A “Brief” Focus on Disaster Management (By Michael Belinsky)

In a little over two weeks, the UN Conference on Sustainable Development, nicknamed Rio+20 for its location and timing, will kick off in Brazil. The Conference will cover a green economy in the context of sustainable development poverty eradication, and the institutional framework for sustainable development. These two themes will contain sub-themes of “jobs, energy, sustainable cities, food security and sustainable agriculture, water, oceans and disaster readiness.”

The hope behind Rio+20 is that the conference will help governments develop practical measures for implementing sustainable development. The conference defined sustainable development as development that “meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”

To form a baseline for the conversation at Rio+20, the conference organizers have drafted a series of issue briefs covering the topics that will be discussed at the conference. These briefs are:

1 – Trade and Green Economy, UNCSD Secretariat and UNCTAD
2 – Options for Strengthening IFSD: Peer Review, UN-DESA
3 – IFSD: Issues related to an intergovernmental body on SD, UN-DESA
4 – Oceans, UN-DESA
5 – Sustainable Cities, UN-DESA
6 – Current Ideas on Sustainable Development Goals and Indicators, UN-DESA
7 – Green jobs and social inclusion, UN-DESA
8 – Reducing Disaster Risk and Building Resilience, UN-DESA
9 – Food Security and Sustainable Agriculture, UN-DESA
10 – Regional, national and local level governance for sustainable development, UN-DESA
11 – Water, UN-DESA
12 – Science and Technology for Sustainable Development, UN-DESA
13 – Sustainable, Low Carbon Transport in Emerging and Developing Economies, UN-DESA

In this blog post, I will cover Issue Brief 8.

Disaster management is an important issue for me. While a student at the Harvard Kennedy School, I was co-president of the Disaster Management Professional Interest Council. As part of that organization, I helped organize the first cross-school panel on the Japanese nuclear disaster in 2011. Prior to that, I was a careful observer of the news when the Katrina hurricane swept away the levies that protected New Orleans.

The US-DESA Brief on Reducing Disaster Risk and Building Resilience (Disaster Brief) overviews existing international commitments in the area of disaster risk reduction, analyzes remaining gaps, and proposes some goals.

The action plan outlined by the Disaster Brief is grounded in the realities of difficult implementation. It calls for integration of disaster management into the government policymaking process, identification and early assessment of disasters, the creation of a culture around disaster management, reduction of underlying risk factors, and comprehensive strengthening of disaster preparedness.

The fascinating thing about disaster management, and part of the reason that I am excited to see this topic as part of the Rio+20 agenda, is that the problem presented by natural disasters is perfectly designed for a UN-style solution. Natural disasters cross borders and agencies within governments. They impose private costs on households and firms, and social costs on societies in and out of any one government’s reach.

As the former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan said years ago, “problems without passports” represent perfect opportunities for UN involvement. Through various fora, and perhaps through Rio+20 next month, the UN has a chance to help governments overcome the private costs of collective action and take step to mitigate the impact of an unknown and unpredictable natural hazard in an environment where success will be measured simply by considering what did not happen.

I am excited also to hear the discussions of various technical solutions to natural disasters. A New York Times story recently discussed how a Scandinavian country reverted to the natural barriers against flood that it earlier demolished to make room for farmland and housing. By extending marshland around some of its cities and thereby building an absorptive buffer for floodwater, the country created a natural barrier against a natural disaster.

Yet in other places, technical solutions are difficult to come by. The Maldives are sinking, for example, and the Maldivian president has no idea how to solve the problem. He is adding sand to the beaches, possibly drafting evacuation plans, and asking the world to do everything they can to slow global warming. This is a creeping natural disaster that touches the very heart of Rio+20’s sustainability theme.

One simple technical solution for disaster risk management involves around awareness. The capability of developed countries to detect and analyze natural disasters dwarfs that of most developing nations. The United States, for one, marshals unrivaled satellite, signal and human intelligence capabilities alongside sophisticated scientific monitoring equipment stationed throughout the world. Many hardworking people have created systems to share information about disaster with people who will be affected by them – and people who can respond to them. Yet more can be done, and policy is a significant enabler of that type of communication. One missing link in particular is communication about disasters between the governments and the disaster relief organizations that stand ready to rescue and rebuild societies stricken by disaster.

These technical solutions are just part of the evolving discussion around disaster management that I hope will continue at the Rio+20 conference this coming month.

Michael Belinsky is a 2012 graduate of the Harvard Kennedy School Master in Public Policy program.

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