Guest Article #6

Climate Change Adaptation Starts with Disaster Reduction

Last week, Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon held a special meeting with Member State Ministers in New York, urging them to prioritize disaster risk reduction as the first tool out of the box for climate change adaptation. This week, as we commemorate the International Day for Disaster Reduction on 8 October, this call must be repeated to the wider climate change community. 

The world's most vulnerable communities are losing lives, livelihoods and development prospects to climatic hazards like cyclones, floods and drought. Climate change will only make this worse, threatening the Millennium Development Goals and human security. But these burdens can be lightened with tools we already have on hand. 

Disaster risk reduction is a first line of defense in adapting to potentially devastating effects of climate change. Climate and weather-related hazards are all predicted to increase, and we are already seeing the warning signs. There is no reason to delay: Disaster risk reduction has an established international framework, the Hyogo Framework for Action, which was adopted by 168 countries in 2005 just after the Indian Ocean Tsunami. The Hyogo Framework sets out clear actions that every nation, citizen and international actor needs to take, to build resilience and minimize needless disaster losses. 

The UN International Strategy for Disaster Reduction (UN/ISDR) is tasked with overseeing the Hyogo Framework's implementation globally. We have found that many of the best approaches to the worst hazards in the poorest parts of the world overlap very clearly with climate change adaptation and sustainable development. Disaster risk reduction measures like participatory community drought, water and flood management for sustainable agriculture and livelihoods, are climate change adaptation in action, and vice versa. With increased risk of natural hazards being a major slice of climate change risk, and climate related hazards being a major slice of disaster risk reduction, it makes sense to tackle this common ground with the agreements and tools already available. 

The disaster risk reduction approach sets out a strong framework for reducing the impacts of mounting climatic disasters – through things like better risk and vulnerability assessments, land use planning, building codes, early warning systems, public education, and community action, as an integral part of development and humanitarian work. The work being done today through this approach can be quickly improved and scaled up, but this needs more foresight and investment in disaster prevention. 

Ironically, climate change adaptation is sometimes mistakenly portrayed as not being a preventive approach, compared with climate change mitigation. But climate change adaptation and mitigation are both preventive. Adaptation includes the preventive, long-term development perspective of disaster risk reduction. If we do not build in adaptation and disaster risk reduction into development work now, the costs in emergency and humanitarian response and reconstruction of future disasters will be off the charts. 

Climate change adaptation that reduces disaster risk can also reap benefits for climate change mitigation. For example, re-forestation can work against desertification, drought, landslides and floods, while also absorbing carbon emissions. 

Just as disaster risk reduction is a first line of defense in the adaptation fight, certain key sectors are the first line of defense in disaster risk reduction work. The health sector, for example, is the focus of the World Disaster Reduction Campaign 2008-2009 being carried out jointly by UN/ISDR and the World Health Organization, with support from the World Bank, and is being highlighted the world over on the International Day for Disaster Reduction. Making sure that health facilities have good emergency preparedness plans and remain functional to deal with the health fallout from disasters is absolutely vital for an increasingly hazard-prone world. The ‘Hospitals Safe from Disaster' campaign is being carried out with a long-term view of sustaining development through protecting public health services, even as disasters assail critical public facilities with increasing regularity. Some of the strongest proponents of this campaign are Caribbean states that have experienced regular destruction of their hospitals and health facilities during the Atlantic hurricane season – a phenomenon that is set to take a rising toll unless there are serious increases in action on climate change mitigation, adaptation, and disaster risk reduction.

I hope that the climate change community can ensure that from this International Day for Disaster Reduction onwards, adaptation starts with disaster risk reduction.