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Effective disaster risk governance saves lives

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A woman in Indonesia searches through the rubble at a beach in Palu, Indonesia, that was entirely washed away by a tsunami a few days earlier. In the background is a beached ship, which was carried ashore by the waves. (October 2018) UNICEF/Watson

Top UN officials have underscored the importance of continuous risk assessment and preparedness to safeguard coastal communities worldwide from the disastrous impact of tsunamis, marking World Tsunami Awareness Day on Thursday.

In a message, Secretary-General António Guterres cited the need for strong disaster risk governance against the rare but incredibly devastating sudden onset disasters.

“When tsunamis strike, they are a supreme test of the governance and institutions that have been put in place to manage disaster risk,” he said.

Strengthening disaster risk governance would help build our resilience to “all hazards, natural and man-made,” he stressed.

World Tsunami Awareness Day, marked annually on 5 November, commemorates the actions of a Japanese village leader, who on that day in 1854, recognized the signs of an approaching tsunami and set fire to his rice sheaves – an improvised but remarkably effective early warning system – saving the lives of the many villagers who saw the smoke and ran uphill to help put out the flames.

COVID-19 ‘tsunami’

Mr. Guterres also drew parallels between tsunamis and the coronavirus pandemic, in their impact on lives.

“We are struggling with what some describe as a tsunami of death and disease due to COVID-19,” he said, adding that the metaphor comes easily because living memory remains strong of the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, in which more than 227,000 people perished.

“Pandemic preparedness can borrow much from the progress we have made in reducing large-scale loss of life from tsunamis,” he added.

Mami Mizutori, Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Disaster Risk Reduction, echoed these words.

“What is true for this biological hazard is true for many other hazards man-made, natural and technological that are threatening our planet,” she said.

Getting the plans right

Ms. Mizutori, who also heads the UN Office for Disaster Risk Reduction (UNDRR), also emphasized the importance of disaster risk governance.

“Clear vision, guidance, coordination and competence are essential to the success of raising tsunami awareness around the world. Lives will be saved, injuries reduced, and economy spared if we get the planning right … Prevention saves lives,” she said.

Similarly, Audrey Azoulay, Director-General of UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), also called for continuous risk assessment and preparedness, especially given that the risks are compounded by the effects of climate change.

“Governments, partner organizations and civil society need to support and facilitate these crucial disaster reduction activities,” she added.

“Saving lives and protecting the livelihoods of communities at risk of tsunamis requires sustained investment in resilient infrastructure, early warning systems and education,” said Ms. Azoulay, stressing: “In this field especially, we need to build the future we want today.”

Helping communities globally

Around the world, UN works to raise awareness and educate the public, support policies, organize drills, create evacuation routes, and undertake several other activities to safeguard communities from tsunamis.

For instance in Asia and the Pacific, the UN regional commission, ESCAP, set up a trust fund for tsunami preparedness in the aftermath of the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami. The initiative supported the establishment of the Indian Ocean Tsunami Warning System, and has expanded its scope to cover island nations in southwest Pacific.

Similarly, UNESCO’s Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission has helped bolster tsunami preparedness in the Caribbean – another region that suffered devastating tsunamis – through better coordination, hazard assessment, warning communication, preparedness activities, response and resilience to tsunamis and other ocean hazards. 

Also, this year, with COVID-19 bringing new and complex challenges to disaster preparedness and response, UNDRR along with the UN Development Programme (UNDP) published a guide for school administrators to help them implement tsunami evacuation centres, should the need arise.

The World Day

In December 2015, the UN General Assembly designated 5 November as World Tsunami Awareness Day, calling on all countries, international bodies and civil society to observe the day, to raise tsunami awareness and share innovative approaches to saving lives.

This year, the World Day promotes target E of the Sendai Seven Campaign, urging governments to develop and put in place national and local disaster risk reduction strategies, by the end of 2020.

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Deadly flooding, heatwaves in Europe, highlight urgency of climate action

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Floods have affected cities across Europe, including Zurich in Switzerland. Unsplash/Claudio Schwarz

Heavy rainfall that has triggered deadly and catastrophic flooding in several western European countries, is just the latest indicator that all nations need to do more to hold back climate change-induced disasters, the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) said on Friday.

The agency said that countries including Belgium, Germany, Luxembourg and the Netherlands had received up to two months’ rain in two days from 14 to 15 July, on ground that was “already near saturation”.

Photos taken at the scene of some of the worst water surges and landslides show huge, gaping holes where earth and buildings had stood until mid-week, after media reports pointed to well over 100 confirmed fatalities in Germany and Belgium on Friday morning, with an unknown number still missing across vast areas.

“We’ve seen images of houses being…swept away, it’s really, really devastating”, said WMO spokesperson Clare Nullis adding that that the disaster had overwhelmed some of the prevention measures put in place by the affected developed countries.

In a statement issued by his Spokesperson, the UN Secretary-General António Guterres, said he was saddened by the loss of life and destruction of property. “He extends his condolences and solidarity to the families of the victims and to the Governments and people of the affected countries.”

The UN chief said the UN stood ready to contribute to ongoing rescue and assistance efforts, if necessary.

“Europe on the whole is prepared, but you know, when you get extreme events, such as what we’ve seen – two months’ worth of rainfall in two days – it’s very, very difficult to cope,” added Ms. Nullis, before describing scenes of “utter devastation” in Germany’s southwestern Rhineland-Palatinate state, which is bordered by France, Belgium and Luxembourg.

Highlighting typical preparedness measures, the WMO official noted In Switzerland’s national meteorological service, MeteoSwiss, had a smartphone application which regularly issued alerts about critical high-water levels.

The highest flood warning is in place at popular tourist and camping locations including lakes Biel, Thun and the Vierwaldstattersee, with alerts also in place for Lake Brienz, the Rhine near Basel, and Lake Zurich.

Dry and hot up north

In contrast to the wet conditions, parts of Scandinavia continue to endure scorching temperatures, while smoke plumes from Siberia have affected air quality across the international dateline in Alaska. Unprecedented heat in western north America has also triggered devastating wildfires in recent weeks.

Among the Scandinavian countries enduring a lasting heatwave, the southern Finnish town of Kouvola Anjala, has seen 27 consecutive days with temperatures above 25C. “This is Finland, you know, it’s not Spain, it’s not north Africa,”, Ms. Nullis emphasised to journalists in Geneva.

“Certainly, when you see the images we’ve seen in Germany, Belgium and the Netherlands this week it’s shocking, but under climate change scenarios, we are going to see more extreme events in particular extreme heat,” the WMO official added.

Troubled waters

Concerns persist about rising sea temperatures in high northern latitudes, too, Ms. Nullis said, describing the Gulf of Finland in the Baltic Sea at a “record” high, “up to 26.6C on 14 July”, making it the warmest recorded water temperature since records began some 20 years ago.

Echoing a call by UN Secretary-General António Guterres to all countries to do more to avoid a climate catastrophe linked to rising emissions and temperatures, Ms. Nullis urged action, ahead of this year’s UN climate conference, known as COP26, in Glasgow, in November.

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South Africa Invests in Biodiversity to Promote Rural Development and Conservation

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South Africa is stepping up investment for its wildlife and biodiversity sectors thanks to a grant of $8.9 million from the Global Environment Facility (GEF). The Catalyzing Financing and Capacity for the Biodiversity Economy Around Protected Areas Project aims to enhance South Africa’s stewardship of its rich biodiversity and expand the benefits of protected areas for local communities. It will also help address high unemployment and limited livelihoods options in and around protected areas as well as inequality in rural economies.

The project supports South Africa’s efforts to foster the unrealized potential of its wildlife and biodiversity sectors as drivers for economic growth, including through expanding conservation areas and mitigating threats to protected areas and conservation objectives.

It puts into action South Africa’s biodiversity economy node concept, which identifies certain areas within the country as containing both high-value biodiversity and opportunities for economic development. The project will target activities in three biodiversity economy nodes: (i) the Greater Addo to Amathole node in the Eastern Cape Province, (ii) the Greater Kruger-Limpopo node in Limpopo Province, and (iii) the Greater-iSimangaliso node in KwaZulu-Natal Province.

“The biodiversity economy is central to South Africa’s tourism industry and building the resilience of communities to climate change. Empowering communities to invest in the biodiversity economy will create jobs, promote biodiversity stewardship and stimulate rural development in a climate-smart way,” said Marie Françoise Marie Nelly, World Bank Country Director for South Africa, Botswana, Eswatini, Lesotho, and Namibia.

Project activities include providing training, mentorship, and capital to micro, small, and medium enterprises (MSMEs); expanding the area of land under protected status through South Africa’s land stewardship  program; and facilitating knowledge exchange to support expansion of the biodiversity economy across the country based on lessons learned from the three nodes.

The project is aligned with South Africa’s National Development Plan 2030 and its National Biodiversity Strategy and Action Plan 2015-2025, both of which identify the wildlife economy as an important sector for job creation and economic growth. It also supports South Africa’s climate change objectives and Nationally Determined Contribution to the Paris Climate Agreement. The project’s focus on inclusive job creation and economic growth through the development of MSMEs, integrated value chains, and entrepreneurship is also fully aligned with a draft World Bank Group Country Partnership Framework for South Africa.

About the Global Environment Facility

The Global Environment Facility (GEF) was established 30 years ago on the eve of the Rio Earth Summit to tackle our planet’s most pressing environmental problems. Since then, it has provided more than $21.5 billion in grants and mobilized an additional $117 billion in co-financing for more than 5,000 projects and programs. The GEF is the largest multilateral trust fund focused on enabling developing countries to invest in nature and supports the implementation of major international environmental conventions including on biodiversity, climate change, chemicals, and desertification. It brings together 184 member governments in addition to civil society, international organization, and private sector partners. Through its Small Grants Programme, the GEF has provided support to more than 25,000 civil society and community initiatives in 135 countries.

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Time running out for countries on climate crisis front line

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The world’s running out of time to limit global temperature rise to below two degrees Celsius, a matter of life or death for climate vulnerable countries on the front line of the crisis, the UN Secretary General reiterated on Thursday.

Speaking to the first Climate Vulnerable Finance Summit of 48 nations systemically exposed to climate related disasters, António Guterres said they needed reassurance that financial and technical support will be forthcoming.

 “To rebuild trust, developed countries must clarify now, how they will effectively deliver $100 billion dollars in climate finance annually to the developing world, as was promised over a decade ago”, he said.

The UN chief said that to get the “world back on its feet”, restore cooperation between governments and recover from the pandemic in a climate resilient way, the most vulnerable countries had to be properly supported.

Risk of calamity

Mr. Guterres asked for a clear plan to reach established climate finance goals by 2025, something he promised to emphasize to the G20 finance ministers at their upcoming meeting this week.

He added that the development finance institutions play a big role supporting countries in the short-term, and they will either facilitate low carbon, climate-resilient recovery, or it will entrench them in high carbon, business-as-usual, fossil fuel-intensive investments. “We cannot let this happen”, he said.

The Secretary-General reminded that the climate impacts we are seeing today – currently at 1.2 degrees above pre-industrial levels – give the world a glimpse of what lies ahead: prolonged droughts, extreme and intensified weather events and ‘horrific flooding’.

“Science has long warned that we need to limit temperature rise to 1.5 degrees. Beyond that, we risk calamity… Limiting global temperature rise is a matter of survival for climate vulnerable countries”, he emphasized.

More adaptation

The UN chief highlighted that only 21% of the climate finance goes towards adaptation and resilience, and there should be a balanced allocation for both adaptation and mitigation.

Current adaptation costs for developing countries are $70 billion dollars a year, and this could rise to as much as $300 billion dollars a year by 2030, he warned.

“I am calling for 50 percent of climate finance globally from developed countries and multilateral development banks to be allocated to adaptation and resilience in developing countries. And we must make access to climate finance easier and faster”.

Invest to save thousands of lives: WMO report

The UN chief also welcomed on Thursday a new report from the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) which reveals that an estimated 23,000 lives per year could be saved – with potential benefits of at least $162 billion per year – through improving weather forecasts, early warning systems, and climate information, known as hydromet.

In a video message to mark the publication of the first Hydromet Gap Report,, the Secretary-General said that these services were essential for building resilience in the face of climate change.

Mr. Guterres called once more for a breakthrough on adaptation and resilience in 2021, with significant increases in the volume and predictability of adaptation finance.

He noted that Small Island Developing States and Least Developed Countries where large gaps remain in basic weather data, would benefit the most.

“These affect the quality of forecasts everywhere, particularly in the critical weeks and days when anticipatory actions are most needed”, he said.

According to WMO, investments in multi-hazard early warning systems create benefits worth at least ten times their costs and are vital to building resilience to extreme weather.

Currently, only 40 percent of countries have effective warning systems in place. 

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