20 Jan 2005
Ben Wisner, a hazards specialist at the London School of Economics, spoke to AlertNet on the third day of the World Conference on Disaster Reduction in Kobe, Japan.
AN: Nearly a month after the Indian Ocean tsunami, plans are afoot for the creation of a global early warning system to protect people from all sorts of disasters. What are the challenges in doing this?
BW: They’re calling it a people-centred early warning system. The challenge is to give content to that phrase. It raises all sorts of issues – for instance, who actually gets the message to evacuate at the grassroots?
Big root causes of vulnerability are involved. Economic globalisation, for instance.
Many of the people who were killed by the tsunami were there on the coast in exposed locations because they’re failed farmers.
Why are they failed farmers? Because they cannot compete with Europe, North America and Japan, which give their farmers hundreds of millions of dollars of subsidies every year.
So we have to ask ourselves: Why are people living in exposed places in the first place? Why are people vulnerable? Can they respond to early warnings? Are the early warnings actionable in that sense?
About 68,000 illegal Burmese workers were affected by the tsunami in Thailand.
If you’re an illegal immigrant, you don’t trust the authorities. You try to stay away from the authorities, and you may not get the message.
You may speak a foreign language. And even if you do speak a foreign language, you may not be able to do anything about it.
These early warning systems are very complex, and 90 percent of the problem in implementing an early warning system has to do with governance at the local, municipal level and downwards — how you actually communicate to people, and whether or not people can do anything about a warning.
Is there a danger that all the attention on early warning after the tsunami could distract from other issues — ongoing disasters in Africa, for example?
Africa is always last on people’s agenda. They basically get the crumbs, and when something big happens in the rest of the world, whether it’s the war in Iraq or the Asian tsunami, or for that matter the landing of Huygens on Titan, the moon of Saturn, Africa goes right off the front pages – or the back pages.
During the period of the tsunami, we’ve not heard about the recovery in Sierra Leone, we’ve not heard much about Darfur in western Sudan, and Burundi has just dropped out of the news.
As governments wrangle with the wording of an outcome document from the Kobe disasters conference, the United States appears to be digging its heels in on the issue of including references to climate change. What do you make of that?
It’s childish. It’s infantile to say if you don’t name it doesn’t exist. You cannot look at disaster risk reduction in the world today without looking at climate change.
It’s not just to do with storms. It’s to do also with sea level rise.
But it’s not only to do with those things. It’s to do with changes in the habitat of insects that vector disease, for instance, because you have all these knock-on effects when there is a disaster.
When there is a flood, you quite often get epidemics of malaria afterwards, or you get epidemics of other kinds of water-borne, insect-vector diseases.
And all of these things are also tied up with climate change. There’s so much that’s tied up with climate change.
Livelihoods in Tanzania are very profoundly affected by climate change because if you look at the time budget of a rural woman in terms of her water acquisition, acquiring wood fuel, subsistence agriculture, and, say, health-caring in the home — four things that Tanzanian women do.
As climate has been changing, the labour demand on women in these four areas has been increasing considerably.
At a certain point, as strong as African women are, they just can’t do it all. They can’t square the circle.
So as these livelihoods become more stresses, there is less resilience to all sorts of things – not just to the increasingly severe coastal storms or whatever.
There are linkages between climate change and gender, climate change and poverty, which affect the whole panoply of vulnerabilities.
If you could write the outcome document yourself, what would you have there?
In broad terms, what I’d really like to see are three sets of things. First of all, targets, indicators, timelines, accountability in terms of monitoring and evaluation of progress. That whole set of things.
The second would be language about resources — setting up a fund like the Fund for HIV/AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria that would be used as a first priority in the least developed, indebted countries that are most vulnerable to disasters.
You can compile a list — in fact, the United Nations Development Programme has developed a list — to use this fund to actually mitigate, to put in place prevention in this first priority group.
The third thing I’d like to see is language that would acknowledge the Millennium Development Goals and build upon everything that’s happened since the year 2000 — the Millennium Development Goals, the 2002 Johannesburg meeting on the environment.
This document here should be taking the Millennium Development Goals, reaffirming them and translating them into disaster risk reduction terms.
In other words, if you have a goal to provide water and sanitation to half the people who don’t have it by the year 2015, you can do that in a way that actually mobilises communities to, say, map for flood hazards.
If a community is going out and providing an improved water supply with resources from the outside, it ipso facto will become better acquainted with its watershed.
You can build risk reduction right into that. And if you can go through every one of the Millennium Development Goals, you can find that there are certain modes of implementation of those targets that almost automatically bring you disaster risk reduction.