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Reflections on Sendai

by Steve Sparks

I was privileged to attend the UN 3rd World Conference on Disaster Risk Reduction (WCDRR) at Sendai, Japan (13th to 18th March). The WCDRR is a UN process in which the world’s countries get together to cooperate, collaborate and improve their resilience to natural hazards.

I was there as part of the ICSU delegation, which represented Science and Technology, and to present the joint study by Global Volcano Model (GVM) and IAVCEI on Volcanic Hazard and Risk to the conference. Indeed the presentation of this study is somewhat of a landmark for volcanology in that a major synoptic assessment of volcanic risk had never before been presented within a UN forum as a contribution to the development of a new intergovernmental agreement on Disaster Risk Reduction. The joint GVM/IAVCEI study was delivered as four background papers to the 2015 Global Assessment Report (GAR15) of UN ISDR. Look out for these papers in the form of an Open Access e-book published by Cambridge University Press in the near future. Volcanology thus figured prominently for the first time in a GAR15 report.  Volcanologists, and especially volcano observatories, are already working within communities and with governments to build resilience. The GVM/IAVCEI reports draw attention to the successes and progress being made by our community, particularly where scientists are working across disciplines with emergency managers and others to ensure the best science meets societal needs. Nevertheless, I suspect many volcanologists are not that familiar with the UN and UN processes and how science is fed into policy and international agreements. I certainly wasn’t and so I have written this short article to raise awareness in the volcanology community about the UN system and the growing importance of DRR in the development of global strategies to address the impact of natural hazards in the context of sustainable development and climate change.

WCDRR is quite unlike a conventional science conference so was a new experience; sometimes bewildering, sometimes invigorating and occasionally frustrating. There were at least 6,500 participants, all of whom have to be associated with either an official government delegation or a major stakeholder group, such as Business, NGOs and the Science & Technology Group. With 187 governments and a huge range of groups there was great diversity. To give a flavour I met people from the insurance sector, space agencies, religious charities, Save the Children, World Vision, consultants, grass-roots community leaders, World Bank lawyers, mayors of cities, advocacy groups for disabilities, human rights and gender issues, as well as an array of academics across numerous disciplines. There were also many parallel sessions that were typically panels where a group of experts discussed a particular topic and then responded to questions from the audience. There were numerous side events on a whole variety of more specialised topics; I participated in one on extreme weather and presented in the GAR15 technical session where I presented the GVM/IAVCEI study. Of course I tended to go to science focussed sessions but I could have gone to sessions for example on epidemics, rural health, safe schools, microfinancing and resilient communities. Certainly this diversity simultaneously engendered bewilderment and enthusiasm with many people passionate about the state of the World and the commitment to improve it. The conference got off to an exciting and impressive start with the Emperor and Empress of Japan, the Japanese Prime Minister Shinzō Abe and UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon in attendance.

Why is this conference so important and what was it trying to achieve? There are some major issues that in a very general sense unite the United Nations. Broadly told, the issues relate to concern about the future and include sustainable development, climate change, biodiversity and disasters. The UN strives to develop international agreements that promote co-operation and frameworks to address these issues, such as reducing risk from natural hazards. The agreements range from binding to non-binding and aspirational. WCDRR was the first of an 18-month period of global processes relevant to poverty, vulnerability, crisis and risk including the International Conference on Financing for Development in Addis Ababa (July 2015), the adoption of the post-2015 development agenda in New York (September 2015), the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Paris (December 2015) and the World Humanitarian Summit in Istanbul (May 2016). Getting 187 nations to agree on anything is a formidable task and of course it’s the politics that creates much of the challenge. The way this is done is extraordinary. There were two giant rooms with every country having a desk. In one room there are national statements and statements from many other major organisations (e.g. WHO, development banks, the EU). In another room each country is represented by two or three people and a pre-prepared text of an agreement is gone through word by word. The dialogue goes on most of the night and for almost 4 days in seven official languages, although most of the negotiations are in English. Wrangles on wording are often tense when they have political cadence. A paragraph which mentions “occupied states” triggers fierce impassioned responses. This agreement though will frame national policies and international co-operation for the next 15 years to avert disasters. At midnight 18 March, after a 30 hours final session, the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction (SFDRR) was signed.

The Hyogo Framework for Action (HFA) in 2005 was the last UN agreement to address DRR and had the aspiration to reduce disaster risk around the World. There is some evidence of success with large reductions of risk for some kinds of events, such as greatly reduced fatalities for typhoons affecting Bangladesh. Volcanology can claim some success as there has been no mass fatality event (many thousands of deaths or more), yet this decade has seen several significant eruptions. However, the HFA decade also saw huge disasters like the Haiti earthquake in 2010 and the Great East Japan earthquake and tsunami in 2011, while myriad small extensive disasters showed no sign of diminishing. The new framework agreement aims at building on HFA and making much more substantial inroads into reducing disaster risk.

Science feeds in principally through the GAR process. UN ISDR produce their biennial reports on disasters related to natural hazards. The 2015 report (GAR15) is the last of four reports over the HFA decade and is the most significant because its findings inform how the new agreement has been framed. A major success at WCDRR is that science and technology feature much more prominently in the new document, a reflection of skilful lobbying and influence by some key scientists and science organisations such as the Academies and ICSU. Volcanic risk features for the first time in GAR15 as a consequence of the GVM/IAVCEI effort involving 85 volcanologists from 34 institutions. Volcanology thus demonstrated that it is a collaborative and organised community, and so is well positioned to make significant contributions within the new framework.

It is not possible here to provide more than the barest outline of the GAR15 report. It’s a long but very well written report and provides a new perspective on DRR, so I recommend getting a copy. Some key ideas and issues though are worth highlighting as they represent key messages for science and frame the role of science. Foremost is an emergent change of paradigm. The key message of the conference is the need to factor future losses that are bound to accrue due to natural hazards into development. The HFA promoted a shift from reactive responses to disasters to investments in a more proactive response, which makes communities more resilient to the effects of these natural phenomena. A key outcome of SFDRR is the need to integrate and mainstream disaster risk reduction into economic development and a sustainable future. This new approach is a major shift in emphasis in how the world coordinates efforts to reduce disaster risk by attempting to integrate DRR firmly into Sustainable Development. Natural hazards and associated disasters have been viewed as acts of God that society had to protect itself from. Natural hazards, however, are always going to happen, and so we need to build more resilient societies at local to international scales.

What does this all mean for volcanology? In some respects the kind of science we do to enhance basic understanding of volcanic processes and to provide early warning, hazard assessment and advice to decision-makers won’t be so different. However, how we develop and present the science is due for change. UN ISDR in the GAR15 was pointedly critical of science as spending too much of its time doing research and publishing papers that are inaccessible to those who want to use the science.  Much of scientific knowledge is buried in learned technical journals and is often scattered through a complex literature with, in many cases, lack of synthesis of this knowledge. Transforming the science into accessible forms, useful tools and understandable information for the users of science will be a key demand. The language that is understood in the outside world is in terms of losses, cost-benefit analyses and demonstrating that investment in DRR is much better than reacting to emergencies and disasters that could have been prevented. We will need to transform some of the science into new forms that express risk in terms of effects on lives, livelihoods, supply chains, health, economic indicators, human well being etc. GAR15 came up with a new metric of “life years lost” which measures the combined effects of a disaster in terms of lives lost, injuries, affected populations and economic losses. So using life years lost may become a key metric to understand. Can we evaluate, for example, that by monitoring a volcano to a certain technical standard reduces the life years lost for future eruptions?

Within SFDRR volcanology needs to both demonstrate and realise its value in reducing risk in the context of sustainable development. We will also need to work more closely together, being more ready to share data and ideas, sign up to the principles of open access, and display community co-ordination and cohesion. The SFDRR emphasizes voluntary contributions and development of simple metrics to monitor progress and indeed help characterise natural hazard risk. The lingua franca of DRR is turning to resilience building and risk management. Risk assessment requires a systematic and scientific approach so a certain reluctance of some scientists to move from hazard to risk assessment and forecasting may prove to be unsustainable. Working with other disciplines for risk assessment, notably in the social sciences, will become essential.

GVM and IAVCEI can provide the platforms for the volcanological community to work together to contribute to SFDRR. One outcome of the GAR15 work by GVM/IAVCEI is to identify many issues relating to volcano data and knowledge gaps. As a community we have a responsibility to provide the best evidence to inform DRR through collection and analysis of data and transforming this information into useful forms.  The GAR15 work suggests that the quality of data needs to be improved, that there are major knowledge gaps, a need for more harmonisation of data collection and data analysis, systematic collations of data in databases that are more consistent with one another with moves towards agreement on database formats, issues of ontology (how is an eruption defined) that effect how data are collected and classified, handling of big data particularly in geophysics and how data are used in models. These issues suggest in turn that a focus on volcano data might be a very good theme for GVM and IAVCEI as major improvements in volcano data will be a significant contribution to the early stages of SFDRR.

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