EIIP Virtual Forum Presentation – January 26, 2005

World Conference on Disaster Reduction
Participant Perspectives

Louise K. Comfort, Ph.D.
University of Pittsburgh

Walter W. Hays, Ph.D.
Global Alliance for Disaster Reduction

The following version of the transcript has been edited for easier reading and comprehension. A raw, unedited transcript is available from our archives. See our home page at http://www.emforum.org

[Welcome / Introduction]

Amy Sebring: On behalf of Avagene Moore and myself, welcome to the EIIP Virtual Forum! Today's topic is the World Conference on Disaster Reduction (WCDR) held in Kobe, Hyogo, Japan last week. We are going to handle the presentation a little differently today. As you can imagine, our participants just got back very late on Monday, so we gave them a few questions to address.

The U.S. was well represented at the conference, and we did invite a few others to join us today, but either they are still over there enjoying Japan, or had conflicts in their schedule here at home. We are very pleased and grateful that Drs. Comfort and Hays were able to take the time to be with us today. Now, it is my pleasure to introduce our guests, neither of whom are strangers to the Forum.

First, Louise Comfort is Professor of Public and International Affairs at the University of Pittsburgh. She teaches in the field of organizational theory and policy design, and has published many articles and books. She has done field research on organizational response and information processes in disaster operations following fourteen earthquakes in ten nations. This was not her first trip to Kobe as she worked there following the Kobe earthquake.

Walter W. Hays is a Senior Fellow with the Global Institute for Energy and Environmental Systems (GIEES), a new institute within the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. He also serves as Executive Director of the Global Alliance for Disaster Reduction (GADR), which is a global network of professionals representing the science, engineering, insurance, business, and academic communities of practice; national, regional, local governments; NGO's; and the United Nations.

Welcome to you both, and thank you for joining us today.


Amy Sebring: First, by way of background, by the end of the conference, and after a week of negotiations by delegations from countries around the world, a number of documents were completed, including the Hyogo Declaration, the Hyogo Framework for Action 2005-2015, and a Common Statement of the Special Session on the Indian Ocean Disaster: Risk Reduction for a Safer Future. Based on reporting from the conference, there was some concern that these might not be completed on time, but the context of the tsunami disaster gave some urgency to the negotiations, which were completed successfully.

We have direct links to all these documents, and a final WCDR press release on our Background Page, but you can also access by going to http://www.unisdr.org/wcdr

A good overall summary of the conference may also be accessed at http://www.iisd.ca/vol26/enb2609e.html

Now onto our "Participant Perspectives."

Question 1: Can you please provide some background on why you attended the conference?

Walter Hays: I attended WCDR as the head of a 20-person delegation representing the 1,000-member Global Alliance for Disaster Reduction, an international NGO comprised of professionals involved in all aspects of disaster risk reduction in 70 countries. I also attended the first World Conference in Yokohama in 1994 as a member of the USA delegation.

Louise Comfort: I participated as a delegate from the Earthquakes and Megacities Initiative (EMI). EMI is an international, nongovernmental scientific organization that works with researchers and policy makers in megacities to develop and implement action strategies to reduce disaster risk. I am currently serving as Vice Chair of this organization and as coordinator of the Cluster Cities Program (CCP). The CCP includes five clusters of megacities that are vulnerable to seismic risk located in different regions of the world. The clusters include:

• East Asia: Kobe, Shanghai, Manila; and Seoul;

• Asia: Mumbai, Tashkent, Dhaka, Beijing, and Kathmandu;

• Americas: Mexico City; Los Angeles, Quito and Bogota;

• Mediterranean: Naples, Istanbul, Cairo, and Tehran; and

• Pacific:Wellington, New Zealand and Tianjin, China.

Question 2: Which sessions were you able to participate in, and what were your impressions?

Walter Hays: It was like drinking from a fire hose with occasional timeouts. I attended a mix composed of :

a) plenary sessions, which were very large, limited to principal and secondary heads of delegations, formal with presentations by talking heads of organizations, and focused on potential outcomes that were consistent with their missions,

b) sessions on Thematic Cluster 3: Knowledge Management and Education, which focused on sharing of topical and thematic information through presentations by working level experts and outreach based on use of extensive handout materials,

c) the special session on "Animals in Disasters," which focused on hands-on experiences in 2-3 countries in the stricken area of the 26 December 2004 Earthquake-Tsunami Disaster, and

d) a special Symposium, which focused on "boots on the ground experiences" since 1997 in the evolving Earthquakes and Megacities Initiative.

Louise Comfort: I attended the opening and closing sessions of the conference and the EMI sessions. EMI organized a Thematic Session jointly with UN-Habitat, UN-Development Programme, Kobe University, and the Pacific Disaster Center on the "Addressing the Root Causes of Vulnerability of Human Settlements in Megacities." This session featured reports from practicing managers of four megacities and the Kingdom of Morocco. The megacities included Istanbul, Bogota, Quito, and Kathmandu.

In addition, EMI and Kobe University organized a two-day Symposium on "Disaster Risk Management for Megacities in Asia: Planning and Implementation." The session was co-sponsored by the International Strategy for Disaster Risk Reduction and the Pacific Disaster Center. The first day was open to the public and included two panels, a Round Table, and a special session on "The Great Sumatran Earthquake and Tsunami" of 26 December 2004.

The first panel focused on "Planning for Disaster Risk Reduction in Megacities." The second panel presented "Models of Disaster Risk Assessment in Megacities." A highlight of the Symposium was a vivid account of the impact of the tsunami on the city of Banda Aceh, in Aceh Province on the island of Sumatra by Indonesian researchers from the Bandung Institute of Technology.

The Round Table included perspectives on disaster risk reduction from research and funding organizations, including EMI’s Cross-Cutting Capacity Development (3cd) program; Ministry of Home Affairs, India; Kobe University, Pacific Disaster Center; World Bank, and the United Nations Development Program.

Question 3: With respect to the Indian Ocean Disaster, beyond the call for a tsunami warning system, was there any discussion of post-disaster mitigation in the affected countries?

Walter Hays: No, except for education and training and the special Symposium above, there was very little emphasis on post-disaster mitigation measures. To the best of my knowledge, all sessions that dealt with the 26 December 2004 Indian Ocean Disaster mainly focused on experience and the technology considered viable for getting people out of harm's way.

Louise Comfort: Regarding the Indian Ocean Earthquake and Tsunami Disaster, there were several sessions devoted to this event, including a High Level Table with participants from major international organizations. Much of the discussion focused on describing the event and assessing the immediate needs of the affected communities.

The sessions also discussed the importance of managing the very large amounts of international assistance that have been pledged, and urged the member states of the United Nations to channel their contributions through the International Strategy of Disaster Reduction, instead of directly through their governments. This would prevent, as Klaus Toepfer of the UN Environmental Program stated, the "waving of national flags" in response to an international disaster.

The most significant issue of post-disaster mitigation was the strong consensus and commitment to build a post-disaster tsunami warning system in the Indian Ocean Basin, with the requisite information infrastructure and training to enable nations in the region to access the warning system and interpret the information in terms of their local contexts.

Question 4: With respect to the intergovernmental and final declarations, how did that process work and what was the U.S. role?

Walter Hays: The US role was to listen and look for opportunities to connect with others. All 150 countries that participated in WCDR, including the USA, were represented by a delegation comprised typically of 2 to 10 mid-level disaster-reduction professionals and led by a senior member of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (e.g., the USA's Department of State) having responsibility for recommending policy on disaster reduction.

Very few delegations except for UN organizations and some NGO's were led by their Senior Policy Maker. Except for Japan, the host country, officials at the highest levels (e.g., Kofi Anan (UN) and James Wolfenson (World Bank) typically did not attend.

Each country's contributions as well as those of the UN organizations to the intergovernmental and final declarations were developed days, weeks, and months in preparatory meetings before going to Kobe. This process did not rock any boats and worked well for all topics except the 26 December 2004 Earthquake-Tsunami Disaster, in the sense of generating broad general statements that looked and sounded very much like those of the 1994 Yokohama World Conference, but without new details. The 26 December 2004 Earthquake-Tsunami Disaster was simply too recent, too visible in the media, and still too political to be treated effectively in this public forum.

Louise Comfort: Regarding the intergovernmental and final declarations, there were intensive meetings held by different committees to draft the declarations. Each member state of the United Nations was represented by an official delegation. The U.S. delegation was ably represented by a number of people well-known to the hazards research community, especially Helen Wood of NOAA and Dennis Wenger of the National Science Foundation.

Question 5: What among the outcomes do you consider to be significant?

Walter Hays: The "global call to arms" was very significant, although not new. Examples include:

"We will build upon relevant international commitments and frameworks as well as development goals, including those contained in the Millennium Declaration to strengthen global disaster reduction activities for the twenty-first century."

"We recognize the intrinsic relationship between disaster reduction, sustainable development, and poverty eradication, among others, and the importance of involving all stakeholders, including governments, regional and international organizations and financial institutions, civil society, including non-governmental organizations and volunteers, the private sector, and the scientific community."

"We can and must further build the resilience of nations and communities to disasters through people-centered early warning systems, risk assessments, education, and other proactive, integrated, multi-hazard and multi-sectoral approaches and activities in the context of the disaster reduction cycle, which consists of prevention, mitigation, preparedness, and emergency response, as well as recovery and rehabilitation."

"We believe that it is critically important that the Hyogo Framework for Action 2005-2015 be translated into concrete actions at all levels and that achievements are followed up through the International Strategy for Disaster Reduction, in order to reduce disaster risks and vulnerabilities."

Louise Comfort: To me, one of the most significant outcomes was the inclusion in the Hyogo Declaration of a statement that recognized the need to develop indicators to track the progress of disaster risk reduction strategies as part of the process to realizing the expected goals for disaster risk reduction. Without some form of reasonable measurement, it is not possible to determine whether or how these goals are being reached, or how effective are the strategies in current use. This kind of performance assessment is essential to achieving actual change in disaster risk reduction policies and practice.

Question 6: What will happen next in follow up?

Walter Hays: The next steps, which are the "acid test" of the Hyogo Declaration, are expected to come immediately from the International Strategy for Disaster Reduction (ISDR), which is expected to work in cooperation and coordination with some fraction of the 200 Member States and some fraction of the global partners.

Collaborative activities with ISDR are already being planned for the next ten years and communicated in conjunction with the Decade on Education for Sustainable Development, which began on January 1, 2005. Global, regional, and local rallying points (e.g., flagship conferences to continue and expand upon WCDR) are now planned for Charlotte, NC on July 24-30, 2005 and Davos Switzerland on August 27-September 1, 2006, with others in the wings to be announced.

Louise Comfort: There needs, of course, to be a follow-up to this conference to assess progress and confirm strategies that are effective and redesign those that are not. There will likely be a formal follow-up conference in ten years, but there will be smaller meetings addressing specific problems in the intervening years.

It is through this process of systematic review and public dialogue visible to the international community that organizations and nations maintain focused attention on disaster risk reduction.

Question 7: Do you expect this will make any difference in 10 years?

Walter Hays: Yes, small gains in connecting with disaster-prone, developing countries and in overcoming the universal barriers of ignorance, apathy, organizational and disciplinary boundaries, and lack of political will are meaningful. Otherwise, we will need another call to arms in 2015. I remain hopeful that Kobe will be a useful step in going the last mile!

Louise Comfort: I expect that the commitments to action made at this conference will make a difference in disaster risk reduction over the next ten years. There were 168 member nations of the United Nations represented at this conference. It was a highly visible conference, and nations sent prime ministers and ranking department secretaries to this conference.

The staggering impact of the Sumatran Earthquake and Tsunami underscored the obvious conclusion that no nation can manage extreme events alone. The long-term effects and costs of such an event are enormous, and much of those costly consequences could be prevented with better planning and mitigation. This event also underscored the principle that continuing risk can most effectively be managed through international collaboration and cooperation.

This event, catastrophic in its human and property losses, nonetheless also created an opportunity for constructive change in disaster risk reduction policy and practice. In multiple arenas, groups, organizations, and governments across the globe are focusing on disaster risk reduction in new ways. The old national emergency plans were obviously ineffective in this event. Only international collaboration could manage the scope, depth, and severity of risk, and help to define and implement workable strategies for responsible, sustainable disaster risk management.

Amy Sebring: Our thanks to both Louise and Walter for their thoughtful remarks. Now, to proceed to your questions.

[Audience Questions & Answers]

Rocky Lopes: Question to both Walter and Louise: I have not had a chance yet to read the conference report, but I’m wondering about the efficacy of a tsunami warning system in the Indian Ocean. Media reports indicate a lot of scrambling to have such a system in place as soon as possible. But since the area of the strongest earthquakes, including the 9.0 quake of 26 December, was only 155 miles off the coast of Sumatra, how effective would such a system be for nearby countries of Indonesia and Thailand, which I understand were struck very quickly by the tsunami, with insufficient time to not only interpret a warning, but then get the warning to the public? Of course, a tsunami warning system would be more helpful for more distant countries like Sri Lanka and India. Just wonder about your thoughts and the gist of the conversation about it in Kobe beyond what I have read in today’s presentation.

Louise Comfort: Rocky, much of the discussion centered on the extent of the region to be included in the warning system. The scientists believe that the warning system should be global, not limited to a single ocean basin. That is a very large, multi-year undertaking, but would prove most effective for disaster risk reduction and warning.

Walter Hays: The technology has changed dramatically since the Pacific warning system. Close by tsunamis are still a problem, but can be dealt with through education. People know that the water rushes out. They did not follow what they knew, especially the tourists.

Ray Pena: Louise, you indicate the recent earthquake and tsunami underscore the conclusion that "no nation can manage extreme events alone." How extreme would an event have to be for the USA to need international assistance?

Louise Comfort: Ray, the U.S. has major resources but some events will require international cooperation, e.g. cross-border disasters with Canada or Mexico, or events for which little scientific understanding is available. The U.S. can manage local disasters, but global warming, for instance, is an international phenomenon.

Walter Hays: A good example is an earthquake in the Central U.S. and a hurricane on the east coast at the same time. You get the idea.


Rocky Lopes: Louise, I wholeheartedly concur that the development of indicators to track progress is very important. That will make the work of this conference more successful than, for example, the IDNDR which had no such indicators.

Louise Comfort: The Inter American Development Bank (IADB) has supported the development of a set of indicators that have been applied to 12 nations in Latin America as a test case. This is a very good start and the result has been an increased awareness and commitment to disaster reduction in all 12 nations.

Walter Hays: We need to measure progress in transforming ignorance, apathy, and lack of political will. Any country is a good starting place, even the USA.

Paul Nevins: Looking to see who to shift to (changing work) to help the most, who are the shakers and the movers to join up with and make the most difference/impact?

Walter Hays: I believe that the Global Alliance (http://www.gadr.giees.uncc.edu) is a good starting point, but certainly not the only one. We need to find the leaders.

Louise Comfort: Japan is taking a leading role, with its $500M commitment to the tsunami disaster. Germany and the European Union are not far behind and there are new nations that are making very visible contributions, e.g. India with its information technology, and Thailand in telecommunications in Asia.

Burt Wallrich: Louise and Walter, did the conference deal at all with the role of local NGOs (ones that are not usually considered to be disaster agencies) in disaster preparedness and recovery?

Louise Comfort: Local NGOs will be very important in doing the actual work, but they will need to rely on connections to international NGOs for resources and technical assistance.

Walter Hays: Burt, not explicitly. The word EDUCATE has the activities most needed. The two E's stand for equity and E-training.

Burt Wallrich: Can you comment on the role of local NGOs? How can they be better prepared to cope with major disasters? The ARC has been instrumental in training them in some U.S. communities.

Walter Hays: Anticipate, instead of just respond. We are 90 percent response and 10 percent anticipation. Everyone acknowledges that the political limelight is on response not anticipation.

Louise Comfort: Burt, this is a matter of culture and resources. The local NGOs know their communities, but often do not have the experience or resources to manage large operations.

Rocky Lopes: There is a big difference on "training" of NGOs to respond to provide relief, compared with "education" of all on what to expect and how to respond. That has been the long-term struggle, since many responders aren't educators and have difficulty understanding how to effectively educate the public compared with training their own folks to effectively respond.

Avagene Moore: Was there any discussion about the base line within the countries affected by the tsunami re how prepared are they to respond or be able to warn their populations? Is it important to have the basics of some type of local infrastructure in place across the board?

Louise Comfort: There were significant differences among the nations. Two of the nations had long-running civil conflicts that had reduced their capacity. Banda Aceh, for example, had almost no preparedness in place and the local emergency responders were also victims of the disaster.

Walter Hays: Keep in mind that we started the Decade on Education on January 1, 2005. Banda Aceh had been lulled into sleep by the long time interval between tsunamis. Education has to be every person's job -- penetrating all of society every day.

Isabel McCurdy: Did conference speak to how nations would honor their pledges and promises?

Walter Hays: It is an honor system. No accountability until the disaster strikes.

Louise Comfort: It is regrettable that in previous disasters only a fraction of the pledges were honored. Japan set the example on this disaster by releasing $250M during the week of the conference, and $250M next week. Let's hope the other nations will follow.

Paul Nevins: In the US, many seaports have mutual aid co-ops joining the forces of industry and government. In one area, even the US Navy has a mutual aid agreement with the non-profit mutual aid co-op. Very effective during 11-sep issues in securing ports and reopening them discretely, professionally. Handle HazMat. in the same way utilizing the ICS/UCS methodologies. These have been in place since the late 60's and early 70's (depending upon the seaport). Does anything like that exist in that part of the world? Did it pop up in any discussion?

Louise Comfort: Mutual aid agreements do exist, but it is a matter of building sufficient trust that they will be honored. Also, mutual aid agreements imply a reasonably healthy economy to be able to spare resources, even if they will be returned reciprocally at another time. This is not easy for countries like Indonesia. Thailand and India however came to the aid of their neighbors very generously.

Walter Hays: Money is great, but not the only solution to a problem that requires everyone to be part of the greater good in global perspective, which means working at the margins of your capability and giving beyond your self.

Rocky Lopes: I want to commend Walter for organizing all of the pre-conference activities in the U.S. I received literally hundreds of emails from him before I left the Red Cross about it, and regret that my role was limited and I could not contribute. I extend my commendations to him for his commitment and dedication to collaboration, as well as to Louise for her foresight and long-term vision.

Christopher Effgen: We need to apply the principles of risk threat management and perform the analysis on the known threat universe. Was there any sense at the conference that this needed to be a global goal?

Walter Hays: Christopher, Yes, but the UN left the details vague. The Japanese did not. They are ready, willing, and able to help, beginning with a long list of technologies for prevention, which they distributed in digital and hard copy.

Louise Comfort: I think there was greater awareness of risk, and the need to cooperate in risk reduction at this conference than any I had ever before attended.

Ollie Davidson: At the conference there was little representation from business/industry, still a MAJOR missing link. There is a meeting on this in Davos, Switzerland this Saturday. The Disaster Resources Network, a business NGO is organizing the meeting.

Walter Hays: Davos will also host another flagship conference in August 27-September 1, 2006 to continue Kobe and go beyond. Keeping ISDR alive from year to year is a vital issue. GADR is hosting a flagship conference in Charlotte on July 24-30, 2005.

Isabel McCurdy: Do you know who is looking after all these monies?

Louise Comfort: This is a MAJOR issue. The ISDR is officially charged with this responsibility but separate nations are placing conditions on their pledges. It will be a matter of continuing negotiations, but I am placing my bet on the lead that Japan and Germany have set by designating their very large contributions to go through the ISDR.


Amy Sebring: Let's wrap it up for today. Thank you very much Louise and Walter for taking the time to share this information with us, and we will continue to watch for further developments. Please stand by a moment while we make some quick announcements. We are please to announce and welcome three new EIIP Partners:

University of Washington Office of Emergency Management, http://www.washington.edu/admin/business/oem POC: Steve Charvat, CEM;

The National Center for Biodefense Solutions, http://www.ncbsolutions.org POC: Kevin Parsons, MD, Chief Medical Officer; and

St. Edward's University, New College (Austin TX), http://www.stedwards.edu/newc/pacepsm.htm POC: Dr Craig Campbell, Director Public Safety Management.

If your organization is interested in becoming an EIIP Partner, please see the link "Partnership for You" on our Home Page.

Again, the transcript will be posted late this afternoon and you will be able to access it from our home page or the background page.

Thanks to everyone for participating today. For our first-timers, we hope you enjoyed and will come again. We stand adjourned.