience and enhancing disaster preparedness for effective response.

All laudable aims, but can they be achieved against a backdrop of climate change and increasing urbanisation?

The UN says Sendai’s predecessor – the Hyogo Framework for Action, adopted in 2005 – reduced mortality in relation to some hazards.

But it accepts that over Hyogo’s 10-year timeframe disasters “continued to exact a heavy toll”.

In that period more than 700,000 people were killed, 1.4 million injured and 23 million made homeless. The total economic loss was more than $US1.3 trillion ($1.69 trillion).

Can the Sendai framework fare any better? There are certainly challenges – not least in measuring progress.

Catastrophe risk management group RMS told the conference it is impossible to chart performance in reducing disaster risk by examining historical data. Disasters are so infrequent and so devastating that no particular time period can give an accurate picture.

For example, in Haiti between 1900 and 2010 fewer than 10 people were killed by earthquakes, but in one afternoon in January 2010 200,000 people died in a quake.

The only way to chart progress is to adopt catastrophe modelling in the same way the insurance industry has, RMS says. Modelling can measure the risk of a particular country today, and then again in 15 years.

A separate presentation from catastrophe modeller AIR Worldwide suggests there is little prospect of reducing economic losses.

It says when catastrophe losses over the past 20 years are normalised, they oscillate around a base level of $US240 billion ($311 billion).

AIR Worldwide Director of International Operations Milan Simic believes this shows it is “next to impossible” to reduce current levels of economic losses.

UN Office for Disaster Risk Reduction Chief of Advocacy and Outreach Jerry Velasquez says the study proves economic losses are so high because of “the way we do development”.

“Development drivers are stronger drivers of the increase of risks than hazards themselves,” he said. “In order to limit economic losses in the future, we need to improve urban planning and make economic growth resilient.”

We all know that even the best-laid plans can go awry, especially where Mother Nature is concerned.

But while there are many obstacles, the Sendai framework at least has the world’s nations working together in an effort to change billions of lives for the better.