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Press Conference on World Disaster Reduction Campaign 'Making Cities Resilient'

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With 58 cities already committed to "Making Cities Resilient", and 70 more preparing to participate, the campaign had made great progress, Margareta Wahlström, Assistant Secretary-General for Disaster Risk Reduction and Special Representative of the Secretary-General, said at a Headquarters press conference today.

"A resilient city," said Ms. Wahlström, "is a city that is able to withstand and recover from the effects of disaster." The new initiative, coordinated by the inter-agency Secretariat of the United Nations International Strategy for Disaster Reduction, mobilized mayors and local governments in cities around the world to develop both resources and infrastructure that would be capable of responding to and recovering from disasters.

Through the campaign, mayors not only identified their specific challenges to disaster preparation, but shared with other cities best practices and expertise, she said. The campaign had already been launched in several cities, including in Bonn, Germany, and Lima, Peru, and this month, an event would be held in Shanghai, China. Finland had initiated the campaign, with 15 of its cities.  Along with cities, the campaign was identifying partners in the private sector and in the United Nations system to become engaged in issues that mayors raised in regard to disaster preparation.

What made a city resilient were organization, coordination and planning, as well as a budget and financial incentives to build safe structures and buildings. Risk assessment was another essential component of the campaign, not just on the global level, but within the local area of the city itself. Identifying seismic risks, flooding and critical infrastructure such as roads, bridges, communications, sanitation, lights, water were crucial. Even more important, she felt, and the "cheapest" of all was the safety of the social infrastructure, and that included schools, hospitals and clinics.

"If the world is going to fulfil the Millennium Development Goal of education for all, probably another 100 million children will go to school. That's a lot of new schools and why not build them safe, instead of risking they are destroyed in the next flooding or earthquake?" she posed.

The first two years of the campaign, to run through 2015, would focus on mobilization, she said. The campaign was already showing success with participating cities, such as Makati City in the Philippines. At the same time, however, the risks were growing, with the impact of weather-related disasters and an increasing number of people moving into urban areas. There were now half a billion people living in slums. Implementing risk reduction strategies, therefore, was "extremely important in achieving the Millennium Development Goals", she said.

Responding to a question about the campaign's successes and shortcomings, Ms. Wahlström stated that the problems in Haiti had not started with the recent earthquake. Compared with Chile's earthquake that followed shortly after, Chile's infrastructure and national planning had been stronger, with more buildings built to be earthquake-proof. Haiti's capital city was an example of "organic" growth, which had happened over several generations, but with poor building materials and a lack of building codes and city regulatory supervision.

That situation, however, was not just specific to Haiti, Ms. Wahlström said, pointing out that those issues were the same in many areas. The recent disasters from flooding in Istanbul, Turkey; Messina, Italy; and Jakarta, Indonesia, had been the result of building on "sensitive" land. It was essential for cities to know the risk in their own planning and development.

She also noted that pricing of land and shelter was often indicative of its safety. Often a lower price marked it as a more dangerous area, while safer areas were more expensive. Local governments should be more responsible in regulating what areas were safe to build on and what areas were not, and she commended Makati City, Bogotá and Mexico City for taking significant measures to institute safety regulations.

In particular, Mexico City, following its 1985 earthquake, had kept certain buildings and areas empty as a clear indication it was not safe to live or build there. Mexico City also inspected its social facilities and hospitals, following a standard index developed by the American Hospital Association. It also made sure that staff were trained and the physical sites were prepared in case of disaster. As Mexico City was taking the lead in disaster preparation and risk reduction, it was now working with other cities to share its expertise.

Although risk reduction and disaster preparation was a long process and would not happen overnight or even in six months, such successes were "clearly a sign that it can be done", she said.

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