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Helen Clark: 'Building Resilience: the importance of prioritising disaster risk reduction'

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Helen Clark, UNDP Administrator
‘Building Resilience: the importance of prioritising disaster risk reduction – a United Nations Development Programme Perspective’
Hopkins Lecture, University of Canterbury
Aurora Centre, Burnside High School, Christchurch
6.30 pm, Wednesday 15 August 2012

I am pleased to be delivering this year’s University of Canterbury Hopkins Lecture here at Aurora Centre, Burnside High School.

I understand that this annual lecture was established to recognise the many years of distinguished service of Professor H. J. Hopkins in the field of engineering. Professor Hopkins was known as a man of vision, dedication, and extraordinary talents.

His inaugural lecture presented in 1978 was titled "A Land of Bridges - A Story of New Zealand". Now, 34 years on, I hope the core message of my address will not only do justice to the memory of Professor Hopkins, but also in a sense focus anew on the need to build bridges – this time figuratively – between the capacity for disaster risk reduction which exists here in New Zealand and the needs of others also challenged by major disaster risk.

The topic of my lecture, Building Resilience: The Importance of Disaster Risk Reduction, also encompasses creating bridges between emergency relief, recovery, and sustainable development. I will allude to the need for greater collaboration between those working in the humanitarian and development fields, so that disaster-devastated communities can build back better in order to withstand future shocks.

The United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) which I head works in 177 partner countries and territories. Many of these have experienced and/or will experience disasters. Building resilience to disaster is part of our organisation’s core mandate.

Whether it is in the arid lands of the Sahel, such as Niger, or in Haiti’s densely populated capital, Port au Prince, I have been able to see for myself the human suffering and environmental, and economic harm caused by natural disasters. The personal stories of suffering are harrowing – but one also gains inspiration from the stories of survival and determination to recover, thus demonstrating the tremendous resilience of people and communities.

Let me now turn to some sobering facts:

The UN’s Office for Disaster Risk Reduction (UNISDR) estimates that over the past twenty years 1.3 million people have been killed and 4.4 billion have been affected by disasters caused by natural hazards. In 2011 alone, almost 30,000 people were killed in 302 disasters, and 206 million people were affected, including 106 million by floods, and sixty million by drought - mainly in the Horn of Africa.

The Christchurch earthquake and the Great East Japan earthquake and its flow-on impact in March last year remind us that even countries assumed to be well prepared are not immune to the destructive impact of forces of nature. But much can be done, and has already been done in many places, to reduce that impact by better preparing citizens and communities to withstand the related shocks and disruption.

Japan and New Zealand have demonstrated over long periods of time that making investments in prevention and preparedness, including through civil defence exercises, is a necessary part of systematic efforts to increase resilience to disaster.

While the loss of life and property has been devastating in Christchurch, it would have been much worse if significant investments in resilience had not been made in the past. The earthquake in Haiti in January 2010 was about the same magnitude as the major February quake in Christchurch, but the human toll was significantly higher. The loss of 185 lives in Christchurch was 185 too many. Compared with the estimated 220,000 plus killed in Haiti in 2010, it becomes evident that it is not the magnitude of the disaster or natural hazard alone which determines its impact.

The truth is that many countries are still not investing enough in prevention and preparedness, and many development actors are not yet prioritizing enough such support to poor countries. The result is another stark reality of our times – that striking inequalities persist, with global disaster risk disproportionately concentrated in poorer countries with weaker governance. More sobering figures:

95 per cent of disaster-related deaths occur in developing countries; overall, the risk of being killed by a cyclone or flood is lower today than it was twenty years ago, but the poorest countries remain the most vulnerable. For example, under two per cent of global deaths from cyclones occur in countries with high levels of development, while more than half of cyclone deaths occur in least developed nations; 85 per cent of people exposed to disasters live in countries with medium to low levels of human development, compounding existing poverty and inequality. According to World Bank estimates, almost 2.5 billion people on this planet (43%) live on under NZ$ 2.50 per day. A natural disaster is devastating for people living in a developed country. For those living at or below internationally established poverty lines, the consequences are particularly dire, as disasters disrupt the long-term progress of development and prevent people escaping from poverty. This is especially noticeable in communities which are repeatedly affected by drought, where many households are forced to sell assets and engage in subsistence activities, thus remaining in poverty.

In summary, around our world it is the poor who live in the most drought- and flood- prone regions. Within poor countries, it is the most marginalized, including women and girls, who suffer the greatest impact.

From a development perspective, therefore, disaster risk reduction is vital for building a more equitable and sustainable future.