The Kobe conference: a review
by Peter Walker, Feinstein International Famine Center March 2005

Kobe, Japan, was the venue for the World Conference on Disaster Reduction between 18 and 22 January 2005. Ten years ago, the city suffered one of the most devastating earthquakes in modern history. Today, all has been rebuilt. A few of the older buildings still have cracks, and not everyone has yet recovered from the trauma and the loss of homes and livelihoods. But the real impact of Kobe is how it has transformed itself. Science, civil society, local government, the corporate sector and national government came together ten years ago and have worked together since to create an impressive rebirth. The lesson – that recovery after disaster has to be driven by the survivors of the disaster – has been well learned in Kobe.

Some 4,000 people came to Kobe to attend the World Conference on Disaster Reduction. The real business of these international conferences is always in the drafting committee, hidden away, like the baby at the middle of a Russian doll, behind layers and layers of other seemingly important processes. On the outside there were the public NGO meetings, great sessions on listening to the voice of victims, bio-diversity and disasters and protecting cultural heritage from the effects of disasters. Most sessions, though, had a distinctly urban/earthquake theme to them. Then there was the exhibition hall, with just about every gadget manufacturer showing their wares, from freshly run-up tsunami beach-warning signs in Sinhalese to survival rations and hi-tech search and rescue equipment. More sobering were the photo exhibitions of the great Kobe earthquake. In the middle of the week, ReliefWeb launched its new website in the exhibition (www.reliefweb.net).

The new UN early-warning system website (www.hewsweb.org) was also launched. This site brings together in one place all of the geological and weather-related warning systems of the UN in a ‘global multi-hazard watch site to support humanitarian preparedness’, to quote from the front page. The conference saw states and UN agencies pledging to create a tsunami warning system for the Indian Ocean, to be operational within one year (see www.unisdr.org/wcdr/media/pressrelease/PR-200505-IEWP.pdf).

Next were the thematic clusters: five parallel sets of workshops throughout the week on just about every possible subject. For me, the sessions on climate change and disasters were the most interesting, with a fascinating study presented by Columbia University on using climate change data to help plan agricultural development in Kenya and Somalia. (see http://iri.columbia.edu/africa/index.html). At the other end of the spectrum, the Swiss canton Valais presented a review of its planning and implementation process for flood, avalanche and mudslide control, a process that, like the rebuilding of Kobe, involves local village groups, municipal authorities and researchers from local universities.

Government delegations spent most of their time at the plenary and high-level roundtable discussions, which featured formal presentations and discussions.

Finally, at the heart of the Russian doll, there was the drafting committee. This was the real political battlefield. It was here that the Hyogo Declaration (named after Kobe’s prefecture) was negotiated (www.unisdr.org/wcdr/official-doc/Draft-Hyogo-Declaration.pdf). The declaration sets out the approach of the community gathered at Kobe:

We recognize the intrinsic relationship between disaster reduction, sustainable development and poverty eradication, among others, and the importance of involving all stakeholders, including governments, regional and international organizations and financial institutions, civil society, including Non-governmental organizations and volunteers, the private sector and the scientific community.

This is important. Disasters, at this conference and hopefully from now on, will be seen essentially as an expression of development failure, and their reduction as a matter of good governance, risk reduction and livelihood focus.

It is to this committee that the draft programme outcome document was brought, fought over and finally agreed upon (www.unisdr.org/wcdr/official-doc/programme-outcome.pdf). There were three key battles:

  1. Would climate change be mentioned or not? The US delegation was adamantly opposed to the use of the phrase (global change and weather pattern change were fine, but not climate change). In the end, after heavy lobbying led by the Swedish, British and Swiss delegations, acknowledgement of climate change stayed in. A small victory.
  2. Would specific targets be set for disaster reduction? The UK NGOs TearFund and ActionAid led the battle to persuade delegations to set meaningful targets for disaster reduction, but in the end the fight was lost, despite support from many country delegations. The outcome document is full of those weasel-words ‘should’, ‘endeavour’ ‘support’, ‘cooperate’.
  3. The third battle was won. Although the text contains no specific targets, it does include a commitment to a mechanism to set them up. States have pledged to ‘publish national baseline assessments of the status of disaster risk reduction’, ‘Publish and periodically update a summary of national programmes for disaster risk reduction’, and ‘Promote the integration of risk reduction associated with existing climate variability and future climate change’.

NGOs, both Northern and Southern, would have liked more. Some 45 groups came together to publish their own version of the declaration, calling for ‘people-centered disaster risk reduction and disaster preparedness’. The statement urged that the WCDR Framework of Action:

  • Integrates disaster risk reduction into development policy.
  • Delineates realistic targets and timeframes.
  • Calls for financial commitments.
  • Outlines an accountable process for mainstreaming disaster risk reduction.

The civil society initiative, thought up on day two and presented on day four of the conference, captured the concern of many that, following the Indian Ocean tsunami, it would be immoral to let the conference proceed with no changed commitment, no tangible targets and no measurable goals on disaster reduction.

The final outcome document was a hard-fought compromise, but credit should be given to civil society groups for their vociferous lobbying, and to those governments that seized the moment and pushed for disaster reduction to be taken seriously, as part of development and not as an afterthought.

Will it all make any difference? At times, international diplomacy and negotiation feel like a geological process. One sees so little change on a day-to-day basis, but over the years the small changes add up. If we look back to the beginning of the International Decade for Natural Disaster Reduction in 1990, then the outcome document of this conference is a great step forward. Disasters as development failures, not geo-metrological hazards; mitigation through integrated approaches, not just technology; rebuilding through the leadership of civil society, not central planning. We have come a long way in the rhetoric. Let us hope it translates into action.


Peter Walkeris Director of the Feinstein International Famine Center, Tufts University. His email address is peter.walker@tufts.edu.

 

Feedback

Like Peter Walker, a colleague that has all my admiration, I was a participant in the Kobe (Hyogo) Conference. Like him I think substantial grounds have been covered, albeit at geological speed. Unlike Peter, though, I did not witness vociferous lobbying by civil society, whose protection from hazards still rely on central governments deicsions (and enforcement thereof). Unlike him, I think that the final outcome does not constitute more assertive political commitment than the Yokohama Strategy (1994). But I faithfully look forward to a possible review Conference in say 2010 or 1015 to assure all of us who care about preventing disasters that effective progress is being made. We were all in Kobe six months ago already. How long before we start hiding behind yet another evaluation process?

Francesco Pisano, Senior Officer, United Nations, Geneva

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