Disaster reduction talks split on ways of tracking progress

Margareta Wahlstrom, special representative of the United Nations Secretary General for Disaster Risk Reduction, addresses the media during a news conference in Phnom Penh in this file photo taken April 25, 2012. REUTERS/Samrang Pring
By Megan Rowling

By Megan Rowling BARCELONA (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Countries are divided on how a new global plan to reduce the risk of disasters should measure progress, with some governments opposed to setting numerical targets for cutting deaths and economic losses and protecting infrastructure. A world conference in Japan in mid-March aims to adopt an updated version of the current 10-year plan. The text is due to be finalised by the end of this month, but negotiations are snagged on contentious issues, including targets. The United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction (UNISDR), which is managing the process, wants the new framework to include at least two goals with percentage targets, for lowering the death toll and economic losses from disasters. "I think that is the only thing that will give the international community something measurable to strive for," UNISDR head Margareta Wahlström told the Thomson Reuters Foundation. The lack of such indicators in the 2005-2015 Hyogo Framework for Action "has been a drawback", she added. The European Union and some developing nations are in favor of putting quantifiable goals in the new plan, which will probably run until 2030. But others, including North American countries, do not want them. An alternative proposal is to aim to reduce disaster deaths and economic losses "substantially" - the same unspecific language used in the existing framework. Talks on issues including seven suggested targets were held last week in Geneva and will resume there next week. Helen Clark, head of the United Nations Development Programme, believes percentages could be set to measure progress. "I like targets because you can work towards them," she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation in London this week. In the decade 2005 to 2014, nearly 808,500 people died in disasters, including earthquakes, tsunamis, floods, droughts and technological accidents such as dam failures and nuclear radiation. Economic losses totaled around $1.44 trillion, according to statistics from the Centre for Research on the Epidemiology of Disasters. That compares with around 1.37 million deaths and economic losses of $781 billion for the preceding decade. Making meaningful comparisons is a challenge when the global population is growing, and the number and magnitude of disasters can change dramatically from year to year. One proposed way to measure whether deaths from disasters are falling is to set a goal of a specified drop in the percentage of deaths per capita. Economic losses could have a percentage reduction target in relation to gross domestic product. MISSED OPPORTUNITY? Wahlström said some countries were concerned about their ability to track progress quantitatively. "But in fact, mortality and economic losses are very measurable these days - the data and the baselines exist," she added. Others are unsure how to translate global targets into national policy, but that would be up to each state, with help on offer, the UNISDR chief noted. Developing countries would need support, including financial assistance, and access to technology and expertise, she added. At the global level, the aim would be to hold regular conferences to check on how the world is advancing on the goals and the wider plan, and reorient efforts as required, she said. Harjeet Singh, manager for resilience and climate change with ActionAid International, said it would be a "big setback" if the new plan omitted numerical goals. "When the world is changing so fast, and we are facing a lot of disasters, unless we have some very ambitious targets, we won't be able to fix things," he said. Disaster risk reduction has lagged behind other areas of development work because the current framework, which ends this year, did not have "proper targets and indicators", he said. "This time, if we lose that opportunity ... it will cost us heavily for the next 15 years," he added. Wahlström said that if quantifiable targets were excluded from the plan adopted in Sendai in March, "it dampens the ambition level but it doesn't prevent us from doing what we do." The numbers discussed during the negotiations could be used informally, and countries and regional organizations could still establish their own targets, she said. "In any case, the overall goal of the framework is to reduce mortality and economic losses," she added. (Reporting by Megan Rowling, additional reporting by Katie Nguyen in London; editing by Tim Pearce)