Seanad debates

Wednesday, 29 May 2013

Address to Seanad Éireann by Ms Margareta Wahlström

 

11:30 am

Photo of Paddy BurkePaddy Burke (Cathaoirleach of Seanad; Fine Gael)
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On my own behalf and that of my fellow Senators I welcome to the House Ms Margareta Wahlström, Special Representative of the Secretary General for Disaster Risk Reduction and head of the UN Office for Disaster Risk Reduction.

Twenty-four hour media coverage means that we cannot fail to be aware of the devastation caused by natural disasters around the world, including the very recent extreme weather events in the US, such as the tornado in Oklahoma two weeks ago and Hurricane Sandy on the US east coast last October, the terrible earthquake and tsunami in Japan in 2011, the 2008 Sichuan earthquake in China or the Indian Ocean tsunami in 2004.

Benjamin Franklin once said that an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. While many disasters are inevitable and it is impossible to eliminate all risk, the loss of life and damage caused can be mitigated if we have adequate disaster and risk reduction strategies and plans. As the United Nations has pointed out, there are many technical measures, traditional practices and public experience that can reduce the extent or severity of economic and social disasters.

In November 2008 the United Nations Secretary General, Ban Ki-moon, appointed Ms Margareta Wahlström as the first Special Representative of the Secretary General for Disaster Risk Reduction. Ms Wahlström is based in Geneva and heads the United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction. The international strategy for disaster reduction reflects a major shift from the traditional emphasis on disaster response to disaster reduction and in effect seeks to promote a culture of prevention.

Ms Wahlström has more than 30 years of extensive national and international experience in humanitarian relief operations in disaster and conflict areas, and in institution-building to strengthen national capacity for disaster preparedness, response and for risk reduction. The oft-quoted phrase "By failing to prepare, you are preparing to fail," is one of Benjamin Franklin's many pearls of wisdom. It is through the work of people such as Ms Wahlström that globally we are not failing to prepare. Instead, we are planning, organising and readying ourselves to deal with problems caused by disasters before they arise. Given this hugely important role, I am delighted to welcome Ms Wahlström to Seanad Éireann and now invite her to address this House.

Ms Margareta Wahlström:

I thank the Cathaoirleach and the honourable Senators for inviting me here today. Twenty years ago, disasters were perceived to be a problem affecting poor countries. Today, of course, nobody believes this remains a poor-country issue. On the contrary, disasters affect all countries, including the United States, as the Cathaoirleach mentioned. Perhaps the most dramatic of all, just to set us off thinking about the significance of the issue, the Christchurch earthquake took account of 20% of the GDP of New Zealand, a rich, highly developed country. Thus, we are talking about a very significant impact. The OECD countries are the countries with the biggest increases in annual disaster losses to their GDP. Of course the poor countries have the highest and most significant proportional impact on their development, so it really is a unifying issue today.

The Cathaoirleach mentioned my many years working with disasters. When I started working with disasters, there was almost complete focus on saving people's lives. People's lives are increasingly being saved by better early-warning systems and evacuation procedures. There is much greater respect for what can be done to get people out of harm's way. Traditionally, disasters were handled by every country in the world - I do not discriminate between poor and rich in this regard. When something happened, big or small, a country paid for it and moved on, and it pays for it when it happens again. It was an events-driven approach to disasters, as if there were nothing that could be done. Gradually we are trying, through national and international work, to change this deeply ingrained attitude. In many countries I still get wise advice from religious leaders not to interfere in what is only partially created by man but is nature's own way. Having said that, we are trying to be very practical. We started looking at the economics of disasters. How much does a disaster actually cost? It is not just what we pay up-front, but what are the indirect costs? What are the poverty consequences? What long-term consequences does it have on health and education? Every country uses its schools as evacuation sites. Senators should just think about the weeks and months of school time being used up by using schools as evacuation centres. So there are very many practical issues to do with the disaster event itself.

We need to look at the bigger picture. Disasters are events that destroy society's capability to maintain its economic and social development. They represent a development issue and challenge which is closely linked to climate change, with the increasing impact of warming. Seven or eight years ago I had a meeting with climate scientists and meteorologists, who explained the long-range projections. We tried to conceptualise it and establish what it means for us. People who work today with disasters and social and economic planning predict more of the same extreme events, and more unexpected and totally unimaginable events. I believe that is what we have today. There is more flooding and more high winds - many more extreme events.

I do not know how many Senators have heard of the cloudburst in Copenhagen three years ago. My colleagues in the Copenhagen city council tell me that the Danish political leaders did not believe in climate change. Then, in the summer of 2011, there was an enormous cloudburst and Copenhagen was under meters of floodwater for approximately a day. Because Copenhagen is a very old city and does not have modern plumbing, the sewerage and freshwater systems were not segregated. I do not need to remind Senators what the consequences were. To this day no one knows how to pay for it. It has created all kinds of debates over local government municipality partitions of infrastructure. No country has the preparedness to pay for such events. Extreme things about which we did not know happened, and now the Danes believe in climate change.

The other aspect of warming is the unpredictability of weather, with longer droughts and unpredictable sowing periods. This is the case everywhere in the world, including in Europe. Long warm periods are causing forest fires and wildfires.

The health impacts of the new weather conditions are very well documented. One has only to look at easily accessible material on the return of malaria in Europe. Our planning and looking forward must be much more informed by all these areas. The extremities - the disastrous events - have not been fully factored in because we do not count them. Most countries, including in Europe, do not have records of disasters and their costs. Local governments normally have, but if nobody in the central government asks for them they do not go into the national statistics, even today, when we have statistics on everything.

One of the major issues arising in our work for a new disaster risk management framework post-2015 is how to govern disaster risk reduction. How does one plan to reduce risk and exposure? Vulnerability is one aspect, while exposure is the other closely linked aspect. Vulnerability is really about people's soft spots, and those of society, where the risk associated with an extreme event is multiplied several times. It it is about health, education and damage to cultural heritage. Exposure, in its most critical form, is associated with more than just infrastructure. Some countries have very old infrastructure and do not keep up with wear and tear. What about IT infrastructure? One has only to think about New York. I do not know if any Senators were there during Hurricane Sandy. In Manhattan it looked good, but just across the river in New Jersey they had no telephone contacts, no electricity and no idea of what was going on. How can we make these infrastructures much more resilient? Think about big cities that are better prepared, such as Tokyo, which is planning for an earthquake.

The reality check for us all in recent years was represented by incidents such as the flooding in Thailand and Australia, when all the supply chains in the highly integrated international economies started to break down. The break in supply chains due to the Thai floods had an 3% impacton GDP, which was a wake-up call for many mega-companies. I believe Toyota said that the lesson it learned from this, which made it a better company today, is that it did not know who its suppliers were. It might have had hundreds or thousands of suppliers but it could not find them because it had not thought of them as critical links and did not even have their telephone numbers. It now knows the telephone numbers, and it has fewer suppliers and believes it is more resilient. These are some of the critical areas for poor countries. Most of the countries we used to think of as really poor are now rapidly growing economies. They are joining the lower middle income countries and their outlooks are changing radically.

Before I explain who we are, the reason we pay so much attention to the issue of risk is that, from east Asia, which used to be the fastest growing part of the world economically, there are good data showing that the risk accumulation curve and the economic growth curve have exactly the same trajectory. What this means is that countries with fast-growing economies are cutting many corners on long-use planning, quality of infrastructure and urban planning. Officials from China and Vietnam, for example, say that they cut too many corners in the past and now they are paying for that. If the Chinese are not going to accept all the losses they incur - they are protesting - the government needs to look after the future social and economic resilience of the country, and that requires looking back to see what it can do to catch up. That is a major issue. I do not know to what degree Ireland is ready to compare itself to China - the scale is a bit different - but China has done something unique. It is the first country in the world to do this. In its new five-year development plan it has put a ceiling on what it considers to be an acceptable economic impact on GDP, which is 1.5%. This is a public policy now. Its strategy for managing risk is actually mitigation, to ensure it does not supersede that figure. That means engaging in flood management, improving infrastructure such as schools and hospitals, and all the practical things one does to ensure a resilient country. I do not know how many countries are likely to follow that policy, but it is a manifestation of how politically important it is for China, as a country, to maintain the credibility of economic growth and social development.

What is UNISDR? It is a relatively young office in the United Nations which was created in 2000 but was the continuation of 20 years of previous work within the UN, mainly by scientists and technologists. They knew that disasters would overwhelm societies one day but nobody listened to them, so they decided to set up an advocacy and outreach office, which is UNISDR. In 2004 the Indian ocean tsunami occurred. At the same time - this was coincidence, of course - UNISDR had been working with countries and organisations on what we call the Hyogo Framework for Action, which was agreed in Kobe in Japan in January 2005. Kobe is a tragic example of the impact of disasters. When the Kobe earthquake occurred in the mid-1990s, Kobe was the sixth largest commercial port in the world. Enormous damage was caused. The Japanese Government invested hundreds of millions of dollars to get Kobe back in business, but today nobody sees Kobe as a major commercial port any more. Thus, the losses we do not account for are the ones that happen over years or decades.

Kobe's name is in history not because of that but because of the Hyogo Framework for Action, which is a voluntary framework for building the resilience of communities and nations. In five priority areas, it has concrete proposals on what to do to build resilience. We have used that framework as a structure for working with countries and organisations in the past eight years. That is what we are introducing, including in Europe. Europe was probably the last continent to recognise that disaster is a very costly enterprise - unnecessarily so. Five or six years ago development started here, and now Europe is the geographical area that is most quickly taking measures to organise itself nationally and with the help of the European Union. Much in European co-operation is focused on resilience, disaster risk reduction, strengthening civil protection mechanisms and working together in an integrated fashion. It has also been a major help for the United Nations, in our work with the rest of the world, to see how strongly Europe is coming together on this issue.

We work a good deal with regional and national technical institutions and we work closely with the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and the development agenda. We are trying to focus on the fact that none of these segments is a stand-alone segment; they are totally interdependent. One cannot manage the development agenda unless one recognises the risk and the losses. Some of those losses are strongly linked to climate change and weather variability. In the global policy agenda, this is what we are trying to get through. We are also stimulating the building of national structures for responding to disasters and getting it right.

We are now in the process of designing the post-2015 disaster risk management framework. Our first framework was for the period 2005 to 2015. We fall into this pond of the post-2015 development agenda, the hope for a new climate agreement and also this framework. It could be questioned how this will all work out. The Hyogo framework action 2, as we call it, is actually a free space in a way in which everything comes together. Neither is it a negotiated space. Our partnership with countries is a very interesting one because in this space are contained local governments as well as the strong and extremely vocal participation of parliamentarians from around the world; community representatives, women and also people living with disability; community organisations, the Red Cross and the Red Crescent and our colleagues in the UN system. We are all in the same space. We have just concluded our fourth global meeting last week. The agenda is set for 2015 which includes measures to govern disaster risk reduction, how to put local communities more at the centre, and to help governments to become comfortable with an all-of-society approach. I know Ireland has just agreed on an all-of-society approach for international co-operation. That is the trend that we have to follow through. We need to achieve a much more comfortable policy and programmatic integration of climate change and disaster risk agenda in order not to delay implementation. We need to achieve a much clearer focus on what is called the natural hazards and technological disasters coming together.

It is about the big challenges we face such as what happened at Fukushima and also the challenges associated with any major chemical factory infrastructure. I refer to very practical things like infrastructure, the very rapid global urbanisation and whether countries and communities can get ahead of this very rapid risk accumulation for the future through using already well-known practical instruments.

Every country in the world has a building code but too few countries believe that their building codes are respected, enforced and utilised. Every country and city in the world has land-use planning regulations but it is a question of whether these are taken seriously. We are not respecting some basic rules of nature. A colleague of mine who is a water expert said that water never disappears, it just takes a new path. These new paths are what creates urban flooding and more flash floods. All in all, we must realise that increasingly, disasters are not created by natural forces but rather as a result of how we organise society. We create them but we have the knowledge to reduce and minimise these risks.

Research is one of our instruments for sharing knowledge. Every two years we issue a global assessment report of disaster risk. I will leave a few copies here for Members to use as reference. Our first report was on poverty and disasters. Today it is very clear how poverty and disasters are closely interlinked with one driving the other. The second report was on public investment and disasters, how governments use their financial instruments and what they know about the future risk. It is a very practical guide. This year's report was launched ten days ago and it deals with the private sector and disaster risk. I have tried to reduce this to a very simple perspective since the private sector in most countries in the world is responsible for about 80% of all investment. Unless we can get private sector closely engaged by means of its self-interest and resilience in its investment and contributing to an environment which is much better for their investment income and viability, then we are not likely to succeed. We are working on mobilising private business both globally and, in terms of small and medium enterprises, locally. The SMEs are the ones who have no margin and they go under after a disaster in very large numbers. They are very important for communities.

These are some of the big items on the table. Ireland is a very close partner with us in the European collaboration and it is also internationally strongly engaged in the work on the post-2015 risk management agenda. We then legitimise and try to create politically binding engagement is all this work. The Secretary General reports to the General Assembly every year on the work of the international strategy. The General Assembly then gives guidance through its resolutions and commitments and that is what we are trying to use to mobilise governments even more now. We are making some progress but I must confess that I think it needs to become a lot more real for many more countries. The poorer countries are very aware. The very dry countries see an acceleration in droughts. In our part of the world we are still a little bit hesitant to see this as something that we ought to integrate very strongly in our policy and practice agendas as one of the things that would secure sustainability of our lifestyle models while having to make a few compromises on the way.

I have described some of the most important issues. I have taken a look at Ireland in preparation for my coming here. I have an Irish colleague in my office who keeps talking about the floods in Cork. We can see the infrastructural challenges that many countries share with Ireland. I look forward to hearing comments from Senators on how we can inspire the work of the House. I thank Mr. Gay Mitchell MEP, who is a member of our parliamentarian advisory group. This is a group of very determined and strong advocates who influence thinking on these issues. I am doing everything I can to support them.

11:50 am

Photo of Paddy BurkePaddy Burke (Cathaoirleach of Seanad; Fine Gael)
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Before I call Senator Mullins I wish to welcome Mr. Gay Mitchell, MEP, who is in the Visitors Gallery.

Photo of Michael MullinsMichael Mullins (Fine Gael)
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I am very pleased to welcome our very special guest for this very important dialogue. We are indeed honoured to have such a distinguished guest as the special representative of the Secretary General of the United Nations with responsibility for disaster risk reduction. I have done some research on our guest. Ms Wahlström has a glittering career, spanning more than 30 years in international disaster response and humanitarian work in more than 100 countries, including many across the Middle East, north Africa, south-east Asia, southern Africa and Latin America. She holds a most important position in a world that has seen a dramatic rise in the incidence of natural disasters, many as a result of climate change. She referred to situations here in Ireland. We never thought that we would be importing grass as has been the case in recent times as a result of unusual weather patterns that have continued over a period of 12 months.

Ms Wahlström referred to the flooding in Cork. We have had severe flooding over a number of years, in particular in 2009 when a significant number of homes were flooded in my home town of Ballinasloe, County Galway. The homes of more than 150 people were severely damaged and some people had to be relocated. Extensive remedial works were carried out after the flooding, with the local authority and local community working closely together.

In many of the world's least-developed countries, extreme events occur so frequently that resources, which are badly needed for poverty reduction and economic development, are being diverted to disaster relief and reconstruction. Many countries and communities are ill-prepared to cope with extreme events and climate change threatens to undermine many decades of effort in the areas of poverty reduction, development assistance and disaster risk management. The loss of life resulting from natural hazards is considerable and the number of people affected and the associated economic losses have substantially increased since the 1970s. I saw a figure that 90% of all people killed by disasters since the 1970s were victims of climate-related hazards.

As the world climate changes, climate-related extremes will become more prevalent and we will see more extreme events such as heat waves, cold waves, extreme floods, droughts, tropical cyclones and storms. These events will present huge challenges for governments and communities.

As Ms Wahlström said, we will only build resilience to disasters by working together as inhabitants of this planet. As our Minister of State at the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, Deputy Joe Costello, said recently in a speech in Brussels, we need to strengthen our resilience to disasters by linking relief, rehabilitation and development and we need to strengthen partnerships and work better together. We need to realise the most important stakeholders are the local people living in the environment at risk.

I read an extract from a speech Ms Wahlström delivered recently in which she spoke about communities and involving women who are at the coalface in terms of protecting their families and looking out for their environment. They need to be involved in the decision-making process as we plan to reduce risk throughout the world.

Ms Wahlström referred to the framework for action 2005-15, Building the Resilience of Nations and Communities to Disasters. That has served as a guiding document in strengthening and building international co-operation to ensure disaster risk is reduced as a foundation for sound national and international development policy. I was not really aware of that document until I did some research for today but it is very comprehensive and prioritises some very significant actions. It refers to the political commitment required at national and international levels and community participation, to which I referred. The speech Ms Wahlström made in Bangkok in October 2012 laid out a very significant marker. There is a need for early warning systems, which are people-centred, and for the use of the wonderful technology we have today to alert people in a timely fashion. The document refers to the need to educate people and to use knowledge and innovation to build a culture of safety. Public awareness is very much highlighted. There is little public awareness throughout the world of what is happening and of the plans and policies we need to put in place.

The life of that framework document will expire in two years' time. It will need to be reviewed and updated given that the world is changing so rapidly. Since that document was put in place there has been huge population growth, rapid urbanisation, huge industrial development, environmental challenges and climate change which are all increasing risk at an alarming rate. Governments and communities face huge challenges if they are to reverse the upward trend in disasters and to protect lives, jobs, homes and food and water supplies.

I read Ms Wahlström's speech on the value of water and what a scarce resource it is. Every government and local authority would do well to read that. We will only succeed if there is political commitment, strong leadership and involvement of all stakeholders in a bottom-up approach.

The world is fortunate to have Ms Wahlström at the forefront of the challenge of disaster risk reduction. I wish her continued success and hope she will come back for further dialogue when we may have more time to expand and expound on some of the very pressing issues.

12:00 pm

Photo of Jim WalshJim Walsh (Fianna Fail)
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Cuirim fáilte roimh Bean Uí Wahlström go dtí an Teach. I welcome Ms Wahlström who has a very good track record in this area given her 30 years of experience. I thank her for sharing her expertise and experience with us. I also compliment her on the fact she was appointed by the Secretary General of the UN in 2008 as the first special representative of the UN in this area of disaster risk.

Over many decades, this House has had debates on disasters, in particular in Africa in which Ms Wahlström has taken a keen interest, and on all sorts of humanitarian challenges which face the international community, in particular African countries. It is good we have moved from a situation where we tended to give food to get over the immediate crisis to one where more sustainable issues are addressed and where development going forward will be sustainable. Economic progress in Africa in recent years has been quite impressive. The old adage that if one gives a man a fish, one feeds him for one today but if one teaches him to fish, one feeds him for life is coming through.

I welcome the recent negotiations on the arms trade treaty at the UN. I hope many countries will subscribe to it because many conflicts and disasters are caused by indiscriminate and illegal arms trading, often done for selfish reasons by countries and inflicting much hardship and torment on very vulnerable and very poor people in many of these countries.

I was surprised to hear of the impact on GDP of the disaster in Christchurch, New Zealand. I visited New Zealand a few years ago with my wife and we spent some time in the beautiful city of Christchurch. It was horrendous to hear what happened but I was unaware that one disaster resulted in a 20% reduction in GDP across New Zealand. It really brings home the economic impact of these disasters. As Ms Wahlström rightly pointed out, increasingly these will have serious impacts on the global economy. I do not think Ms Wahlström mentioned it but the tsunami off the coast of Japan which led to the disaster at the Fukushima nuclear power plant certainly had reverberations across the global economic field not only in Japan but elsewhere. I am sure it will have a considerable national and regional affect for decades to come.

There is now an acknowledgement that efforts to reduce disaster risks must be systematically integrated into politics, plans and programmes for sustainable development and poverty reduction.

We have a saying that prevention is better than cure so I welcome the comments of my colleague, Senator Mullen, who emphasised the early warning mechanisms using modern technology for evacuation procedures etc.

Some three or four years ago, I did a course on crisis management and we looked at 9/11 in New York and the hurricane in the Mississippi. Part of the study brought us into individual areas like fires and aeroplane crashes. From all the case studies, it is extraordinary that people who had planned how to deal with such an eventuality stood a much better prospect of surviving disasters than those who had not planned. I subsequently paid close attention to the safety announcements at the start of the flight by air hostesses on a flight I was on. I must have been the only boy in class paying attention because, when she came around with the drinks afterwards, she gave me a free gin and tonic for having paid attention. Most people do not pay attention and, as a consequence, they do not react quickly enough. If one is prepared when a disaster happens, immediately one's mind kicks into action and one will take the planned decision. Without going through that, one's chances of survival are much less.

Ms Wahlström mentioned the Hyogo framework on disaster reduction, which has five main areas. Perhaps these can be specified in the reply. More than 2.7 billion people were affected and €1.3 billion people were lost through international disasters between 2000 and 2011. These are astronomical figures that I did not fully appreciate. Risk assessment is a critical part of this. A number of years ago, I saw a programme that received little amplification in the media or elsewhere. It was a Channel 4 documentary on the Canary Islands and the fact the islands' mountains lay on a fault line. The programme talked about the possibility of the fault line causing a landslide to the sea and how this would have disastrous consequences for Europe and wipe out almost all of the east coast of the United States. I have not seen anything about it since but I wonder if it figures in the UN assessment. Fail to prepare, prepare to fail.

12:10 pm

Photo of Lorraine HigginsLorraine Higgins (Labour)
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I welcome Ms Margareta Wahlström to discuss the challenges and opportunities for building risk resilience to disasters of nations and communities. It is a great opportunity to have someone held in such high esteem as Ms Margareta Wahlström to address the House. Every Member of Seanad Éireann is privileged to have her here to debate the issue. It is not often we have the opportunity to debate such an issue. I speak on behalf of all Members when I say that we welcome warmly this departure.

The increasing frequency and intensity of disasters is posing a major threat to the long-term development and economic progress of the poorest and most vulnerable people in developing countries. Large-scale emergencies have occurred every year over the past decade, from the Darfur conflict, which started in 2003, to the earthquakes in Haiti, Chile and China in 2010. In 2011, there was a food crisis in the Horn of Africa and in 2012 a major food security crisis in the Sahel region of Africa, where acute food shortages devastated the area. This was driven by chronic poverty, malnutrition, high food prices, drought and low agricultural production. It affected almost 18.7 million people across the region.

It is clear there is some degree of repetition and predictable crises require co-ordinated and predictable responses. Whether a natural disaster or a conflict situation, it is more cost-effective to prevent and prepare for a situation crisis than to wait for it to happen. It is estimated that every US$7 spent on responding to natural disaster could be offset by US$1 preparing for it through early warning. Likewise, US$1 spent on conflict resolution saves US$4 in humanitarian response. There is a significant saving and it makes sense to avoid such disasters or, at least, to have a risk management plan in place. In these situations, it is increasingly accepted that consistent investments in disaster risk reduction and humanitarian and development intervention will result in more resilient communities that are able to anticipate and recover from risk, shock and distress of this nature.

Many of the advances made throughout the development assistance have been eroded or lost due to the increasing frequency and recurring nature of the crises we have seen. There is some degree of repetition. It is predicted that the nature and intensity of natural hazards will continue to increase as climate change generates more severe weather related events. The world also faces new types of hazards, such as soaring fuel and food prices and the threat of pandemics and increasing conflict. Disaster damages infrastructure and affects productivity and growth. In 2011 alone, 302 disasters claimed 29,782 lives and affected 206 million people and inflicted damage worth a minimum of US$380 billion. The reality is that the poor and marginalised die in greater numbers and endure higher economic losses because of these disasters. Their food and nutrition security is more at risk because they eke out their livelihoods in the riskiest environments.

In situations of conflict, in drought prone areas, in swamps and flood prone riverbanks of congested urban settlements, scarce resources are diverted from development programmes to rehabilitation and reconstruction activities and escalating food import bills. At household level, a succession of crises deepen poverty and increase food insecurity and undernutrition. The effects of undernutrition can be devastating, as referred to earlier. Maternal and child undernutrition during the crucial 1,000 day period between pregnancy and a child's second birthday can have a permanent impact on the physical and cognitive development of children.

Disasters rarely just happen, they often result from failures of development, which increase vulnerability. As the number of predictable crises increase, the need for a plan for them as part of a development assistance becomes more critical. It is vitally important that reducing disaster risk is of central concern to our development, as well as our humanitarian work. It is most cost effective to prevent and prepare for a crisis rather than wait for it to happen.

Internationally, the 2005 Hyogo framework for action, to which Ireland is a signatory, provides the global blueprint for disaster risk reduction efforts. It called on states to work jointly on the issue of disaster risk reduction and a common approach is quite clearly more effective than separate national approaches. The United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction, of which Ms Margareta Wahlström is a member, serves as a focal point for the implementation of the framework for action. Ireland supports this and all that is done in this initiative. We have played our part in intensifying collective efforts to fulfil our obligations in promoting a more systematic approach to disaster risk reduction in disaster prone developing countries.

In putting flesh on the bones of the commitment, I understand Ireland has provided €900,000 to support the UN international strategy for disaster reduction 2012-13 biennium. I am over time and I appreciate the endurance of the Leas-Chathaoirleach. I appreciate and commend Ms Wahlström on all she has done in this important aspect of development and change. Disasters are shattering the lives of poor people throughout the globe. Without the guidance and foresight provided by Ms Wahlström, there may have been no attempt at prevention. It is something we must recognise and acknowledge. Ms Wahlström is a fantastic individual for all she has done in this regard. Through investing in the reduction of risks, we are putting in place a plan for before a disaster strikes. This pays huge dividends.

I strongly commend Ms Wahlström on all her efforts in this regard.

12:20 pm

Photo of Jillian van TurnhoutJillian van Turnhout (Independent)
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I join with my colleagues in warmly welcoming Ms Margareta Wahlström to the House. I also welcome Mr. Gay Mitchell, with whom we had an excellent exchange on development issues in the House earlier this year. The work of Ms Wahlström as the Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Disaster Risk Reduction and head of the UN Office for Disaster Risk Reduction, particularly with the International Federation of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, and her role as the Secretary-General's special response co-ordinator during the initial phase of the international reaction to the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami and her current role, which has brought her to the House today, as well as all of the work she has done in the past 30 years, show to us the expertise she has and the honour it is for us that she is addressing the House.

When we see the aftermath of events such as the 2004 tsunami, the Christchurch earthquake or, most recently, the Oklahoma tornado, we here in Ireland often feel quite insulated from the effects of such dangers because of our geographical position. However, reflecting on the work of the United Nations international strategy for disaster reduction, it is clear that in many ways this is a false sense of security which belies our ever-increasing levels of global interconnectedness, which, while bringing countless benefits, also increases our sensitivity to the effects of events originating far beyond our borders.

Several colleagues have raised the very important human consequences of such disasters. Specifically, I was struck by how a disaster can undermine long-term competitiveness and sustainability, not only at the epicentre of the disaster but also in those areas with which it shares economic ties. For example, in preparing for this contribution, I was very interested to read a report by Ms Wahlström's organisation entitled "Shared Risk to Shared Value: The Business Case for Disaster Risk Reduction", and I advise my colleagues that it is well worth a read. An example in the report cites how damage to one maker of microchips in Japan resulted in 150,000 fewer cars being manufactured in the United States. When one microchip manufacturer is damaged, that is the effect it has across the world. As another example, we saw in the wake of the floods in Thailand that global GDP fell by 3%. In an open economy such as ours, this is something with which we must be concerned or, as the report more succinctly states, we must be aware that disaster risk does not stop at the factory gate.

I am mindful that disasters disproportionately affect lower-income countries, communities and households, and those who benefit least from the wealth created owing to economic globalisation. I would be interested to hear Ms Wahlström's opinion on the social justice aspects of reduction programmes and, specifically, how business interests can be used as a vector and whether she believes increasing business sensitivity towards investing in risk-prepared nations will encourage governments to become more risk aware. What does Ms Wahlström believe we can do at a national level to maintain the stability of our supply chain, which is an issue we need to consider?

In looking ahead to 2015 and the renegotiation of a new risk reduction framework, what does Ms Wahlström feel will be the key elements in which we, as a Seanad and as an Irish nation, can play a role when supporting this awareness and ensuring the plan will be fit for purpose?

Photo of David CullinaneDavid Cullinane (Sinn Fein)
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I welcome the Special Representative to the House to discuss this important issue. We are fortunate in this country that we have not suffered any major natural disaster for a long number of years, although we sometimes take this for granted. When one looks at some of the disasters in Asia, such as that in Japan, in Haiti and most recently in Oklahoma, we find ourselves very fortunate, but many citizens across the globe are not so fortunate. We need to have strategies and policies that can enable us to beat nature and at least try to mitigate the worst excesses of nature when it strikes, which it unfortunately does.

We have seen huge advances in recent years in research and in the development of new technologies with regard to early warning systems. The Leader of the House, Senator Cummins, and I were in Waterford last Friday at a research and development agency, TSSG, at the ArcLabs Research and Innovation Centre, which is a co-location of research and development companies and agencies with private companies. Two of the companies located there are involved in developing new technologies, one of which is a virtual world which would link people who have real expertise in the geography of an area with, for example, emergency services. Again, this is using technology in a very creative but powerful way. If a natural disaster does happen, people who know exactly where a particular building is, what people might be in the building and the layout and design of the building, can link in very quickly with the emergency services. This technology can be used to save lives and help people. Similarly, a technology known as Water World has been developed jointly with Facebook with the aim of helping people who suffer from a lack of proper water provision. It is a software technology that allows people to pay, say, 50 cent a week to be linked directly into a network of people who are supporting a person on the ground in a country where there is a water shortage, providing relief and providing water. I was struck - and I know the Leader of the House was also - by the huge level of research and development in this area which is done in this country. I was blown away by the potential for that technology. On a related question, what relationship does Ms Wahlström have with research and development agencies and what work is being done to encourage more of such innovation in this area, which is important?

While some disasters are natural disasters, some are not natural. Global warming has obviously played a part also, and I would be interested to hear Ms Wahlström's view on this issue.

Photo of Denis O'DonovanDenis O'Donovan (Fianna Fail)
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Before we move to questions, I am sure the House will join me in welcoming Congressman Chaka Fattah and his family, from Philadelphia, to the Distinguished Visitors Gallery. One minute is allowed for questions. We will take four questions and Ms Wahlström may then respond. I call Senator Healy Eames.

Photo of Fidelma Healy EamesFidelma Healy Eames (Fine Gael)
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Ms Wahlström is very welcome to the House. I was attracted to the topic of her speech. Last summer I volunteered in Rwanda and, looking at Ms Wahlström's 30-year career, I see she was in situ during the genocide there. What struck me is that, while it is a small country the size of Munster, it has 11 million people and is very much at risk of drought. It is already a country that has been defined by genocide. Following up on what Senator Mullen said about the role of women, that country has really been rebuilt by widows and orphans, because the majority of the men were killed.

What is the UN doing in areas that are particularly vulnerable? Rwanda has already suffered a human disaster and, in my view, is at risk of a natural disaster. What does the UN do in such areas and what special measures does it have in place for people who have already suffered? In her summation, will Ms Wahlström comment on how communities rebuild after natural disasters such as hurricanes, knowing they may happen again? I often wonder about this as I do not have that experience myself.

What percentage of government finances, in Ms Wahlström's view, should be set aside in budgets to be ready for the cost of natural disasters? We are now suffering for the first time from climate change in the form of flooding. Senator Mullins referred to flooding in Cork and in Galway, where I saw it happen. We need to be ready for this.

As well as having the emergency planning in place, we also need to have the funds. I thank Ms Wahlström for her time.

12:30 pm

Photo of Paschal MooneyPaschal Mooney (Fianna Fail)
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I also welcome Ms Wahlström to the House. To put my question in context, I served on the Council of Europe until 2008 and my last report as rapporteur was on Europe's response to humanitarian disasters, on which I worked with Mr. Sergio Piazzi, now based in Malta and with whom I believe Ms Wahlström also worked. I am interested in an update on the situation from Ms Wahlström, given that the aforementioned report is now five years old. The report found that the problem facing Europe then, with regard to its role in developing an international co-ordination framework for humanitarian assistance, was political. It found that there was no political agreement between European states as to how humanitarian assistance and civil protection, respectively, should be effectively organised. The report states:


The separate and distinct mandates for funding aid (DG-ECHO) and intervention (DG-Environment) at European Union level are symptomatic of this lack of synchrony. As such, the current ambiguity surrounding the role of the Community Mechanism for Civil Protection is a further endorsement of this lack of political unity. If a united co-ordination platform is to be achieved, European states first need to decide which of their interested national ministries (whether foreign affairs, home affairs, justice or other) should play the central role in co-ordinating humanitarian aid ... European-OCHA relations have therefore reached a critical stage of their development. On the one hand, it is imperative that both parties ensure that the human values of humanitarian intervention ... remain the fundamental goal underlying any reform processes.
The report went on to say that "the key to success of European/UN shared humanitarian assistance responsibility relates to OCHA's ability to sensitise European states to the fact that its strengths do not lie in building separate systems with distinct and autonomously activated capacities, but rather by creating a united and participative system that allows all actors involved to bring their capacities to it in a co-ordinated and complementary manner." I invite Ms Wahlström to comment on these findings.

Photo of Susan O'KeeffeSusan O'Keeffe (Labour)
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We are known as the country of the thousand welcomes, so I would like to add mine to all of the others and welcome Ms Wahlström to this House. We are honoured to have her here today.

An issue that is dear to Ms Wahlström's heart and which she mentioned earlier is that the idea of disaster is not real for many countries. It is not real in the way the internet was not real 20 years ago, yet now we cannot live without it. We have not yet worked out how to make this real. Does Ms Wahlström have a view on how schools might be involved with this? Starting with the little ones is key. They already criticise their parents for smoking and so forth. How can we engage with them?

More particularly, Ms Wahlström mentioned the enormous investment by private companies. In that context, what is the balance between the effort she makes with regard to private companies as against politicians? How can politicians influence the private companies that make those investments? Very often, private companies will write into their bottom line the penalties they know they will pay for breaching rules on the abuse of water, air, land and so on. We have seen the evidence of that across the world. They know already that they will have to pay and they write off €5 million, €50 million or whatever is appropriate. How do we stop that? How do we change that culture? Without such a change, as Ms Wahlström pointed out, we will not make progress, because 80% of the world's investors are private companies and they are the biggest abusers of the countryside and the land.

Photo of Colm BurkeColm Burke (Fine Gael)
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I welcome Ms Wahlström and thank her for the very valuable contribution she has made to date and which she will, doubtless, continue to make. My question relates to high-risk areas in particular. I was in Chad and the Sudanese border area in 2008. At that time there were over 500,000 people in refugee camps. In terms of bringing in food, the choice was to bring it through Libya to the north, Cameroon to the west or Sudan to the east. Some of the camps were 2,500 km away from the nearest port. At the time of my visit in March 2008, an estimated 53,000 tonnes of food had to be moved in between then and the start of June. Has the UN identified particular areas where access is a problem? Are plans in place to deal with areas where access is very restricted and where response times could be far longer than appropriate? Have areas like that around the world been identified as part of the UN's risk management plan?

Photo of Ivana BacikIvana Bacik (Independent)
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I too welcome Ms Wahlström to the House. I was fascinated by her presentation and was struck, in particular, by the point she made that disasters are not just happening in poor countries but are also very much a feature in wealthier countries too. In that context, she made reference to the US, New Zealand and Japan. How does that change the nature of Ms Wahlström's role and of UN intervention? Are wealthier countries less likely to seek assistance from the UN? In particular, in countries within the European Union, for example, does the EU take over the role of the UN? How does the UN engage with the EU in the context of a disaster within the EU itself? Ms Wahlström spoke about a parliamentary advisory group but is there a formal liaison between the EU and the UN in the context of disasters in EU countries?

Ms Margareta Wahlström:

I thank the Senators for their interesting and significant questions. Indeed, I may have to take up the invitation to come back again another time. I will start with the last question, which is significant not only for risk management but also in terms of understanding how the UN works with countries. I did not mention earlier that my office is staffed by 100 people worldwide. Some people believe that we are punching above our weight, given the number of staff we have. In terms of the way we operate, we are leveraged by the richer countries, which do not need our money but do need co-operative engagement with us. They need to share experiences and expertise with us. Countries exercise a lot more peer pressure on each other than any UN official can even inspire them to think about.

What we see in the International Strategy for Disaster Reduction, or the ISDR system, as we call it, is a forum in which countries freely talk about issues that in other political settings would have a different spin. A very senior Indian official said that the reason he liked this forum was that he got a lot of ideas and talked to a lot of people and there was no agenda, which he found unusual. I can this is developing very rapidly. In fact, there are some enthusiastic people who see this as the future for global collaboration among countries. South-south co-operation is developing rapidly because it is no longer a question of the rich north and the poor south. We are in a very different phase globally.

The European Commission and the European Union are not filling the UN space but they do understand how the UN can be useful to the EU. They have engaged strongly in formulating the Hyogo Framework for Action II, known as HFA II, the post-2015 framework, and putting it high on their agenda. They are very active in this. This follows on from the rather painful period some years ago when the European entities did not work together. We had a very tense situation between the civil protection entities and the so-called humanitarian work. I happened to be working in a different post at that time but I can assure this House that there has been a complete transformation since then. The Europeans now work together in crisis response. There is one crisis response. The Monitoring and Information Centre, MIC, has become a very effective instrument and there is a joined-up approach with the rest of the world, including the UN agencies, to disaster response.

In the European Commission, for internal reasons or because it was originally a very strongly humanitarian issue, the Director-General for Humanitarian Aid and Civil Protection has the lead role in driving the European Commission post-2015 agenda, and she is doing that in an inclusive way. When she came to our global platform meeting last week, she had consulted seven different DGs in order to represent the Commission's perspective on resilience and disaster risk. I must commend the Commission because, in many ways, it is a little ahead of the UN in this strong internal mainstreaming work. The UN has also been doing this but we have not globalised it as strongly as the Commission. It has covered the environment, health, climate, finance and humanitarian and development agenda. The Irish Presidency has been strongly driving the resilience approach and that is becoming a well-packaged external framework for all of this thinking. I am pleased as a participant, a beneficiary and an observer, and I am quite impressed by how Europe is coming together on this.

I was asked whether the UN had identified areas that are particularly challenged in terms of access as part of a risk management approach. It has from the perspective of peace and security, political affairs and humanitarian assistance and it is very much linked to how the UN operates in different countries. Access is not always related to political issues but to a genuine conflict issue and getting in the way of open conflict. The UN has tried to develop a much more practical approach to its own security management, but that is only part of the parcel. The largest security management element is the people we are trying to assist and how they are affected by the presence of international organisations. It is not always positive. In countries of which I have much more experience, such as Afghanistan, it has a negative image today but I have just been there to try to engage more strongly in disaster risk reduction and building national institutions. When one is there, one can see that some of the security and safety issues are related to the international presence but they are not all identical necessarily to the national risks. The complexities lead not to global statements about access but more localised understanding of access and they are very much related to specific operations.

There is a great deal of locally fuelled conflict in South Sudan. I am not an expert on the country but I follow it closely because we all want South Sudan to succeed. I was pleased to see the country participate in our global meeting last week, which means its officials also have their eye on the future. This is a positive message.

Senator O'Keeffe had a question about schools and education and also mentioned public awareness. I often ask, in discussion with both governments and the business sector, if there was only one thing we could do much more of, what would it be? They all say public awareness and education, which needs to be much more systematic. Ever since we started work, we have said disaster risk should be integrated into school curricula, starting at primary level, in the context of how to protect one's self against accidents and learning basic safety procedures. It should not be dropped there. We have all seen pictures of children hiding under school benches to protect their heads against earthquakes, which works. Japan discovered painfully following the tsunami in 2011 that young people also have to be educated to take their own decisions and to use their judgment, because there were tragic examples of children, doing exactly what they had been told, waiting for an instruction to leave, and none of them survived. Japan is rethinking its education approach and considering how to give people the self-confidence that militarists call "situational awareness". One Senator mentioned the ability to respond to a crisis situation. Situational awareness is needed. One can plan and prepare but no event is similar to the previous one, and therefore one needs to develop one's basic instincts and reactions.

Secondary and higher education are critical. One of the enormous gaps that exists today is that it is still, surprisingly, unique at university level that the main curricula do not include risk. Not even engineers include it. If they think of risk, it is not the type of risk we see. Risk management is gradually making its way into agriculture, engineering, water management, psychology, education and law programmes. When I raise this and tell my colleagues in academia and university that we have to be much more serious about this, they say it is very difficult. I acknowledge it is difficult but they say there is no jobs market for this. There is, and it is developing rapidly. It is one of the big areas in which we do not have enough expertise. There is high demand for expertise in managing risks in all kinds of technical area. Strong academic networks around the world are trying to promote this but they are not yet there.

The other aspect of education is that if we include education about disasters in our country's geography, history, philosophy and religion curricula, we learn to live with our disasters. We learn from them in an active manner. It is integrated in our thinking and we get to know our country a little better. It is also easier to talk about things that in some places are seen to be rather traumatic events. I still meet many senior officials who say they do not want to talk to their people about disasters because they may panic. My humble answer, I hope, is that they will panic much more if they are not told, because with social media today, people have all kinds of information. If the authorities do not tell them anything, people will start second-guessing. The authorities do not have the right of interpretation any more unless they use it proactively, and this creates, in many instances, a serious confidence gap between people and their national authorities. Governments are more important than ever before because we want to have authority and we need an authoritative, credible voice, but if that is absent, social media are not a good substitute. They are good for many things but not to issue an authoritative opinion on the risk of an earthquake, for example.

I was asked about the role of private business and politicians. I will share my observation, which has been confirmed by many of those involved. Automatically, when one comes to the point of what to do, businesses say they do not need more regulation, while governments tend to see their role as regulators as the primary one. The missing link is the honest conversation between business and the public sector, which can create that common space where each can take their responsibility for resilience - businesses because they need to make money and governments because they need safety.

I have watched many of these interactions. They are polite but never go to the core of the issue. What we see, and what political leaders may also see, is that the work we are doing is really about creating the common space. In the United Nations, all we can do is develop the conversation with each party progressively so that practical action can be taken. Of course, it is a case of some regulations but, very often, areas are over-regulated, thereby creating more risks. There is no obvious blueprint. One must really detect what the core issues are.

When one notes how many companies are involved in the World Economic Forum's work on resilience and the surveys carried out on chief executive officers' main worries every year, one realises these are critical issues on the agenda. In some years, it may be a question of global governance or financial risk and, in others, it may be a question of disaster risk, and climatic risk for sure. There is interest but the challenge concerns how to move out of the preconditioned roles. This is an important area for political leaders in all countries.

A question was asked on how communities rebuild after disasters. Normally, it occurs very painfully. Since there is so much public attention paid to a disaster - even if it is a localised disaster, help very often comes from other parts of society - the most difficult period is the reconstruction period. It is costly and takes time and really wears people down. It diminishes people's patience, exacerbates the economic impact and suffering, creates psychological and family problems, and can result in alcoholism and unemployment. These are all the negative factors. Some say reconstruction also fuels economic growth. This occurs sometimes but the effect is very much temporary, as all the research shows. This is the main area in which countries can still learn a lot from each other.

I was asked about the budget for disaster relief. Over the past three years, some of the richest countries and some of the not-so-rich ones have been saying governments can no longer cope and that all of society must take responsibility. That is because reconstruction costs are so great and because of shrinking governments. Hence, the need for an all-of-society approach. In many countries, it is a question of paying for the disaster event itself. Who pays? Many governments feel they are already paying too much and they are putting a ceiling on the budget, particularly in Europe. Businesses never talk about how much they pay because it is a competition issue. Communities and citizens have no idea what is paid because somehow they do not attach dollar value to their losses. In some countries, insurance companies compensate and, in others, the government will give compensation. In the overwhelming majority of cases, however, this does not happen. The next realisation period will be when citizens discover this is a bit too much. The various strands need to be budgeted and planned for separately because there are different types of processes involved.

Local government can handle a lot but cannot succeed alone. Financial resources will be scarce. The insurance industry can do a lot more but it has also taken a beating by virtue of increasing losses. The insurance industry is one that needs to develop a different kind of conversation with the public sector because there is a mutual effort to try to transfer the risk. Governments are trying to transfer it to the private sector while the latter is trying to transfer it to governments. This is not a very productive path forward. We are trying to encourage the insurance industry to deal with this.

Rwanda is a very interesting example. As stated, it has been very much rebuilt by widows, by women. Rwanda, amazingly, is something of a gold-star country in our work, so much so that it is definitely advising other countries on how to build resilience in respect of women's initiatives and how to revitalise community action as a way forward. Much has been done on climatic and economic structural vulnerabilities. The country is densely populated. For sure, all the historical problems have not been settled. If there is a political slippage in Rwanda with a consequent economic impact, there will be a risk that all the traditional conflicts over resources and challenges will recur. Today, we are impressed with the work Rwanda is doing and how its authorities have managed to hold the country together according to strong priorities. I am conscious of the role Rwanda plays in east Africa and elsewhere. We must support Rwanda through keeping an eye on the risk factors that could destabilise the country. It is not at all certain that Rwanda will have the same leadership in the future as it has now. That is an obvious point.

Reference was made to technology. There may be business opportunities associated with ignoring the factors I describe, taking shortcuts and being disruptive, but there are also considerable business opportunities associated with resilience development, as there are in developing energy technology, better housing and land-use planning technologies. That is one area that the United Nations, European Union and many other organisations recognise as growing.

Another factor concerns communities. I refer to self-organising communities in respect of which social media will change the landscape. There is no doubt about it. We hope that the new level of social mobilisation will empower local governments and communities to attract much more respect for the work they already do and to be entrusted to do much more work on resilience building. This would surely stimulate the engagement of the science and technology sectors such that knowledge can be used much more practically to assist at local level.

A question was asked on social justice and business opportunities. Developing the thinking of businesses in terms of their being members of a community concerns justice issues. It is a question of employees' income and good business reputation. Some businesses are working very well in this regard. We hope they will have an influence over others so their example will spread. This message will be strong in the post-2015 era because community groups themselves are now so strongly present. They talk to companies. They talk directly to those that can do better.

I wish to comment on risk assessment. It is a very basic start. Although many countries and local governments invest in risk assessment, too many risk assessment reports sit on a bookshelf and are not transformed into practical action.

My final point is on floating responsibility for managing risk. Sometimes it lies with the civil defence, at other times with the Prime Minister's office, and at other times with the office of the Minister responsible for the environment. The big leap forward that we must achieve between now and 2015 involves moving from having one model of governance to having an understanding that governance associated with managing risk is different from managing the response to disasters.

It needs to sit in a very central place in a government or an organisation and needs to be clearly defined. The practices are set. We have tried to put them together and show why this is a critical part of moving forward the knowledge agenda.

1:00 pm

Photo of Denis O'DonovanDenis O'Donovan (Fianna Fail)
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I ask the Leader to propose a vote of thanks to Ms Wahlström.

Photo of Maurice CumminsMaurice Cummins (Fine Gael)
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I thank her most sincerely for addressing the Seanad. We have had a very interesting exchange of views and are very glad to see a person so totally in charge of her brief and capable in such a position. We express our confidence in her. We wish her well for the future and thank her for bringing the lovely weather with her.

Ms Margareta Wahlström:

It was a bonus. I will leave a book with the Leader. It is entitled, From Shared Risk to Shared Value: The Business Case for Disaster Risk Reduction, to which he made reference.

Sitting suspended at 1.15 p.m. and resumed at 2.30 p.m.