Today is the International Day for Disaster Risk Reduction, which the United Nations established in 1989 to promote risk-awareness and disaster reduction. Contrary to common belief, there is nothing natural about disasters – they are just the consequence of events. When we are prepared for them in a way that reduces or eliminates human suffering, they become just that, events. Held every 13 October, the day celebrates how people and communities around the world are reducing their exposure to disasters.
Ukraine became well aware of the disastrous consequences that come from an unexpected catastrophe in 1986, when a flawed reactor design, operated by poorly trained personnel in Chornobyl, resulted in an explosion and release of highly radioactive steam and ash across thousands of miles of land. To this day Ukrainians are working to reduce the risks of further exposure to radiation from that event. One such effort focuses on containing the risk from wildfires in the area, where 10,800 square miles of land in Ukraine, Belarus and Russia were contaminated with the fallout.
This risk of fire fallout became particularly elevated in April 2020, when wildfires raised nuclear pollution hazards in the Chornobyl Exclusion Zone. Mitigating such fires requires vast resources to avoid long-lasting negative impacts on ecosystems and on human health. This is way effective disaster risk management is needed to prevent the escalation of cascading effects that could results in devastating economic and social losses.
Fortunately, the world learned from Chornobyl, reducing the risks of reoccurrence. However, much larger and formidable risks linger on the horizon, the effects of which are already being felt – those coming with a rapid and unpredictable change in climate patterns.
Reducing risks from the climate crisis
The United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), in cooperation with the Government of Ukraine and international partners and donors, is working to reduce possible risks associated with the changing climate. Ukraine is highly vulnerable to climate change and extreme weather phenomena. In June 2020, for example, the western regions of Ukraine were hit by a 60-year flood that caused the deaths of three people and damaged infrastructure valued at more than UAH 3 billion (US$105 million).
Apart from direct losses caused by the high water, when the floods recede, the damage left behind can be devastating and present many dangers. Floodwaters often become contaminated with sewage or chemicals. On a larger scale the floods affect livelihoods, and economic resilience.
Another threat to lives and livelihoods, and which is linked to the increasing occurrence of drought and floods, is the incidence of forest fires and open burning practices, which increasingly pose severe threats to natural ecosystems, agricultural systems, air quality and human settlements.
Wildfires are seasonal and primarily caused by the agricultural practice of burning the land for planting, and again after harvest, or by deep rooted practices of “cleaning” hayfields to allow fresh grass to sprout for cattle. These practices are now becoming more dangerous due to the higher temperatures experienced in summer and the changing precipitation patterns.
In fact, this practice of agricultural burning is the main cause of more than 55,000 fires in Ukraine each year. In certain areas of the country, at least 70 percent of the population is exposed to high fire hazards – primarily due to open burning and fires. These fires cause damage to property and the environment, and cause dangerous air pollution and health hazards.
UNDP is responding to these and other risks through the proposed Strengthening Disaster Risk Reduction (DRR) and Recovery Programme, to be launched in 2021. Under the programme, UNDP will carry out activities with the Government of Ukraine to improve central policy frameworks and plans for Disaster Risk Management. All such disaster risk management policies need to be aligned with climate adaptation considerations. They also need to respond to the needs of women and men from diverse groups, especially the most vulnerable.
As part of the project, we are planning to include a set of innovative financial mechanisms, which combine both disaster risk reduction and climate change adaptation aspects – such as forecast-based financing. These will be implemented to improve the preparedness and resilience of the territories most at risk from extreme weather events.
UNDP has been helping Ukraine to integrate climate risks into national and sub-national development planning through its EU4Climate and Green Caucus projects.
In addition, we have introduced several individual Disaster Risk Reduction programmes, while providing long-term support to the development of carbon-neutral and sustainable economies that are also resilient to climate change impacts.
Other initiatives involve the restoration of natural ecosystems by using nature-base solutions such as wetland restoration, as well as the conservation and sustainable management of forests, and they form a key aspect of UNDP’s climate change adaptation and mitigation portfolio.
Another initiative from UNDP leverages the latest tech to improve disaster response times in Ukraine. Many places, such as parks, nature reserves, and open farmland, have no precise addresses, making it difficult to dispatch emergency teams to an exact spot. The challenge comes from the use of traditional grid references used by most GPS systems, which are prone to errors. A new application called what3words solves these problems by dividing maps into three-meter by three-meter squares, identified by a unique string of three words – a system that is accurate, simple, and memorable.
UNDP plans to support State Emergency Services in Donetsk, Luhansk and Zaporizhzhia oblasts with IT equipment for dispatch points and rescue vehicles and relevant training to use the what3words application. Using the App rescuers will be able to get the precise locations of persons in need of help (with no chance of a mistake) allowing rescue teams to arrive at the site of the emergency in the shortest time possible. Procurement of equipment for this is in progress, and the project is planned for launch by the end of 2020.
Apart from its work on disaster risk reduction, UNDP in Ukraine is helping the Government to increase disaster resilience overall through its work to integrate the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) into all levels of policy. The SDGs, also known as the Global Goals, form a comprehensive and strategic plan to end poverty, protect the planet and ensure that all people enjoy peace and prosperity by 2030.
Through the SDG framework, UNDP is helping the Government of Ukraine to better respond to future events and to reduce all possible disasters through making the country’s infrastructure, institutions and governance more robust and resilient. In this way, if and when events do strike, their negative effects can be limited in both area, and time.
This International Day for Disaster Risk Reduction we can look forward to a time when Ukraine has the capacity to ensure that a catastrophe on the scale of Chornobyl never occurs again. We can also be assured that while Ukraine is reducing its contribution to the global climate challenge – through, for example, expanding the use of green energy -- it is also adapting to a changing environment locally by, among other activities, providing solutions to widespread open burning.