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Will fault lines in Sendai signal a rocky 2015?

Written by Tom Mitchell


​Ten years ago the world was haunted by the devastation of the South Asian tsunami. As relief teams worked to rebuild lives and livelihoods, governments were preparing for the 2nd World Conference on Disaster Risk Reduction (WCDRR).

At that meeting, over 160 governments agreed the Hyogo Framework for Action (HFA), a ten-year plan to strengthen resilience to disasters. Undoubtedly, the horror of the tsunami helped to focus the minds of negotiators. The HFA, while a relatively flexible, light-touch set of commitments, still remains an impressive set of ideas.

A decade on, countries are working towards a new agreement – ‘the post-2015 framework for disaster risk reduction’ – that builds on the HFA. Governments will sign it at the 3rd WCDRR in March 2015 in Sendai, Japan, the city ravaged by the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake.

Sendai provides the first major policy moment in the packed 2015 calendar of international agreements that follow: the Finance for Development meeting, the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and the climate change deal.

So if we consider the negotiations in Sendai as an indicator of how the other negotiations later in the year might go, what would signal a bumpy road ahead – or give hope of a tremor-free journey?

Coherence between development, disasters and climate agreements

In a speech in December 2014, head of the UN Development Programme, Helen Clark, said that the outcomes of the development, disasters and climate change agreements will be more powerful if there is synergy between them.

Certainly for building disaster resilience, it is vital to reduce poverty and tackle greenhouse gas emissions, given that the latter have already led to more severe hazards in some parts of the world.

However, the current draft of the post-2015 framework on DRR only considers climate change and poverty in passing. ‘Poverty’ is mentioned just three times – despite the way DRR features in the draft SDGs on eliminating poverty (goal 1) and taking action on climate change (goal 13).

For Sendai to give a positive signal for the rest of 2015, the agreement must:

  • clearly cross-reference the SDGs and climate change agreements;
  • recognise that climate change is already affecting disaster risk, and that eliminating poverty and cutting emissions are vital ways of building disaster resilience;
  • acknowledge that DRR is key to adapting to climate change and protecting progress towards SDGs;
  • commit to shared targets and monitoring frameworks, for example through the High Level Political Forum that would bridge to the SDGs.

If the joint goals of zero poverty and zero net emissions are prominent in the Sendai agreement, it would be a shining beacon for more tricky negotiations to come.

Tension around finance must not derail the Sendai talks

Long-term finance for climate action proved a particular sticking point at the recent Lima climate negotiations, but strong pledges to the Green Climate Fund and new rules on concessionality in international aid are positive news.

The post-2015 framework for DRR is yet to really grapple with the topic of finance, but at the latest round of negotiations in Geneva, developing countries inserted language on ‘differentiated responsibility for causing disasters’ and the need for ‘predictable, sustainable and additional provisions of finance’. Such language is opposed by richer countries that do not want to see the climate talks’ tensions around ‘loss and damage’ permeate to the DRR agreement.

Success in Sendai depends on finance issues not being allowed to derail the agreement. The agreement should also call for DRR to be a key facet of sustainable development finance; for finance to come from public and private, national and international sources; and treat DRR as a valid use of adaptation finance.

Governments must be willing to be held accountable

The Sendai process is currently considering a set of seven global targets for building disaster resilience, though each slightly different from those contained in the draft SDGs. One key indicator from Japan will be whether countries agree a robust monitoring and accountability framework for meeting the targets, something highly relevant to the SDGs and climate processes.

To give confidence, we would need to see governments sign up to peer reviews and a global registry of national commitments; agree a role for an international standard setting and progress monitoring body; and be willing to accept civil society assessments as formal submissions to regular review processes.

With at least three negotiating rounds to go, there is still much of the post-2015 framework for DRR to be decided. Early signs were far from positive, and the process lacks clear leadership, particularly in terms of carrying a vision through to Sendai and beyond.

Country negotiators on DRR, the SDGs and climate change should make New Year’s resolutions to at least talk to each other before Sendai. Let’s hope they can summon the same resolve as negotiators did ten years ago in Hyogo, and make a positive start to this critical year for international development.