‘The Asia-Pacific is the World’s Most Disaster-Prone Region’, Secretary-General tells Ministerial Conference, urging Greater Investment in Risk Reduction. This was the text of UN Secretary-General António Guterres’ video message to the Asian Ministerial Conference on Disaster Risk Reduction, held in Ulaanbaatar, 3-6 July 2018.
To comprehend the expanse of the Pacific region turn a globe to the Pacific Ocean, it covers half the planet with Pacific Island Countries scattered across this seemingly unbroken expanse. Immense distances separate these isolated countries, many are extensive archipelagos which include some of the smallest populations and most dispersed communities in the world, all exposed to the uncontrolled forces of the many and frequent natural hazards that impact the region.
The World Risk Report 2018 lists seven countries within the region amongst the top fifteen most vulnerable countries in the world to disaster. But events in these Pacific Island Countries rarely make global headlines; these are drawn towards disasters in more populous areas where large loss of life may occur, where mass evacuations are undertaken or even where iconic landmarks are lost and in locations readily captured by social media to meet the tight deadlines and dramatic headlines for which the major news outlets compete 24/7. They also ignore the cumulative effects of smaller but regular, low impact events to which Pacific Island Countries are constantly exposed and which over time result in social, environmental and economic challenges equal to any large dramatic occurrence.
The following list highlights just some of the common challenges shared by Pacific Island countries:
- Vast distances between communities with sea travel the only option between thousands of islands and atolls
- Dispersed populations:
- One of the smallest nations Tuvalu, comprises of nine islands, three reef islands and six true atolls with a combined land mass of 26 square kilometres and a population of 11,192 (2017) but sits within territorial waters encompassing 1,300,000 sq. kms of the Pacific
- Fragile eco-systems, often a major food source for communities and in some instances providing valuable income in both established and emerging tourism industry
- Limited resources and equipment even in some major centres
- Economies extremely vulnerable to disaster events
- Resilience diminished through the loss of traditional knowledge and practices
Whilst these challenges are shared across the region, individual countries present their own unique hazard/ risk context, raising the question: Although common risk reduction strategies may appear suitable for addressing these shared challenges from an external perspective, does potential exist for their effectiveness to be diminished if they are not tailored to reflect the individual nature and characteristics of the host nation?
To fully comprehend this regional hazard/risk context we can compose a fictional scenario by overlaying a regional scenario onto the Australian landscape:
……………a cyclone is developing in the SW Pacific, it is forecast to move in a westerly direction towards the east coast of Australia. Landfall is anticipated to stretch from the northern most tip of Cape York to Hobart in Tasmania at which point the cyclone will have reached category 5. Over the following 48 hours it will maintain its intensity as it crosses the Australian land mass exiting the west coast from Broome to Albany.
Current State and Commonwealth arrangements could not be deployed, affected areas would need to be self-sufficient in the days even weeks before reliable communications and transport are established. Agriculture is all but wiped out, many will live in temporary accommodation for months even years, airports and ports require remedial work before aid can be received, schools are inoperable and the families of every person mandated to help with initial response and recovery have been impacted by the event.
An unimaginable scenario in the Australian context but a reality when you turn to the Pacific and this is reflected in national disaster risk management and sustainable development strategies, plans and arrangements. The above scenario, despite its imaginary nature would capture world news for days, but such scenarios, familiar territory to Pacific Island Governments and their communities, pass almost unnoticed at a global level. However, at the national level they are equal in impact to those countries which make the global headlines, hence the high percentage of Pacific Island Nations within the top 15 most vulnerable countries on earth to disasters.
These contrasting hazard/risk contexts are particularly important when residing outside the region but delivering disaster risk management products, services, advice, equipment and other related projects into the region. What may at first appear a reasonable solution may in the long term fail to reach its potential or prove unsustainable. Keeping abreast of regional programs and developments relating to all aspects of disaster and risk based development is necessary, for even within the region, risks and vulnerabilities differ between island nations. Hence to be effective and provide long term and sustainable benefits to Pacific communities, projects, programs and services must integrate with existing technical, social, economic or cultural environments and be cognisant of the development work to which these countries are committed.
Our ability to assist other nations arises from our history, knowledge and experience, and being a wealthy nation has allowed us to research, trial, fund and deliver outcomes for Australia as can be seen in the equipment, communications, training and education from which the country benefits. Pacific Island Countries also have extensive history and experience pre-dating western knowledge by many thousands of years, but has never enjoyed access to resources to facilitate development at a similar rate. Therefore the transfer of our knowledge into both regional and national environments must reflect our ability to tailor risk solutions from our context to meet the unique challenges confronting individual Pacific Island Countries.
However when it comes to climate change, Pacific Inland Governments are advancing steadily with policy driven climate change adaptation strategies and government departments established to address disaster risk management and climate change issues. On a global scale the Pacific island’s contribution to climate change is insignificant yet they are at the epicentre of climate change impact. On a global scale Australia’s contribution is considered small, however on a per capita basis Australia ranks as a major global warming contributor. Simultaneously Australia is a major donor within the Pacific region, funding climate change adaptation programs and other disaster risk reduction initiatives. Awareness of this dichotomy should be considered when developing the broader business risk context for any organisation contributing or seeking to contribute towards disaster risk reduction in the region.
To understand the drivers of disaster risk management development in the Pacific, literature searches can provide a wealth of information. However ‘readers beware’; conducting literature searches can be time consuming and confusing. When was it developed, has it been subject to version control, is the document still current, has it been withdrawn or superseded but still available on line? These are just a few of the problems a seemingly simple literature search can present, leading to inaccurate assumptions and erroneous perceptions. A sound starting point is to look at current regional strategies, which in turn are reflected at national level in disaster risk management arrangements, climate change and associated policy and strategy papers.
In 2015 Australia along with 198 UN member nations became signatories to the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction 2015-2030 a voluntary, non-binding agreement which recognizes that the State has the primary role to reduce disaster risk but that responsibility should be shared with local government, the private sector and other stakeholders. It is interesting to note the first priority in this framework is – Understanding Risk.
It is commonly understood that risk advises the governance process and the roll out of the UNDP Policy Brief – Risk Governance Building Blocks for Resilient Development in the Pacific, clearly indicates the drive to introduce risk governance for mainstreaming risk into development policy and practice.
In 1995 Australia and New Zealand led the world in developing a non-sectoral risk management standard with the release of the AS/NZ Standard 4360:1995 – Risk Management, which eventually resulted in the development of ISO Standard 31000-2009 Risk Management – Principles and Guidelines. This transition from risk as an event based issue to one of achieving strategic objectives was significant. It represented the move from conceptualising risk as the inputs of data to the output of risk reports, matrices and risk registers, to developing a framework whereby risk management principles and procedures are integrated into national development policy, strategy, planning, budgets and procurement and where donor project risks are aligned to national risk priorities to achieve strategic development objectives.
These developments are indicative of just some of the drivers of change in the Pacific region, which raises the question: When we deliver services supporting risk reduction initiatives within the Pacific, are we able to maximize our contribution to the countries and their communities, if we do not fully comprehend the complex and unique disaster/risk contexts which exist within individual Pacific Island Nations?
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