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[Herald Interview] ‘Learning, preparedness key to disaster risk reduction’

This is the 10th installment in a series of interviews with chiefs of United Nations offices in Korea. ― Ed.

The Sewol ferry disaster in April raised global alarm over disaster prevention and crisis management. A public furor persists over the government’s flawed response, while the state auditor billed it a “man-made debacle” resulting from a concoction of official negligence, corruption and corporate greed.

Despite the continuing grief and misery at the rescue scene, Korea should now work to ramp up its disaster management capabilities by learning from its own failures and reinforce education for the next generations, the chief of the U.N. disaster reduction agency’s regional office said.

“We don’t see any disasters as natural. So the hazards are natural, but if you really examine all disasters, they’re man-made,” said Sanjaya Bhatia, head of the U.N. International Strategy for Disaster Reduction Office for Northeast Asia in Incheon.

“There’s also a saying that disasters happen when people forget the last one ― and it’s true. We should never forget it and try to learn from everything that happened in the past and examine, study, research it, and find the lesson and improve for next time.”

As chief of the Global Education and Training Institute for disaster risk reduction, he stressed the role of childhood education in curbing disaster risks and losses.

“We should make sure that our children know about what happened,” Bhatia said.

“One generation has experiences of a disaster and the next generation doesn’t know what happened or forgets about it and this thing will happen again in our time. As far as disasters are concerned, history has to be much longer than human life.”
Sanjaya Bhatia
Sanjaya Bhatia

The India-born disaster risk expert took office in January, bringing with him 20-odd years of experience in government and multinational agencies, including the World Bank.

His career initially hovered around economic development, Bhatia said, but he gradually turned his sights to humanitarian relief, postdisaster and postconflict responses in line with the increasingly complex nature of disasters.

“What I realized was that you cannot have sustainable economic development unless you tackle the issues of natural disasters because disasters push back people and the economy, especially major natural disasters,” he said.

Next year will be critical as new key international frameworks are underway on three aspects of sustainable growth ― disaster risk reduction, climate change and development.

The UNISDR is coordinating a world conference that will kick off in March in Sendai, Japan, and unveil a 10-year agenda to replace the Hyogo Framework for Action, a guideline for disaster risk reduction.

While retaining its predecessor’s “skeleton,” the new checklist will likely address the role of the private sector and the growing needs for capacity building, and will tie together the three core elements, Bhatia said.

“Many countries are saying that we should give more capacity development at the local levels, strengthening local governments to deal with disaster management,” he said.

“Another thing is linking up disaster risk reduction, climate change and sustainable development because all these three go together. We cannot have sustainable development if we do not reduce disaster risks and we don’t adapt to climate change.”

Amid accelerating urbanization and the increasingly serious impact of global warming, the Geneva-headquartered organization is carrying out a campaign to make cities resilient to the rising frequency and intensity of hydrological and wind-related events.

The more than 1,900 municipalities across the globe that have joined the drive, including 100 in Korea, are regularly sharing good and bad practices and learning from each other.

The number of city dwellers worldwide is at an all-time high of about 3.5 billion and likely to double in the next 30 to 40 years driven by developing countries, the U.N. projected last year.

“We’re about bringing global practices and sharing of experiences, and then thinking about your own experiences and trying to apply them to the situations,” Bhatia said.

With the demand surging for capacity building, he aims to establish the training institute as a “global center of excellence” by providing modules, educating trainers and eventually running a franchise.

“What we want to do ultimately probably next year is to standardize modules which we’re franchising out to other countries,” he added.

“We also would like to network all these training institutes so that we can try to better provide services to national and local governments who are looking for capacity building for disaster management, natural or man-made.”

By Shin Hyon-hee (