Preparedness, awareness vital to disaster risk reduction

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Preparedness and awareness to disaster risks play a vital role in reducing such an exposure, Margareta Wahlstrom, head of the United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction (UNISDR), told Xinhua in an exclusive interview.

The core concept of disaster risk reduction was explained by the UN organ as reducing disaster risks through systematic efforts to analyze and reduce the causal factors of disasters.

As highlighted by the UNISDR which serves as a focal point in the UN system for the coordination and collaboration of disaster reduction, reducing exposure to hazards, lessening vulnerability of people and property, and improving preparedness and early warning for adverse events are all counted as activities of disaster risk reduction.

As for the exact definition of disaster, Wahlstrom, who is also the Special Representative of the UN Secretary-General for Disaster Risk Reduction, explained that her office works with three major categories, including natural, technological and biological hazards.

In addition to natural hazards with typical ones as earthquakes, hurricanes and floods, technological hazards -- the pronounced example in recent years was the nuclear disaster resulting from Fukushima nuclear power plant hit by the tsunami waves -- interface between human society and the intensity of natural hazards, as Wahlstrom introduced, stressing that it is a "growing area of risk" due to its closer tie to human settlements.

She furthered that biological hazards refer to health-related threats, and this year the public were being reminded by the Ebola outbreak which "requires collaboration between countries in order to contain and mitigate it."

"The world, all of us, were unprepared for how rapidly it evolved and how large in scale it would become, and how much collaboration was needed between countries, not just inside one country," said Wahlstrom, referring to the deadly disease that has claimed thousands of lives this year.

"Right now I think some important progress is being made both in understanding how we must collaborate, but also the combination of weak health systems made countries extremely vulnerable to this type of outbreaks, and countries with the strong health system would be much less vulnerable, so there are very critical issues to be dealt with once this crisis is contained," said she.

The senior UN official then stressed that from the perspective of her office, reducing such a disaster risk requires an absolute commitment to international cooperation, and an understanding that disasters know no borders and do not discriminate either positively or negatively, with everyone exposing to the risk.

To build a more resilient health system, including the preparedness for large-scale pandemics and epidemics, is one topic among the post-2015 disaster reduction framework that is being worked on, she said.

"Countries say we have to look at this from the risk perspective, otherwise we would not be able to collaborate to contain it," she noted.

To strengthen one country's preparedness to reduce disaster risk, technologies were emphasized in a more visible way, but the essential role of social institutions can not be ignored, Wahlstrom highlighted.

To foster a well-built social institution to reduce the exposure to disasters demands multi-sector collaboration, and as well as a strong coordination and leadership from the government, according to Wahlstrom, who noted that the latter could clarify the accountability for each and pull it all together.

"Evidence seems to be that if you put the responsibility for the policy and planning coordination in highest possible political level, (for example) prime minister's office, (or) presidency's office, you get a better coherence in the government and therefore you get better results," said she.

Talking about the work of her office, the senior UN official said that "the biggest puzzle for us is how to fully involve people in also looking after their own safety a bit better."

"It is tragic, but it seems to be that we learn best from very dramatic catastrophic events, and it should not have to be like that," she pointed out, adding that protecting oneself against risk could be anything ranging from early preparedness against possible physical losses to the awareness of protections against damages or even hazards and ways to survive during one.

In regard of third World Conference on Disaster Risk Reduction scheduled to be held in March next year, Wahlstrom shared her expectations, saying that she hoped the participants could conclude "a very strong and practical post-2015 disaster risk reduction framework, one that will really assist overcoming and tackling some of the bottlenecks that they have now learned to work around in the past 10 years."

Moreover, she hoped that there will be significant high-level political commitments to deal with disaster risks in the future, noting that national commitments reflected by the outcomes from the UN climate talks wrapped up in Lima earlier this month could be built on for more effective implementation of action that protects people and assets from disaster risks.

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