Masters of Disaster:  The UN Gives Hope a Chance, Dr. Robert Zuber

17 Mar

Far from the inspiring stories, crowded hallways and rhetorical flourishes of the Commission on the Status of Women, the UN World Conference on Disaster Risk Reduction (WCDRR) is now taking place in Sendai, Japan (

We don’t normally comment on events where we aren’t physically present, but this United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction (UNISDR) event is highlighting issues germane to virtually all UN policy priorities.   Moreover, several of the disasters featured at the conference are related to dangerous shifts in climate health which has become, rightly if belatedly, a major focus of UN concern.

The backdrop for the WCDRR event is a high-profile natural disaster which, as reported by Al Jazeera and others, is well underway after Cyclone Pam tore through Vanuatu early Saturday, “packing winds of 168 miles per hour, and leaving a trail of destruction and unconfirmed reports of dozens of deaths.” In quite an irony, the President of Vanuatu, Baldwin Lonsdale, found himself stranded at WCDRR along with some of the country’s top disaster management officials while a state of emergency had  been declared back home.

Also lingering in the background are the still-unresolved effects of the ‘triple whammy’ that affected Japan’s Fukushima, not far from Sendai – earthquake followed by tsunami, followed by radiation leakage.   Such multiple disasters seem hard to fathom but are actually becoming more and more plausible as levels of human damage to the planet rise.

On Sunday (Japan time) a WCDRR session was held to introduce the 2015 Global Assessment of Disaster Risks Report. The report provides “an update on global risk trends and patterns based on results from the first ever probabilistic risk assessment covering the world.” Participants were informed about current and emerging risks and projected economic losses associated with exposure and vulnerability to hazards, including cyclones, earthquakes, floods, landslides, tsunamis and volcanic ash.

This is quite a list which doesn’t even specify concerns like drought and the forced social mobility this causes.  These are all concerns we would do well to avoid but, failing that, to prepare for with sufficient urgency and thoughtfulness.

When I was younger, I lived in a part of the US that frequently ‘welcomed’ tornadoes.  While most failed to hit the ground, many uprooted trees, tore off the roofs of barns and houses, and greatly damaged homes and property, often in working-class neighborhoods that could ill afford the losses.

A feature of those times was that the most effective response was often in the aftermath of disasters – insurance agents processing claims, the Red Cross serving soup and assisting with health emergencies, crews helping to restore communications and navigable roads, police providing a reassuring presence.

But we soon realized that rebuilding capacity was not sufficient, that we needed more time and resources to prepare better for what, in some years, was literally a ‘parade’ of funnel clouds.   And, indeed, the focus slowly shifted, not away from disaster response but to more balanced approach that brought science and civics to bear on local preparedness.  Weather-related technology was able to warn us in time of impending crises so that authorities could be mobilized and valuables and loved ones protected.

But this doesn’t happen, can’t happen everywhere. As noted in the Al Jazeera story on Vanuatu, “People are really upset and it’s really hard, just because for the last couple of years, we haven’t received a really big cyclone like this one,” said Isso Nihmei, Vanuatu coordinator for the environmental and crisis response group 350.  Most people right now, they are really homeless.”

In such circumstances, many of us would want to know: Where were the weather forecasters?  Where were the warnings?   Where were the preparations that could have provided more resilient options to ‘weather’ the coming storm?

If we know anything with certainty, it is that the ‘holiday’ from disaster that Vanuatu apparently experienced is unlikely to be repeated soon.  Between increases in tropical depressions, widening areas of drought, flooding from land whose forests have been denuded, the erosion of shorelines, and other hazards – and this on top of the more obvious human-made disasters from armed violence, trafficking and other calamities – trouble is brewing in far-flung corners of the globe.

People facing such the prospect of such disaster need reassurances at two levels.   First, that there are competent professionals able and willing to respond when disaster strikes; and second that all possible efforts have been made to warn residents and promote resilience before trouble strikes.

Forecasting that ‘trouble’ can be tricky business.  But we have suffered greatly in the security sector from assistance – in the form of peacekeepers or military response to mass violence – that arrives too late to stem the violence in its earliest stages.   Disaster relief that arrives too late can also jeopardize lives needlessly.   As noted in the literature of the HOPEFOR initiative (Qatar, Dominican Republic, Turkey and others) to which GAPW has been attentive, when crisis response is needed, timing is always of the essence (  Given extraordinary improvements in disaster technology, improved forecasting must be an integral part of any disaster response.

Not all disasters can be averted.  There are some tornadoes in the south of the US so massive that resilience is almost futile.  Earthquakes and tsunamis can devastate communities and landscapes in what seems like an instant.  And, as noted by several experts in Sendai, technical warnings can fail to reach the right people, or reach them in a way that is confusing in terms of preferred responses.   Or people can choose to ignore warnings (as we in the US sometimes do with hurricanes and floods) or simply have no viable response options to looming threats.

But for many natural disasters, there are warning signs that are far less expensive to heed than the price tag resulting from disasters’ aftermath. This is especially true given the disasters that will likely intensify as our climate continues to deteriorate.  In response to the tragedy of Vanuatu, the president of Seychelles was quoted as saying “Today it is the South Pacific, tomorrow it could be us.”

Indeed it could well be.

Disaster response is in part about running several races against time almost in tandem. We need better forecasting and more quickly.  We need funding to support greater resiliency and more viable options for communities in the face of disaster.  We need more civilian-based response services on high alert to get to the scenes of crises rapidly and even before any crises unfold.  But most of all, we need dramatic diplomatic movement on climate health and other human interventions to give hope to communities suffering from disasters of a magnitude that they simply could never manage alone.

The UN is well positioned to help states meet the challenges, changes and resource needs for highly competent, trustworthy Disaster Management.   Such management is no substitute for a political agreement to reverse climate damage.   But at least until such an agreement is forthcoming — hopefully soon in Paris — and made fully functional, disaster management must maintain this high priority for states and the international system.

One Response to “Masters of Disaster:  The UN Gives Hope a Chance, Dr. Robert Zuber”

  1. Dr. Caleb Otto March 17, 2015 at 8:40 am #

    You hit the nail on the head, Dr. Zuber, with your last sentence, ” Such management is no substitute for a political agreement to reverse climate damage. But at least until such an agreement is forthcoming — hopefully soon in Paris — and made fully functional, disaster management must maintain this high priority for states and the international system.” Vanuatu and other island states that experience these calamities more frequently now, show us that “Psychosocial, in addition to infrastructural, resilience is required in managing disasters – risks and damages. Thanks for the nice article.

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