How can the world reduce disaster losses for the poor?

  • By Robert Glasser, UNISDR
  • 03/02/2017

A flood victim sticks his head out of the water at his home in a flooded village outside Zalun Township, Irrawaddy Delta, Myanmar, August 6, 2015. REUTERS/Soe Zeya Tun


The latest research findings on economic losses from disasters explain why this issue has emerged as the major concern for governments preparing for a global conference on disaster losses which will be hosted by the Mexican government in Cancun, from May 22 to 26.

The World Bank has found that disasters cost the global economy $520 billion per annum when account is taken of the true impact on the poor of earthquakes, climate change, storms, floods and other hazards. It is estimated that disasters force some 26 million people into poverty every year.

Governments that have signed up to the elimination of poverty in all its forms – the first of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals - have chosen to address this issue on the opening day of the Global Platform for Disaster Risk Reduction, in a leaders’ forum led by Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto.

Since the devastating earthquake of 1985, Mexico has emerged as a global leader in disaster risk management, including early warning systems and the implementation of seismic building codes, and it is committed to further reductions in disaster losses through its wholehearted adoption of the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction.

As U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres has emphasised, prevention is the priority when it comes to both disasters and conflict.

The Global Platform – the first to be held outside Geneva - will be the fifth time in ten years that U.N. member states, the private sector and civil society come together in such a conclave to share experiences and agree actions to reduce disaster losses.

Implementation of the Sendai Framework, adopted two years ago by U.N. member states as the first pillar of the 2030 Sustainable Development Agenda, is critical to eradicating poverty by reducing the economic burden of disasters on poor countries.

At its core is the simple message that we need a switch in emphasis from disaster management to disaster risk management. This requires understanding risk, investing in resilient infrastructure, and improved emergency preparedness, if we are to avoid the expense of recovery costs and disaster relief which drain precious resources from areas such as health and education in less developed countries.


After almost 40 years of engagement with disaster risk reduction, the international community has signalled its intent to introduce a major degree of accountability into the implementation of the Sendai Framework with its seven global targets.

February 2, 2017, should go down as a red letter day in the battle to reduce disaster losses because it is the day on which the U.N. General Assembly adopted what might be called the “Stakeholders’ Guide to the DRR Galaxy” - or, more correctly, the “Report of the open-ended intergovernmental expert working group on indicators and terminology relating to disaster risk reduction.”

The adoption of this first set of indicators linked to a key instrument of the 2030 Sustainable Development Agenda is a giant step for accountability. Each of the targets on reducing disaster losses - including mortality, numbers of affected people, economic losses and damage to critical infrastructure - now comes with a series of clear definitions and details on how to measure success.

For example, the loose term “affected” is accepted to mean the number of injured or ill people attributed to disasters, the number of people whose damaged or destroyed dwellings can be similarly attributed, and the number of people whose livelihoods were disrupted or destroyed.

The damage or destruction of productive assets, housing, critical infrastructure, cultural heritage and agricultural loss are key target areas for countries to focus on when it comes to monitoring their performance in reducing direct economic losses in relation to GDP by 2030.

Another concern that will be addressed at the Global Platform in Mexico is the looming 2020 deadline for the Sendai Framework target to “substantially increase the number of countries with national and local disaster risk reduction strategies by 2020”.

Asia, the world’s most disaster-prone region, has adopted a complete plan for implementation of the Sendai Framework, including a drive to have it available in national languages and to ensure that 40 percent of countries will already have national strategies in place by 2018.

Indeed, India, the world’s largest democracy, has already initiated a National Disaster Management Plan based on the priorities of the Sendai Framework. Prime Minister Narendra Modi urged participants in the Asian Ministerial Conference on Disaster Risk Reduction last November “to wholeheartedly embrace the spirit of Sendai”.

The last Global Platform in 2013 provided the impetus for the Sendai Framework consultations to take off. Now in 2017, two years after the World Conference that saw its adoption, the Mexican Global Platform is key to ensuring that the vision becomes a reality and that commitment is turned into action.

Robert Glasser is the U.N. Secretary-General's Special Representative for Disaster Risk Reduction and head of the U.N. Office for Disaster Risk Reduction (UNISDR).

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