Disaster risk reduction was prominently featured at the annual conference of the Boao Forum for Asia, highlighting the increasing centrality of risk reduction to economic growth and the need to increase international cooperation around its goals.
The Boao Forum conference, which ran from 18 to 21 April in the Chinese town of Boao, is often described as China’s version of the World Economic Forum in Davos and has become a high-level platform for political and economic dialogue.
The session on “Disaster Management and Sustainable Development,” was organized by China’s Ministry of Emergency Management and focused on strengthening international cooperation around disaster risk reduction to protect development investments and gains.
Speaking via video from Geneva, Ms. Mami Mizutori, the Special Representative of the UN Secretary-General for Disaster Risk Reduction and Head of the UN Office for Disaster Risk Reduction (UNDRR), welcomed the organization of this session at the business-oriented conference:
“No discussion of development would be complete without also discussing disaster risk implications,” said Ms. Mizutori, who called on the forum to become a venue to scale up international support for disaster prevention.
Mr. Shang Yong, Vice Minister of China’s Ministry of Emergency Management, noted the creation of his ministry as an example of China’s commitment to adopting a holistic approach to disaster risk reduction.
The ministry, which was established in March 2018, was organized to bring together functions scattered across eleven ministries into one. Along with its creation, the ministry was working to accelerate three changes in China’s national approach to disasters:
“Change from post-disaster response to prevention, from a focus on single disasters to comprehensive disaster management, and change from focusing on reducing disasters losses to reducing the risk of disasters,” said Mr. Shang.
These changes are already bearing fruit, according to Mr. Shang, who declared that despite several large disasters in 2020, disaster-related deaths and damage to homes were down by 52% and 47%, respectively, compared to five years ago.
He added that the disaster-related mortality was at its lowest rate since 1949, which is when the population of China was a third of its current size.
Citing the transboundary nature of many disasters, Mr. Shang also made a strong call for increased international cooperation, with the UN at its core:
“Multilateralism, with UN system at its core, and in particular UNDRR, have a key role to play.”
This was welcomed by Mr. Siddharth Chatterjee, the UN Resident Coordinator in China, who said:
“For the United Nations family, it is clear that disaster risk reduction and emergency preparedness and response need an all-of-partners approach, which means we need a renewal of multilateralism.”
A good example of multilateralism in the Asia-Pacific around disaster risk reduction was provided by Mr. Eric Yap, Commissioner of Singapore Civil Defense Force and Chair of the ASEAN Committee on Disaster Management, who noted that “ASEAN is a very vulnerable region and the keyword for me is strengthening international cooperation.”
Mr. Yap described how the ten countries that make up ASEAN agreed in late 2020 to cooperate regionally through the ASEAN Agreement on Disaster Management and Emergency Response (AADMER) Work Programme 2021-2025:
“Ten different countries of ASEAN subscribe to it and develop detailed programmes at the country-level, province-level and local level, to ensure that disaster prevention, response and recovery are in place and in sync with larger strategic intent.”
The COVID-19 pandemic was highlighted as an example of where countries must increase their cooperation to address its cascading impacts.
“COVID-19 was not just a health disaster, but a development and humanitarian disaster. This realization should bring us into another sense of being fit-for-purpose, and I think China’s leadership with the ASEAN network could be quite crucial to set up a new model of disaster preparedness and risk reduction,” said Mr. Chatterjee
International cooperation can help countries improve national and local processes through the sharing of knowledge and lessons learned.
One of the lessons from the COVID-19 pandemic has been that existing national disaster risk reduction strategies have been inadequate because they did not integrate a systemic approach to addressing risks, including biological hazards.
The Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction 2015-2030, which is a global blueprint for reducing risks and losses, includes pandemics as one of the biological hazards that countries ought to plan against. The Framework was supplemented in 2016 with the launch of the Bangkok Principles for the implementation of the health aspects of the Sendai Framework.
“We have an opportunity at hand. The COVID-19 recovery requires us to rethink how we manage disaster risk. It is clear we need to increase investments in prevention and building resilient systems to break a cycle that leads us from disaster to disaster,” said Mr. Marco Toscano-Rivalta, Chief of the UNDRR Regional Office for Asia and the Pacific.
Cooperation can spur partnerships to tackle widespread or common problems. One area that was identified is around developing risk transfer mechanisms that can account for the risks of pandemics, as was noted by Mr. Shi Peijun, Professor at Beijing Normal University and the President of Qinghai:
“For Asia, what is needed most is to learn from Europe and the United States because they have various means of financial instruments, not just insurance. We need to connect financial networks with disaster risk mitigation.”
Science and technology is another area that is ripe for cooperation, especially around data sharing and technology transfers.
“Science and technology is an effect multiplier, not just for early warning systems, but also in how we analyse data and translate it to see the impact of disasters on different parts of the population,” said Mr. Yap, who noted the importance of using data to identify and include the most vulnerable in risk reduction measures.
On the future direction of disaster risk reduction, the panellists agreed that strengthening local action to tackle climate change and environmental degradation was critical.
“Previously we believed humans can conquer nature, but today we are more rational about the relationship between nature and human beings, and we know how to better deal with disasters,” said Mr. Wang He, Vice President of the China Association of Actuaries.
He cited the development of ‘Sponge Cities” as an example of how China has tried to harness the environment to address disaster risks.
This point was supported by Mr. Toscano-Rivalta who highlighted that:
“It is at the local level where nature-based solutions can make a strong contribution in the package of measures that can be taken to manage disaster risk,” adding:
“The future is in localizing action while at the same time devising stronger mechanisms for international cooperation to support both the horizontal and vertical management of disaster risk”
Closing the session, Vice Minister Shang expressed China’s desire to share its capabilities and knowledge with the world to strengthen resilience. He invited attendees to take part in China’s upcoming Belt and Road Disaster Risk Prevention and Management Ministerial-level Forum, which is tentatively scheduled in October 2021.