World Conference on Disaster Risk Reduction casts spotlight on preparedness for technological disasters

Published: 14 March 2015 15:06 CET

By Patrick Fuller, IFRC

Four years ago the Great East Japan Earthquake and Tsunami caused immense destruction along Japan’s north-east coastline. Today, over 4,000 representatives from Governments and local and international organisations have gathered in Sendai, one of the towns that suffered extensive damage, for the World Conference on Disaster Risk Reduction (WCDRR).

Over the next week, a new ten-year global framework for disaster risk reduction will be finalized. At the opening of the WCDRR, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon had a clear message for the international community on the importance of investing in disaster risk reduction. “Annual economic losses from disasters now exceed $300 billion US dollar annually. We can watch that number grow as more people suffer. Or we can dramatically lower that figure and invest the savings in development. Six billion dollars allocated each year can result in savings of up to $360 billion US dollar by 2030,” he said.

The earthquake and tsunami in Japan triggered a nuclear meltdown at the Daiichi nuclear power plant in Fukushima prefecture, which led to the evacuation of thousands of local residents. Today, more than 120,000 residents are still unable to return to their homes due to nuclear contamination.

Moderating a working session on technological hazards at the WCDRR, Elhadj As Sy, Secretary General of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC), stressed how such disasters posed unique development challenges.

“The tsunami was a reminder that well-prepared countries are not spared from such disasters such as Fukushima. And where you have the added challenge of stigma and fear, this requires great sensitivity as it involves meeting the psychosocial needs of affected people,” said Sy. “In 2013 there were 192 technological disasters recorded worldwide. These hazards are heightened by additional threats to countries’ infrastructure arising from rapid urbanization, as well as the impacts of climate change such as unpredictable weather patterns.”

Sharing his country’s experience of the legacy of nuclear contamination following the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear disaster, one of the panelists, Ambassador Sergei Rakhimanov of Belarus, said that the biggest challenge since the disaster was not the effects of the radiation, but the lack of social and economic development opportunities for local people in affected areas who also suffered considerable stigma.

Sy stressed the importance of a multi-sector approach in preparing for – and responding to – technological disasters where governments at national and local levels should work closely with civil society organisations to analyse risks and protect lives and livelihoods. “The incidence of technological hazards can be expected to grow and the greatest responsibility to keep people safe on the streets and in their neighbourhoods rests with states and good governance,” he said. “Effective legal frameworks and compliance with those frameworks is vital. There must be accountability and consequences for non-compliance.”