Water and risk: Sweden's role for sustainable development and resilience

There is currently an intense debate about how the global community should deal with, among other things, various disasters, conflicts, uncontrolled urbanization, rising consumption, environmental degradation and climate change. This is a golden opportunity for Sweden to review its own policy and design an appropriate strategy for development assistance in the area, says Åse Johannessen, researcher at the Stockholm Environment Institute (SEI)

'We lost in 72 hours what has taken us more than 50 years to build"The words come from President Carlos Flores, after Hurricane Mitch, which hit Honduras in full force in 1998. That's what disaster risk reduction is all about; that we cannot achieve sustainable development if we do not also incorporate measures that deal with risk and resilience as a natural part of society.

Although the weather extremes have increased, people have nevertheless succeeded in preventing many people from dying in natural disasters. This is largely due to increased preparedness and the fact that warnings can effectively reach the local population with information about impending storms or floods. It is especially important to reach out to the weakest, and give help to self-help. In Mozambique, for example, early warnings reach villagers through local organizations. When the authorities send out the first warning, an information chain starts, which ultimately consists of volunteers who go out with megaphones, whistles, and life jackets to begin the evacuation. The warnings must also be credible because it also involves risks of leaving the only thing you have - house and home and livelihood, which often weighs as a strong argument against evacuation.

Although recent years have shown evidence of the forces of nature, it is usually not the natural phenomena that are most dangerous. Man, especially through his attraction to cities which then expand greatly in vulnerable coastal areas, has created societies that build more vulnerability to extreme weather, and which in turn create new accident risks. This is especially evident in poorer countries, with less responsible governments. A comparison can be made with the earthquake in Chile in 2010 which took hundreds of lives, while in Haiti the same year, approximately 220,000 people died. Chile is a richer country, with better building standards for houses, higher preparedness for accidents, and a long experience of earthquakes, which played a crucial role.

There is an increasing trend in economic losses and social suffering from disasters. This is due to a societal development that also creates risks. This applies to both poorer societies and high-income countries. For example, buildings with a lot of concrete, asphalt and infrastructure prevent or channel rainwater and water flows. This summer, when many areas were flooded in Central Europe (which is a recurring phenomenon), a strong contributing factor was the disappearance of the rivers' natural floodplains and unused plains throughout history. It for the benefit of urban development, roads, agriculture, housing and other things that were considered more valuable than unused, apparently uneconomic areas waiting to be flooded. When the water level rises, popular and media drama is created at the same time, where you can wade with rubber boots in front of the cameras. In the long run, the damage from these events undermines the investments that, among other things, development assistance money contributes.

That the humanitarian work after disasters means an opportunity for self-reflective analysis of how to deal with the problem in the long term is a good idea but too seldom practiced. As for the Pakistani floods of 2010, the then rescue service pulled out with supplies, and made a major effort. But the basic problem with the flood was that a small elite of landowners had flooded agricultural land, where the river had previously been able to flood, with the result that it had to go somewhere else and broke the embankments to where the majority of the population lived further down.

This describes the less dramatic side of disaster risk reduction that is rarely noticed. No story no money. Therefore, disaster prevention does not have the same sex appeal and does not have as much political clout. How politically interesting was it to introduce stricter building standards and follow them up as construction work progressed in Chile? At the same time, these contributed to the fact that the earthquake there did not create the same disaster as in Haiti. Why did they not follow up on the important issue of flood management in Pakistan afterwards and emphasize the importance for the country's elite of river basin planning? Why is it not high on the agenda in our urban communities to talk about the importance of letting rivers regain their natural space, sustainable green drainage with green roofs and infiltration of green spaces? All of this also has other benefits, not least the reduction of carbon dioxide and more aesthetic environments that may prevent crime. But when it comes to risk prevention, the issue falls far down the priority list that sets the political agenda and thus the budget.

However, with increasing knowledge of how the various connections are connected, and the knowledge that the lack of preparedness actually costs, something is slowly happening. Organizations that were previously mostly focused on rescue efforts have realized that the important issue is to reduce long-term vulnerability, and create resilient and robust systems that meet future challenges. There is also a growing interest in dealing with the underlying risks. Not least, it is very much about doing something about the structural causes of vulnerability and the risk of making sure that the investments (and aid) do not contribute to creating a development that in itself builds more risks. Disaster risk reduction must also refocus on trying to prevent risks before they arise (ie build resilience).

There is reason to start thinking a little smarter about how we spend development aid money in Sweden so that we really contribute to disaster prevention. The Ministry for Foreign Affairs is the authority that has the initiative to formulate a policy that is the most important instrument for influencing other actors in turn. Today, disaster risk reduction is under the humanitarian policy and thus becomes part of the humanitarian agenda. As a result, e.g. Sida's own organization has put the risk issue to the humanitarian department. Instead, it should also be able to be used on the development side (before the disaster has occurred), such as building standards for houses so they can withstand earthquakes and to better manage and manage land and water resources to avoid floods. Sida's country strategies could also be influenced with consequences for the focus of bilateral aid.

A Swedish proactive and informed attitude in the area of ​​risk could also contribute to the new international policy that will replace the current Hyogo agreement, which is the equivalent of the Climate Convention. The discussions are currently in full swing and there are important links to do with the goals that are also formulated on the development side: The sustainability goals, which replace the Millennium Goals - both processes will end in 2015. Sweden really needs to have its own view on the matter because we are one of the largest donors to the UN and World Bank institutions responsible for global risk and resilience management.

To help, the Swedish authorities, led by the Ministry for Foreign Affairs and the Ministry of Defense, have the various non-state actors who are interested and ready to contribute.


This post is based on a policy report with Åse Johannessen as lead author published by Swedish Water House / SIWI and available here:

English summary: A policy report recently published by the Swedish Water House / SIWI makes the case for Sweden taking a leadership role in promoting a more proactive approach to disaster risk reduction in national and international policy, and making resilience-building an integral part of development .

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