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Disasters often strike without warning and leave a trail of destruction in their wake. Yet armed with the right tools, the chances of getting through the toughest circumstances are improved. Here, we look at some of the deadly hazards we've been exposed to, and how standards can help us to prepare for, and react in, many of life's most unpredictable scenarios.

Lives can be turned upside down by natural disasters, from earthquakes and fires to hurricanes and tornadoes, as well as attacks and other human-caused disasters. Such catastrophes also hamper economic growth, deepen poverty levels and cause tremendous suffering in the communities affected.

What’s more, with drivers like population growth, rapid urbanization and climate change, this trend shows no sign of abating, threatening the world’s most vulnerable countries. As people continue to flock to the cities in droves and businesses invest locally, more lives and assets concentrate in disaster-prone areas. Reducing the vulnerability and adaptability of these communities is therefore becoming a matter of urgency – having a plan and knowing the steps to take if disaster strikes is by far the best defence.

 

Counting the cost

Infographie: Statistique des catastrophes

Global economic losses from natural disasters have averaged almost USD 200 billion over the past decade – up from just USD 50 billion in the 1980s, according to the World Bank.

Natural disasters often lead to lower economic growth and a worsening in fiscal and external balances. They can also have a significant impact on poverty and social welfare. In this regard, developing countries, and their most vulnerable populations, are especially at risk.

In 2004, one of the largest earthquakes ever recorded struck off the coast of Indonesia, triggering a tsunami that swept away entire communities around the Indian Ocean. More than 230 000 people were killed as a result of the 9.1 magnitude quake and the giant waves that slammed into the coastlines. To add to these staggering numbers, economic losses there amounted to USD 14 billion in today’s prices, and would have fetched a far higher figure were it not for the low property and land values in the affected areas.

 

Help for the most vulnerable

Economically strong countries are able to manage potentially disastrous events with little disruption to their socio-economic development. The same cannot, however, be said for the majority of developing countries.

Arguing their plight, Kevin Knight, Chair of technical committee ISO/TC 262 on risk management, explains, “ The vast majority of developing countries find themselves ground further into poverty and economic ruin by every disaster as they have little, if any, financial or social resilience with which to manage the disaster, let alone survive economically unscathed. Many countries are still struggling with reestablishment from one disaster when the next one strikes.”

After the Indian Ocean devastation, the international community came together to develop a ten-year plan for reducing disaster risk in what came to be known as the Hyogo Framework for Action. This framework helped guide development efforts to ensure that communities were more resilient to shocks from natural disasters.

While much has been accomplished in the last decade, disaster losses and exposure to risk continue to grow, pressing governments to think ahead. At the Third World Conference on Disaster Risk Reduction (WCDRR) held in Sendai, Japan, in March 2015, delegates adopted the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction with seven targets and four priorities for action over the next 15 years.

These four strategic priorities are focused on “ a better understanding of risk, strengthened disaster risk governance and, crucially, more investment. A fourth priority calls for more effective disaster preparedness and embedding the build back better ” principle into recovery, rehabilitation and reconstruction, to which climate services are particularly relevant.

 

Quality of life in cities

Photo : Asian Development Bank

The UN Office for Disaster Risk Reduction (UNISDR), which served as the coordinating body for the WCDRR and facilitated the process of reviewing the existing Hyogo Framework, has entered into an agreement with the World Council on City Data (WCCD), led by President and CEO Dr. Patricia McCarney, to implement a new ISO standard – ISO 37120 – in 45 cities already participating in the UNISDR “ Making Cities Resilient ” campaign.

The WCCD is leading the global implementation of ISO 37120, , the first ISO standard for sustainable and resilient cities. It is based on 100 indicators that steer and measure the performance of city services and quality of life. “ ISO 37120 informs the way that cities are able to look at sustainability,” states Patricia. “ In the face of global environmental shifts, rapid urbanization and ageing city infrastructure, cities require a consistent methodology to prepare for these challenges. The WCCD is proud to have taken the lead in ensuring that ISO standards around cities become essential city tools throughout the developing and developed world.”

In May, the WCCD launched its “ WCCD Open City Data Portal ”, accessible at www.dataforcities.org. This innovative tool allows everyone from city leaders to academics to interested members of the public to access the data collected using ISO 37120 and reported by the WCCD Foundation Cities, which include, amongst others : London, Toronto, Boston, Shanghai, Los Angeles, Boston, and Dubai. The WCCD is in the process of welcoming its next 100 cities, significantly augmenting the already compelling comparative data available on the portal.

The UNISDR’s “ Making Cities Resilient ” campaign, launched four years ago now, has 2 500 participating cities and towns with a combined population of some 700 million people. “ We have 45 role model cities that are ready to implement the new ISO 37120 standard for resilient and sustainable cities. We will work together with the WCCD to further build the family of ISO standards for cities, ” stated Margareta Wahlström, Head of UNISDR.

In addition to the development of ISO 37120, working group WG 2 of ISO/TC 268 (led by the same Patricia McCarney) is developing a new family of ISO standards to complement ISO 37120. This work includes future ISO 37121, a technical report on resilience frameworks and indicators, and the recently approved project on developing a new standard on smart cities.

A key goal of the collaboration between UNISDR and WCCD is to ensure that the Ten Essentials for the “ Making Cities Resilient ” campaign will be incorporated into ISO’s work on resilient cities. The need for ISO standards to build indicators on resilient cities will become increasingly important with respect to major environmental events such as the earthquake in Nepal, or Hurricane Sandy. These have implications both for cities and their ability to prepare for these events, but also to leverage funding from national governments and international bodies, as well as ramifications for city insurance rates. “ This work on developing standards in cities is a very exciting prospect, of enormous benefit to improving the quality of life in cities throughout the world,” says Patricia.

 

Investing in resilience

A boy is rescued as part of an emergency simulation on Manila Bay, the Philippines
Photo : Claire McGeechan, AusAID

Many local governments today are building resilient capabilities to prepare for expected and unexpected situations, with most of the discussion revolving around the physical infrastructure. There is a push to climate-proof our cities – from building sea walls and laying water-resistant power lines to introducing stricter building codes.

According to Kevin Knight, prevention is key. “ Disaster risk prevention requires a government to make the conscious decision to invest in stronger and higher bridges ; better road design and drainage ; flood mitigation works ; and other related civil engineering that results in more resilience to damage by disasters. It is about spending money up front on infrastructure rather than spending money cleaning up and restoring infrastructure after each disaster.”

So what can be done ? A good example, says Kevin, is replacing low-level railway bridges with stronger high-level bridges. Disruption to traffic and affected communities is much shorter as no reconstruction is required, but there is the year-round benefit of being able to run heavier trains, which provides a significant productivity improvement to the national economy.

Beyond individual building issues, Åsa Kyrk Gere, the Chair of new technical committee ISO/TC 292, , advocates a holistic approach : “ I believe that a more holistic approach needs to be taken by us all, not only by the government. Everybody needs to be involved : governments, business, organizations and individuals must work together, in collaboration, to build a resilient and secure society where everybody is engaged and takes responsibility. That is also why standards are needed.” (For more from Åsa, see interview on page 14).

 

Social infrastructure

Roger Estall, one of the principal authors of the Australian/New Zealand standard on managing disruption-related risk, also believes that the social infrastructure of a community is an important element that saves lives.

Between September 2010 and December 2011, a series of powerful earthquakes wreaked devastation in New Zealand’s Canterbury region, particularly in Christchurch. Although 185 people died in the catastrophe, making it the second deadliest natural disaster in New Zealand history, casualties were far fewer than in any developing country. So how did the region prepare ?

Scientific investigations in the late 1900s meant that the risk was generally understood. Government policy was accordingly “ toughened up ” so that most modern buildings and infrastructure survived the shaking and many older buildings with critical or historic value were strengthened. More importantly, the focus was on educating the population to let New Zealanders know the steps to take in order to remain safe. In 2005, the New Zealand Ministry of Civil Defence and Emergency Management developed a resource to feed the emergency management message into the national curriculum, centering chiefly on primary school children aged 8 to 12.

Yet despite all the advance planning, much of the solidarity and emergency aid came out of the community, Roger recalls. “ In Christchurch, most rescues of trapped people were made by citizens on the spot – not by specialist urban search and rescue teams. A single student used social media to quickly build a well-organized army of people to help anyone without services or food and to clear tonnes of liquefaction debris from their homes.

 

A comprehensive strategy

At the Third World Conference on Disaster Risk Reduction (WCDRR) held in Sendai, Japan, in March 2015, delegates adopted the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction with seven targets and four priorities for action over the next 15 years
Photo : Tetsuro Chiharada

So exactly how much can ISO standards help ? Quite a lot, actually. Standards are playing a major role in building an increased comprehensive strategy against disasters.

ISO standards can assist the effective management of disaster-related risk significantly by providing a common language and process to, and amongst, local, provincial, national and regional levels of government. “ Standards not only offer guidance for understanding risk associated with natural hazards but also finding and implementing the best mix of responses, both before and after events occur.”

Developed by ISO/TC 262, ISO 31000, Risk management – Principles and guidelines, (currently under revision) is used by many countries to understand and modify disaster-related risk by developing management structures, reducing vulnerability to disruption and making proactive and reactive plans to deal with natural and man-made events. ISO/TC 292, on the other hand, is also responsible for a whole array of International Standards for security and continuity management that support the work of organizations in preparing for disturbing events and disasters.

In other words, ISO/TC 292 is developing standards in all phases before, during and after events and disasters, covering a wide array of topics such as emergency management, incident response, conducting exercises and issuing public warnings. Its work also focuses on organizational resilience and continuity management that support the efforts of organizations in identifying and reducing their risks, preventing the consequences as well as building their ability to prepare and respond to events and disasters.

Of this rush to prepare, Åsa Kyrk Gere says, “ Today, and more so in the future, all organizations will have to take greater responsibility for preventing and mitigating their risks as well as protecting themselves from all types of risks and threats. All organizations play a part in building a more secure and resilient society. At the moment, we are working on a broad range of standards covering terminology, continuity and resilience, emergency management, fraud and counterfeiting measures and controls, public and community resilience as well as standards for private security ”.

 

Post-2015 agenda

Without significant action, the extent and impact of economic and social damage associated with disasters will only get worse over the next 20 years, largely as a result of the growing exposure of people and assets. This has the potential to reverse development progress in hard-hit areas.

“ Disasters, many of which are exacerbated by climate change and (are) increasing in frequency and intensity, significantly impede progress toward sustainable development, ” the Sendai Framework says. “ It is urgent and critical to anticipate, plan for and reduce disaster risk in order to more effectively protect persons, communities and countries... and thus strengthen their resilience.”

Åsa captures it nicely : “ No one can succeed alone, we all have to work together. Here, clear regulations, guidance and standards are vital in the reconstruction phase in order to rebuild better. This means that major engagement is needed by the relevant organizations and authorities in the development of regulations, guidance and standards to actively prevent new risks and mitigate risks that remain. This is a long-term commitment.”

So have we found the silver bullet ? Perhaps not quite. But while standards may not decrease the frequency and intensity of disasters, they can certainly reduce the financial burden and social consequences that result from them. If nothing else, they provide a cost-effective solution for countries all around the world to ramp up their security and resilience

 

At the Jana Bikash Secondary School in Matatirtha, Nepal, children are taught how to take shelter beneath their desks in case of an earthquake
Photo : Jim Holmes, AusAID

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