International Day of Disaster Reduction

Speech by Mikiko Tanaka, UN Resident Coordinator, at Diamond-Grove Lions Club observance of International Day of Disaster Reduction

I am honored to be with you today on the International Day of Disaster Reduction in solidarity with the sisters and brothers in the Caribbean who were affected by the devastating hurricanes in past weeks.   

“Home Safe Home” is the slogan for this year’s International Day for Disaster Reduction, following a year in which 24.2 million new displacements by disasters were recorded by the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre. Over the last twenty years, over 1.35 million have died as a result of their vulnerability and exposure to natural hazards with women and girls bearing a heavy toll; and over four billion have been displaced and left homeless, injured or in need of emergency assistance.

At the UN General Assembly in September, the Prime Minister of Antigua and Barbuda reported that the entire population of Barbuda had been left homeless and the Prime Minister of Dominica declared that he was on the front line of the war on climate change.  Both Caribbean leaders said that they urgently need support today, but even in the wake of utter devastation, they urged the world to act for tomorrow.

Let me share some data about what we are seeing.

First, some facts about this year’s Atlantic hurricane season.

Hurricane Irma, which devastated Barbuda, was a Category 5 hurricane for three consecutive days – this is the longest on satellite record.

Irma’s winds reached 300 kilometres per hour for 37 hours -- the longest on record at that intensity.

Hurricanes Harvey and Irma marked the first time that two Category 4 storms made landfall in the United States in the same year.

And, of course, they were followed by Hurricane Maria, which decimated Dominica and had severe impacts across Puerto Rico.

It is rare to see so many storms of such strength so early in the season.

Second, some facts about the changes in major climate systems.

Sea levels have risen more than 10 inches since 1870.

Over the past 30 years, the number of annual weather-related disasters has nearly tripled, and economic losses have quintupled.

Scientists are learning more and more about the links between climate change and extreme weather.

Climate change is warming the seas.  This, in turn, means more water vapor in the atmosphere.  When storms come, they bring more rain.

A warmer climate turbocharges the intensity of hurricanes.  Instead of dissipating, they pick up fuel as they move across the ocean.

The melting of glaciers, and the thermal expansion of the seas, means bigger storm surges.  With more and more people living on coastlines, the damage is, and will be that much greater.

Scientific models have long predicted an increase in the number of Category 4 and 5 hurricanes.  This is precisely what is happening – and even sooner than expected.

The impact of these extreme weather events on human lives and homes are increasingly devastating. Category 5 hurricanes have brought normal life to a standstill for millions in the Caribbean and on the American mainland. The 3.4 million inhabitants of Puerto Rico have been scrambling for basic necessities including food and water, the island of Barbuda has been rendered uninhabitable, and dozens of people are missing or dead on the UNESCO world heritage island of Dominica. Hurricane Irma alone has left a trail of severe destruction in the Caribbean. Across the region, an estimated 5.5 million people were exposed to extreme winds higher than 120km/h. Approximately 265,000 people have been impacted by Irma, with 1,700 people in need of immediate shelter assistance.

The United Nations and its partners have provided a variety of humanitarian assistance to the Caribbean region by air and by sea: 18 tons of food; 3 million water purification tablets; 3,000 water tanks; 2,500 tents; 2,000 mosquito nets and school kits; 500 debit cards for cash assistance; and much else.  The UN has launched appeals for $113.9 million to cover humanitarian needs for the immediate period ahead. Planning and preparations have also started to support the affected people to build back their homes and get back on their feet that may take years.

Guyana may be fortunate not to be in the regular path of hurricanes to date but is not untouched by the effects of climate change.  This year we have seen floods and or droughts in hinterland and coastland areas, particularly in Regions 7, 8 and 9 where houses, essential infrastructure, crops and economic assets have been destroyed or damaged.  Farmers in hinterland and coastland areas say that it is no longer possible to predict rain patterns and this poses higher risks for their agricultural production.      

For those countries that are least developed the impact of disasters can be severe, stripping away livelihoods and progress on health and education; for developed and middle-income countries the economic losses from infrastructure alone can be massive; for both, these events reiterate the need to act on a changing climate that threatens only more frequent and more severe disasters. 

The landmark Paris Agreement of 2015 has set the world on a long-term path towards a low-carbon future.  However, it is a windy path that reflects pragmatism and realities in each individual country. Carbon emissions are expected to drop as countries meet their self-declared targets, but the impacts of climate change may be felt for some time, leaving the world with little choice but to invest, simultaneously, in efforts to adapt to climate change and reduce disaster risk.   The benefits of doing so makes economic sense when compared to the cost of rebuilding. 

This will require international cooperation on a previously unprecedented scale as we tackle the critical task of making the planet a more resilient place to the lagging effects of greenhouse gas emissions that we will experience for years to come. Restoring the ecological balance between emissions and the natural absorptive capacity of the planet is the long-term goal. It is critical to remember that the long-term reduction of emissions is THE most important risk reduction tactic we have, and we must deliver on that ambition. 

Action and cooperation is needed by states, private sector, civil society and citizens in diverse aspects of climate change mitigation, adaptation and disaster risk management.

While thinking about our brothers and sisters in the Caribbean, the hurricanes are a wake-up call for people here to make Guyana “Home Safe Home” and to be better prepared for disasters.  “Home Safe Home” in an era of climate change requires sturdier building standards and diversified and risk-informed livelihoods that are resilient in face of disasters and other shocks.

Environmental protection and climate action are an important part of the United Nations Agenda for Sustainable Development that aims to eliminate poverty and inequality in the world by 2030.  Seven of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals speak directly to environmental protection and climate action. 

Goal 6 – Clean water and sanitation

Goal 7 – Affordable and clean energy

Goal 11 – Sustainable cities and communities

Goal 12 – Responsible consumption and production

Goal 13 – Climate action

Goal 14 – Life below water

Goal 15 – Life on land

The Government will be starting the formulation of Guyana’s Green State Development Strategy to achieve the SDGs by 2030.  Guyana’s tropical forests that cover 86% of the country’s territory contribute to the planet’s environmental health but it takes a conscious and sustained effort of the Government and people of Guyana to maintain Guyana’s current world position as the second highest country in terms of proportion of forest coverage. Guyana is the land of water through the network of rivers and streams and along the coast of the Atlantic.  According to some estimates, at the rate human beings are dumping items such as plastic bottles, bags and cups after a single use, by 2050 oceans will carry more plastic than fish and an estimated 99 per cent of seabirds will have ingested plastic. We may think nothing about one plastic bag we throw away or an air conditioner we leave on for an hour in an empty room. However, the cumulative effect of the seemingly trivial daily behaviors of 7.5 billion people over time is simply devastating.

Guyana’s population may be 0.01% of the world population, but we still count and with the leadership and example we set for the world in environmental protection, I believe Guyana can make a greater difference.  The participation of all Guyanese in the planning and implementation of the Green State Development strategy is critical and the UN System in Guyana will support this process.    

The UN Secretary General commends those countries and citizens that are showing solidarity with the Caribbean countries at this time of dire need. Your initiative and contribution today will not only give relief to the affected people but will also give them the hope and courage to move on with life and build back even stronger and better.

 

              

Speech by
Author
Mikiko Tanaka
Resident Coordinator
RCO
Mikiko Tanaka, UN Resident Coordinator
UN entities involved in this initiative
FAO
Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations
ILO
International Labor Organization
IOM
International Organization for Migration
PAHO
Pan American Health Organization
UN Women
United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women
UNAIDS
Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS
UNDP
United Nations Development Programme
UNEP
United Nations Environment Programme
UNESCO
United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization
UNFPA
United Nations Population Fund
UNHCR
United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees
UNICEF
United Nations Children’s Fund
WHO
World Health Organization