Disaster Risk Reduction Symposium

Maria Otero
Under Secretary for Democracy and Global Affairs 
Kathmandu, Nepal
February 14, 2011

Good afternoon, your Excellency Mr. Prime Minister, distinguished panelists, honorable guests. It’s a pleasure to be with you here in Kathmandu. I am Maria Otero, Under Secretary of State for Democracy and Global Affairs, and I’m especially pleased to be able to congratulate the new government in its second week. The days ahead will not be easy, as your government works to conclude the peace process and constitution drafting, as well as rebuild Nepal’s economy. Addressing these critical challenges will require all Nepalis to work together. Now is the time for flexibility, compromise, and cooperation for the national interest – not divisive politics for short-term goals. As a long-time friend of Nepal, the United States shares your commitment to strengthen democracy, ensure peace and expand economic opportunities for your people. On behalf of President Obama and Secretary Clinton, I pledge our support as you tackle these challenges and lead Nepal into a better, brighter future.

In my role as Under Secretary, I oversee a wide-range of foreign policy issues for the United States, including civilian security, democracy promotion, human rights, refugees, water security and trafficking in persons.

As policy makers and practitioners, we are all confronted by such global and local challenges on a daily basis, demanding our immediate attention. But today we are going to try and step back from our daily preoccupations, looking instead at the future. A future that could quite literally wipe away the foundation upon which the rest of our problems—and solutions—are based. Today, we focus on the almost certain future devastation that Nepal will face in the wake of a major earthquake.

In just the past twelve months, we have seen natural disasters from Haiti to Chile to Pakistan cause extraordinary personal and economic loss. The memory of Nepal’s own previous disasters no doubt lives on in the memory of families today.

Frightening as the prospects are, we have the relative benefit of knowledge. While we know that such devastation may be just around the corner in Nepal, we are familiar with the risks, and we know that with determination, foresight, and partnership, we can begin to change the threat equation. And we can comb the experience of other disasters to draw lessons that will inform Nepal’s future.

The past several decades have brought significant development in Nepal, but that progress could be wiped out in one day with a disaster of the magnitude expected. So we are here to discuss risk reduction, to internalize the challenges of impending disaster, and to integrate appropriate planning into current thinking and planning.

Such a discussion—and the efforts that follow—require a shift in mindset. We must move from the present to the future. From disaster response to risk reduction. And from dealing with millions of dollars lost following a disaster to thinking about how we can effectively use our resources now to prevent such massive loss.

Such a shift of mindset is not an easy undertaking. It requires collaboration and innovative thinking for game-changing solutions. And it requires a commitment from each of you to focus on the long-term in the midst of short-term demands.

So, today I’d like to outline four ways in which Nepal, with support from the United States, can shift its mindset and create a new paradigm for disaster risk reduction in this country.

First, we must mainstream Disaster Risk Reduction measures throughout government engagement. Secondly, we must take a "whole-of-government" approach to integrate capabilities and maximize impact. Third, we should use "smart" investments to leverage scarce resources. And fourth, we should engage regional stakeholders for effective planning, mitigation, and response.

First, disaster risk reduction must be internalized throughout government operations, from planning to budgeting and beyond. The government of Nepal should factor the very real risks of an impending earthquake into planning at national, district, and local levels, as well as across ministries. Parliament should also enact the disaster legislation recently passed by the Cabinet that will implement the 2009 National Strategy for Disaster Risk Management.

On the part of the US government, Ambassador DeLisi has led our efforts to prioritize disaster risk reduction in all of our plans and operations in Nepal. For example, USAID is not only supporting hospital preparedness, school retrofitting and awareness programs, but also is looking for opportunities for disaster risk reduction across all development programs. We are also elevating this important issue with regional partners and with our leaders in Washington as we seek to maximize the benefits of partnership, recognizing that we must use existing resources effectively in what is a challenging budget climate for all of us.

Secondly, disaster risk reduction can be strengthened through government coordination across agencies.

In Nepal, this might mean creating new channels of communication between and among ministries. It also means streamlining government processes and approvals that facilitate private sector engagement on disaster risk reduction.

For example, let’s imagine there is a smart hospital administrator who has the foresight to reduce the risk of losing valuable equipment by bolting it down. Before doing so, the administrator will have to solicit approvals from both the Ministry of Planning and Public Works and the Ministry of Health, creating a time and resource disincentive to apply such proactive measures.

The government should identify these limiting factors and work across agencies to develop whole-of-government coordination. Likewise, such coordination will also leverage the unique expertise, experience and resources of multiple agencies including military and civilian institutions. And though we are largely focusing on preventative measures, whole of government interaction on disaster risk reduction will also help clarify roles and responsibilities of first responders in the wake of catastrophe.

As Nepal pursues communication and coordination across its government, the United States is committed to leveraging the significant expertise of our agencies to coordinate activities, examine any gaps, and identify resources that could potentially fill them. I am pleased that our Department of Defense is actively engaged on this issue, particularly in its efforts to enhance civilian-military cooperation for mitigation and response.

DOD, through the US Pacific Command, has also worked with the Government of Nepal to develop engagement plans to assist with coordination and planning. I understand that Brigadier General Broadmeadow from US Marine Forces Pacific will share the results of that joint planning effort later today.

The third effort in strengthening disaster risk reduction applies across government and the private sector—and that is a renewed focus on "Smart" investments.

Clearly, there is enormous demand for public and private investment in Nepal. By strategically targeting interventions for schools, hospitals, airports, and bridges, we can reduce risk and reinforce infrastructure that will be instrumental in the response effort.

But the government cannot do this alone. It should work closely with the private sector, both locally and internationally, to create a "virtuous cycle of risk reduction:" as we increase the demand for safe building practices and materials, the private sector does well by providing its services and materials accordingly.

But this begs the question: how do we create that demand, especially when secure structures may be more expensive in the short-term? We must fight the perception that short-term savings are more important than long-term security.

So we must take our shift in mindset to the public, building greater awareness for the importance of smart investments.

We should also seek out technology and innovations that provide high-impact, far-reaching solutions to disaster preparedness. For example, we can employ online mapping technology that is fueled by text messages from victims of disasters, so first responders know where to go and when. As demonstrated in Haiti last year, such technology provides low-cost life-lines to those affected in the wake of catastrophe. Such smart applications and investments will undoubtedly save lives in Nepal’s next earthquake.

Lastly, Nepal will reduce the risk of disaster by strengthening regional engagement. India and China will play important roles when a major disaster strikes Nepal—both as first responders and as potential victims themselves. Nepal should establish mechanisms for meaningful dialogue and cooperation with these countries and others. The United States will continue to support such efforts through the diplomatic community. We will also continue to engage with the private sector as partners in risk reduction, given their wide-ranging resources and interest in both the bottom-line and social responsibility.

In summary, Nepal must internalize disaster risk reduction into everything it does, using and communicating expertise across agencies. Together with the private sector, we should challenge ourselves to harness entrepreneurial, innovative ideas and find new models for reducing risk in this country. And we must strengthen regional engagement to bring full resources to bear on the next disaster.

Thanks to this symposium, disaster preparedness is the issue of the day. But it is also the issue of tomorrow. The challenge ahead is to maintain the momentum generated here, even as we face a hundred competing issues that demand our attention. There is not one person in this country—perhaps in this region—that will not be affected by a major disaster here. I encourage you all to use this as an opportunity for consensus building and unity—because decades of progress and millions of lives are at stake.

The United States stands with you as a committed partner. Under the leadership of Ambassador DeLisi, we will continue to support disaster preparedness in this beautiful country.

Ultimately, this work will be measured in great but humble successes: buildings that still stand; lives not lost; and a country better prepared to absorb and respond to Mother Nature’s greatest shock. We cannot avoid the disaster, but we can help minimize the devastation that will inevitably follow. Let us all work together to build for the future, to save lives, and to see that Nepal, with the partnership of its friends, becomes a model of disaster risk reduction for the world. Thank you.