Natural disasters get the better of technology | Daily News

Natural disasters get the better of technology

Mihir Bhatt, Chairperson, Duryog Nivaran. Pictures by Vipula Amarasinghe

Earthquakes and Tsunamis have been occurring in this world since the dawn of time. Some of them have been the basis of myth. They say that Zeus angered by the arrogance of the Kings of Atlantis, that perfect Utopia, send an earthquake that sank Atlantis.

(L-R) Subinay Nandy, UN Resident Coordinator and UNDP Resident Representative Sri Lanka, S. Amalanathan, Additional Secretary for Development at the Ministry of Disaster Management, Andrew Maskrey, Coordinator, Global Assessment Report on Disaster Risk Reduction, UNISDR

Earthquakes and Tsunamis are the sources of destruction we cannot prevent despite all our advancements in technology. We can prevent crime, we can usher in global peace, we can fix the food problem and eradicate famine. We can solve the poverty problem in this world. But one thing we cannot do at this juncture in time is to eradicate Earthquakes and Tsunamis.

People remember the 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake and the 2011 earthquake off the Pacific coast of Tohoku. Way back in 62 A.D. an earthquake hit Pompeii causing much damage, and just like in 2004 and 2011, there was a Tsunami then as well. But it was yet another natural disaster that finally sealed Pompeii’s fate. The volcanic eruption of Mount Vesuvius destroyed the city of Pompeii in A.D. 79. On August 24, Mount Vesuvius exploded at noon, and ash began to fall. In the early hours of August 25, a fast-moving current of hot gas and rock enveloped Pompeii. The poor creatures stood no chance as they were burned to death. The city was obliterated.

Daily News recently attended the Centre for Poverty Analysis’, 54th Open Forum on Disaster Risk Reduction.

Chairperson, Duryog Nivaran, Mihir Bhatt spoke of the forum as one that looks at Disaster Risk from every possible direction.

Disaster risk reduction

“Invariably in our region any development program leaves the poor behind. These are poor men and poor women. Development programs contribute to increasing inequality in the region which ends up undermining economic growth. That’s the impact on the country. Leaving poor behind means their vulnerability is increased, so that when confronted with shocks (whether these are shocks related to natural disasters, or shocks related to sickness or death in the family) they are unable to pick themselves up,” said Bhatt

UN Resident Coordinator and UNDP Resident Representative in Sri Lanka, Subinay Nandy, has served in Vietnam and China, countries very prone to disasters. Nandy said as a UN family in Sri Lanka they work very closely on issues concerning Natural Disasters.

“Disasters can be used to reduce poverty itself. This is the concept of ‘building back better’. Making sure that the investments post disaster, i.e. on disaster recovery, make people less vulnerable than they were before. It means providing them better physical infrastructure (e.g. housing etc.) but it also means making sure they are not socially excluded and that they participate in the development process,” said Subinay Nandy.

If disaster risk reduction is done rightly, it can be used, to not only reduce the risk that the poor and overall society faces, but it can be used to generate jobs and income.

“Disaster Risk Reduction (DRR) done the right way increases the well-being of an economy, as it makes it more resilient. Further, an important aspect of DRR is a livelihoods approach – this means improving people’s livelihoods and diversifying them. When people are economically stable, they can withstand disasters better (they bounce back sooner), or when they have more than one livelihood option, if one is destroyed they can fall back on another.”

South Asia is home to a large part of the world’s population. We are also home to a large part of the world’s poor population. We are home to a large part of the world’s young population. We are also exposed to a variety of hazards.


Nandy in his address said that this Global Assessment Report will make disaster management more integrated and that the event is timely.

“The Global Assessment Report (GAR) makes the case that disasters are not exogenous (i.e external) to development, but are often a function of development activity i.e. internal to development/endogenous. So if we follow the reasoning and the recommendations of the GAR we will be looking to integrate disaster risk reduction into all development plans and into all sectors. That’s what we mean by integrated.”

This is a crucial time for Sri Lanka and also in the Global landscape to have these discussions here in Sri Lanka and elsewhere. Nandy commenting on the Sendai Framework pointed out that it is based on four priority areas for action.

Priority 1: Understanding disaster risk.

Priority 2: Strengthening disaster risk governance to manage disaster risk.

Priority 3: Investing in disaster risk reduction for resilience.

Priority 4: Enhancing disaster preparedness for effective response and to “Build Back Better” in recovery, rehabilitation and reconstruction.

Basically disasters can wipe away the gains of economic and social development.

“The risk of a disaster can cause economic losses even before a disaster strikes. Investing in disaster resilience, therefore, can yield a ‘triple dividend’ by;

* Avoiding losses when disasters strike

* Unlocking development potential by stimulating innovation and bolstering economic activity in a context of reduced disaster-related background risk for investment

* Through the synergies of the social, environment and economic there are co-benefits of disaster risk management investments even if a disaster does not happen for many years.”

In his address Nandy highlighted the importance of the availability of this report in Sinhala and Tamil. Translating these technical documents is not easy.

“The Global Assessment Report on Disaster Risk Reduction is one of the key documents available on this subject. This is because it gathers all the existing information and synthesizes it. It is, as the website says, a biennial global assessment of disaster risk reduction and comprehensive review and analysis of the natural hazards that are affecting humanity. It furthers the ‘discourse’ on disaster risk reduction, and provides the evidence and strategic policy guidance to countries and the international community. Its aim is to focus international attention on the issue of disaster risk and encourage political and economic support for disaster risk reduction. As interesting as the report, are also the many background papers that have gone in to making it.”

Coordinator, Global Assessment Report on Disaster Risk Reduction, UNISDR Andrew Maskrey outlined the reports that have already come out.

Note that there had already been the World Conference on Disaster Reduction in January 2005, Kobe, Hyogo, Japan and this had given rise to the Hyogo Framework for Action (HFA) which governments had committed to.

The GAR provided evidence to help governments implement the HFA. The global development community has been leading up to 2015 which was the target year for the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). World governments are being asked now to commit themselves to Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) It’s also the year of the COP21 – which is looking at Climate Change.

“The report I am going to present to you today is the fourth United Nations Global Assessment Report on ‘Disaster Risk Reduction’. The previous have been:

2013 - From Share Risk to Shared Value: the Business case for Disaster Risk Reduction

2011 - Revealing risk, redefining development

2009 – Invest today for a Safer Tomorrow

Below is a representation by Maskrey on the processes that have taken place.

“Many of your organizations who are now in charge of disaster risk management started out as emergency response organizations. And gradually over the years have been adding other responsibilities to their mandate - recovery, reconstruction, prevention and mitigation?

In addition mainstreaming DRR into development has become the key. Mitigation ensures that development reduces existing risk, and as well does not contribute to creating new risk, which is something the GAR and the SFDRR (Sendai Framework) emphasizes.”

Self-assessment exercise

The concept of human life years can be used to provide a better representation of disaster impact. Between 1980 and 2012, around 42 million life years were lost in internationally reported disasters each year, a setback to development comparable to diseases such as tuberculosis.

“We are looking at this whole relationship between Disaster Risk Reduction and Sustainable Development. We are asking the big question. That is as to whether the approach to managing disaster and risks, we’ve had in the last 25 years fits the purpose or whether we need to change tracks. As we have changed into the Sendai Framework.”

Every two years since 2007, the United Nations has asked its member states for self-assessments on Disaster Risk Reduction. And generally every two years we have had around 130 governments including Sri Lanka doing this self-assessment exercise.

“What has come out is good progress in Disaster Management. Over the years all countries, across geographies and income levels, reports are getting better and better in contingency plans and training drills, disaster preparedness and putting in place institutional technical capacities to do so.

Over the last 25 years, we have really accumulated a large stock of risk. And every country has a share of these large stocks of risks. In this report we try to go beyond the traditional way of describing this risk in terms of locality or in terms of economic loss. We felt a much better way of describing it in terms of life years lost.”