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By Bill Jaynes, The Kaselehlie Press

11 July 2013, Nadi, Fiji - On July 9, 2015, two journalists from Fiji TV and Kaselehlie Press who are members of the SPREP media team sat down to talk to Margareta Wahlstrom, the Special Representative of the UN Secretary for Disaster Risk Reduction during the Joint Meeting of the Pacific Platform for Disaster Risk Management and Pacific Climate Change Roundtable.

Wahlstrom explained the role of the United Nations in the Pacific region, talked about the integrated strategy that has been uniquely developed in the region, analysis of legislation and many other topics that are important as the Pacific develops its strategy to cope with Climate Change and Disaster Risk Management.

Fiji One:  What is UNISDR’s role and how is it assisting in the Pacific?

Wahlstrom:  We are not a big operation or an agency, it’s an office for advocacy, creating evidence for why Disaster Risk Reduction pays and how it can effectively assist countries in suffering less losses.  We do have regional offices.  We have an office here in the Pacific and we particularly work these countries on getting it into their mechanisms for planning, for awareness, to look at disasters as not an event that you just pay and then move on but you can actually plan for with financial mechanisms.  You can get it into your sectoral planning, and we work for the same reason with donors, the UN agencies to create a practical agenda for how countries can focus on prevention and mitigation as much as a cure, or maybe more prevention and mitigation as a cure.

Fiji One:  What can the Pacific expect from the UN when it comes to climate change and disaster risk management?

Wahlstrom:  We will continue to persist in this agenda of integration to put it very simply.  This region, this work that’s going on now is very critical.  It’s led by the regional organizations at the instruction of countries and there’s a lot of resources in this region.  There is a lot of financial resources.  There’s a clear shortage of capacities, not just because the countries are small but because there is such a competition on many issues that are important for their development

So I think it’s engaging them on how to use these resources in the crosscutting issue that ensures that the country gradually builds through the financial and planning mechanism; through the sectoral health, education, higher education, land use planning, infrastructure, become resilient to today’s and tomorrow’s disaster and climate stresses.

Fiji One: How are the Pacific Islands doing about climate change and disaster risk management?

Wahlstrom:  Well, we can probably never do enough because the change continues in the environment.  If the countries now press ahead with this integration they will achieve a much higher degree of efficiency in how they tackle the issues of climate change and disaster risk reduction and that will put them on the path and more quickly looking at the environmental impact, the resilience of the infrastructure.  But most important—this is fundamentally—why are we doing all this?  Because these countries are seeking to ensure sustained development for their people for education, health benefits, and to ensure the population that their incomes are stable.

So I can say that all this work on mitigation and prevention is to ensure that they can they can reap the full benefits of their development investment.  They’re doing a lot.  I must say that the region should get a lot more credit for its innovation and its effort.  There’s a tendency to see the problems, a lot more than maybe seeing in fact how much practical effort is being put into finding solutions—small countries, few people, small economic bases, a lot of investment by the development partners but, a lot of the countries themselves are absolutely determined that they will succeed.

Kaselehlie Press:  Is it possible to generalize whether or not the Pacific has the expertise to access what has been characterized as some billions of dollars of funding that’s “out there”?  In general, do we have the expertise to actually access that funding in the Pacific region?

Wahlstrom:  I think some countries do.  I mean, if you listen to the presentations or have conversation with the Minister of Finance of Cook Islands you can hear that that’s a very strong wish and very practical thing.  He is now the chair of a working group of finance ministers where they are all working in the same direction to use the budget to ensure that the resources come to the countries.

Now the regional institutions in many cases, as you know, are the first recipient of funding that then goes to the countries.  And for now that is a complement and an effective instrument to be sure that money is there.  I’m sure that the countries envisage that gradually for the future they would like to see the money coming to them so that they can directly benefit from it.  What they do clearly need from the UN and other partners is technical expertise just because of the limited human resource base.  What I have been told is that in some countries there is basically a drain on resources sometimes because the internationals recruit people and they disappear.

I think that’s the main challenge is to accelerate the development of competencies and skills that will stay with the countries and not disappear into international.  This is a challenge in many countries but particularly it’s huge here because you’re dealing with such small populations to start with in many cases.

So I think these two elements are the critical ones saying “can they access the resources”.  They do access the resources, a lot of the resources.

Fiji One:  You mentioned about technical experts and how experts from the region are leaving for greener pastures.  Are there any plans from United Nations to help the region regarding that, to maintain experts here or to provide with experts?

Wahlstrom: I believe there could be a lot of incentive for the UN but the Pacific as a region is very different from other regions in a sense that the big actors here are the CROPs (Council of Regional Organisations in the Pacific) like SPC.  They have lots of staff.  They have lots of expertise.  They were set up particularly so that these countries were taken care of particularly.  Now that doesn’t mean its enough.  I know the UN is represented here UNDP, UNICEF, FAO and there are others.  They all have experts here.  They’re not very large but the UN is for sure motivated to add as required.  But I think that we are all very careful not overload countries because there’s a lot of engagement here and we hear about many, many missions to countries—international institutions, multilaterals, donors, partners—so sometimes I think that we need to let countries work, let the ministers do their job, let the technical expert actually get on with the job, and try to be a bit more economical in how we coordinate ourselves in our support to them.

So I think that what the UN would like to see is a very strong cooperation between the UN, SPC, SPREP, the big technical organizations that support countries so that we are very well organized among us to know how we can complement each other’s capacities.

Kaselehlie Press:  I would just ask you if you have any specific message that you would like to get out through our media resources.

Wahlstrom:  Yes, I think that what we want for you particularly that covers the political issues, try to expand the understanding of the economics of disaster.  It’s when governments, ministers of finance, and leaders begin to understand not only the direct losses from the damage but also what happens afterwards, how costly reconstruction is; how costly poor quality reconstruction is.  It’s also a question of who actually pays.  Government pays a lot.  Business pays but most of the losses normally accrues to the individual citizen as it goes down, you know personal losses are very rarely fully compensated.  So gradually increasing this perspective since there are things to a high degree you can mitigate or prevent, do it in order to use those resources for a more positive purpose.  So I think that gradually uncovering and unlocking that understand would be a great task.

The other one is continuous, ongoing public awareness campaigns.  Constantly talk, not to scare people but tell them what to do to protect yourself, your family, you community.  “Don’t forget where the evacuation routes are.”  “When you get an early warning signal follow the advice”.  “Know where to go”.  “Move away your property that might be damaged by a flood.”  So that’s my second message.

The Joint Meeting of the Pacific Platform for Disaster Risk Management and the Pacific Climate Change Roundtable is from 8 - 11 July and is jointly organised by the Secretariat of the Pacific Community, the United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction and the Secretariat of the Pacific Regional Environment Programme. The meeting is hosted by the Government of Fiji.