Windows of opportunity for change
By Kilian Murphy

Thursday, 12 March 2015

Kilian ADPC picture

Disasters are destructive events that can cause loss of life, damage to critical infrastructure and disruption to business operations. However, it is important to acknowledge the role of disasters as catalysts for change, which can open ‘windows of opportunity’ for positive action. Disruptive events can bring into sharp focus the limitations of existing systems and the need to introduce new Disaster Risk Reduction (DRR) policies, strategies and measures to strengthen levels of resilience across society.

Policymakers face a number of challenges in view of disasters, particularly during times when resilience building is not a social priority. Government decision makers work under budget constraints, have to fulfill previous commitments to their constituents as well as undertake actions that maximize votes. They may be faced with the choice of investing in disaster mitigation measures that may only pay off in decades, or instead, focus on projects which provide more immediate benefits to taxpayers, such as transport infrastructure or recreational facilities.

The occurrence of disasters can help to overcome these challenges by acting as a prompt for greater resilience building efforts and changes in approach. Disasters, despite being traumatic experiences, can bind people together in helping to establish unity of purpose as shown by the following examples.

The case of post-tsunami Sri Lanka demonstrates how a destructive event can be the trigger for constructive action. Following the devastation of the Indian Ocean Tsunami of 2004, the Government of Sri Lanka took advantage of public and political recognition of the need to improve the country’s disaster management provisions. Six months on, in May 2005, a Disaster Management Act establishing a comprehensive Disaster Risk Management system including the creation of a national Disaster Management Centre was passed. Furthermore, the country’s first national disaster management plan was published in December 2005, marking a shift towards comprehensive DRR planning in Sri Lanka which came about as a direct result of the Tsunami a year earlier.

Likewise in Japan, the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake and Tsunami led to an important mentality change in the country’s DRR planning. Sandra Wu, Chairperson and CEO of Kokusai Kogyo and Chair of UNISDR PSAG, described how both the public and private sectors shifted towards a view that “saving lives is more important than protecting the status quo” and were awakened to the value of combining hard and soft mitigation measures as opposed to simply relying on traditional hard, structural approaches.

Nonetheless, it is important to recognize that adaptations which come about as a direct result of disasters are reactive responses to destructive events despite the positive actions which may result. Prominent intergovernmental forums must hence be utilized as proactive means by which new approaches and strategies for strengthening resilience can be introduced even when disasters are not at the forefront of public thinking.

High profile intergovernmental global and regional forums, such as the World Conference on DRR or the Asian Ministerial Conference on DRR, also represent important ‘policy windows’. These gatherings can help pave the way for relevant policy changes at national and local levels and outline the role that the private and public sectors, along with academia and non-profits, can play in DRR.

The recently released Draft post-2015 framework for DRR to be agreed upon in Sendai shows promising signs. It includes specific indicators to measure progress in reducing human and economic losses from disasters as well as taking into account the number of national and local strategies for DRR and level of international cooperation between countries.

These specific goals underline the important ‘window of opportunity’ which The 3rd WCDRR in Sendai represents for all the stakeholders involved. The new framework holds the potential to reinvigorate global resilience building efforts, and build on the progress made under the original HFA, rather than waiting for the next major disaster to prompt us into action.

Kilian Murphy is a young professional in Disaster Risk Management currently interning at Asian Disaster Preparedness Center (ADPC), a leading regional resource hub for disaster risk reduction in South and Southeast Asia. He previously studied Disaster Management and Emergency Planning (MSc) at Coventry University, UK. His Twitter handle is @kilmur.