“Sweden has been proactive “

Published 12 March 2015 in:

Ms. Margareta Wahlströšm, Special Representative of the Secretary-General for the Implementation of the International Strategy for Disaster Reduction. Photo: UN Photo/Evan Schneider

Between 14 and 18 March, representatives of the countries of the world will meet in Sendai, Japan, where the devastating earthquake took place three years ago, to agree on a new framework for disaster risk reduction to replace the Hyogo Framework for Action from 2005. Ahead of the conference, Margareta Wahlström, the UN Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Disaster Risk Reduction, has led efforts to coordinate disaster risk reduction work under the aegis of the UN. Swedish Foreign Policy News spoke to her ahead of the conference about her role in this work, her expectations for the conference and Sweden’s contribution to disaster risk reduction efforts.

What role do you have in disaster risk reduction in your capacity of Special Representative?

Our office has the task of pursuing and coordinating this issue over a longer period of time. The United Nations International Strategy for Disaster Reduction was created in 2000 and given the task of advancing the disaster risk issue within the UN. I was appointed in 2008 as the UN Special Representative on the issue and have been leading the work since then. It is about forging personal contacts, building networks and stimulating research that contributes to progress in risk reduction work.

Global efforts go back more than 30 years, when the first framework was established. But it has been in the last 10 years that several major actors have realised that there is a real and fundamental problem when many major natural disasters have affected the world in greater number and with greater force.

How has disaster risk reduction been developed?

There are primarily two areas in which I can see major development in the issue.

Firstly, many countries have realised how important disaster risk reduction is. Over the past 10 years, the number of countries taking part in development and cooperation projects has increased significantly. Countries that can be regarded as ‘beginners’ and that have less experience in this type of issue have begun to review their institutions, policies and legislation related to disaster risk.

The other clear development I have seen – and that will also be a priority in the new framework – is how countries strengthen their national capacity for disaster response to be better able to react when a disaster-like situation occurs. We have monitoring systems whereby countries report on their progress every other year, so we can clearly monitor developments in terms of capacity, knowledge and when new investments are made.

What are your expectations ahead of the conference in Sendai?

I believe and hope that it will be a great success. We can already see that a great many people will be attending – some 8 000 people are expected to take part in the actual conference. Many of them are key global figures – we are expecting 20 heads of state and over 120 ministers to come to Sendai. The fact that so many leaders are taking this so seriously gives the issue important political weight. And we will have over 700 events for the public, where many other actors will also take part. We hope that many new partnerships and cooperation opportunities will be forged over the course of the conference. Many new actors that show an interest in contributing will have the opportunity to make contacts and collaborate in this work.

Before the conference has even begun, 70 per cent of all the text relating to the framework has been approved by all participating countries. I hope that the remaining 30 per cent will be agreed on during the conference. What remains are the issues of international cooperation between countries and financing issues. The goal is to find solutions that can then be transferred to the other processes under way during the year, such as the Post-2015 Agenda and the climate negotiations.

But above all, I hope that we can decide on a framework that will be relevant for 20 years and longer.

How has Sweden influenced the disaster risk reduction issue? 

Sweden has played a proactive role and had major influence over policy decisions and in identifying new disaster risks in recent years. Sweden has made an active contribution to this issue – as an EU Member State and also as an independent state – to develop the new framework. We should not forget either that Swedish researchers have been influencing and advancing disaster risk reduction issues for 20 years now.

Sweden has been proactive at national level, too, primarily through the Swedish Civil Contingencies Agency, and other institutions have built up knowledge bases and purely practical approaches to disaster risks. A national platform has been built up comprising some 20 government agencies that all take part in regular meetings and have helped identify disaster risks and create response plans.