Statement of Senator Loren Legarda: The greatest development challenge of our time

June 23, 2009

Regional Champion for Disaster Risk Reduction and Climate Change Adaptation for Asia Pacific
The Global Humanitarian Forum 2009 – Human Impact of Climate Change: New Challenges for
Humanitarianism and Sustainable Development
23 June 2009, Geneva

“The greatest development challenge of our time”

Excellencies, ladies and gentlemen,

Four days ago, the Global Platform for Disaster Risk Reduction concluded with 1,800 delegates from 165 nations calling on political leaders around the world to act decisively on reducing disaster risks and managing the impacts of climate change in order to arrest the eroding social and economic welfare of vulnerable nations.

Today’s high-level forum reinforces the importance and urgency of this call and brings to fore the emerging challenges for nations at risk as well as for the community of nations as a whole for humanitarianism and sustainable development. Indeed, climate change and disaster risks have become one of the greatest challenges to human development the world faces today.

Last year proved most demonstrative of the enormity and persistence of the global disaster risk problem and the urgency of action at all levels and in all fronts: Disasters killed about a quarter of a million people and affected more than 200 million lives. The total economic cost was a stunning 180 billion US dollars, which is twice the average annual economic losses of the past seven years. About 70 to 80 per cent of these disasters have been climate-related.

Thus far, the region of the Asia and the Pacific, which I humbly represent, has borne much of the brunt, accounting for more than 80 percent of the global loss of life.

And yet, given the gloomy scenario of climate change, more disasters are expected to happen.

In my country, the Philippines, disaster risks are a continuing concern. Located on the fringe of the Pacific Ocean and right within the Ring of Fire, the archipelago is at constant risk of typhoons, about 20 per year, and of strong earthquakes and powerful volcanic eruptions. And, with climate change, the country is foreseen to suffer stronger typhoons, more heavy rains, more flashfloods, more devastating droughts, and increased incidence of water and vector-borne diseases.

As a whole, my country is gripped in a vise – between the demands of progress on one hand, and the regressive effects of disasters on the other. As a nation at risk, we need therefore to rethink our approach to pursuing and protecting our development from the impacts of disasters and climate

What drive disaster risks and poverty in the context of climate change? The Global Assessment Report on Disaster Risk Reduction has recently found them with strong empirical evidence: poor urban governance, vulnerable rural livelihoods, and ecosystems decline.

The Report urges us to address these drivers of vulnerability lest climate change increases disaster risks, worsens poverty in developing countries, and makes our Millennium Development Goals even more elusive.

Firstly, we must therefore strengthen governance in the urban centres. This means putting a stop to corruption. This means enforcing strictly building codes and zoning policies. This means not placing people, houses, and industries in high risk areas.

Development must be pursued with responsibility, accountability, and proficiency for good governance. Development should reduce rather than produce risks to our society and our economy. Development should promote resilient investments.

Secondly, we must protect our ecosystems for it was found that 60% of all ecosystem services – the services nature provides to sustain human life on earth – are declining, with some services like fisheries beyond repair. And in addition, we are also creating trade-offs between these ecosystem services: for when we convert mangrove plantations to shrimp ponds, we actually increase storm surge risk; for when we cut down forests for agriculture use, we actually increase landslide risk; for when we drain wetlands, we actually increase flood risk.

I note with deep concern the rapid deforestation in my country. Over the last century, the proportion of land area covered by forest has fallen from 22 percent in 1990 to just 19.4 percent in 2000. As recorded, large area of forestlands were already converted to tree plantation, mining and marginal upland agriculture which gave a 1.4 per cent average deforestation rate from 1990 to 2000, the highest among Asian countries.

Luntiang Pilipinas, an organization that I helped organize several years back pursued a noble goal of creating oases of greens in open spaces and public areas. Today, it has planted and grown two million trees nationwide, a modest contribution to the Billion Tree Campaign of UNEP.

And thirdly, we must enhance rural livelihoods which 75% of the poor depend on to subsist. This means improving agricultural productivity and supporting our farmers better. This also means addressing the issues akin to rural poverty – such as inequity in land distribution, lack of access to better seeds and irrigation technology, the lack of economic diversification, weak markets and trade barriers, and the lack of capacity to absorb and to recover from disaster losses.

The Philippines has been vulnerable to the periodic occurrence of the El Niño-Southern Oscillation (ENSO) phenomenon that induces prolonged wet and dry seasons, particularly in the decades of the 80s and 90s. It contracted the nation’s GDP when agricultural production dropped drastically. From 1990 to 2003, the damage due drought was about 370 million US dollars. It also exacerbated poverty by 28 per cent.

Yet, again, an unconventional dry spell occurred in 2007, causing rice shortages in 2008 which prompted the importation of 2.7 million metric tons of rice, the country’s biggest rice importation in history. Over the past ten years, the Philippines has been importing more than one million metric tons of rice each year.

With climate change, more extreme weather events would further affect agriculture production and food security. In fact, based on a recent ADB study, the country stands to lose 6% of its GDP annually by 2100 if it disregards climate change risks. However, if the country were to invest 0.5% of its GDP in climate risk reduction by 2020, it can avert losses of 4% of its GDP. Indeed, all these prevailing drivers of risk call for decisive action now.

Excellencies, ladies and gentlemen,

The challenge of the 21 st century to world leaders has never been more pronounced and more compelling than in the present.

The challenge in politics and governance is persuasively clear.

Fundamentally, we must all understand that our socio-economic vulnerability depends much on the choices we make and the actions we take — as leaders and decision makers, as planners and builders, and as members of a society and a community. The lack of political will, poor understanding of risk, disregard for prevention and mitigation, lack of preparedness for response, our failure to take action, and our apathy and complacency — all these transform natural hazards and climate change to a disaster.

There is no more fitting time to say that reducing disaster risk has become a moral imperative for governments and a social responsibility for all than now — when having less in life means losing life.

The present task of reducing disaster risks in the context of poverty, social inequality, gender imbalance, and climate change has now become synonymous with preserving humanity and securing the future of our children and our grandchildren today. It is therefore a task no one can afford to ignore.

To us leaders and lawmakers of nations and societies, the task at hand calls for a new brand of politics — the kind of politics that has genuine regard for human development and a forceful vision for the future of humanity; the kind of politics that ushers proactive laws and policies and reforms our conventional way of thinking and doing.

The task at hand also calls for a new brand of governance — the kind of governance that ensures risk reduction laws and regulations are passed and implemented and creates the necessary enabling environment to translate sustainable development strategies into practical and measurable gains; the kind of governance that translates political commitment into real actions and results for the people at national and local levels.

There is no more appropriate time to show political will, good governance, and exemplary leadership than these trying times. Indeed, these times call for a new breed of leaders – leaders of integrity and responsibility, leaders of wisdom and compassion, leaders of conscience and conviction, leaders who are truly committed to eradicating poverty and uplifting humanity.

Excellencies, ladies and gentlemen,

The challenge in development is undeniably clear.

Contemporary development practices have been irresponsible since they have allowed disaster risks to grow, to spread, and to prevail until today. Urban poverty, weak governance, ecosystems decline, vulnerable rural livelihoods, turbo-charged by climate change, altogether created enormous risks in our cities and communities and have put the poor in greater peril. These risks will constantly challenge our human capacity to cope and imperil all development gains.

Today’s state of socio-economic affairs should not be business-as-usual. It is high time for the world to slow down this contemporary development practices.

We come to ask ourselves: What is the true meaning of a nation’s wealth? How then can we develop our societies without compromising our environment and the welfare of generations to come? How can we advance our socio-economic standards without putting the poor at greater risk? How can we realize our shared goals on poverty reduction and sustainable development for the millennium with greater certainty of success?

The real answer lies deep within us.

It is high time to re-think development — and for a more holistic development philosophy to emerge and to prevail:
— the kind of development that transcends economic capital measures such as GDP;
— the kind of development that has regard for social, cultural and natural capital of countries;
— the kind of development that is not only sustainable but also adaptable;
— the kind of development that fosters equity not just efficiency;
— the kind of development that does not create new risks and promotes resilient investments;
— the kind of development that is founded on sustainable and equitable socio-economic
development, ecosystems protection, cultural resilience, and good governance.

Now is the time for all of us to unite on all these challenges, and to transcend territorial boundaries, political persuasions, and institutional affiliations.

If only we keep an open mind, an open heart, and a genuine passion for good governance, I believe we can make an important difference for our people especially the poor, for our society, and for the

The time to make that difference is now.

Humanity’s future depends upon us.

Let us be the change we seek.

Thank you and Mabuhay!