Session 13

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Featured Event: Natural Hazards, UnNatural Disasters − Economics of Effective Prevention

UNISDR - Plenary 2, 11 May 2011, Photo: Fernando Garvizu
UNISDR - Plenary 2, 11 May 2011, Photo: Fernando Garvizu

Session Information

Date and Time: Wednesday, 11 May 2011, 13:15 - 14:45

Chair/Moderator/Faciliator: Mr. Jordan Ryan, Assistant Administrator, United Nations Development Programme (CHAIR) Mr. Matthias Frei, Correspondent and Presenter, BBC America (MODERATOR)

Reporters: Marine Bourgeois (Summary), Katalin Timar (Key Words),

Editor: Diego Beamonte, Poppy Willard,


  • Dr. Apurva Sanghi, Senior Economist and Team Leader, World Bank
  • Mr. Dato Seri Mohamed Aziz, Minister in the Prime Minister’s Department, Malaysia
  • Ms. María del Pilar Cornejo, Minister, National Secretariat for Risk Management, Ecuador
  • Mr. Kenichi Suganuma, Ambassador, Permanent Mission of Japan to the United Nations in Geneva
  • Ms. Vanessa Rosales Ardón, President, National Commission for Risk Prevention and Emergency Response, Costa Rica


Could all disasters be prevented? Do disasters increase or decrease conflict? Does foreign aid help or hinder prevention? The answers are not what you might think. The report entitled Natural Hazards, UnNatural Disasters: Economics of Effective Prevention asks the tough questions, and some unexpected ones. Earthquakes, droughts, floods, and storms are natural hazards, but unnatural disasters are the deaths and damages resulting from human acts of omission. Every disaster is unique, but each one exposes actions that, had they been different, would have resulted in fewer deaths and less damage. The report argues that prevention is possible, and examines how to do this cost-effectively. Cautious, but not alarmist, the report peers into the future and finds that growing cities and a changing climate will shape the disaster prevention landscape.


This panel brought together a number of disaster risk experts, centered around Mr. Apurva Sanghi's report, “Natural Hazards, UnNatural Disasters”, a joint World Bank/UN project. The Chairman for this roundtable, BBC America news anchor Matt Frei, started by pointing out that Mr. Sanghi's report was endorsed not by one Nobel prize winner – which is already quite an achievement – but by six.

Mr. Sanghi immediately jumped down from the podium to be closer to the audience. He presented the main findings of his report, a publication aimed at convincing finance ministers to invest in disaster risk prevention. The two and a half year research linked the environment and the loss of human lives, starting with a convincing comparison of deaths in Haiti and the Dominican Republic. In 2004, hurricane Jeanne took 3,000 lives in Haiti, a country where forests have been cut down, thus increasing risks of landslides and floods; whereas only 12 people died in the Dominican Republic, where the forests are covetously protected.

Floods, earthquakes and other similar disasters are natural hazards, but excessive deaths should not be tolerated. Through adequate forward planning, many can be avoided. He pointed out that from an economic standpoint, it is cheaper to invest in preventing these unnatural disasters than to recover from their effects. However, most modern governments place more emphasis on the three R’s (Relief, Recovery and Reconstruction) instead of accentuating the two P’s (Prevention and Preparedness).

For a sound approach to preparedness, governments need to provide their population with Information (such as early warning), monetary Incentives (securing property titles) and safe Infrastructure (running water, painted bridges, among others). In order to bind the three Is together, Mr. Sanghi believes in strong institutions, not restricted to the governmental level, but also from a strong civil society.

Other points covered included three Cs: growing Cities, Climate change and Catastrophe.

Mr. Frei led a lively discussion amongst panelists: Ms. Vanessa Rosales Ardón, President of the National Commission for Risk Prevention and Emergency Response of Costa Rica; Mr. Dato Seri Mohamed Nazri Bin Abdul Aziz, Minister in the Prime Minister's Department of Malaysia; Ms. María del Pilar Cornejo, Minister of the National Secretariat for Risk Management of Ecuador; Mr. Michel Jarraud, Secretary-General for the World Meteorological Organization (WMO); Mr. Kenichi Suganuma, Ambassador of Japan to the United Nations in Geneva; and Mr. Jack Ryan of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP).

Ms. Vanessa Rosales Ardón deplored the lack of a social perspective in the report, but believed it to be “very useful for decision makers”. However, she noted, most financial decisions are political, and she stressed the need for decisions to be made on the medium to long term.

Mr. Suganuma noted that, as the report says, preparedness pays. Japan, was hit by a triple-disaster two months ago, but 90 percent of the casualties came from the tsunami. On the Japanese side, reviews are being conducted to improve preparedness to tsunamis. (Editor’s note: nothing about the nuclear disaster and the lack of preparedness???)

Mr. Michel Jarraud commented on the lack of a scientific or economic approach in the report, and pointed out that weather is a truly aggravating phenomenon in the aftermath of a disaster. However, Ms. María del Pilar Cornejo chose to discuss a human problem; even if countries possess early-warning systems, people are usually unwilling to move out of their homes.

Mr. Ryan spoke of a state of accountability, and the need for a bottom-up approach to disaster risk reduction to convince donors when the international community is doubtful of governments.

A member of the audience representing Botswana followed up on Ms. Rosales Ardón's argument, pointing out that politicians in democratic countries might be tempted to take a popular stand, resulting in policies that are not viable on the long-term. Ms. Cornejo immediately interjected that when it comes to human lives, one should not worry about popularity.

Mr. Sanghi concluded the discussion by challenging Mr. Frei, as a member of the media, to take prevention more seriously. Although optimistic, he had to admit that disaster prevention articles appear in the news, but do not make the headlines. He summarized the report in a single sentence, “disaster risk prevention matters and pays off if done right”. Nonetheless, the roundtable showed that donors have yet to get involved before disasters occur.

Use of Key Words

Adaptation: Mr. Sanghi said that adaptation and DRR will become increasingly necessary for countries if we are to live in a world with climate change.

Climate Change: Mr. Sanghi noted that in growing cities the number of people exposed to storms and earthquakes will rise. Populations exposed to tropical cyclones will double by 2050, from 310 million to 610 million. The number of people affected by earthquakes is expected to rise from 370 million to 870 million. But this is not necessarily bad news, if cities are well managed, greater exposure need not increase vulnerability. He also foresaw that climate change will increase hazards and damages, and that storms will be more frequent. Damages will vary by location; the US, China and Japan will be hit by 90 percent of global disasters. Mr. Jarraud drew attention to the fact that weather is becoming increasingly unpredictable, and that the rise in sea levels will worsen the situation for many countries.

Disasters: Mr. Sanghi emphasized that hazards are natural. Disasters are not. Preventing death and disasters from natural hazard is essential, and strong and credible institutions are essential. The importance of transparent and accountable, trusted institutions and governments was a reoccurring theme raised by Mr. Ryan and by participants throughout the discussion. Mr. Sanghi also established that development helps to prevent disasters.

Environmental degradation: Mr. Sanghi started his presentation with a powerful image from the border of Haiti and the Dominican Republic, illustrating the deforestation in Haiti, which led to a huge difference between the effect of storms and mudslides within the two countries. Haiti has suffered significantly higher damage and casualties from natural disasters than its neighbor because the soil is not well grounded, due to the lack of trees.

Early warning systems: Early-warnings, even if given a few minutes early, can save lives. They are especially effective for hazards with long lasting damage such as floods or storms, said Mr. Sanghi. Ms. Maria del Pilar Cornejo praised the importance of early warning systems in Ecuador, but noted some problems with their use (e.g.: people are unwilling to leave dangerous zones).

Preparedness: Mr. Sanghi said that often, it is easier to find donors for Relief, Recovery, and Reconstruction than for Prevention and Preparedness.

Prevention: One of the key messages of Mr. Sanghi’s report is that “disaster risk prevention matters and pays off if done right”. This was embraced by Mr. Suganuma, who pointed out the importance of “soft power”; practice drills and “a culture of preparedness” combined with the physical means. Mr. Sanghi identified the major elements of prevention as information, incentives, infrastructure and the institutions that bind all these three together. The latter may include markets, networks, and communities, among others. Mr. Jarraud criticized the report for not demonstrating the benefit of investing in prevention with scientific proofs of sufficient depth.


  • Adaptation
  • Climate Change
  • Disaster / Disaster risk management / Disaster risk reduction plan
  • Early warning system
  • Emergency management
  • Environmental degradation
  • Extensive risk
  • Forecast
  • Hydro meteorological hazard
  • Land-use planning
  • Natural hazard
  • Preparedness
  • Prevention
  • Public awareness
  • Vulnerability

See the full list of main key words

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