Disaster Risk Reduction strategies should be a priority for MPs

  • National Newswatch

By Kirsty Duncan, M.P. | May 28, 2013Economic losses from disasters for the last 13 years totaled $2.7 trillion, or an average of $16.2 million per hour since 2000. Tragically, 2.9 billion people were affected during the same time period.The 2012 North American drought could be the costliest disaster in the United States' history. Current estimates suggest the drought cost between $50 and $80 billion.Canada faces significant climatic dangers — floods, hailstorms, ice storms, tornadoes and wind storms — and geological hazards such as earthquakes and related fires. The 1998 ice storm cost $5.4 billion and the 1996 Saguenay flood cost $1.7 billion.Those costs pale in comparison to the losses that would result from a major earthquake and related fires in British Columbia, Ontario or Quebec. The potential economic damage from a major seismic event in British Columbia is estimated at $30 billion.What is being done to mitigate such disasters? At home, Canada's Emergency Preparedness Week, a national awareness initiative that has taken place annually since 1996, was held from May 5-11, 2013, marked by a statement by the Harper Government and an e-book of its 2012 emergency preparedness guide.At the international level, the fourth session of the “Global Platform for Disaster Risk Reduction” took place in Geneva, Switzerland from May 19-23, 2013. The Platform enjoyed the participation of over 170 countries, international agencies and organizations, non-governmental organizations and civil society, academic and technical institutions, and the private sector. The aim was to assess the world's progress in implementing theHyogo Framework for Action, a guideline to reduce vulnerabilities to natural hazards.The call for action was for disaster-resilient nations and, ultimately, a disaster-resilient world. A major focus was on private sector investment in disaster risk reduction (DRR) because “prevention pays”; that is, investment in DRR protects lives and livelihoods, public assets, and private property. Another key message was the “opportunity to create shared value for businesses and corporations as well as for society”.Members of Parliament should actively fight for a disaster resilient Canada and disaster resilient communities, as hundreds of thousands of Canadians live on the front lines of disaster hazard zones. It is projected that 620,000 face the risk of drought, almost 50,000 live in flood-prone areas, 34,000 are threatened by earthquakes, and tsunamis pose a risk for 165,000 (ranking Canada 15th of 76 nations for tsunami risk).Canadians will remember the most expensive natural disaster in our history: the 1998 ice storm. An astounding 80 hours of freezing rain coated Ontario, Quebec and New Brunswick. The storm downed 130 power transmission towers and 30,000 utility poles. Over 4,000,000 Canadians lost power, and 600,000 were forced to leave their homes.Canadians will also remember the torrential rains that pounded the Saguenay-Lac-Saint-Jean region of Quebec in 1996, causing the worst flood in the province's history. The one-in-10,000-year flood swept away a shopping complex, ripped apart homes and buried cars under mud.The potential loss of human life, damage to business and communities and the enormous economic losses associated with disasters suggest these are issues of fundamental importance to the health and safety of Canadians. And yet, Public Safety Minister Vic Toews failed to answer my questions on disaster preparedness, response, recovery and resilience last fall.The levels of risk and blatant lack of current public accountability make a compelling business case for DRR. Economic losses now exceed $100 billion globally per year due to rapid increases in exposure of both industrial and private assets. By 2030, a staggering $200 trillion will be invested worldwide in urban infrastructure; 85 percent of these investments will come from the private sector. Partnerships between the public and private sector will therefore be critical to ensure future resilience of these investments.MPs must therefore see DRR as an opportunity to protect our business value chains, which are becoming increasingly exposed to risks both at home and internationally. At the same time, they must see DRR as an integral part of development, sustainable economic growth, and ultimately, prosperity. Studies by the World Bank and the World Resources Institute show a return on investment of $4-15 for each dollar invested in building resilience.MPs should study DDR to address questions regarding the current value of the government's infrastructure, public contingency liabilities and the percentage of the national budget devoted to DRR.A study could also examine the requirements for a national public alert system that would warn Canadians of imminent threats to life. What resources are allocated to the planning and management of human settlements incorporating DRR elements, including enforcement of building codes? What resources are allocated to national programmes aimed at mitigating risk to schools and health facilities safe in the event of an emergency? What are the financial reserves and contingency mechanisms in place to support effective response and recovery?More generally, MPs should also push for evidence-based and risk-based decision-making within and across sectors in budgeting and planning; strengthened science and technological networks; and a strong policy or legislative foundation that will coherently and comprehensively define roles and responsibilities, working arrangements, and coordination of departments.Not only must MPs work at the national level to fight for a disaster resilient Canada, but they should also work with other locally-elected officials and stakeholders to build disaster resilient communities. MPs across Canada should become champions for DRR, and work to renew our nation's commitment to promote DRR in our homes, businesses, and communities, and to build a Canada that is more resilient than ever before.Canadians must all remember that throughout our history, disasters have tested the very fabric of our country. We will, no doubt, be tested again, as our brothers and sisters in Moore, Oklahoma were earlier this week when a tornado swept through and took 24 lives. Let me express my condolences to the victims and families of this terrible tragedy, and all those who gathered to help. I know all my colleagues in the House of Commons are keeping all those affected in our prayers.Dr. Kirsty Duncan, M.P., is the Liberal Party's Environment critic. She attended the fourth session of the “Global Platform for Disaster Risk Reduction” in Geneva, Switzerland, May 19-23, 2013