In a high-level meeting at its New York headquarters this week, the UN Office for Disaster Risk Reduction highlighted the 80 per cent increase in people affected by natural catastrophes since 2015 — and the key role of its Sendai Framework in creating national strategies to protect against them.

But Mami Mizutori, special representative of the secretary-general for Disaster Risk Reduction, believes there needs to be a greater emphasis on adaptation — adjustments to ecological, social or economic systems to make countries more resilient to climate effects — as well as mitigation of those effects.

And she wants to see the 96/4 percentage split between investment in disaster rescue and investment in disaster prevention completely reversed.

Ahead of the meeting, Mizutori spoke to the FT’s climate correspondent Attracta Mooney and climate reporter Camilla Hodgson about getting disaster reduction policies back on track.

Attracta Mooney: The link between climate change and disasters is becoming more apparent, especially after last year’s devastating floods in Pakistan. You’ve said previously that you want to create a world with zero climate disasters. Is that even possible?

Mami Mizutori: We need to make it possible. We need to work on climate action, mitigation, adaptation, but we definitely need to work on the vulnerability element. That is what is not being done. Climate action is good at working on the hazard, but a disaster is made up of three things. It’s the hazard, the exposure, and the vulnerability. If we can double down our efforts on vulnerability — making people less vulnerable, making the vulnerable countries less vulnerable — we believe we can have a zero-climate disasters world.

We also need to work more on early warning systems. It’s one of the best ways to save lives and livelihoods. But, currently, only half of the member states of the UN have [a system] they think is effective. And, many times, it’s not effective because it’s not really end-to-end, it’s not really leading to action on the ground. Early warning is [only] good enough if it leads to early action. If we work on these things, we do believe that we can create a world with zero disasters.

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AM: For early warning systems, there’s a target, right? Is it 2027?

MM: It is 2027. It’s the UN secretary-general’s initiative, called the Early Warnings for All Initiative. This is not about covering all the countries, but all the people, with early warning systems. It needs to be end-to-end. An early warning system has four elements. It’s about good risk information. It’s about good forecasting. It’s about good warning and communication. And, finally, it’s about preparedness on the ground — so, education.

Only when you have these four elements, and only when it’s multi-hazard, does it work. You can’t focus on one single hazard, like a cyclone or like a flood. You have to think: what are [all] the hazards you face? When you do that, you have an efficient system. That’s the goal: to do it by 2027. It’s a United Nations effort, but also, we have brought in the private sector: the insurance sector, the big tech [sector] for more information. I would like to say that the media has a great role here because who can educate the people better? I think it’s the media.

Camilla Hodgson: How is that effort going? How are you putting in place the early warning systems plan?

MM: We have selected 30 countries, which are mostly very vulnerable countries: 28 of them are either small and developing, or [among the] least developed countries. We are going to roll out this plan with UN country team coordinators . . . as a counterpart to the government. We need the government to own it, so the secretary has written to the heads of state in these countries, to say: please appoint a senior person. We want to work with you.

Then we’re hoping that funding will come from the Green Climate Fund, the Climate Risk and Early Warning Systems Initiative (CREWS), and also from bilateral donors. But it’s all about coordinating because . . . every country has gaps. Some countries don’t have anything. For example, we’ve targeted Haiti because it’s very vulnerable, but it doesn’t have anything. Some countries have one of the four [warning system] elements I mentioned, so it’s about really understanding what’s there right now . . . and filling the gap with the money that we are looking for.

CH: Do you have an estimate of what it will cost, of how much funding you’ll need?

MM: The price tag is $3.1bn. This was announced at the last COP, when we launched the executive action plan. This is not a lot of money because it’s 50 cents per person every year. If you think about how much money we need to spend in recovering Pakistan from the flood, the ask was $16bn. Compared to this, we really don’t think it’s a lot of money.

Last year’s COP27 conference brought leaders from 190 countries together to discuss climate change adaptation © Getty Images

AM: One of the key issues scientists talk about is that, as the world heats up, climate disasters become a bigger risk — we’re going to have more of them. How likely do you think it is that we are going to be able to limit global temperature rises to 1.5 degrees, which is the lower limit set by the Paris Agreement and [the point at] which scientists say we start to see exponential risk of greater impacts from disasters?

MM: I must say that we still have that goal. I know that there were calls at the last COP, even from the media, saying why don’t you stop talking about 1.5? But the political will needs to be ramped up, and that is what we’re not seeing. There is concern right now because of what is happening in Europe. The war in Ukraine has allowed some countries to say: ‘We now have to deal with this right now.’ But, on efforts to reach that 1.5, we don’t see that the political [will] is really coming.

Also, it’s about which countries really need to improve their act. Of course, the developed countries, but [also] developing countries — for example, China. If we can’t bring these countries in, then it’s really not going to work. I do believe that it depends on how much the countries which are now emerging . . . are going to have stronger political will and look at this as their future, too — not the short-term future of their economic growth, but the long-term future of sustainability for their people.

CH: Are there other countries that should be doing more, who are in that category of ‘emerging’, becoming bigger polluters?

MM: We’re talking about a lot [that] are in the G20: China, India, Indonesia, Brazil. These are countries which, yes, are on the track of economic growth and they need to bring the [climate] mitigation policy into their growth policy, their development policy.

CH: Are you optimistic about the mitigation agenda at this COP, being held by the United Arab Emirates?

MM: We believe that, although the last COP had reached a historic agreement on the Loss and Damage Fund and there were a lot of good things that came out, mitigation probably wasn’t pushed as strongly as it should have been. The UN secretary-general is aiming to really push for mitigation. We do feel that . . . time is [of] the essence in this game.

CH: I know there’s still a while to go until COP but, from what you’ve heard so far, are you optimistic that we will get progress on mitigation this year?

MM: As you know, you need to get closer to the crunch time. The pressure on all member states, whoever they are — developed countries, emerging economies — to really enhance their efforts, will start coming. Maybe we don’t see it right now, but we still have time and there is a very strong urge to do this. But, also, I believe that adaptation will remain highly [important], because as we mitigate, if we can adapt, then the impact is going to be more intense.

AM: You mentioned adaptation, and the most recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report was quite clear about the need for more adaptation. But, at the same time, there’s a lot of talk that there’s not enough money for adaptation. Who do you think should be funding that?

MM: I think the reason why there is not enough money for adaptation is that the impact of investing in it is not as clear as it is with mitigation. Investment in mitigation, and what comes from it, is much more clear, in terms of science. But, with investment in adaptation — like resilience — you put money in and then, what is it that you see coming from it? That difficulty in measuring the impact of adaptation is, I think, a big reason.

If we can reach a global goal for adaptation at this next COP, then it becomes clearer. Also, if we can work on better metrics to measure adaptation, the money will come.

You asked who should be giving the money? I do believe that there is quite a lot of funding that could be available already from the Green Climate Fund. They have committed to making adaptation part of what they’re going to fund. As you remember, [at COP26] in Glasgow, there was this commitment to double the money for adaptation. It’s not coming yet so, ultimately, yes, the member states have to rank up their effort.

But none of these things can be done without the contribution of the private sector. Whether they fund it directly or not, that’s a different question. But I think there are opportunities for the private sector in the adaptation field. For example . . . nature-based solutions is an area that is promising, but we haven’t seen it skilled up. There are a lot of pilot projects here and there, which are good, but it hasn’t really seen the impact that it should see.

If the private sector can come in and be part of this nature-based solution, that can also contribute to adaptation. I think there’s a real chance of scaling it up.

Floods in Pakistan in 2022 put a third of the country underwater and killed more than 1,700 people © AAMIR QURESHI/AFP via Getty Images)

CH: There’s a growing question about who pays for loss and damage. What’s your view on who should pay?

MM: The thinking right now is that the countries that originally made this a problem should pay. But I do believe that sticking to that [principle] will not resolve the question. You may remember that at the COP at Sharm el-Sheikh, there was already a lot of discussion about who should be paying. The Europeans were very strong in saying that developed countries should pay their part, but it shouldn’t be limited to them.

That, I think, is an ongoing discussion . . . But the problem is we’re talking about historic loss and damage, right? So, where do you say the history ended? I think that’s a big thing.

Also, if we focus only on historic loss and damage, then, at the same time we are accumulating more losses and damages. The issue of how we avert, minimise, and address current and future loss and damage needs to be discussed in tandem. That is why we believe the Santiago Network [for connecting vulnerable developing countries with providers of technical assistance on addressing climate change] is very important.

CH: Who should pay into the Loss and Damage Fund? Do you have a view on how you identify countries — for example, gross domestic product per capita if there are two countries, such as China and Saudi Arabia, which are very different from other developing countries?

MM: I think GDP per capita may not necessarily work because, if you take a country like China or India or Brazil, these are emerging countries which have quite a disparity in terms of the income of their people. I think it’s more about how much their economy is growing, depending on what, and how is that contributing to the global temperature rise. Those are the things that we need to look at.

Of course, it would be difficult to reach an agreement on this, but I think those metrics are much more realistic than just looking at what’s the per capita GDP.

AM: You’ve talked about the Loss and Damage Fund being historic and the need to think about future disasters, too. What do you think needs to be done to have cash ready to help countries when they suffer a disaster?

MM: What we need to do more is bring the cash before the disaster happens. This is about building resilience, this is about reducing the risk. That’s what we’re not doing yet. There is still a lot of short-termism prevailing in what we do. It takes a lot of leadership to invest in prevention because, if you’re good at preventing, you don’t see the positive impact. It’s easier to try to get cash after a huge disaster because people see what happened, people dying, people losing their homes, their livelihoods.

4%Proportion of official development assistance related to disasters that goes into prevention

This game can’t continue. That is where the Sendai Framework [the global blueprint for reducing risk and disaster] comes in. Currently, we know that only about 4 per cent of all official development assistance related to disasters goes into prevention; the rest goes into response and recovery. But there is not much evidence that recovery is building back better. It seems that we are doing more of building back the same.

And if we’re not building back better, if we’re not putting more money into prevention, then the cash after a disaster will be smaller and smaller because the number of disasters — and their impact — is only growing.

AM: You said only 4 per cent is put into prevention and preparedness. What do you think that figure needs to be?

MM: In an ideal world, we need to reverse the 4 and the 96. The 96 [per cent] needs to go into prevention. Let’s take infrastructure. The World Bank said, in a 2019 report, that if you put one dollar into the resilience of infrastructure, you save $4 in this lifetime, in terms of when disaster hits, in terms of its reconstruction and recovery. That is solid science the World Bank came up with after looking at thousands of projects that it had already implemented.

What I’m saying is, let’s try to reverse, if not at once, the 4/96, to make it 50/50 and, then, ultimately, 96/4. Right now, we are relying too much on response and recovery, and we are relying too much on insurance.

AM: What does prevention actually look like in practice? What practical examples are there of what prevention would be?

Tokyo was hit by a powerful typhoon in September 2019 © AFP via Getty Images

MM: I’ll give you an example from Japan, that is not climate[-related] because we deal with both climate and non-climate disasters. Japan is an earthquake prone country and it knows that, within 30 years, a big earthquake is going to hit Tokyo. They have been working on this.

Last year, they made public a projection of the impact of that earthquake and the mortality was calculated at 6,000 people. But, when they compared it with the number of ten years ago, it had gone down by 30 per cent. Why? Because, during the ten years, the government and the private sector and the whole of society put more effort into building codes. Not only making the building codes, but ensuring that they are abided by.

That has reduced the [projected] mortality by 30 per cent in ten years, which is quite impressive. That’s what you need to do: you need to make those building codes appropriate for the risk you have. The reinforcement of land planning issues is key. That’s one example of what prevention looks like.

Second, you need to have governance. Many times in a city, the sector that is dealing with risk reduction or prevention and the sector that is looking at development do not talk to each other. Many times, prevention is left to a very small agency in a government, but not looked at across government. You really need to have a risk governance structure that is across all sectors because there’s risk everywhere.

CH: Are there specific cities or countries that you think are particularly at risk or underprepared?

MM: I think most countries are underprepared, but I can give you some examples of countries doing better. For example, Costa Rica is a country that has, by legislation, established a fund for prevention. Money needs to be put aside for prevention beforehand, before the disaster strikes. Australia is doing this, as well.

And, interestingly, some countries in the Small Island Developing States (SIDS), because of their lack of resources, put disaster risk reduction strategy, climate adaptation and sustainable development into the same unit — so they really have an integrated policy.

In many countries, including Japan, disaster risk reduction is usually led by a disaster management authority, and climate adaptation by the environment ministry. Although there is so much that overlaps — like early warning systems — they really don’t talk to each other. They have different budget lines for the same thing and don’t have an integrated policy. That is the problem. But, as I mentioned, in the small Pacific islands, they manage to integrate it.

That’s one thing that we’re trying to do more universally: to ask the countries to integrate the disaster risk reduction strategies that they have to make under the Sendai Framework. There are now 125 countries that have such a strategy. And we’re telling them: integrate it with your national adaptation plan. Instead of having separate strategies for disaster risk reduction prevention and for adaptation, we are trying to encourage countries to have one plan or strategy that encompasses both areas.

AM: One final question. You mentioned earlier that lots of countries are reporting to you under the Sendai Framework. What are you finding from that? What are they actually saying?

MM: Mortality from disasters, if you take out Covid, is gradually going down. In our analysis, this is because of early warning. Although only half of the countries have it, that is much more than used to be the case. Early warning systems are contributing to the reduction of mortality.

But the other three indicators of loss, they’re all going up: the number of people affected, this is about livelihoods, this is about jobs, this is about education; the economic loss, this is getting very high, and it doesn’t include the indirect economic loss; and the damage to infrastructure and disruption to basic service is also going up. We’re comparing it to 2005, 2015 and 2020, . . . and all three of them are going up.

There are seven indicators and seven world targets — those are the four about loss and damage. There are three more about what needs to be done.

One is about governance of the disaster reduction strategy. Now, 125 countries have these strategies. This is much stronger than when the Sendai Framework started, although, we do need to look at the strategies’ content as well. But, in terms of numbers, it’s going up. Countries are aware that if they don’t have a plan, it’s not good. The Sendai Framework also says it’s not only the national governments, but local governments need to have plans as well. We know that’s where the impact comes. Not many local governments have them, so the local resilience is not good enough.

Another, sixth, indicator is about enhancing international co-operation for disaster risk reduction. We already talked about this, it’s not going well.

And the seventh, and last, one is about enhancing access to risk information and early warning. This has improved but, still, half of the world does not have an early warning system. Only 30 per cent of the SIDS have an early warning system, only 40 per cent of the countries in Africa have an early warning system, so there’s still a lot of gap.

So, let’s face it, like [the UN’s] Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), like [the] Paris [Agreement on Climate Change], we are not on track. This is why, at the midterm review high-level meeting on May 18 and 19 in New York, a political declaration and commitment by the member states is going to be adopted.

It’s very important that they recommit [to implement the Sendai Framework] and also say that they will take more risk-informed policies. This is not only important for the Disaster Risk Reduction agenda, but for Paris and for the SDGs.

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