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How many more disasters before we learn?

Reflections from Nepal's mega earthquake and the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction.

Nearly two weeks after the Saturday 25th of April 7.8 magnitude earthquake in the Kathmandu area of Nepal, nearly 8,000 people have lost their lives and millions have suddenly become homeless. With rescue and relief operations still under way, many more people are still trapped under the ruble from the quake. Much of Kathmandu lies in ruins. Aftershocks and avalanches have continued to pound the surrounding regions. These have been moments of fear, death, separation and survival.

In response, governments from around the world, who only last month were muffled about making any significant political commitment to financing the newly agreed Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction (SFDRR), have suddenly found their mouths again. The US have sent a disaster response team with an initial pledge of $1m. India sent several aircraft carrying medical supplies and a mobile hospital as well as a 40-strong disaster response team including rescuers with dogs.

Pakistan sent C-130 aircraft carrying a 30-bed field hospital and army doctors and specialists while Norway has promised $3.9 m in aid. Germany, Spain, France, Israel and the EU have all pledged to send aid. International aid agencies have activated their response plans in mobilizing for Kathmandu, on the very typical rush to the next disaster zone we have seen in all previous disasters like Haiti.

All these efforts beg the question: why does the world always prefer to invest in reactive responses to significant disasters rather than proactive, bold and sustained investment in building disaster resilient development infrastructure and communities? Is it because it is so much cheaper and easier to respond to disasters than to build risk-proof development which protects people, infrastructure and business investments?

Our GNDR friend Prof. Ben Wisner, returned from Nepal just three days before this devastating monster earthquake. Ben reported of the amazing and perhaps unnoticed work of the Nepal Society for Earthquake Technology ( NSET) who hosted him during the visit. Ben says:

"As heavy as the losses will turn out to be...and early estimates of casualties are always low.....I am sure lives were saved because of these efforts to train on earthquake awareness construction, enforcement of the building code in Patan ( one of the historic cities that now compose the metro Kathmandu region), preparedness planning in the health sector, establishment of 68 green space safe areas, training in some of the cities in light search and rescue and propositioning of tools for this purpose."

Nepal's last most devastating earthquake was in 1934 and is reported to have killed some 8,500 people. The NSET was established in 1998 with seed funding from the Asian Urban Disaster Mitigation Project. Jennifer Worrell recounts that she was "very impressed with the work of NSET." adding that "they were small and doing amazing things in Kathmandu on earthquake preparedness." Those who have been involved with the NSET believe that their work contributed to saving many lives in this disaster and further demonstrate the wisdom of investing in disaster risks reduction and effective response preparedness.

Did Nepal reconstruct the same underlying risks of the 1934 earthquake? Will the country again reconstruct new risks in its recovery effort from this 2015 quake or will this be an opportunity to build back better and protect future generations from impending future earthquakes? Could more lives have been saved had Nepal's government committed to scaling up earthquake preparedness and investment in urban risk management since 1934? Will this be Nepal's last earthquake? How many more earthquakes do we need before we step up bold investments in risk reduction?

A few weeks ago, while the world was meeting in Sendai Japan to agree on a new non-binding international framework for disaster risk reduction, Cyclone Pam tore through the Island state of Vanuatu exposing the country's vulnerability to climate driven disasters and the near lack of institutional resilience to withstand these sorts of catastrophic events.

My heart was particularly stirred listening to the president of Vanuatu at a side event of the World Bank; Resilience Dialogue, held at Sendai's metropolitan hotel, as part of the World Conference for Disaster Risk Reduction ( WCDRR), as he literarily cried out to the rest of the world to come to Vanuatu's aid and more importantly to make the political commitment required to see a significant reduction of disaster risks and losses during the next fifteen years.

Back in the negotiation room, many from civil society watched with disappointment, as world governments failed to make any financing commitments to implement the targets set out in the new Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction ( SFDRR). The world also failed to make the targets agreed on "binding" on all governments. We were left to face monsters like Nepal's Earthquake without a binding agreement on targets and no political commitment to financing. By implication, we have very little means to hold our governments accountable for the kind of losses in Vanuatu and Nepal.

Back in Sendai, Japan took a different and refreshing position as host of the WCDRR by pledging $4 billion in contribution to bankroll the SFDRR. Pauline Eadie reports Japan's commitment as inspired by its experience from the 2011 earthquake and tsunami. She recounts that: "The material cost of the March 2011 earthquake and resulting tsunami that hit off the Pacific Tōhoku coast was $210 billion. Japan was the host of the WCDRR and has now emerged as the only country currently willing to bankroll the SRDRR. The Japanese have pledged $4 billion whilst other countries have procrastinated over both binding targets and financial commitment."

It is little more than one month now since the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction ( SFDRR) was adopted and Nepal is in ruins and will need reconstruction. Will the charitable financial donations of governments to humanitarian aid in Nepal protect future generations of Nepalese from the devastating rage of these earthquakes? How will our global SFDRR impact on the frontlines of Nepal? Isn't this time for Nepal's national government to do a reality check? To adopt the targets from the global SFDRR and provide the national legal framework to ensure that Nepal Built Back Better and prepared for future earthquakes?

It appears that those who feel the greatest impacts of disasters will need to take charge of ensuring responsibility and accountability by national and local governments. Japan is building back, and from what I saw in the Tohoku area, they are certainly Building Back Better. Will Nepal do the same?

It appears that "risk-full development" is a major driver of vulnerability to natural hazards. We must re-route our DRR conversation to development, and not just development, but sustainable and risk-prove development. If we fail to understand the logic of disaster risk reduction, we can not fail to understand the common sense of ensuring that our development is protected from every imaginable risk. Disasters happen immediately development fails to account for everyday risks.

So if we cannot hold governments accountable for making and implementing DRR policies at international, national and local levels, we must at leastensure that we make them accountable for making and financing "disaster-risk-smart" development at all levels. Until our budgets reflect our plans to reduce disaster risk, we can still expect more earthquakes killing 8,000 people within 24 hours, with no one taking responsibility or being held accountable. Yes, we will respond with charitable humanitarian aid which may probably create new risks in our recovery efforts, but for God sake, how many more disasters do we need before we learn?

Peter Akanimoh is GNDR Vice-chair of the Global Board.

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