Mami Mizutori: We have to include women as leaders of the global climate agenda
Disaster risks make up a high percentage of losses in relation to infrastructure, the economy and social sustainability in countries struck by disasters. The special representative of the United Nations Secretary-General for Disaster Risk Reduction (UNDRR), Mami Mizutori, supports the structuring of disaster prevention systems in vulnerable zones and their communities.
Mizutori (Tokyo, 1960), who visited Panama for the first time on 25 March this year, spoke to La Estrella de Panamá about the current challenge of disaster prevention and the risks involved, which then become obstacles to the social and economic development of countries, as well as of communities in vulnerable situations.
An expert in sustainability, culture and foreign relations, she has had a professional journey of more than 20 years moving through posts in government and non-profit organizations in her native Japan, as well as in the United States, Spain and now the United Kingdom, where she lives and works as an executive director of the Sainsbury Institute for the study of Japanese Arts and Cultures at the University of East Anglia.
Her life has been marked by coming from a generation that did not have an abundance of “opportunities for women”, but now she is fighting to reverse this reality for new generations worldwide. This is what she talks about during our interview.
How did your childhood and upbringing mould your professional career and your personal journey?
I was born in Japan, in an era when opportunities for women were not abundant. Women in general had to fight to obtain a career. Luckily, when I graduated I got a job at the Ministry of Foreign Relations in Japan, where I stayed for 30 years. I had the opportunity to work in various countries, including Spain, Mexico, the United States and the United Kingdom. After this I decided to change the course of my career a little, and I went to work in the United Kingdom, where I began to lead a Japanese art and culture institute, which is a very interesting experience... moving from government to a non-profit sector, where I spent some years.
Then the opportunity arose to work for the United Nations, which for me was very important, because when serving in the non-profit sector, I thought that it would be good to do something to generate change and working in the public sector, for the common good, is great. I took the post of director of the Department for Disaster Risk Reduction, including representing the United Nations Secretary-General in this area, which I passionately believe is very important today.
What are the factors affecting climate change in the short to medium term for the Latin America region?
In a word: many. Unfortunately, this is the situation worldwide, but I would say that the level of impact of climate change in terms of affecting people, and economic losses, is increasing more and more in Latin America. The climate changes that we are seeing, with an impact on hurricanes, cyclones, floods, droughts and increased sea levels, are affecting the region. I must also say that the problem with disaster reduction is a combination of climate risks and social and economic risks, as you have a society with a great discrepancy between incomes, where we see vulnerable people who are not protected, children, women, disabled people, indigenous people and others, and when they are hit by a cyclone, the damage and risks increase exponentially and in many cases are combined with what we call underlying risk drivers, such as gender inequality.
When did you know that you wanted to dedicate your life to disaster control and contributing to the environment?
I think that when I was appointed to the post of special representative of the United Nations Secretary-General for the Office for Disaster Risk Reduction, I had a greater background understanding of the post as my own country, Japan, is highly prone to disasters, such as earthquakes, tsunamis, volcanic eruptions and emergencies caused by climate change. So we Japanese grow up with the impact of disasters and this made me see how as people we can do a lot more to mitigate as best possible the damage from disasters, so that fewer people die, lose their homes, their jobs... and to some extent, this mentality is embedded within you when you come from a country where disasters are always close by and constant.
In terms of public policies, how can we implement better disaster risk prevention strategies in the region?
We cannot stop cyclones when they are on the way, right? Perhaps in many years’ time we will be able to do so if we are successful in mitigating climate change, but meanwhile, what can we do? Simple: better prevention. What does this mean? That a disaster is a combination of three elements: the threat, let’s say a cyclone, and the only way we can prevent the ferocious disaster of a cyclone is if we improve climate change mitigation; then there is vulnerability, where you have to understand people’s situation, be they children, indigenous people or disabled people, and you have to understand their needs, and to do this you have to include their voices in the planning of disaster risk prevention, which leads to the response part, always hand in hand with a strong government, in order to devote attention to exposed infrastructures in vulnerable zones and make them sufficiently resistant.
This has to come with a legal agreement so that public and private constructors that do not comply with the established public safety regulations are punished. Panama is in the process of doing this; this year the president, Laurentino Cortizo, decided to set up a disaster reduction office, and the Minister of the Interior, Janaina Tewaney, is responsible for creating a strategy for disaster reduction in the country. At UNDRR we have been asked to support, along with other UN agencies, the creation and implementation of this strategy. I think that Panama is on a positive and historically very important path, to which we will provide our support.
The Americas and the Caribbean is the region most affected by disasters: 53% of economic losses worldwide in the last two decades have occurred here. How do we arrest this trend?
Our key phrase is: “Nothing erodes sustainable development like a disaster.” This is very important because looking at the Sustainable Development Goals, we see that they begin with “Eradicate poverty” and “Stop hunger”, and with a disaster these aspects only increase. For example, this pandemic is a terrible disaster that has sent many people back to poverty. So even if there has been an effort on the part of the national government to make progress in economic growth, this can be lost in the face of a single disaster, through not being prepared or having an established plan for a crisis.
What one needs to do is ensure that disasters do not cause devastation and do not set back development.
What is your key to success in the field in which you operate?
The main thing to dedicate to this is thinking of future generations, because we have done enough damage as individuals and corporations, forgetting that really we only have one planet, and although what humans have done to the planet over the centuries has helped us to grow and to live better, it has also reached a point where it is not sustainable. We have to be mindful that there is no second planet, and to make this one sustainable we need to make many changes to the ways in which we have become accustomed to living and working in the modern world. Many young people are already changing how they live, work, connect with others, in order to greater networks that are much more sustainable in the long term, and this is key for being more successful in this area of our lives.
How do you see the inclusion of women in the field of risk prevention?
The good news is that the UN Office for Women’s Leadership in Risk Reduction was created in 2020 in Pacific Asia and in 2021 it opened a site in Latin America, which already has over 700 associated women, and perhaps they think that isn’t a lot, but it is for the short time since the announcement. What we are looking for is for women to have a place on the global agenda, in addition to being leaders on the path to gender equality, and for their knowledge and empowerment to contribute to the global disaster risk reduction strategy. Women must be included in this field not as people to be protected, but as leaders of the global climate agenda. Although we still have a long way to go, I am optimistic that we will get there.
On your journey, what lessons have you learnt about who you are now?
The more I grow, the more I recognize that really I have been very privileged with regard to where I was born, how I was brought up and other things. And that the reason why I can dedicate myself to what I do is not merely because I have studied a lot or worked hard, but because often where you are born enables you to grow in other areas and we know that not everyone enjoys this advantage. When I joined the UN system, I understood the meaning of “don’t leave anyone behind”, because many people are left behind. It is an enormous responsibility, but I feel that it is something to which I want to continue to commit and that it is a scenario in which we must all be involved and aware and continually contribute.