Saturday, January 10, 2015

Disaster Management: The UNISDR and Building Resilient Cities

The older I get, the more I understand the sayings "it's better to be safe than sorry" and "you have to pull yourself up by your bootstraps".  In my opinion, these two sayings combined, in essence, represent the concept of resilience.  The idea of preparing for the worst should it occur and relying on yourself and your capabilities instead of being dependent on others to get you through the challenges that present themselves really resonates with me.  By and large, no one cares for or knows more about a community and the needs of its members like the people who live there.  Residents are also the first people on the scene in the event of an emergency because they are physically the closest and it is unlikely that all of them will be completely incapacitated.  As a result, they are generally the best people to deal with any issues, especially when the community is vulnerable.  It's also essential the communities remain as autonomous as possible so that they can rebuild because it is unlikely that external funding would continue long enough to last through the entire recovery period.  It also enables communities to rebuild in the way that they want to, after all, they are the ones who will be living there, the fate of their city, town or village is tied to their future while the people offering external assistance will eventually leave.

One of our lecture slides from the Health Aspects of Disaster course included a diagram that supported the principles of building resiliency by illustrating the benefits of anticipatory actions compared to post-onset response procedures.

Components of Reducing Vulnerability:
  • Prevention
  • Mitigation
  • Preparedness
  • Most cost-effective
  • Pre-impact (when it is likely easier to manoeuvre and implement preparations)
  • Community-based (grassroots)
  • More sustainable
Components of Crisis-Management:
  • Response
  • Recovery
  • Delivered post-impact (when it is likely more difficult to manoeuvre, distribute resources and information and initiate action)
  • Least cost-effective
  • Nationally and internationally-based
  • Unsustainable
(Dunham 2014a)

The United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction (UNISDR) is the branch of the United Nations Secretariat responsible for ensuring and facilitating the implementation of the International Strategy for Disaster Reduction (UNISDR n.d).  The office supports and coordinates disaster risk reduction activities within and between countries, regions, cities and other organisations (other UN bodies and financial, academic, research, media and other private institutions, etc) (UNISDR n.d).  Their aim is to help communities improve their ability to resist and bounce back from disasters by providing information, resources and assistance to prevent and mitigate disasters as opposed to responding to them after the fact (UNISDR n.d).  In the description of "What We Do", they specifically list:

  • Campaign
  • Coordinate
  • Inform
  • Advocate
(UNISDR n.d)

And all that entails in regards to disaster risk reduction and the promotion of prevention and local resilience (UNISDR n.d).  The spectrum of their activities includes increasing public education as well as awareness, participation and commitment amongst communities and organisations, supporting research and facilitating partnerships among others (UNISDR n.d).

The UNISDR also states that there are no natural disasters, there are only natural hazards and man-made disasters (UNISDR n.d).  In other words, disasters only become so as a result of human activity and/or inactivity.

Making Cities Resilient is one of the campaigns that the UNISDR has going and it is the one that I found the most interesting.  The campaign is aimed at getting local governments involved in building the resiliencies of their own communities (UNISDR 2012b).  Local governments are provided with checklists, toolkits, other resources and overall support to help them implement changes that will improve their resiliency in the event of a hazard (UNISDR 2012b).

The following is the 10 point checklist that is included as part of the UNISDR's toolkit for making cities resilient:

"Checklist Summary
  1. Put in place organisation and coordination to understand and reduce disaster risk, based on participation of citizen groups and civil society. Build local alliances. Ensure that all departments understand their role in disaster risk reduction and preparedness. 
  2. Assign a budget for disaster risk reduction and provide incentives for homeowners, low‐income families, communities, businesses and the public sector to invest in reducing the risks they face. 
  3. Maintain up‐to‐date data on hazards and vulnerabilities, prepare risk assessments and use these as the basis for urban development plans and decisions. Ensure that this information and the plans for your city’s resilience are readily available to the public and fully discussed with them. 
  4. Invest in and maintain critical infrastructure that reduces risk, such as flood drainage, adjusted where needed to cope with climate change. 
  5. Assess the safety of all schools and health facilities and upgrade these as necessary. 
  6. Apply and enforce realistic, risk‐compliant building regulations and land use planning principles.  Identify safe land for low‐income citizens and upgrade informal settlements, wherever feasible. 
  7. Ensure that education programmes and training on disaster risk reduction are in place in schools and local communities. 
  8. Protect ecosystems and natural buffers to mitigate floods, storm surges and other hazards to which your city may be vulnerable. Adapt to climate change by building on good risk reduction practices. 
  9. Install early warning systems and emergency management capacities in your city and hold regular public preparedness drills. 
  10. After any disaster, ensure that the needs of the affected population are placed at the centre of reconstruction, with support for them and their community organisations to design and help implement responses, including rebuilding homes and livelihoods."
(UNISDR 2012a)

I once heard a Freakonomics podcast about how mayors are by and large, some the most effective government figures in the world (Lechtenberg 2014).  In the podcast, they discussed how mayors are remarkably successful at actually getting things done on the ground (probably because they don't have to deal with as much bureaucracy as state and federal officials who need to pass legislation through barrier after barrier before coming even close to implementation) (Lechtenberg 2014).

Taking into consideration the high efficiency of mayors and the benefits of increasing local capacity, it is obvious that building resilient communities (cities, towns and villages) is a sensible way to help prevent and/or mitigate the impacts of potential disasters.  

I was also pleased to see that the focus is not only on building the resilience of structures and institutions, but also of the people themselves.  The course study guide went discussed the importance of re-establishing cultural identity and looking after mental health and social well-being in addition to physical health.  As an immigrant to Australia, I have often found it difficult to feel happy and productive, especially when I miss practicing the social norms and cultural customs of my home country.  The lack of strong social ties can also lead to profound sadness and loneliness, particularly for someone like me who thrives emotionally when they interact with others.  There have been several occasions when I have gathered with other Canadians (there is a Brisbane group that meets on a regular basis for hockey games and celebrations like Canada Day and Thanksgiving) and despite the fact that I do not know any of them, I find the sense of community to be very comforting.  We can share stories and talk about our sports teams and there is a feeling of familiarity and belonging.  Everyone should have that, it helps you relax, laugh, let go of your stress and feel happy, even if it's only for a couple of hours every once in a while.  In my experience, social gatherings also build a sense of community, which makes people more likely to band together and help one another in times of need, thereby forming a stronger, more cohesive and resilient society.  Contributing to society can also help build the self-esteem of individuals by making them feel needed and valued.  Without the will of individuals, it is difficult to accomplish anything or make any progress.


Dunham J 2014a, Disaster Management, Lecture slides, Health Aspects of Disaster, University of Queensland, Brisbane.

Dunham J 2014b, Health Aspects of Disaster, Course study guide, University of Queensland, Brisbane.

Lechtenberg S 2014, “If Mayors Ruled the World”: A New Freakonomics Radio Podcast, Podcast, Freakonomics, viewed 7 January 2015, <>.

UNISDR 2012a, Making Cities Resilient: My City is Getting Ready, viewed 7 January 2015, <>.

UNISDR 2012b, The 10 Essentials for Making Cities Resilient, viewed 7 January 2015, <>.

UNISDR n.d., What is the International Strategy, viewed 7 January 2015, <>.


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