Negotiators and delegates from Member States worked long hours to agree on the final text during the Third World Conference on Disasters in Sendai, Japan in 2016. (Photo: Michael Boyland / SEI)

On this day five years ago, I found myself sitting in the viewing gallery of the negotiations room at the Third World Conference on Disasters in Sendai, Japan, as a landmark framework agreement for tackling disasters and their causes was adopted. It was my first international conference; an exhilarating week listening to experts debate issues ranging from risk-informed city planning to protecting farm animals when disaster strikes.

By 10pm on the final day most people had already left, but I had to see the closing with my own eyes, even though it meant eating an emergency kit meal usually reserved for a major earthquake or nuclear fallout. The adoption of the agreed text was confirmed with the bang of a gavel and those that remained applauded and congratulated one another. For the negotiators, it had been an especially long week.

A global framework to address growing risks

The outcome of three years of consultations and negotiations, the Sendai Framework guides the actions of governments and other actors to reduce risks and build resilience. It was adopted with a “renewed sense of urgency” in the context of climate change and sustainable development challenges – the adoption of the SDGs and the Paris Agreement would follow later that year. It sets out seven targets – seen in the image below. Overall, Sendai represented a shift in focus from responding to disaster events to proactively reducing existing risks and minimizing the creation of new ones through development.

The seven targets of the Sendai Framework, aimed to be achieved by 2030. Source: UNDRR.

The Sendai Framework is the successor to the Hyogo Framework for Action, which was adopted at the Second World Conference on Disasters ten years prior, in 2005, and less than one month after the Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami had devastated the region and claimed the lives of well over 200,000 people in Indonesia, Sri Lanka, India and Thailand.

The 2015 conference was also held after not too dissimilar circumstances that preceded Hyogo. In March 2011, an earthquake and tsunami wrecked Sendai – the largest city in the Tohoku region of Japan – and resulted in the costliest disaster in history with costs estimated at US$ 200–350 billion. To put that number into context, the GDP of the Philippines is US$ 330 billion.

Disaster deaths coming down, disaster costs going up

Two of the main ways in which disaster impacts are measured are loss of life and economic damage.

Target A of the Sendai Framework is to substantially reduce disaster deaths compared with the Hyogo Framework decade, and the numbers suggest good progress, as the chart below shows. However, the dominance of “major” events such as the 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami, the Cyclone Nargis and Sichuan Earthquake events in 2008, and the 2010 Haiti earthquake may mask the trend. Of course, the absence of such deadly disasters over the past decade is a success, due in part to improvements in early warning systems, evacuation plans, and general public awareness.

Chart showing the total number of deaths from disasters per continent, per year, since 2000. Source: EM-DAT.

Target C aims to substantially reduce the economic impact of disasters, relative to GDP. While the world has not seen a major event in terms of tens or hundreds of thousands of deaths since 2010, some of the costliest disasters in history have occurred in the past decade. The chart below shows spikes in 2011, due to the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami, and floods in Thailand, and in 2017 because of three storms that hit North America – Hurricanes Maria, Harvey and Irma.

The twenty-first century trend is one of increasing macro-economic losses (including when values are scaled to reflect inflation) but it should also be remembered that impacts are likely vastly underestimated – particularly the uninsured losses absorbed by the poor. With the continuation of economic development in risky areas it will be a huge challenge to reach Target C by 2030, especially in low-income countries which bear the greatest relative costs of disasters and climate change.

Chart showing the total economic loss from disasters (original values), per continent, per year, since 2000. Source: EM-DAT.

While deaths and costs are just two indicators of the impacts of disasters – and a reflection of how well risks are being managed – there are many others. The non-economic losses of disasters, for instance, such as biodiversity loss and impacts on cultural heritage, are often not captured. And the impacts on people can be wide ranging, from psychological damage to forced migration. Data collection on these impacts is not systematic.

Going beyond the targets

The targets set by the Sendai Framework are important, but they don’t capture some fundamental aspects of what disaster risk reduction needs to represent to remain relevant in the context of the climate emergency and failures of economic development.

The causes of risks remain rooted in development issues. While climate change is contributing to stronger storms and more unpredictable rainfall, impacts in developing countries are equally driven by rising inequality and poverty, haphazard urbanization, and the exploitation of natural resources.

Pursuit of the goals and targets of the Sendai Framework is situated in a context of the necessity to transition away from fossil fuel-based economies and adapt to new climate realities, the low-income countries’ right to development, and how to achieve those development goals sustainably and equitably.

Five years on from Sendai, and after working during that time to better understand risks, I see positive signs of progress, such as a change in people’s mindset from thinking that disasters are natural to realizing they are consequences of our choices and actions.

We must continue developing and testing the tools and approaches needed for informing broader development processes with a systemic risk perspective. That may not be a target written into the Sendai Framework, but achieving it would represent the transformations that we need to see.