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Keep it simple: helping local governments reduce the risk from the next disaster

Cassidy AJohnson26 March 2015

The World Conference on Disaster Risk Reduction aims to make communities safer in the face of new disasters but could complex guidance be confusing issues?

Flooding in cities like Dar es Salaam disrupts urban life on a seasonal basis. How can international frameworks, like the HFA II address these everyday risks?

Flooding in cities like Dar es Salaam disrupts urban life on a seasonal basis. How can international frameworks, like the HFA II address these everyday risks?

Four years after a powerful earthquake triggered tsunami waves that destroyed much of Japan’s northeastern coast, I joined a group visiting a peninsula connected to the mainland by a bridge that was obliterated by the tsnunami’s towering wave. I was in Japan for the Third World Conference on Disaster Risk Reduction, which was looking at how to respond to future disasters.

Tragically, during the earthquake, a semi-truck toppled over and blocked the bridge so that when the tsunami hit, people could not evacuate the area.

The visit was a sobering reminder of the importance of properly managing the risks associated with natural hazards. What is needed to enable cities like Sendai to address disaster risks in the future?

Hyogo Framework for Action II

At the conference, governments adopted a new framework to guide government, civil society and donor actions on managing the risks associated with natural hazards for the next 15 years. The framework was signed ten years after the adoption of the Hyogo Framework for Action on Disaster Risk Reduction.

While the new framework includes many different ways to approach the reduction of disaster risks, the lack of specific targets was disappointing. Earlier drafts of the agreement had set out percentage-based targets that governments would need to report on. However in the final negotiated framework, these were removed, which is a great shame.

Ben Wisner argues that the seven new targets do not prioritise building local community and local government capacity to make their citizens safer.

Years of advocacy have led to an understanding that, with preparedness and good risk governance, it is possible to greatly reduce the impacts of disasters. Most governments acknowledge this, and have been working to support disaster risk reduction, along with donors and civil society.

How can we operationalise risk reduction?

We need to focus now on how this should be done. What are the processes and actions needed to reduce disaster impacts? How can limited resources be best used to tackle the risks of disasters? So it was important that the overarching discussions at the conference related to operationalising disaster risk reduction.

There are many ways to approach this, and perhaps action is needed on all fronts. We know that poverty and other forms of inequality make some people more susceptible to disasters when a hazard does strike.

We also know that small-scale disasters which happen regularly (but often do not make the international news), cause more losses overall than do the large events. Tackling those vulnerabilities and focusing on both big and small-scale disasters is important.

The role of local government      

The new framework does specifically acknowledge the role of local governments in risk reduction, and the importance of tackling disaster risks in urban areas to reduce the impact of both large and small-scale disasters that are increasing in intensity as urban areas grow and urban populations expand.

The UNISDR Making Cities Resilient Campaign, an advocacy campaign which aims to get local governments to address risks as front-line responders, has already had over 2500 local governments sign up to it.

However, it’s clear that local governments need more guidance on what to do. They especially need more guidance on how to address the most acute risks now and into the future through low-cost, implementable actions.

So, what does this look like from the perspective of local government? It means learning from other cities that face similar kinds of hazards through exchanges that build the capacity of local government and people to take action in their city are important.

It could also involve assisting cities to address basic infrastructure deficits and working with local planners and civil society groups to help them think about disaster risks in their work.

Tools promoting urban resilience

One of the tools that the UN Office for Disaster Risk Reduction (UNISDR) campaign uses is the 10-Essentials for Making Cities Resilient. It’s a ten-point, simple checklist that is a version of the main framework, but aimed at local governments.

I have recently been involved in a revision of the 10 Essentials, which were originally developed in line with the priorities of the Hyogo Framework for Action. Our aim was to update them to become more operational.

We have managed to flesh out the 10-essentials with more details but, in my view, we need to be careful that they do not become overly complicated. Their complexity risks alienating the very local governments they are aimed at. The aim needs to be a simple set of goals that helps local governments with limited budgets and capacities develop a plan of action .

Connecting cities

We had a lot of discussions at the conference about how to build the capacity of local governments to take action on risk reduction. UNISDR is establishing a new platform, called Resilient Cities Connect which aims to bring together knowledge about risk reduction across cities.

A session about the new platform featured presentations both from local governments in Sri Lanka and the Philippines, and from a wide range of expert groups, such as AECOM and C40.

Are global responses relevant to local challenges?

In my view, the expert group presentations seemed to be highly technical, and aimed at cities with big budgets to invest in expensive consultancies and equipment. At the end of the session, a woman from a local government municipality, Kisumu, Kenya, with a population of around 400,000 people put up her hand and said: “What do I take home from this session? What is it that I can implement in my city? We have four computers in my municipality.

As small and medium cities are expanding rapidly, this is where disaster risks are accumulating and will continue to grow. Municipalities like Kisumu are on the front line of disaster risk reduction. If we can help them work with their residents to address disaster risks, then we will all win.


Cassidy Johnson is a Senior Lecturer at the DPU on urban resilience and disaster risk reduction and recovery in cities. She is currently leading the DPU’s part of the Urban Africa Risk Knowledge project, which explores the relationships between urbanisation, poverty and environmental risk in small and medium sized cities in sub-Saharan Africa. The project aims to support local knowledge and preparedness to risk.

This blog was originally posted on the IIED (International Institute for Environment and Development) blog on Wednesday 25 March 2015.