What will it take?

Published: 5 June 2007 0:00 CET

Johan Schaar*

This week, representatives from governments, the UN and aid agencies will meet in Geneva to talk about disaster risk reduction, about what needs to be done to minimize the impact of natural hazards like earthquakes, landslides and hurricanes on disaster prone communities.

Many of those attending also met in January 2005, in Kobe, Japan, for the World Conference on Disaster Reduction, a meeting that took place just weeks after the Indian Ocean tsunami.

Before the tsunami, Kobe was expected to be a technical meeting – a chance for mid-level government representatives and aid workers to get together and share experiences and refine understandings.

But then the tsunami happened and all of a sudden Kobe's profile exploded. Empty seats in the plenary were quickly filled, and mid-level bureaucrats were replaced by senior members of governments from around the world.

It was amazing to watch. Finally, it seemed, people's safety from disasters would become a global priority. We all now shared a common purpose. There was a real sense that the tsunami had been a wake up call, a brutal illustration of the price of failing to protect the world's most vulnerable.

Government after government proclaimed their commitment to making the safety of their own people a priority. The Hyogo Framework for Action (HFA), the negotiated international agreement that came out of Kobe, was signed by 168 countries, each of them committing to themselves and to each other that they would make risk reduction a domestic priority, and an international imperative.

At the time, Kobe felt like a watershed moment. It's increasingly doubtful that it was.

Two and a half years later and risk reduction has slipped back down the international agenda. The vigorous commitment of Kobe has given way to a growing indifference. Rather than acting as a framework for scaled-up efforts, the HFA is in danger of becoming little more than a record of broken promises.

Progress has been lamentable. The HFA asked governments to make risk reduction a national priority by establishing national platforms that would guide policies and coordinate efforts. But so far only 45 of the 168 signatories have done so.

Pledges of increased funding for risk reduction have also come up short. Last year, the UN's special envoy for tsunami recovery, former US President Bill Clinton estimated that only four per cent of the US$ 10 billion spent annually on humanitarian assistance goes towards reducing risks (though it must be acknowledged that some donor governments, the UK for example, have increased their funding). This week's meeting is aiming to recapture some of the lost motivation. While the importance of risk reduction has never been more apparent, this time there is no tsunami to invigorate interest.

According to recent UN reports, climate change will likely lead to an increase in the frequency and intensity of weather extremes such as floods, droughts and tropical cyclones, potentially leading to an increase in disasters. We also know that factors such as unplanned urbanisation and mass migration are creating more communities too weak to cope with disasters.

The energy of Kobe must be recaptured, but this time it must also be maintained.

In the coming months, the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies will launch a new Global Alliance on disaster risk reduction, an approach that will see a dramatic scaling-up of Red Cross and Red Crescent risk reduction efforts right around the world.

Focusing on the 20 most disaster-prone countries, we will at least double the size and reach of our pre-emptive and preventive programmes over the next five years.

We believe that risk reduction efforts have the most meaningful impact when they are focused at the local level, at the vulnerable communities themselves. We believe that with out network of 185 Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies and 100 million volunteers that we are well placed to reach these communities.

The 2004 tsunami remains the most dramatic illustration of why risk reduction is so important. For a moment, it seemed to galvanise international support for vulnerable communities. The Global Platform must aim to recapture that fleeting commitment. But what will it take? Will the tsunami have to be repeated? Will it have to be surpassed?

* Johan Schaar is the special representative for the tsunami operation of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies.


The International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) is the world's largest humanitarian organization, with 190 member National Societies. As part of the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement, our work is guided by seven fundamental principles; humanity, impartiality, neutrality, independence, voluntary service, unity and universality. About this site & copyright