The United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon hosted a high-level session on Water and Disaster Risk Reduction at the UN headquarters on 18 November 2015, stressing that water-related disasters (floods, droughts and windstorms) account for almost 90% of the 1,000 most disastrous events since 1990. Coming just 12 days before UN member states gathered at COP21 in Paris to develop a new and universal climate change agreement, the assembly performed a well-timed opportunity to highlight the issue of water and disaster.
Over the past decade, water-related disasters have affected more than 4 billion people worldwide. Reiterating that “the poor and most vulnerable have suffered the worst” from these disasters, UNSG Ban Ki-Moon called for global commitment to the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development (SDGs). As such, the high-level ‘Special Thematic Session on Water and Disasters’ was convened as part of the UN High-level Water and Sanitation Days to develop recommendations for future UN conferences, building on the 2015-2030 Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction as well as the 2030 SDGs adopted in September 2015. Additionally, the session provided the stage to send out a global call for “firm determination without delay” to build global resilience to increasing water-related disasters.
The valedictory 10-year report from the Secretary-General’s water and sanitation Advisory Board (UNSGAB) emphasized the need to collectively address the relationship between water and disaster risks. It stated that water “continues to be undervalued and badly managed, despite a growing water crisis with an increasing number of people living under water stress, worsening flood and drought catastrophes, degrading ecosystems, and exacerbated political tensions in water-scarce areas”. Pointing to a mismatch between the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals adopted in September, and the international political structures available to contribute to its implementation, the report furthermore called for a major update of today’s institutional infrastructure.
Sustainable water governance should comprise risk-based approaches, moving from reactive to proactive management, in order to increase water security for all. The 2015-2030 Sendai Framework adopted in March 2015 at the Third World Conference on Disaster Risk Reduction (WCDRR), offers a strong basis for such approaches. The Framework proposes a shift of focus from disaster management toward disaster risk management, to be organized by all states at local, national, regional and global levels along four main priorities: 1. Understanding disaster risk; 2. Strengthening disaster risk governance; 3. Investing in disaster risk reduction for resilience; and 4. Enhancing disaster preparedness.
The strengthening of disaster risk governance requires the integration of the fields of disaster risk reduction, sustainable development, and adaptation to climate change in order to better avoid redundant or conflicting policies. Therefore, one of the key challenges for UN agencies involved in disaster risk governance, is to incorporate both interaction among, and providing an overarching institution that oversees, all three communities of practice. The structural recommendations provide by UNSGAB reflect the need for a more effective global water architecture, but it requires an holistic approach to avoid water centricity.
Policy integration on the water-food-energy-climate nexus should be encouraged, by attempting to better understand the complex relationships between water, energy, food and climate policies and how these can be addressed in policy development and implementation.
A fundamental question to be resolved is how do governance systems, as a nexus of science, policy and society, cope with uncertainties and complexity related to disaster risk management? This nexus implies a need to design more sustainable and equitable policies based on solid scientific ground to respond to the needs of societies and people. This will benefit from co-creation: scientists, policymakers, and civil society jointly seek the best way of understanding and guiding complex change processes.
Since scientists and other stakeholders disagree over future climate change scenarios and possible mitigation and adaptation strategies, there is no other choice than to accept the complexity of the issue and the accompanying uncertainties of the impacts. It requires adaptive and participatory planning approaches that accommodate changes, uncertainties, and complexity into scenarios for decision-making.
Investing in disaster risk reduction should focus on building adaptive capacity and resilience to deal with unforeseen changes. It should also involve flexible monitoring and social learning, emphasize the importance of stakeholder participation, and support open and innovative decision-making processes for taking proactive and preventive action on growing water-related risks.