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  • Keynote Speech at the Third UN World Conference on Disaster Risk Reduction, Public Forum "Disaster Risk Reduction and Human Security": Added Value of the Human Security Approach to Disaster Risk Reduction

Speech Transcripts

March 17, 2015

Keynote Speech at the Third UN World Conference on Disaster Risk Reduction, Public Forum "Disaster Risk Reduction and Human Security": Added Value of the Human Security Approach to Disaster Risk Reduction

Tohoku University, Miyagi, Japan

Ambassador Yukio Takasu, Special Advisor to the Secretary-General on Human Security,
Ms. Mehrnaz Mostafavi, Chief of the United Nations Human Security Unit,
Distinguished panelists, guests, participants,
Ladies and gentlemen,

It's my great privilege and honor to be with you here today to speak on the added value of the human security approach to disaster risk reduction on the occasion of the 3rd World Conference on Disaster Risk Reduction here in Sendai.

The video produced by the UN Human Security Unit is concise and excellent, and it gives us a good overview of the human security approach and its application to the operations across UN agencies. The approach is comprehensive, people-centered, context-specific and prevention-oriented, and the solutions provided are cross-sectoral and locally driven. One key message of the video is that human security focuses on communities and approaches them by combining bottom-up empowerment and top-down protection. This implies that provision of human security is achieved through cooperation among various agents, such as states, international organizations, local governments, local civil society organizations, and local people themselves.

The UN Resolution A/RES/66/290, adopted unanimously on September 10, 2012, defines human security as "the right of people to live in freedom and dignity, free from poverty and despair." Based on this definition, natural disasters -- huge earthquakes, tsunamis, typhoons, floods, snow storms, volcanic eruptions, droughts, wildfires, heat waves, and so on -- are major threats to human security. They threaten human survival; they damage the economic and social foundations of people's wellbeing; and they traumatize survivors, family members and friends of the victims. In other words, in order to protect human security in the various regions of the world that are prone to natural disasters, disaster risk reduction, or DRR, is essential. DRR contributes to human security.

Now I would like to reverse the order of the two concepts: how does the human security approach contribute to disaster risk reduction? What is the added value of the human security approach to disaster risk reduction?

Before discussing this question, we have to recognize that the word "disaster" already implies "human elements." A natural disaster is not simply a natural phenomenon. It is a natural phenomenon that causes significant damage to society. Often, disaster studies further differentiate natural disasters from natural hazards. Natural hazards are those natural physical phenomena that have the potential of adversely affecting humans and their societies. Natural disasters are those natural hazards that actually cause significant damage to humans and their societies. The magnitude of a natural disaster is not the same as the magnitude of a natural hazard as a physical phenomenon. Where there are no humans nearby, a medium-scale volcanic eruption does not become a natural disaster. On the other hand, a medium-sized earthquake causes a huge natural disaster if it occurs directly below a congested urban center unprotected by earthquake-resilient architecture. In other words, disaster risk reduction efforts necessarily take human and social elements into consideration.

Then, what is the added value of the human security approach? I think there are at least several aspects of the human security approach that can be useful and can make disaster risk reduction more effective.

First, the comprehensive aspect of the human security approach can remind policymakers involved in DRR efforts of the complex interactions among natural systems and social systems. DRR efforts sometimes tend to focus on the engineering solutions based on the geological and climatological analyses of the natural hazards. These efforts are absolutely necessary. But in addition to such scientific and engineering efforts to cope with natural hazards, the human security approach helps us widen our attention to the complex interaction among the geological/climatological phenomena, biological/ecological phenomena, and human/social phenomena. I cannot overemphasize the need for this kind of holistic approach given how much international cooperation organizations tend to specialize in their area of expertise. Natural disasters know no bureaucratic boundaries. The human security approach calls for more coordination and integration among bureaucratic systems both nationally and internationally.

Second, since hazards become disasters mainly through social settings, societal measures are crucial. For example, in this 3rd UN World Conference for Disaster Risk Reduction, many participants, including Japan and JICA, argue for the need of prior investment in DRR. The human security approach can emphasize the necessity of investing not only in hard infrastructure such as sea walls, earthquake resilient buildings, floodways, and early-warning systems, but also in soft infrastructure that make social systems more responsive and resilient. Planning and preparation for a disaster should include the understanding of the complexity of a society, such as ethnic composition and local history.

Third, the human security approach does not allow complacency. Worst case scenarios should not be excluded in the planning process. For example, hard infrastructure such as big sea walls could create a false sense of security. In the East Japan Great Earthquake, many people living near the big sea walls failed to escape quickly enough as they believed that no tsunamis would flow over the wall. The human security approach pushes us to imagine situations considered to be highly unlikely and to think of ways to cope with them.

Fourth, the people-centered aspect of human security could shed light on the needs of the most vulnerable in disaster affected areas. The elderly, women and people with disabilities often suffer disproportionately in major natural disasters. In providing goods and facilities to disaster-affected areas, it is important to take into consideration gender and the needs of the most vulnerable. Otherwise, this well-intended humanitarian aid runs the risk of being of little use to these groups or even negatively affecting human dignity. Vulnerable individuals who are likely to be the most adversely affected by disasters should be given the opportunity to actively participate in the planning and preparation against disasters.

Fifth, the human security approach can also encourage DRR activities to consider the importance of survivors' human security. Since survivors may further suffer from social disorder after a disaster hits, measures to prevent looting and violence should be introduced. Natural disasters sometimes aggravate social discrimination against minorities. Therefore, education and promotion of anti-discriminatory attitudes during normal times are essential. Often, survivors continue to be traumatized by the memories of the disaster as well as the loss of their family members and friends. Programs that support the victims' mental health are therefore an important component of post-disaster reconstruction.

The projects funded by the UN Security Units embody these aspects of the human security approach. JICA also makes efforts to incorporate the human security approach in our DRR efforts. For example, after the super typhoon Haiyan (Yolanda) hit the Philippines, JICA extended a range of assistance to the affected area sequentially with some overlapping periods: sending emergency medical teams, dispatching experts for quick reconstruction and future planning in the spirit of "Build Back Better," providing grant aid for rebuilding infrastructure, and arranging stand-by ODA loans for further financing. We tried our best to become as comprehensive and holistic as possible. We tried our best to be as inclusive and people-centered as possible. And we tried our best to prevent future occurrence of disasters.

Though they may not mention the word "human security," good DRR efforts already incorporate these aspects of the human security approach. As I said before, natural disasters are not simple natural phenomena; they are human phenomena. When seriously thinking about all of the dimensions of DRR, measures similar to the human security approach naturally come to the forefront. But I believe that by making the human security approach more explicit in our disaster risk reduction efforts, we will be able to better plan and prepare for disaster prevention without leaving the most vulnerable people behind.

Given the complex reality surrounding human security, I have just touched upon a few elements of added value that the human security approach can contribute to. I am looking forward to the panel discussion for further insights and concrete suggestions on how to make disaster risk reduction efforts more comprehensive and effective.

Thank you.


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