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UN Disaster Risk Reduction Chief Calls for Better Planning

  • Ron Corben

UNISDR's Margareta Wahlstrom (L) during a visit to Sri Lanka (file photo).

UNISDR's Margareta Wahlstrom (L) during a visit to Sri Lanka (file photo).

The United Nations’ disaster risk reduction chief says more planning is needed by governments to respond to the growing threat of disasters, especially triggered by climate change. UNISDR’s Margareta Wahlstrom says coastal cities in Asia also need to build in greater resilience in flood prevention and mitigation, together with improved urban planning.

Wahlstrom, chief of the U.N.’s International Strategy for Disaster Risk Reduction (UNISDR) said in an interview with VOA that governments in Asia need to improve institutions linked with disaster management, and to plan better for future disasters.

Flooding in Southeast Asia since June has affected almost 20 million people, with over 1,000 lives lost. Some 13 million people have been affected in Thailand, one of the hardest hit countries. Floods across Asia are reportedly the most severe in 50 years.

Wahlstrom says better planning is essential to respond to future disasters.

A woman pushes dogs in a makeshift container through a flooded street in Bangkok, Thailand, Oct. 28, 2011.

A woman pushes dogs in a makeshift container through a flooded street in Bangkok, Thailand, Oct. 28, 2011.

“The scale this year is extraordinary; the economic and human impact is extraordinary, but the big shift that has not yet fully taken place is that these are events - they must be planned for and therefore governments, business organizations, organizations like ourselves, need to set themselves up for these institutionally, forward planning, invest seriously in public education and awareness.”

She says governments also need to better integrate policy in handling disasters.

In Thailand, both the central government of Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra and Bangkok’s city government have faced local criticism for failing to coordinate the response to the floods. The central government is facing both legal challenges and a no-confidence debate in parliament over its handling of the disaster.

The U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) recently warned governments to prepare for more frequent and dangerous extreme weather events due to climate change. Such extreme weather events are likely to cause billions of dollars in losses to the region's economy and affect millions of lives.

Wahlstrom says in Asia-Pacific cities on coastal plains, which are vulnerable to climate change-induced rising sea levels, better urban planning will be a major challenge.

“So you need to focus on making Bangkok more resilient, or Manila or Jakarta, and I think we really have to be very clear - that’s a major challenge from a financial urban planning perspective to get that reasonable and right and balanced between people’s immediate aspirations for development.”

In the case of countries like Cambodia that are undergoing rapid economic development, the solution lies in building new infrastructure and planning for the impact of future seasonal flooding.

With a 30-year career in international disaster response and aid work, Wahlstrom says she is often inspired by peoples’ resilience in the face of such disasters.

“If you were to ask someone who is actually sitting there, beyond asking for, if needed, some assistance for their immediate needs - what they would ask for is, well, ‘let’s make sure this doesn’t happen again; what measure can we take that we are safer in the future' - that’s where perhaps the big long-term planning is not in full sync with what people would advise us to do," she said.

Wahstrom made her comments ahead of a U.N. climate change conference due to take place in Durban, South Africa, this week. The meeting will bring together over 10,000 officials from more than 190 countries. The aim is to put in place a new global change agreement to replace the 1997 Kyoto Treaty, which is due to expire in December 2012.