Cop27: 'Water-related risks keep me up at night', says UN's disaster risk reduction boss

Mami Mizutori, special representative of the United Nations secretary general for disaster risk reduction, and head of the UN Office for Disaster Risk Reduction (UNDDR). (Keystone/AFP/Fabrice Coffrini)

En route to Cop27, the head of the UN's office for disaster risk reduction tells Geneva Solutions what climate-related worries she loses the most sleep over – and why more can be done to prevent extreme weather events from striking communities unprepared.

Extreme weather disasters, though no longer completely unexpected in this new era of increasing climate change-induced calamities, too often take countries and their communities by surprise when they strike, bringing destruction with them. But they are not completely inevitable, says the head of the United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction (UNDDR).

“That is one of the fundamental misconceptions we’re trying to correct,” Mami Mizutori, tells Geneva Solutions by email on her way from New York to Egypt to attend Cop27. “There’s still more that can be done”.

Her office, together with the World Meteorological Organization (WMO), will be spearheading a new initiative, launching Monday, to kit out the planet with early warning systems in the next five years, so that countries can respond to disasters earlier and faster. She shares her thoughts on what other actions need to be taken at Cop27 over the next two weeks – and why water-related risks top her list of worries.

Geneva Solutions: You have launched a call for action for zero climate disasters by 2030. What does it mean in terms of concrete actions?

Mami Mizutori: One of the fundamental misconceptions that we are trying to correct is that disasters are inevitable. Disasters are a combination of hazard, vulnerability and exposure. It is the hazard part that most people think of when they say disasters are natural or inevitable. Even in the face of growing climate change and more extreme weather events, there is still a lot that can be done to prevent disasters or at least minimise their impact so they don’t devastate.

To understand how that is possible, it is important to understand the role vulnerability and exposure play. If you are a person with high vulnerability due to poverty or inequality, then even a minor event, such as a local storm, can leave you homeless or worse. The same is true for countries.

That is why we call for reducing vulnerability as a pre-condition for reducing disaster impacts and creating a Zero Disasters World by the year 2030.

The message that we will carry to Cop27 is that this can be achieved by:

  1. Boosting political commitment to mitigation and funding for adaptation.

  2. Doubling down on global efforts to reduce vulnerability, poverty, and inequality, and achieve the Sustainable Development Goals.

  3. Scaling up effective comprehensive risk management to integrate climate and disaster planning across sectors.

  4. Prioritising inclusive local action and community engagement.

  5. Implementing the secretary-general’s Early Warnings for Initiative by 2027 to achieve universal early warning coverage.

Your organisation predicts that there will be 560 disasters by 2030, pushing millions into poverty. What climate risks keep you up at night that countries should prioritise?

Water-related risks. Nine out of ten disasters are water-related. There is also a close link between climate change and water-related disasters as climate change is projected to result in more intense droughts and floods.

Water-related disaster deaths have more than doubled in the last 10 years. Over 90 per cent of disaster-affected people were affected due to water-related disasters which also accounted for nearly 95 per cent of infrastructure loss and damage.

“Water-related disaster deaths have more than doubled in the last 10 years.”

The countries that we would prioritise as the ones that are the most climate vulnerable. This typically involves the least developed countries and small Island developing states. In these countries, disasters can have a disproportionate impact on their development, wiping away decades of gains.

Water seems to be this double-edged sword, devastating in certain situations and a life saver in others. Is there a way to better manage water resources so that they are more the solution rather than a problem?

The resilience of coastal communities is closely linked to the health of our marine and coastal ecosystems. We need to rewire our systems to address linked risks. At the heart of these risks are our unsustainable production and consumption patterns.

We are living outside the boundaries of what our planet can sustain, to the detriment of future generations. Therefore, radical shifts are needed for a more sustainable, risk-informed pathway. If we cannot agree on how to better manage water resources, then a reduction in disaster risks will not be possible. Conversely, if we cannot reduce disaster and climate risks, we cannot sustain our valuable water resources.

The good news is that this is a problem that can be solved, with the right political will and financial investment.

UNEP’s reports recently warned that climate pledges to reduce greenhouse gas emissions have barely improved since Cop26, while adaptation plans and the finance needed are not keeping pace with the growing risks. Is it realistic to think that climate risk to zero will be brought down in eight years?

I should note that our goal is to reduce “climate disasters” to zero, and not risks. Climate change has already increased the intensity of climate hazards, and some might not be reversible. But hazards are only one part of the equation and we can still reduce vulnerability and exposure.

We believe it is possible because political action and funding are more likely to materialise to address immediate risks, which is now the case. The recent climate disaster in Pakistan, which affected 75 per cent of the country, is estimated to have inflicted more than $30 billion in damages and economic losses.

As expensive as adaptation might seem, with adaptation finance needs set to grow to over $300bn annually by 2030, the amount is still cheaper than what it would cost to cover the humanitarian and reconstruction needs of impacted countries if no action is taken.

The WMO is unveiling its Early Warnings for All initiative on Monday, aiming to ensure that everyone is protected within five years. What will be UNDRR’s role in helping achieve this goal?

As the agency charged with monitoring the implementation of the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction, we are already tracking the global status of how countries are expanding early warning systems. We recently published a report with WMO on this topic, which showed that half of the countries of the world still lack multi-hazard early warning systems. Even among countries that do have systems, there is a lack of progress around building an understanding of the risks that communities face.

That is why we are leading the risk knowledge pillar in the Early Warnings for All initiative, which is the first element of any early warning system. Moreover, UNDRR will co-chair with WMO the Initiative’s governing board which will report to the UN secretary general on progress.

The issue of loss and damage has gained momentum since Glasgow, but opposition from many northern countries is still fierce. What do you think states should commit to on this issue? Can we expect an outcome on the issue of loss and damage at Cop?

As our planet continues to get hotter, all communities will increasingly suffer losses and damage from climate beyond their capacity to adapt. The issue of loss and damage has languished for too long. The secretary general asked for a serious and time-bound discussion which we hope will lead to concrete action, including on financing, to avert and address loss and damage.

At the end of the day, loss and damage is the litmus test of how seriously both developed and developing governments are willing to work together to address this issue in a multilateral setting. The secretary-general has called on all developed economies to tax the windfall profits of fossil fuel companies. Those funds should be re-directed in two ways: to countries suffering loss and damage caused by the climate crisis, and to people struggling with rising food and energy prices.