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Community preparedness for humanitarian disasters

Under-Secretary-General Valerie Amos,

Ladies and gentlemen,

Three weeks ago I visited Niger, a very poor country devastated by recurrent drought and famine. While drought generally came every tenth year in the past, Niger is now experiencing severe drought only two years after the hunger crisis in 2010.

The Horn of Africa is also experiencing drought almost on a yearly basis. On my first trip to Africa as Minister of International Development, I met farmers in Ethiopia who are using water harvesting techniques to cope with the dry climate. Ethiopia and Somalia were seriously affected by drought last year, but Ethiopia avoided the famine that struck Somalia because it was better prepared.

Natural disasters are becoming increasingly disastrous. Livelihoods are eroding more quickly. Larger numbers of people are being forced to move. This is a powerful reminder that urgent action is needed to combat climate change, just as the rapidly melting ice in the Arctic is a wakeup call for the world to act in time.

The past few years have seen a long series of climate-related natural disasters. Between 2002 and 2011, 4 130 disasters were recorded in which more than 1.1 million people perished. In 2011 alone, 302 disasters claimed almost 30 000 lives and affected 206 million people.

More and more people and assets are located in high-risk areas. The proportion of the world’s population living in flood-prone river basins and on cyclone-exposed coastlines has grown significantly over the past 30 years. Rapid urbanisation will further increase exposure to disasters.

Since 1981, economic loss from disasters has grown faster than GDP per capita in the OECD countries and it will continue to increase, both in these countries and elsewhere in the world. This means that the risk of losing wealth in weather-related disasters now exceeds the rate at which the wealth itself is being created.

Climate change as the big amplifier for natural disasters is well documented in the special report on extreme weather events by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which was released last November and presented at the University of Oslo in January this year. The main message of the report is very clear: climate change is leading to more extreme weather conditions. And they are occurring more frequently and in new places.

It is not only the forces of nature that determine the scale of a disaster. Poor governance exacerbates the consequences. The border between Haiti and the Dominican Republic is a striking example of how institutions and political governance can influence a country’s vulnerability to climate-related natural disasters. The Dominicans have managed to preserve large parts of their forests, while on the Haitian side of the border, poverty and want have led to deforestation, which increases the risk of flooding and landslides.

While developing countries are disproportionately affected, the Great East Japan earthquake and tsunami sent a clear message that developed countries are also vulnerable to such severe disasters. Unsustainable development practices, ecosystem degradation and poverty, as well as climate variability and extremes, have led to an increase in both natural and man-made disaster at a rate that poses a threat to lives and development efforts.

But here is the difficult part – how do we mobilise awareness and resources for something that may not happen? It is so much easier to focus on disasters after the fact. Unless preparedness and prevention are integrated into all policies and planning, our development gains will not be sustainable. This will be expensive, but the cost of inaction will be much higher.

But then it is not enough to spend less than 1 % of official development assistance funds on prevention measures, as is the case today. Here each country and international organisations such as the UN and the World Bank must shoulder their share of the burden.

The good news is that there is now greater international awareness of the importance of effective preparedness measures for reducing the loss of life and promoting faster recovery. The severe, chronic crisis in the Horn of Africa and the Sahel has highlighted the need for approaches to humanitarian action designed to build resilience in addition to providing life-saving support to address short-term needs.


Ladies and gentlemen,

Local action is the starting point and key foundation for disaster preparedness. This applies not only to hazards that strike quickly, such as earthquakes or storms, but also to longer-term challenges such as climate change.

In many areas where the international community becomes involved, the State is often weak, local communities have few resources of their own, and disaster preparedness – while perceived as very important – has to compete with many other, more immediate priorities.

It is increasingly important for the international humanitarian system to play a primarily supportive and advisory role with regard to national and regional community preparedness initiatives, including through capacity building of local NGOs.

This event takes place against the backdrop of the Rio+20 – conference, where the global community will try to agree on measures towards making all societies more robust and sustainable. There is recognition within the international humanitarian community of the importance of disaster-related activities and the need to mainstream preparedness in all aspects of its activities in order to provide effective support.

Preparedness is one of UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moons main priorities. It is a core part of UN OCHA’s activities as it is for many other actors within the UN, the World Bank and European Union. There is however a need for a more focused approach, clearer roles and responsibilities and better division of labour between the actors involved in preparedness activities. In order to achieve this, we need a strong champion internationally to drive the process at high political level. Norway commends Emergency Relief Coordinator Valerie Amos’ efforts to make humanitarian action more effective in the field. We now encourage Ms Amos, with our backing and support, to seek to make the international system better equipped to improve community preparedness for humanitarian disasters.

Actions to reduce vulnerability to disasters and planning for climate change need to take into account both short-term needs, for example in connection with seasonal cyclone and recurrent earthquakes, and longer-term factors, such as the need to rethink land management.  Sustained efforts over the long term and at all levels are required to address these needs. It is essential that the international involvement is such that it fosters political will among national and local actors rather than stifling it.

Based on lessons learned during the Horn of Africa crisis, the international humanitarian community needs to move beyond the traditional progression of assistance, in which humanitarian response, early recovery and development are seen as distinct phases. We are pleased to note that OCHA, together with UNDP and other development partners, has started to promote a more comprehensive approach in which long-term development and the underlying causes of a crisis are dealt with alongside immediate life-saving needs. Humanitarian actors need to work more strategically with development actors and find practical ways of ensuring that building the resilience of communities is at the forefront in humanitarian response.

For several years the message that disaster risk reduction and preparedness saves lives and is cost effective has been repeated in many forums.  Despite this, measures continue to be poorly financed and are not systematically integrated into existing strategic and fund raising tools. On the one hand, the international community must become better at identifying disaster risk reduction and climate change adaptation-related activities and ask hard questions in cases where such initiatives are absent. On the other hand, we as donors should invest more systematically in such activities and give them higher priority compared to post-disaster response. We as donors are aware that current funding mechanisms are not optimal for this purpose and that new policy needs to be developed in order to strengthen the sustainability of aid, including through measures to strengthen triangular and south-south cooperation.


Ladies and gentlemen,

In addition to seeking to influence the international agenda, we also cooperate with a few selected countries – Vietnam, Bangladesh, Cuba and Uganda – on capacity building efforts in local and national institutions with a view to building resilient societies.

Norwegians – particularly in this part of Norway – are keenly aware that basic and well functioning weather services are vital for farmers and fishermen.  The Meteorological Institute of Norway is working on strengthening these services in Bangladesh and Vietnam, and possibly also in Myanmar. When the necessary equipment is available, there is often a lack of capacity to operate it, and to download data, interpret them and communicate them to the people who need them.

Basic early warnings systems – in the form of bicycles and megaphones – have saved thousands of lives in the most recent cyclones in Bangladesh. What are needed are effective tools at the local level, as well as better coordination at the national level.

As always, the most vulnerable are the poor – in all societies. And women and children constitute the overwhelming majority of all fatalities from weather-related events. Women and children must therefore be at the centre of disaster risk planning processes at all levels.   

Other relevant actors must also be included: civil society, local authorities and the private sector. The role of the Red Cross societies is a good reference point. Without them and other similar grass-roots movements, many countries and communities will be unable to organise preparedness and prevention measures effectively. This cooperation aims to build trust and to open up space and avenues for discussing other issues as well.


Ladies and gentlemen,

I would now like to draw some conclusions:

Firstly, climate-related natural disasters are taking more lives and affecting more people than ever before. Effective mitigation and adaptation are not easy, and there are costs involved. But these costs are much lower than the cost of inaction.

Secondly, local communities at risk must be put in a better position to deal with the challenges themselves. Capacity development, helping people to help themselves, including training to improve the quality of local emergency preparedness and crisis management, will continue to be crucial. The international humanitarian system needs to strengthen its support for community preparedness efforts.

Thirdly, both short-term and long-term efforts are necessary to build resilience and enhance community preparedness.

What Norway does and what we all do together are far from enough. We need more determined efforts nationally and internationally. The United Nations must take the lead in encouraging us all to do more. I look forward to hearing what our distinguished guest, Valerie Amos, has to say about these challenges in her introductory statement, and to exchanging views with her, members of the panel and all of you on how we can make our local communities and the global village more resilient, and our development gains more sustainable for future generations.

Finally, raising awareness of the seriousness of these challenges is not an easy task. The media play a very important role in this respect. If an event is not reported somewhere in the media, it is as if did not happen. I am very pleased that we have a distinguished media person with us here today – Bjørn Hansen – to lead our panel and the following Q and A session. I am confident that the media members who are present will report on this event and thereby also help to raise awareness locally. That is where it all starts and counts



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