Friday, September 11, 2015

Disaster Preparedness and Management

Remarks by former Ambassador T.P.Sreenivasan at the UN Academic Impact Seminar on ‘Disaster Preparedness and Management’ at the UN Headquarters in New York. September 11, 2015.

Chairman Ramu Damodaran,
Panelists and

I am delighted to be back at the UN, particularly in Conference Room 6, where I spent many days and nights, working on resolutions, which, we believed, would change the fortunes of the world. Even the room has not changed, except for the multitude of electronic gadgets and audio-visual equipment all around us. As for myself, I have lost touch with the UN jargon and can speak only like an outsider.

As someone, who has moved from diplomacy to higher education, I am fascinated by the work of UN Academic Impact under the leadership of Ramu Damodaran. I am honored to be invited to participate in the seminar to share the experience of a diplomat and an educationist. The more the academic community gets involved with the UN, the better it will be for both.

I have been fortunate enough not to be in the middle of a disaster, though I have faced many official and personal crises. So I cannot claim any direct experience of handling disaster management. But I have a friend in UNEP in Geneva, who has handled so many disasters that he expects to name his autobiography “My Life and Other Disasters.” I have gained some insights from his experience. I shall also share some stray observations on the basis of my experience in the UN.

The UN was created to prevent war, the biggest man made disaster of all. Through preventive diplomacy, peace making, peacekeeping and peace building, the UN has contributed to make the world a peaceful place. The UN principles and practices, such as preparedness, disaster relief and recovery are now being applied to disaster management. In tackling disasters, the UN and its Agencies draw heavily on the experience of the UN in the last 70 years.

While the number and intensity of wars are less today, natural disasters seem to have increased on account of terrorism, global warming, climate change, desertification and other phenomena.  Today, we have scientific evidence to show that many such phenomena are consequences of human activity. There is hope, therefore, that these can be prevented by more responsible human behavior.

Predictability of natural resources has also increased because of research by some of the UN Agencies such as the IAEA and the CTBT Organization. In their search for evidence of nuclear tests, they have come across technology, which can point towards possible earthquakes. People also predict disasters by observing unusual developments around us. Even as we speak, some people in India are saying that a major tsunami or earthquake is likely because it has been observed that fish are jumping out of water to die on land!

Man has lived with natural disasters for centuries and even accepted them as nature’s way of maintaining a balance in human population. India takes pride in the fact that it has made peace with nature and does not worry too much about aberrations in nature. When Dr. Radhakrishnan, the philosopher President of India arrived at the White House lawns by helicopter, the weather was very rough. President Kennedy apologized that the US had not yet mastered the technology of changing the weather. Dr. Radhakrishnan said that he did not have to worry as Indians had mastered the technology of accepting the weather centuries ago.

Today, international cooperation can prevent disasters by setting standards for construction and maintenance, evacuation plans and environmental planning. The UN has played a major role in disaster relief in every major disaster, whether it is Nepal, Haiti or Fukushima. At the same time, in disaster management, the affected country should take the lead and the work of the international community should be supportive. Dispatching a huge number of relief personnel is not always helpful.

The UN should focus on promoting an ecosystem-based approach for reducing disaster risks and climate change adaptation. Any development strategy, which does not take into account disaster risks and environmental damage cannot be sustainable.

Finally, I would stress the need for educating the masses on disaster management. The Kerala State Higher Education Council has been working with UNEP in Geneva in developing a MOOC course, a revolutionary new concept in higher education, to promote awareness of the new knowledge about ecosystems. The course has been planned for both policy makers and experts. 12000 students from 183 countries signed up for the course. The MOOCs model developed by UNEP should be supplemented by the specialized knowledge of other Agencies such as the IAEA and UNIDO. For instance, the investigation on the Fukushima disaster revealed some strange facts. A Japanese Parliament study concluded that the Fukushima disaster was a disaster that could have happened only in Japan. Apparently, the disaster could have been avoided if the younger scientists questioned some of the decisions taken by the management. But the Japanese hierarchy did not permit such questioning. Another fact is that the Japanese society has changed dramatically after the Fukushima disaster. Many young people have chosen to focus on family and children, rather than live alone; having realized that life is fragile and uncertain.

I would suggest that the UN Academic Impact should embrace MOOCS as a matter of faith to lower or eliminate borders to learning.

Thank you.