Keep it simple: helping local governments reduce the risk from the next disaster

The World Conference on Disaster Risk Reduction aims to make communities safer in the face of new disasters – but could complex guidance be confusing issues, asks Cassidy Johnson.

Cassidy Johnson's picture
Insight by 
Cassidy Johnson
25 March 2015
Disasters, such as this flooding in Old Bagamoyo Road, Mikocheni, Dar es Salaam, were the subject of discussion in Sendai (Photo: Matthew Wood-Hill, Creative Commons, via Flickr)

Disasters, such as this flooding in Old Bagamoyo Road, Mikocheni, Dar es Salaam, were the subject of discussion in Sendai (Photo: Matthew Wood-Hill, Creative Commons, via Flickr)

Four years after a powerful earthquake triggered tsunami waves that destroyed much of Japan's northeastern coast, I joined a group visiting a peninsula connected to the mainland by a bridge that was obliterated by the tsnunami's towering wave. I was in Japan for the Third World Conference on Disaster Risk Reduction, which was looking at how to respond to future disasters.

Tragically, during the earthquake, a semi-truck toppled over and blocked the bridge so that when the tsunami hit, people could not evacuate the area. 

The visit was a sobering reminder of the importance of properly managing the risks associated with natural hazards. What is needed to enable cities like Sendai to address disaster risks in the future?

At the conference, governments adopted a new framework to guide government, civil society and donor actions on managing the risks associated with natural hazards for the next 15 years. The framework was signed 10 years after the adoption of the Hyogo Framework for Action on Disaster Risk Reduction
While the new framework includes many different ways to approach the reduction of disaster risks, the lack of specific targets was disappointing. Earlier drafts of the agreement had set out percentage-based targets that governments would need to report on. However, in the final negotiated framework these were removed, which is a great shame. 

One of the most well-known writers on disaster risk issues, Ben Wisner, argues that the seven new targets do not prioritise building local community and local government capacity to make their citizens safer.   

Years of advocacy have led to an understanding that, with preparedness and good risk governance, it is possible to greatly reduce the impacts of disasters. Most governments acknowledge this, and have been working to support disaster risk reduction, along with donors and civil society.

We need to focus now on how this should be done. What are the processes and actions needed to reduce disaster impacts? How can limited resources be best used to tackle the risks of disasters? So it was important that the overarching discussions at the conference related to putting disaster risk reduction into operation. 

There are many ways to approach this, and perhaps action is needed on all fronts. We know that poverty and other forms of inequality make some people more susceptible to disasters when a hazard does strike. 

We also know that small-scale disasters that happen regularly (but often do not make the international news) cause more losses overall than do the large events. Tackling those vulnerabilities and focusing on both big and small-scale disasters is important.

The role of local governments in risk reduction

The new framework does specifically acknowledge the role of local governments in risk reduction, and the importance of tackling disaster risks in urban areas to reduce the impact of both large and small-scale disasters that are increasing in intensity as urban areas grow and urban populations expand. 

The UN Office for Disaster Risk Reduction (UNISDR) Making Cities Resilient Campaign, an advocacy campaign that aims to get local governments to address risks as frontline responders, has already had more than 2,500 local governments sign up to it. However, it's clear that local governments need more guidance on what to do. They especially need more guidance on how to address the most acute risks now and into the future through low-cost, implementable actions.

So, what does this look like from the perspective of local government? It means learning from other cities that face similar kinds of hazards through exchanges that build the capacity of local government and people to take action in their city are important.

It could also involve assisting cities to address basic infrastructure deficits and working with local planners and civil society groups to help them think about disaster risks in their work.

Sharpening our tools

One of the tools that the UNISDR campaign uses is the 10 Essentials for Making Cities Resilient. It's a 10-point, simple checklist that is a version of the main framework, but aimed at local governments. 

I have recently been involved in a revision of '10 Essentials', which were originally developed in line with the priorities of the Hyogo Framework for Action. Our aim was to update them to become more operational. 

We have managed to flesh out the '10 Essentials' with more details but, in my view, we need to be careful that they do not become overly complicated. Their complexity risks alienating the very local governments they are aimed at. The aim needs to be a simple set of goals that helps local governments with limited budgets and capacities develop a plan of action. 

We had a lot of discussions at the conference about how to build the capacity of local governments to take action on risk reduction. UNISDR is establishing a new platform, called Resilient Cities Connect, which aims to bring together knowledge about risk reduction across cities. 

A session about the new platform featured presentations both from local governments in Sri Lanka and the Philippines, and from a wide range of expert groups, such as design, engineering, and construction firm AECOM and the C40 Cities Climate Leadership Group

In my view, the expert group presentations seemed to be highly technical, and aimed at cities with big budgets to invest in expensive consultancies and equipment. At the end of the session, a woman from a local government municipality, Kisumu, Kenya, with a population of around 400,000 people, put up her hand and said: "What do I take home from this session? What is it that I can implement in my city? We have four computers in my municipality".

As small and medium cities are expanding rapidly, this is where disaster risks are accumulating and will continue to grow. Municipalities such as Kisumu are on the front line of disaster risk reduction. If we can help them work with their residents to address disaster risks, then we will all win.

Cassidy Johnson ([email protected]) is a senior lecturer at the Bartlett Development Planning Unit, University College London. She also chairs the Urban Planning Advisory Group, which advises UNISDR on issues related to urban development and planning.