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How the international community can enhance resilience to natural disaster risk

Reflections of Mountain Sentinels at the 2017 Global Platform for Disaster Risk Reduction in Cancun, Mexico


 by Jessica Thorn

Just last year, the Columbia landslide, the Peruvian floods, Ecuadorian earthquakes, and Hurricane Matthew in Haiti caused catastrophic infrastructural damage, deaths and financial losses across the Americas. Concurrently, El Niño and drought affected 60 million people across the African continent, with impacts of health, livelihoods, stocking rates, social unrest and conflict, migration and corruption. Such events highlight the urgent need to create a safer, more equitable, and resilient world that addresses underlying social and economic forces placing human settlements at risk.

Currently there are no indicators or targets for an ecosystem based approach in disaster risk reduction, thereby limiting the utility of this concept for policy makers.

As a Mountain Sentinels postdoctoral research fellow,  I attended the biannual Global Platform for Disaster Risk Reduction (GPDRR), hosted by the United National International Strategy for Disaster Reduction in Cancun, Mexico. The aim was to understand policy action priorities, build partnerships, and identify gaps in knowledge and practice in disaster risk reduction (DRR). This year’s Global Platform marked the first opportunity for the international community to review global progress towards implementing the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction, which adopted in Japan in 2015, as an outcome of three years stakeholder consultations and inter-governmental negotiations. Sendai outlines seven ambitious 2030 targets for governments to substantially reduce deaths and economic losses from disasters, limiting damage to infrastructure and disruption to basic services such as health and education, and widening access to early warning systems and disaster-risk information. With more than 5,000 participants including policy makers, researchers, community leaders, private sector, and disaster risk practitioners, the GPDRR is the largest international gathering of stakeholders committed to improve the resilience of socio-ecological systems in the face of mounting human-made and natural hazards worldwide.

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Partners for Resilience networking event, with traditional dancing ceremony. Source: Jessica Thorn

Hot topics of conversation were moving from “commitment to action”, from “response to risk prevention”, enhancing preparedness and “building back better”. A key priority is establishing and implementing national and local strategies for risk reduction by 2020 and learning from best practices at the community level for integrating climate and disaster risk. It was highlighted that disasters should be approached, as a complex interaction of unplanned or unsustainable use of natural resources, demographic change, and extreme meteorological and geological events – and disaster risk reduction efforts must support the overall achievements of the Paris Agreement and the Sustainable Development Goals, including poverty.

Wetlands International, the UN University, Partners for Resilience, and other non-governmental organizations hosted a series of events to understand opportunities and barriers for up-scaling ecosystem-based approaches to DRR. What was apparent was there is an increasing recognition of the role ecosystems can play in achieving multiple objectives beyond DRR and climate change mitigation and adaptation, such as health, food security, and development. However, currently there are no indicators or targets for an ecosystem based approach in DRR, thereby limiting the utility of this concept for policy makers. Such organizations are partnering to develop indicators or targets that integrate disciplinary approaches from ecology, planning, humanitarian and other sectors.  Another priority is emphasizing the ways that ecosystem services can be reinstated as priorities in planning. For example, engineers and ecologists need to work closer to optimize natural solutions for coastal defense and erosion control. Calls were made for transdisciplinary research to emphasize the ways that people, particularly urban dwellers, are connected to their environment.

Since Mountain Sentinels is interested in extending partnerships in Africa, I attended a series of events focusing on African initiatives to enhance climate services. The discussion emphasized that African governments and entities in private sector should better recognize the importance of utilizing climate data that is immediately available, and allocate more domestic financial resources towards climate services in national planning. To this end, the World Meteorological Organization and the African Union Commission, with others, are working to improve the collection, storage and processing of local weather and climate data. A two-day “Multi-hazard early warning conference” also emphasized the importance of multidisciplinary research and partnerships, of making early warnings more accessible to communities at risk, of improving access to the insurance sector, and finally, the importance of more holistic, integrated, multi-scaled, high-resolution – and most of all, people-centered – weather and climate services.

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The UN Sasakawa award ceremony for DRR is awarded to an individual or institutions that have taken active efforts in reducing disaster risk in their communities and advocates for disaster risk reduction.

Overall, the event highlighted the important role that Mountain Sentinels plays by focusing on topographically heterogeneous regions of mountains, the policy-research interface, and the value of applying an integrated approach to explore current and future disaster risk trajectories in the face of multiple stressors. Importantly, the need for more academic involvement was underscored in most sessions – illuminating multiple opportunities to provide evidence-based input into ongoing revisions of texts and working groups, policies and local to international DRR interventions worldwide.


Further reading

Global Platform for Disaster Risk Reduction   

Blog article from Partners for Resilience: “Is Africa learning from disasters?”

Report on “Safer lives and livelihoods in mountains”


Dr. Jessica P. R. Thorn is a postdoctoral fellow in the Department of Ecosystem Science and Sustainability at the Natural Resource Ecology Laboratory at Colorado State University (CSU). Her primary research interests relate to participatory modeling of socio-ecological systems to understand what impact factors emerge as critical for maintaining the flow of critical ecosystem services and the resilience of current and future livelihoods in a changing climate, in smallholder, peri-urban and mountain regions. She is an active member of the Global Environmental Facility Expanded Constituency, a contributor to TEEB and IPBES reports, and has worked in conservation and international development in Kenya, Ghana, South Africa, Namibia, Peru, Nepal, India, Switzerland, and Vietnam, amongst other countries. 

Acknowledgements: Dr. Jessica Thorn would like to thank the CSU Postdoctoral Association and the Mountain Sentinels Collaborative Network for travel funding, the UN ISDR for hosting the event, as well as Alicia Tyson for collaborative research support.

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