By Lisa Anderson
NEW YORK (AlertNet) – Water-related disasters look set to become more frequent and more costly, meaning countries must put a greater emphasis on risk-reduction planning, said experts at a recent United Nations gathering.
This is particularly vital for poorer countries, where a failure to plan for floods and droughts leads to huge loss of life that could be avoided, the experts said.
“Preparing for the worst can save lives. That is why we need early warning systems, disaster education and resilient structures,” U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said at the international body’s first high-level event on water and disasters.
The day-long session, earlier this month, aimed to raise awareness, share best practice and start to identify water-related issues and problems where greater international cooperation is required, Vuk Jeremic, president of the U.N. General Assembly and former foreign minister of Serbia, told the gathering of diplomats, experts and representatives of non-governmental organisations.
“The problems we face are truly global in nature but the poorest countries are the hardest hit,” he said.
Underlining this point, a report by the U.N. Office for Disaster Risk Reduction this month found that Hurricane Sandy in the United States took 110 lives last year, far fewer than the nearly 2,000 people left dead or missing in the Philippines by Tropical Storm Bopha, which was weaker than Sandy.
Ban said risk reduction work must go hand-in-hand with efforts to fight global warming.
“While we work for prevention and mitigation, we must also address the fundamental threat of climate change,” Ban said. “I continue to call on world leaders to keep their promise to reach a global, legally binding climate change agreement by 2015.”
This year is the International Year of Water Cooperation, providing an opportunity to forge international partnerships to reduce the risk and impact of water-related disasters, Ban told the gathering.
International collaboration is vital because water-related crises affect all parts of the world, delegates said.
“No region is exempt from water disasters. Droughts and floods alternate in countries in Asia, Europe, Africa, the Middle East, the Americas, Oceania and small island countries,” said Crown Prince Naruhito of Japan, honorary president of the UN Secretary-General’s Advisory Board on Water and Sanitation (UNSGAB).
Japan recently observed the second anniversary of the Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami of March 11, 2011, which devastated the country and left 18,574 people dead or missing.
“We are experiencing more water-related disasters than ever,” he said, showing delegates a map of 60 water-related disasters in Japan from 2011 and 2012 that either killed more than 50 people or affected more than 100,000 each.
THREAT TO DEVELOPMENT
Risk-reduction planning is essential to climate change adaptation strategies and working with all countries to formulate and adopt these strategies is a goal set for 2015. Including water-related disasters in the post-2015 Millennium Development Goals agenda is another goal, said Prince of Orange Willem-Alexander of the Netherlands, who chairs UNSGAB.
“One water-related disaster can sweep away, in a matter of moments, years of development,” he told the session.
Han Seung-soo, founding chair of UNSGAB and chair of its High Level Expert Panel on Water and Disaster, agreed.
“Water is life. But water can also be a threat to life,” he said. “This grim reality forces us to confront the fact that water-related disasters have emerged as an obstacle to eradicating poverty and promoting economic growth.”
Session participants shared stories of mistakes and successes in their planning to prevent water-related disasters. Kittiratt Na-Ranong, deputy prime minister of Thailand, spoke candidly of an error in judgment that left hundreds dead.
In 1999, his country developed a comprehensive plan that anticipated the kind of severe flooding that occurred during the 2011 monsoon season – but it failed to implement it.
Decision-makers felt the approximately $10 billion needed to put the plan into action was “a huge amount of money to invest in something that might or might not happen,” Kittiratt said. “My first lesson … is that it did happen and cost many times more than the budgeted investment."
The floods, which killed more than 800 people, cost the country more than $45 billion, reducing gross domestic product across all sectors and overall by 9 percent, he added.
Since then, Thailand has embarked on an aggressive risk-reduction and flood mitigation plan that includes investing $11.5 billion in water resource management, creating dikes and flood management systems, establishing a $1.6 billion government fund to help the insurance industry extend flood insurance and implementing a $10 billion programme run by the central bank to provide loans for individuals and companies affected by flooding.
SUCCESS IN THE NETHERLANDS
The Netherlands, on the other hand, is a success story when it comes to water-related risk reduction.
For centuries, the country has waged a battle with the sea but it has not experienced a water-related disaster since 1953, when flooding killed 1,800 people.
“We believe the most crucial thing to do is anticipate what’s ahead,” said Melanie Schultz van Haegen-Maas Geesteranus, the Netherlands’ minister of infrastructure and the environment.
Nearly a third of the Netherlands is below sea level and two-thirds are vulnerable to flooding.
“Water is a daily topic,” she said. “These are the areas where most of our people live and most of our GDP is earned.”
Geesteranus shared three key lessons from the Netherlands about flood risk reduction.
Firstly, the country learned how to anticipate problems like flooding and threats to the fresh water supply and take steps to prevent them. This led it to build sea gates after 1953 and, three years ago, to launch a new Delta Programme – a national programme through which government, provinces, municipalities, civil society and business work together to ensure the country is safe from rising sea levels, heavier rainfall and longer periods of drought.
Secondly, the Netherlands learned that “flood management doesn’t start with levees, dikes or dams. It starts with people.” The country takes a bottom-up approach with local governments working closely with the national government.
Finally, an emphasis on public-private partnership in water management is crucial, including where infrastructure and innovation is concerned.
“We can never keep our feet dry by focusing on water alone,” she said.