The U.N. General Assembly is laying the groundwork for a new global agreement to reduce the escalating impact of natural disasters. Last week the U.N. announced that the third World Conference on Disaster Risk Reduction will take place in Sendai, Japan in March 2015. The timing of this is significant because it comes just nine months before the 21st United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change in Paris, which has been pegged as the date to deliver a new international agreement to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
According to the official announcement, over 8,000 people are expected to attend the conference in Sendai, a city along Japan’s northeastern coast that sustained heavy damage during the 2011 tsunami and Fukushima nuclear disaster. The last disaster risk reduction conference was held in 2005, and the main item on this Conference’s agenda is a successor agreement to the Hyogo Framework for Action adopted then, which was “the first plan to explain, describe and detail the work that is required from all different sectors and actors to reduce disaster losses.”
“The 3rd World Conference provides us with a rare opportunity to forge universal agreement on how to build disaster resilience across all sectors of society,” U.N. Office For Disaster Risk Reduction (UNISDR) Chief Margareta Wahlström said in a statement. “It is particularly important that we have a strong urban focus as we expect 75 percent of the world’s population to be living in towns and cities by 2050.”
According to the Germanwatch Institute, between 1993 and 2012 more than 530,000 people died as a direct result of almost 15,000 extreme weather events, costing more than $2.5 trillion.
Extreme weather events in the United States in 2011 and 2012 were responsible for over 1,000 deaths and up to $188 billion in economic damages according to a Center For American Progress analysis. Superstorm Sandy alone caused nearly $50 billion in damages.
The National Climate Assessment draft conducted by the U.S. Global Change Research program and released in January 2013 states that “climate change is already affecting the American people:”
“Certain types of weather events have become more frequent and/or intense, including heat waves, heavy downpours, and, in some regions, floods and droughts. Sea level is rising, oceans are becoming more acidic, and glaciers and arctic sea ice are melting. These changes are part of the pattern of global climate change, which is primarily driven by human activity. Many impacts associated with these changes are important to Americans’ health and livelihoods and the ecosystems that sustain us.”
While decisions by the UNISDR are not legally binding, they indicate the international interest of governments in managing extreme weather-related disasters, which make big headlines — and devastate communities — year round. Managing disaster risks from floods, tsunamis, heat waves, droughts, and other catastrophes is also a big part of climate adaptation, and could help spur broader agreement on a climate change mitigation agreement.
One example of a way to reduce disaster risk is to install early warming systems to alert communities of heavy storms, tidal waves or flooding dangers. A typhoon early warning system in the Philippines was credited last year with saving lives during Typhoon Bopha.
“This time last year over 1,400 people died on Mindanao in a similar event but this time big improvements in the early warning systems have saved many lives,” UNISDR Head of Regional Office for Asia Jerry Velasquez said at the time of Typhoon Bopha in December of last year. “More than 167,000 people have been evacuated to shelters.”
Super Typhoon Haiyan, which slammed into the Philippines in November, took over 5,000 lives and caused damages of nearly $300 million. With climate change likely exacerbating events like this, reducing risks caused from natural disasters is a major part of any international effort to confront climate change at a humanitarian level.