Q&A: How to connect the data dots on climate loss and damage

‘The message of prevention needs to sink in.’

A damaged house on the island of Barbuda after Hurricane Irma in 2017.
A damaged house on the island of Barbuda after Hurricane Irma in 2017. (Ben Parker/TNH)

The battle over new funding for disaster damages continues to be divisive as diplomats finished a gruelling final week of negotiations at the COP25 climate summit in Madrid.

In the lead-up to the yearly UN climate meetings, vulnerable countries and advocates set their sights on securing new commitments on so-called “loss and damage” financing to address mounting damages from climate-linked disasters.

But as the 2-13 December meetings progressed, clear pushback emerged from wealthier nations reluctant to codify any basis for monetary compensation.

A draft text being negotiated on Friday’s final day of meetings established a new network to improve “technical assistance” for averting disaster risks – but contained no language for new loss and damage financing.

Climate-linked disasters already force millions from their homes each year, and climate change will make future storms, floods, drought, and other threats more unpredictable and more intense.

But, as the COP25 summit has shown, the issue of how to fund relief and rebuilding after these disasters continues to be politically sensitive.

On the sidelines this week in Madrid, The New Humanitarian spoke with Mami Mizutori, head of the UN Office for Disaster Risk Reduction, about climate risks, why there’s missing data in quantifying loss and damage, and the changing attitudes about disaster prevention.

Here are excerpts of the interview, edited for length and clarity.

TNH: What are the human impacts of climate-related disasters?

Mami Mizutori: There are a lot of figures that describe the impacts of disasters. Some 26 million people are driven into poverty due to disasters. The World Bank drew up a figure of $520 billion a year. It is a number that reflects how much we are losing in terms of the economy. But the economy is not only about the currency, but about the people who suffer from these disasters. In the countries most at risk, such as the least developed countries and the Small Island Developing States (SIDS), the people most at risk are those who suffer most. It’s women, the children, the youth, people with disabilities. 

Disaster mortality is going down because of early warning systems. But even if lives are saved, people still lose their houses, and a lot of children are deprived of their opportunity for education. This can go on for months and months. In Mozambique this year, when the two cyclones hit, schools were very affected. There were very few schools and classrooms that were left standing in the areas hit by the cyclones. This means that the children lose a great amount of their learning time, or they have to keep learning in very difficult circumstances.

TNH: After disasters hit, pledges are made but funds often do not materialise. How big a problem is this given that climate change is expected to worsen crises?

Mizutori: I am very concerned about that. If I take again the example of Mozambique, they asked the international community for support of up to $3.2 billion, but what was committed was $1.2 billion. This is just a commitment, so it doesn’t even mean that the money is rolling in. Just the other day, the UN Secretary-General António Guterres made a very special appeal to raise the funding to the Central Emergency Response Fund (CERF) to $1 billion. It is rather extraordinary that the secretary-general himself makes such an appeal, but it’s a testimony to the huge gap in humanitarian aid need and what is actually coming in. I think that if we cannot put more money into preventing disasters, this gap will keep on growing and growing.

TNH: Tell us about the type of prevention that could be built against climate disasters.

Mizutori: It can only be effective if prevention policy for disaster risk reduction becomes legally based policy, which means that lawmakers actually establish laws and regulations around building codes and land use. They must ensure that houses are not built in places where they shouldn’t be. But even if you try to do this as best as you can, disasters still strike. Therefore, early warning systems are very important. The number of mortalities has been falling because early warning systems are becoming much more efficient. 

But with early action you need to educate people to understand that they have to react to the system. Also, you need to assure that there are well-established evacuation routes, and places to evacuate to. The location of evacuation centres is very important. If this is not done in an effective way, the system itself cannot work.

TNH: Loss and damage financing is one of the biggest issues for vulnerable countries at COP25. It has also been very controversial since the concept of loss and damage was introduced six years ago. 

Mizutori: Loss and damage is a rather recent concern. Mitigation was always the big issue [at climate summits], and it still is the big issue. We need to reach carbon neutrality by 2050, and reduce greenhouse-gas emissions. But because disasters due to or related to the climate emergency have become so frequent and intense, there is now more focus on how we can adapt, and how we account for loss and damage.

This concern is rather recent and has to be addressed, because while we are looking toward the future where mitigation can save the planet, there is still quite a lot of time until we reach that. Meanwhile, the countries at risk, most particularly the least developed countries and the Small Island Developing States, are suffering. A lot of the SIDS have already graduated from receiving ODA, or official development assistance, which means that even if they are hit by disaster, they can’t get access to it. That is a real problem.

TNH: How do you quantify loss and damage?

Mizutori: In order to see if we are reducing the impact on countries or not, there needs to be a mechanism to count for the loss and damage that arises from the climate disasters. 

We actually do already have a mechanism, the Sendai Framework Monitoring System, which is operated by my organisation, UNDRR. The system is one to which all the member states submit data about mortality, economic loss, affected people – in terms of injury or loss of livelihoods and damage to critical infrastructure. If this data is submitted correctly to the Sendai Framework Monitoring System, we would be able to account for the loss and damage. The problem is there is not enough data. Developing countries in particular do not have enough resources, either financial or human. They don’t have enough capacity to gather and then submit the data. While it is not an obligation, the Sendai Framework preferably asks for disaggregated data. But when it comes to disaggregated data around gender or income, the data is actually nill. If we can’t get this data, loss and damage cannot be accounted for. 

What I think would be very important at this stage is to support developing countries to enhance the capacity of their national statistics offices. We also need to connect the dots of those who have the data, the governments, the international organisations, and even the private sector. The insurance industry is sitting on a gold mine of data, and while it is important for their business, they could share this data in a way that helps to better prevent disasters. So once we can enhance the capacities of these countries in that aspect and they start reporting to the Sendai Framework Monitoring System, I believe that we can understand better where are the losses and damages, and we will understand where financial support to countries needs to go.

TNH: Do you see an attempt to formalise the issue of data collection?

Mizutori: There hasn’t been a formal attempt to address this issue. One reason is that data is quite sensitive, especially when it comes to a disaster. It is very sensitive data. I understand why member states are careful about it. Unfortunately, I do not have an answer now, but I do feel this is something we need to tackle.

TNH: How do you create greater awareness that the effects of climate disasters can be avoided, in terms of human impact?

Mizutori: One World Bank study on infrastructure showed that if you spend $1 in resilience-building for new infrastructure, during its lifetime you can save up to $4. That is quite a substantial amount of savings.

Getting this message across, on the economy of prevention, is very difficult, because if you manage to prevent, then you don’t see the success. But also, in all governments, politicians are looking at a horizon that is quite short. They are expected to come up with results on a shorter framework, whereas prevention needs time. While you invest in infrastructure, the disaster may not come next year, or even in five or 10 years. But when it comes, prevention pays off.

We believe that the message of prevention needs to sink in, and it is, slowly. The awareness is much stronger, but then you need that extra oomph, that extra political will, to put money into it. That is what is lacking right now.

pdd/il/ag

Share this article

Support The New Humanitarian

Your support helps us deliver informative, accessible, independent journalism that you can trust and provides accountability to the millions of people affected by crises worldwide.

Donate