Water and disasters
Questions to Dr. Han Seung-soo. He is the Special Envoy of the Secretary-General of the United Nations for Disaster Risk Reduction and Water, Chair of the UN High-Level Experts and Leaders Panel on Water and Disasters (HELP), Special Adviser of the UN High-Level Panel on Water (HLPW)
Dr. Han, how do you personally rate the importance of water-related risks in today’s world?
During the past decade, water-related disasters have not only struck more frequently but have also been more severe, hampering sustainable development by causing political, social, and economic upheaval in many countries. Altogether, water-related disasters, such as floods, droughts, storm surges, cyclones, convective storms and tsunamis, account for 90% of all disasters in terms of the number of people affected. In the year 2017 alone, devastating water-related disasters occurred on nearly every continent. At the same time, drought conditions persist in many parts of the world, including the Horn of Africa. These disasters cause tragic loss of lives and livelihoods, great damage to livestock, and destruction of properties and critical infrastructure.
Damage attributed to a single disaster can sometimes mount up to 15–20% of annual GDP for certain countries. These figures could be even higher if we account for indirect impacts. Moreover, climate change is exacerbating the extremes in hydro-meteorological events. Together with other global drivers under change – population growth, rapid urbanisation, increased asset values – this may result in increased frequencies and even greater impacts of water-related disasters.
The issue of water-related disasters is one of the most important that the international society must address urgently. I would like to stress that these disasters are an underlying issue for most of the Sustainable Development Goals, the SDGs. We need to focus on water-related disaster risk reduction and implement the ambitious goals and targets as agreed in the Sendai Framework, the Paris Agreement and the SDGs to prevent recurrence of tragedies and ensure progress towards the achievement of sustainable development for all.
What was the UN Secretary-General’s intention in establishing HELP and HLPW?
HELP was established to assist the international community, governments and stakeholders in mobilising political will and resources, ensuring coordination and collaboration, and implementing effective measures needed to tackle the issues of water and disasters. Since its formation in 2007, the panel has developed an action strategy and is working to contribute towards the achievement of the SDGs, mainly through tackling the issues of water and disasters. Munich Re has been involved in the activities of HELP since its establishment, and I appreciate Munich Re’s input and contributions.
The HLPW was co-convened by UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and the President of the World Bank in 2016 with the goal to provide the leadership required to achieve inclusive and collaborative ways of developing and managing water resources and improving water and sanitation-related services. The panel consists of 11 sitting heads of state and government, and one special adviser. The outcome of HLPW’s two-year work is a set of documents which includes recommendations to the international community on how to proceed in dealing with pressing water-related issues during the upcoming UN Decade of Action “Water for Sustainable Development”.
Thanks to their financial means, highly developed countries can afford to protect themselves. What should poor countries do?
While water-related disasters affect all nations regardless of their development stage, it is the poorest nations and communities that bear the greatest burden. On average, three times as many people die in disasters in low-income countries compared with high-income nations. A vulnerable community hit by a water-related disaster can lose years of development gains in an instant, and require decades to rebuild.
I would like to stress that prevention and resilience efforts pay off, even in developing countries. Investment in water-related disaster risk reduction with a focus on prevention and preparedness, while also ensuring effective emergency response and reconstruction and rehabilitation, is crucial for achieving sustainable development. The countries most affected by disasters are usually the ones least capable of dealing with them. However, the overall benefits of investing in preventive measures will heavily outweigh the initial investment. Early investment in risk reduction will be essential. Investing in prevention needs to be a part of a longterm strategy with continued political support in order to be effective.
Furthermore, by providing the legal and administrative systems necessary for effective risk reduction, as well as incorporating disaster resilience into various infrastructure projects, the developing countries can greatly reduce their losses while keeping the costs relatively low.
When devising policies or investing in disaster-risk-reduction projects, the developing countries now have a vast database of knowledge available to them gained from the decades of experience in other parts of the world. Through international cooperation and exchange of knowledge, each country can choose to implement measures proven to be the most effective, and the ones most suitable to the country’s specific needs.
Additionally, I believe that when providing aid, the developed countries need to focus more on disaster prevention and preparedness, as most of the official development assistance related to disasters is currently aimed at emergency response and rehabilitation.
In relation to the above, HELP is currently promoting the development of “Principles on Financing and Investment for Water-Related Disaster Risk Reduction”, with the aim of providing guidelines for effective investment in DRR to both developing and developed countries. I believe it will prove to be beneficial.
How important is insurance in this context?
Although investing in water-related disaster risk reduction is critical, unexpected disasters could occur at any place or any time. Such disasters could cause tremendous impacts on people’s lives and livelihoods. Flood insurance is effective and plays an important role in the speedy rebuilding of daily lives after a disaster.
However, we should note that insur-ance does not physically reduce the risk of disaster or reduce losses and damage. It is important to utilise insurance in combination with the disaster-risk-reduction measures.
What can be done to increase insurance take-up in less developed regions?
In low-income countries, the percent-age of insured losses from natural disasters is almost negligible, whereas that of high-income countries is about 25%. I think increasing insurance take-up in less developed regions is an important challenge.
One of the solutions is introducing weather-related microinsurance. Microinsurance provides low-income households, farmers and businesses with access to post-disaster liquidity, thus securing their livelihoods and providing funds for reconstruction. Since insured households and farms are more creditworthy, microinsurance can also promote investments in productive assets and higher-risk and/or higher-yield crops and can encourage investments in disaster prevention if effectively designed.
It is also important to remove some difficulties which prevent developing countries from adopting natural disaster insurance. One issue is the technical difficulties of calculating the probabilities of disaster occurrence in countries, which is necessary for reflecting risks in the premiums. Governments in developing countries are rarely equipped with such information. To help governments in these countries acquire insurance systems that assist their disaster-affected people in rebuilding their lives quickly, international communities can offer the technical expertise necessary to define and negotiate the parameters that underpin insurance policies.
You mentioned that the UN Decade of Water for Sustainable Development begins in March 2018. What do you expect to achieve by 2028?
The new Decade will address water-related issues ranging from water supply and sanitation to water-resources management and water-related disaster risk reduction. With more global interest in risk reduction, HELP welcomes the Decade and wishes to contribute to effective utilisation of the Decade to assist in achieving the targets set in the SDGs, the Paris Agreement and the Sendai Framework.
HELP aims to promote and achieve the following with respect to water-related risk reduction:
- Raise awareness of the issue of “water and disasters” at the highest levels by biennially organising the UN Special Thematic Session on Water and Disasters.
- Compile good practices, policies and lessons learned, and publish them as flagship documents on a regular basis.
- Develop, launch and promote the already mentioned “Principles on Financing and Investment“ and promote their incorporation in national policies and practices.
− Increase financing and investment, including the use of international funds aimed at climate change mitigation and adaptation, and facilitate the improvement of budget implementation.
− Establish a water-related disaster loss database and set up a quick reporting system on preliminary loss data, including direct and indirect losses, for megadisasters.
− Promote research and development focused on disaster risk reduction, and encourage application of innovative technologies in the field. Facilitate collaboration among research
institutions and form alliances.
− Encourage the international community to collect consistent and continuous data on water-related disasters that will assist the development of indicators, and enable governments to set priorities, engage citizens in an inclusive way, and measure progress.
Questions by Wolfgang Kron, Head of Research: Hydrological Hazards, Munich Re, and Adviser to HELP