Senior Research Fellow, Dr Swenja Surminski, reflects on the third United Nations World Conference on Disaster Risk Reduction (WCDRR) in Sendai, Japan (14-18 March).

More than 5,000 government officials, ministers and leaders from over 160 countries meet recently in Sendai to negotiate a new global framework to guide decision makers towards a more disaster-resilient future.  I was among thousands of representatives from business, NGOs and universities that joined them for numerous workshops, forums and other sessions.

The conference set out to emphasise the importance of disaster risk reduction and the benefits of proactive action. Disasters may have natural causes, but the extent of damage and destruction is predominantly of our own making. Our current and future resilience is affected by a whole range of decisions: how we assess risk, the conclusions we draw, and what and where we build. All too often we wait for disasters to happen and only then deliver assistance on the ground.

Since 2005, the Hyogo Framework of Action (2005-15) has provided guidance for reducing the loss of life and assets (social, economic and environmental) in the event of disaster. In short, it aimed to make the world safer from natural hazards. With the Hyogo Framework reaching the end of its timeline, there was pressure to agree a new framework in Sendai.

I presented at a number of events at the conference, organised by the German Committee for Disaster Reduction (DKKV), the Geneva Association, the Overseas Development Institute and  the World Bank.

This involved showcasing a range of my recent research and the research of colleagues, including:

Just before midnight on the final day of the conference, a new framework was adopted. The text places a strong emphasis on tackling the underlying drivers of risk, including: poverty, climate change, ecosystem decline, bad urban planning, land use and risk governance.

The Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction (2015-30) includes seven global targets (most of which are not quantifiable) and sets out four priority areas for further action.


  • Substantially reduce global disaster mortality
  • Substantially reduce the number of affected people globally
  • Reduce direct disaster economic loss in relation to global GDP
  • Substantially reduce disaster damage to critical infrastructure and disruption of basic services
  • Substantially increase the number of countries with national and local disaster risk reduction strategies
  • Substantially enhance international cooperation to developing countries
  • Substantially increase the availability of and access to early warning systems and disaster risk information

Priority areas for further action

  1. Understanding risk
  2. Risk governance
  3. Investment in resilience
  4. ‘Build back better’ in recovery and reconstruction phases post-disaster

A pivotal point for climate risk management?

It is positive news that we came away from Sendai with a post-2015 plan to make the world safer from natural hazards. However, for some attendees, the framework does not sufficiently recognise the risk associated with climate change. Other attendees will not be content with the level of  private sector involvement. And others will be concerned about the challenge of convincing ministries of finance that disaster prevention is a valid strategy and not a sunk cost.

Before an agreement was reached, a number of quantitative indicators had been proposed, but just two made it into the final framework. Furthermore, the use of the word ‘substantially’ in many of the targets will no doubt cause a lot of debate about how the targets should be interpreted. Monitoring progress also poses a challenge, with data availability and transparency being of great concern in many parts of the world.

Whether Sendai turns out to be the ‘pivotal point’ for global climate risk management remains to be seen. Many delegates commented that ‘any agreement is better than no agreement’. Hopefully the agreement made in Sendai will set the precedent for important international conferences later in the year – not least the development financing summit in Addis Abeba in July, the sustainable development goals negotiations in September and the climate change summit in December.

Read more

In this series of letters from Sendai, Swenja Surminski comments on the conference as it unfolds.


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