Mainstreaming Disaster Risk Reduction in Asia

Maria Otero
Under Secretary for Democracy and Global Affairs 
Washington Marriott Hotel
Washington, DC
April 15, 2011

Good morning. It is a distinct pleasure to be here with you all today. A special welcome to those of you who have traveled great distances for this important meeting. I want to thank the World Bank, United Nations, USAID, and the Government of Nepal, for bringing us together. And I want to acknowledge the honorable Ambassador Scott DeLisi, my esteemed colleagues from USAID, Don Steinberg and Nancy Lindborg, and the distinguished Ministers and Experts in the audience. I find myself in very good company this morning.

It feels like yesterday that I was walking through Kathmandu, the same walk you just saw in the movie. It was a sobering experience, to walk through tiny alleyways as tall, unstable buildings loomed precariously over us on both sides. Just a short two months ago, many of us were sitting in Kathmandu discussing the critical challenge of disaster risk reduction—and in the following weeks we witnessed an earthquake in New Zealand and another in Japan. The latter killed 13, 000 people with another 15,000 still missing. The international response to this tragic disaster continues today. It is a daily reminder of the danger we face in other earthquake prone parts of the world.

Japan has long been a leader in disaster-preparedness. Their efforts and investments in past years no doubt saved many lives during last month’s disaster of unprecedented scale.

Like the Japanese, we in this room know that we cannot entirely avoid natural hazards; but we can minimize and reduce their impact. So as we mourn the tragic loss of lives, let us also honor the dead by ensuring that future earthquakes and natural disasters do not claim the lives of so many.

With that, I would like to touch on three ways that the United States is implementing our own disaster risk reduction in this hemisphere and around the world: 1) leveraging the unique strengths of diverse government agencies; 2) making "smart" investments with long-term dividends of safety and security; and 3) working closely with neighbors and partner countries.

Let me start by saying that the United States is by no means immune to the tragedy and loss of natural disasters. In 2005, we watched with horror as an entire American city flooded after Hurricane Katrina, killing thousands and displacing hundreds of thousands. In the aftermath of the most destructive natural disaster in our nation’s history, we saw a renewed focus on disaster preparedness and response. In particular, we have learned the importance of leveraging the full spectrum of expertise and resources within our government’s federal and state agencies.

In the United States, we leverage the unique capabilities of our domestic agencies with international outreach, including the State Department, USAID, and the Departments of Defense, Energy, Homeland Security, and the U.S. Geological Survey.

For example, in order to foster local prevention and risk reduction efforts, the Department of Defense conducts joint trainings with other militaries—such as in Nepal—to provide integrated assistance in Disaster Relief missions. The military is also working with civilian agencies to establish agreements that will facilitate urgent transport and use of infrastructure—a critical step in improving disaster response and management.

Likewise, the U.S. Agency for International Development contributes enormous expertise to this area, which you just heard about from my colleague Raj Shah.

The United States’ response to the earthquakes and tsunami in Japan demonstrated this inter-agency coordination: last month, we deployed 144 personnel from US federal and state institutions, including a search and rescue team from the state of Virginia, and members of the Los Angeles Fire Department. The Department of Defense was able to quickly re-direct personnel already in the area to carry-out disaster management and response. And the National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration engaged earth observation satellites to identify the extent and severity of the disaster.

But our focus today is not just the speed or breadth of our response to such tragedies. Indeed, we are here for a shift in thinking—from disaster response to risk reduction. From reaction to prevention. 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.

Which brings me to my second point—that of "smart" investment. In the United States, particularly in regions prone to natural disasters, we have taken a close look a construction codes, building practices, and public safety measures enshrined in federal and state law. These standards—and their enforcement—often represent the difference between lives lost and saved in the wake of tragedy.

No one wants to build a hospital, school or bridge twice, especially when funds are few and far between. But instead of skimming upfront costs with subpar construction, we should recognize the long-term dividends—both financially and socially—of committing to sound, smart infrastructure now. Such smart investments will undeniably save lives and promote long-term security—especially in fragile, post-disaster environments when the inevitable tragedy does occur.

Smart investment also means harnessing the power of new technology for high-impact, far-reaching solutions. For example, online mapping technology that is fueled by text messages from victims of disasters can be used by first responders to know where to go and when. Likewise, upfront investments in communication systems and public awareness campaigns can save lives reduce impact, as we saw in Japan.

Of course, as we look to increase our readiness for natural disasters, we must also recognize that neither hurricanes nor earthquakes have reverence for political boundaries. And in times of such crisis, our neighbors are our closest friends. Which is why, as my third point, I want to underscore the importance of regional and international cooperation on disaster risk reduction.

Here in North America, we have bilateral emergency management agreements with the Governments of Mexico and Canada. Through these agreements, we work together to strengthen our resilience as a region – focusing on capabilities to mitigate, respond to, and recover from disruptions. Such cooperation allows us to streamline secure communications and transportation networks, including our civil aviation system—all of which are crucial components to disaster response.

On a global basis, we engage extensively on a bilateral basis and with international organizations, including the Asia Development Bank, DFID, and many others represented here, as we facilitate capacity building and enhance standards that contribute to our overall security.

One example is our work with the United Nations International Strategy for Disaster Reduction, which you will hear more about from Under Secretary General Valerie Amos. I am pleased that the UN World Food Program (WFP) and Malaysian Ministry of Defense officially launched last week the first East Asian hub under the United Nations Humanitarian Response Depot network, joining existing facilities in Italy, Panama, the UAE and Ghana. This establishment is an example of the kind of international cooperation we need—especially in Asia.

We must all work together—and especially with our neighbors—to strengthen cross-border cooperation on disaster prevention and response.

Ultimately, disaster risk reduction 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 by leveraging the full expertise of governments, making smart investments, and increasing regional cooperation, we can help minimize the devastation that will inevitably follow.

One last anecdote before I close: When we were in Kathmandu discussing this topic in January, I had the honor of meeting the Mayor of Christchurch, New Zealand, Bob Parker. Mayor Parker gave a compelling speech on the importance of this work to his own city. Eight days later, a 6.3 magnitude earthquake struck 6.2 miles southeast of Christchurch, killing 172 people and causing widespread damage. The timing of the quake was a reminder of the inevitability of such disasters—even to those who plan and prepare like Mayor Parker. Indeed, our horizon is darkened by natural disasters we cannot avoid, but with your commitments to disaster risk reduction, we will undoubtedly avoid the darkest times ahead.