Interview with Margareta Wahlström
Creating risk-resilient societies worldwide

Margareta Wahlström is Special Representative of the United Nations Secretary-General for Disaster Risk Reduction and head of the UN Office for Disaster Risk Reduction (UNISDR). UNISDR serves as the focal point within the United Nations network for the coordination of disaster risk reduction. Over the past decade, UNISDR has raised worldwide awareness of natural hazards and risk resilience.

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Over the next several years, UNISDR will help create and leverage private sector disaster-management solutions on a global scale in collaboration with public- and private-sector participants. The framework for these solutions, created jointly with PwC, will serve as a foundation from which to build an international public-private collaborative platform for disaster resilience—with the goal of creating risk-resilient societies worldwide.

Margareta Wahlström

How can we change the public conversation from recovery to preparedness?

The bottom line is this: Anything that you do today is more cost effective than if you have to do it in 10 or 15 years. Today, there is an expectation of satisfaction within an enormously short timeframe, and we lack the instinct and space to think 30 years ahead. To change the conversation, we have to inscribe preparedness within a broader framework.

We need to talk about risk perception and responsibilities. And we need to engage political leaders and be more aware of the timeframes within which they operate. Lebanon and Nigeria are two good examples that illustrate how consistent political leadership can shift the public conversation not just from recovery to preparedness but even further—to a focus on a holistic approach to disaster risk management.

Most people actually know what to do, so the real question is how to move from a situation of complacency—where disaster risk management is not the priority—to a situation where it becomes the priority because it’s good for business.

How do we make disaster risk management a priority?

It requires leadership and political focus. It’s having the courage and the guts to look through the prism of a slightly longer timeframe than only two years or even one year in this rapidly evolving environment.

A huge challenge is that risk today is developing faster than it is being addressed, in both the public and private sectors. Rapid economic growth, such as we have seen in East Asia, contributes to the accumulation of disaster risk. With growth comes urbanization, and the speed of urbanization drives risk when infrastructure to support the new populations can’t keep pace with their urban growth.

We don’t link the evolution of risk around us to our own situation—either as individuals or businesses or governments. We need to broaden our understanding of disaster risk.

Can you provide an example of the evolution of risk?

I visited Thailand after the 2011 floods and met with some of the corporations that had been under water for nine weeks and had suffered enormous losses. We asked, “Did you do a risk assessment when you moved in here 20 years ago?” And they said, “Yes, of course we did.” Well, 20 years ago everything was fine: There was good transport, access to clean water, and access to labor. But everything had changed over those 20 years.

How can business and government collaborate better in the aftermath of a disaster, especially when it comes to rebuilding resilient infrastructure?

I believe strongly that for post-disaster collaboration to be successful, it needs to start before the disaster happens. Partnerships that are based on trust and knowledge and understanding of each other’s sphere of power and influence can only be built when the parties are not under stress. Otherwise it can easily lead to tension and underutilization of available resources.

Today, every reconstruction operation goes back to zero, and you learn the same things all over again. So there is an opportunity here for both the private and public sectors to assist and contribute to standardizing at least some of the basics of reconstruction operations.

Although they sit on opposite sides of the world, both New Zealand and Scotland are beacons of good practice in terms of innovative public-private partnerships. In Scotland’s case, flood risk has been dramatically reduced. In New Zealand, a decision by the city of Christchurch’s utilities to strengthen disaster-risk management enabled the Port of Littleton to reopen quickly, telecommunications to remain operational, and bridges to remain standing after the February 2011 earthquake.

There is a role for a very broad variety of private-sector actors here—not only the ones who look at insurance and infrastructure, but a whole range of corporations because they all have relationships with their consumers, with the labor force, with the global markets.

What are the challenges of public-private sector collaboration?

As government budgets get tighter, officials hope the private sector will pick up some of the investment. Meanwhile, the private sector expects an incentive in the form of financial support or an injection of public investment if it is doing something for the public good. And I think the conversations that acknowledge this gap are not yet concretized enough.

How can governments best mitigate disaster risk?

The reality is that most governments think they have a disaster risk-reduction policy, but when you look more closely, the bulk of the resources worldwide are going into disaster response. And that’s for good reason because the costs are escalating very rapidly.

But with better preparedness, with clear strategies for prevention, there could be a more balanced approach, even with limited resources. If, for example, half of those resources were invested wisely into prevention and mitigation, over time they would certainly reduce the resources you need for disaster relief.

Another area for improvement is for governments to include the private sector as active partners in their national disaster-risk reduction platforms. Canada is one of the countries taking the lead in this regard, with 20 private-sector bodies contributing to the forum.

What role do local governments play?

Local governments are face-to-face with these issues every day, which is why UNISDR launched our campaign for resilient cities. More than 1,450 local governments have joined, and the intent is to use the power of numbers and accumulated knowledge to help national governments adjust their strategies and policies so that they are better directed at supporting the best in local government.

And I really see the private sector at its most effective when they partner with local governments. In addition to the practical work, it can also illustrate what the resilience investment environment can look like. There are many other actors on this stage besides political, governmental, and technical organizations. Architects, tunnel engineers, urban planners, professional associations—they all drive this agenda.

That’s what our collaboration with PwC and other private-sector actors is grounded in—this idea that we can help strengthen both the local and the national agendas.

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