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Q&A: Why the disaster prevention agenda is growing more urgent

‘We don’t have 10 years, 20 years, to get this more relevant.’

Flood-affected people and livestock are ferried across a flooded field after heavy rains in Nagaon district, in India’s northeastern state of Assam, on 19 May 2022
Flood-affected people and livestock are ferried across a flooded field after heavy rains in Nagaon district, in India’s northeastern state of Assam, on 19 May 2022. (Anuwar Hazarika/REUTERS)

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The disaster risk reduction movement is searching for its climate change moment.

Risk experts, civil society leaders, governments, and aid groups are in Indonesia this week for a global forum meant to focus attention on how to shrink disaster risks before larger emergencies can erupt.

They increasingly see disaster risk reduction as an obvious answer to the spiralling costs and impacts of humanitarian crises. But it often takes a back seat in the public mindset, says Mami Mizutori, the head of the UN Office for Disaster Risk Reduction, which is organising this week’s meetings.

“This agenda is not a very popular agenda: prevention,” Mizutori said in an interview. “It’s much easier for everybody to talk about disasters after they happen, and then talk about the need to respond to them, and then relief and recovery.”

Climate change is one of many factors driving today’s disaster risks. Mizutori hopes risk reduction can follow a speedier path to the mainstream than the one charted by the environmental movement – which sounded an alarm for years before the climate crisis vaulted to a top-of-mind issue as its impacts became undeniable.

 “It’s much easier for everybody to talk about disasters after they happen, and then talk about the need to respond to them, and then relief and recovery.”

“The problem,” she said, “is we don’t have 10 years, 20 years, to get this more relevant.”

As delegates gather for the Global Platform for Disaster Risk Reduction, Mizutori spoke to The New Humanitarian about prevention, the climate crisis, and why emergency aid plans need to think about risk.

This interview was edited for length and clarity.

The New Humanitarian: How should disaster risk reduction intersect with the humanitarian world?

Mami Mizutori: The gap between humanitarian needs and what is funded is getting bigger and bigger. This is the backdrop. 

This is only going to be more acute if we just continue to respond to disasters. That’s not what we can do anymore. We need to get ahead of the curve of disasters. We have to be able to reduce the vulnerability, the exposure – and also the hazards, too, by climate action – before a hazard becomes a disaster. Because disasters don’t have to devastate.

There should be more investment in disaster risk reduction in a general context, but also more concretely when there is humanitarian action.

Humanitarian relief, humanitarian action, so far, does not really embed a lot of risk-informed activities because the capacity is not there, because maybe the consideration is not even there. We have to change that.

For that, we need better collaboration and coordination – among the UN system, but including all the humanitarian actors on the ground.

So that when we are designing and implementing plans of humanitarian actions, that they do integrate risk-informed decisions. You can’t just do that if people do not have the capacity, do not have the knowledge or expertise, around what is risk-informed action. So that part of capacity development also has to come out.

And we also need to engage more local actors from the beginning of humanitarian action… We talk a lot about embedding communities in development action. But I think it’s the same with humanitarian action. If you don’t bring them in from the beginning, only treat them as people who receive humanitarian response, then I think it’s very difficult to have risk-informed humanitarian action. 

So all these things I want to see coming out. But we need more understanding of the need to do this.

The New Humanitarian: Humanitarians may see the importance of reducing disaster risks, but some may not see it as part of their mandate – especially when you’re talking about really acute, emergency responses. Why do you think disaster risk reduction is clearly within the realm of humanitarian aid?

Mizutori: Perhaps a while ago, maybe there was less blur in a situation where you first had a humanitarian response, relief, and then gradually, that country or that region moves into development, and hopefully into sustainable development.

But that’s not what we’re seeing now, because of the multiple hazards and the compounding impacts. The time when the humanitarian actors need to operate is unfortunately getting longer and longer.

If we can’t really separate these two activities… [then] the humanitarian actors need to think about embedding risk into their action and working more closely with the development actors.

It doesn’t fall only onto humanitarian actors. But you can’t just not do that during the humanitarian stage, and then say, “OK, now we’re going into development. Development actors, please make sure everything you do is risk-informed.”

The New Humanitarian: Over the last 20 years, there has been a shift in how the public views climate change. Disaster risk reduction goes hand in hand with climate change, but it’s not quite there yet. How do you see disaster risk reduction’s place in the public mindset compared to climate change – should there be more of a link there?

Mizutori: Well, there should be a lot of links there. When we talk about climate risk, the climate emergency, sometimes we’re focusing too much on the direct climate risk that comes from the hazards, whether it’s a cyclone or hurricane, or a drought.

But disasters are a combination of this hazard, and the vulnerability, and the exposure.

The vulnerability part in particular, about poverty, about inequity – if these drivers of risk cannot be focused and reduced. Just focusing on climate mitigation, as important as it is, or even climate adaptation, doesn’t work – because it’s not only the climate we need to be mindful about, but everything else. It’s an enormous task, but if we don’t focus on all drivers of risk, then you can’t stop people from dying, you can’t stop people from losing their jobs and livelihoods.

I always talk about the environment: The green movement in the 1970s, it started to become bigger. Now, green is not just a relevant issue – it’s also a market. It’s also a product.

We, in the community of DRR, talk a lot about if we can make resilience a commodity, a product, and make a market around it, so that people would invest in it.

It took several decades for green to get there. Unfortunately, we don’t have several decades for resilience to get there. That’s why we need to work together to elevate not only the awareness, but action towards the investment in resilience.

Edited by Andrew Gully.

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