By Megan Rowling
BARCELONA (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - As economic losses from disasters rise around the world, more effort is needed to reduce the risks from extreme weather and earthquakes in every area, from infrastructure to health, the United Nations disaster prevention chief said.
Margareta Wahlström, head of the U.N. Office for Disaster Risk Reduction (UNISDR), said in an interview that a new global plan to protect people and assets from disasters, due to be approved in March, aims to ensure "a much stronger link than we have had in the past between development and disaster risk".
"There is progress, but it is not wide and speedy enough to really tackle the increasing disaster losses in many parts of the world," she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation from Geneva, where negotiations on the agreement are taking place this week.
Governments are mulling ways to measure improvements, including global targets for lowering deaths and economic losses from disasters, and how well key infrastructure like schools and hospitals is protected.
The world's existing 10-year disaster risk reduction plan, launched after the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, did not include numerical indicators of progress.
But Wahlström said it had played a major role in pushing governments to set up institutions, laws and policies for dealing with disasters, and strengthening early warning systems.
"There is such an awareness now about how quickly risk is increasing," she said. But many countries still feel "they are moving very slowly" to manage it, she added.
One problem has been a shortage of funding to plan and implement disaster risk reduction efforts, whether during post-crisis reconstruction or in long-term development projects.
Most of what has been achieved has come from national budgets, Wahlström noted.
According to a 2013 report from the London-based Overseas Development Institute, the international community spent $13.5 billion on reducing the risk of damage from disasters in the past two decades - just 40 cents for every $100 of aid.
Wahlström said the new plan - due to be agreed at a conference in Sendai, Japan, in two months' time - was unlikely to contain a goal for the percentage of aid that should be spent on disaster risk reduction. Nor did she expect "huge new funding streams globally".
But she hoped the Sendai framework, which will not be legally binding, would lead to greater commitment among donor governments to manage and reduce the risk of disasters to all their development investments.
As climate change impacts worsen, efforts are ramping up to manage floods and prevent landslides, for example.
But poorer nations should also prioritize disaster risk in plans for areas such as health and education, Wahlström added.
In addition, big disasters that have hit rich nations in recent years, including Superstorm Sandy in the United States and the 2011 tsunami and nuclear crisis in Japan, have highlighted inadequate sharing of expertise across sectors, she said.
Risks are rising fastest for infrastructure like power plants, subways, airports and communications networks, she noted.
"We become very dependent on systems that can also be touched by cyclones, flooding etc," she said.
Protecting those systems effectively "requires a lot of imagination, and a willingness to step out of your specialist environment and look wider", she added.
(Reporting by Megan Rowling; editing by Tim Pearce)