Han Seung Soo
Special Envoy for Disaster Risk Reduction and Water, United Nations
AsianScientist (Nov. 24, 2016) – With climate change comes a greater risk of water-related disasters—a fact that Dr. Han Seung Soo knows only too well. Han, who served as prime minister of the Republic of Korea from 2008-09, is currently the United Nations (UN) Secretary-General’s special envoy for disaster risk reduction and water, a position he has held since 2013. As such, he has a deep understanding of climate change and its impact on the frequency and intensity of water-related disasters which, in emerging economies in the region, can have devastating effects.
Some highlights from his illustrious career that spans decades include being awarded the Nobel Peace Prize on behalf of the UN in 2001 and becoming an honorary knight commander of the Order of the British Empire from Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II of the United Kingdom in 2004. He is also founding chair of the Global Green Growth Institute, an international organization dedicated to promoting sustainable growth all over the world.
Han shared his insights into issues surrounding water-related disasters with Asian Scientist Magazine on the sidelines of the Singapore International Water Week held at Marina Bay Sands, Singapore on July 10-14, 2016, where he was speaking at the Water Leaders Summit.
- What does your current role as special envoy entail?
I was appointed as the UN special envoy for disaster risk reduction in December 2013, and my main task is to carry out high-level advocacy on behalf of the secretary-general. This is particularly relevant in the context of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction, which runs from 2015 through to 2030.
- Will water-related disasters require greater attention as climate change heats up the planet?
Climate change is one of the greater challenges of our time, exacerbating extreme disasters, including meteorological events. According to a recent International Panel on Climate Change report, there is quite a growing number of climate change mitigation policies, but without additional information to manage greenhouse gas emissions beyond those in place today, global mean surface temperature is expected to increase significantly as compared to pre-industrial levels. This is mainly due to the rapid economic growth which is dependent on fossil fuels, and this pattern is expected to continue for some time.
During the past decade, water-related disasters have not only struck more frequently but have been more severe, hampering sustainable development by causing political, social and economic upheaval in many countries. Water-related disasters account for more than 90 percent of all natural hazards. Here, the importance of addressing the issue of water-related disasters is obvious.
However, for the people working in the field of disaster risk (DR) reduction management, it is not always true that these specialists will always take disaster risk possibility into account. They are not really interested in DR reduction; there’s an asymmetry between these two. Therefore, part of my job as special envoy is to help bridge the gap between water and disaster experts by promoting DR reduction as a priority in the water agenda.
- How can transboundary frameworks help to drive water security?
There are 286 transboundary river basins in the world spanning 151 countries. For these countries, transboundary regulations hold great importance. For example, the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, which is upstream of the Nile river, almost led to a war between Ethiopia and Egypt.
But close transboundary water cooperation is possible, as in the case of the Mekong River. China is a member of the Mekong River Commission, where countries such as Cambodia, Laos, Thailand and Vietnam jointly manage and develop the Mekong River. Recently, leaders of these countries convened in Hainan for the first Lancang-Mekong Cooperation Leaders’ Meeting as an important new initiative for regional cooperation in the sustainable development of the river, which is called the Lancang River in China.
Transboundary rivers will always be the source of potential conflicts in the future. We have to be wise enough to tackle this issue, otherwise it will create lots of problems for countries.
- What are the steps that Korea has taken to ensure water security for its people?
After the Korean war in the mid-1950s, Korea’s water supply stood at 16 percent, rising a little to 32 percent by 1970. By 1990, it was 78 percent, and by 2014, Korea had reached 98.6 percent of population coverage. Currently I think Korea—with the exception of people living in isolated small islands and mountainous areas—fully benefits from our water supply, facilities and infrastructure. We have solved the problem of water.
To do this, the Korean government built large-scale multi-purpose dams and began heavily investing in and developing intensive water infrastructure to supply water to the people. The development of water resources infrastructure not only helps to mitigate damage from floods, but also provides the bedrock for construction of new industrial complexes and cities. In this regard, it would not be an overstatement to say that the development of water resources in Korea, as actively led by the Korean government, was the basis of Korea’s economic development.
Starting from the mid-1990s, Korea’s focus was on water quality management and the environmental aspect of water. By reusing water and managing pollution near drainage areas, we will not only protect our source of water but are also able to increase the space for amenities by providing more access to rivers and creating of parks and facilities in the surrounding areas.
During my time in Korea, we also initiated the a river restoration project where we tried to create small dams and barriers to contain the water at strategic points. We thought that by doing so the river would become much more accessible to people, who will come to enjoy it.
- How can water-related disasters be overcome on an international level?
Water issues are not particular to just one country. This is a very universal issue. More and more people have to be united to overcome the problem; they have to come out of silos to solve it together. So, global partnerships are very important in dealing with water issues.
This article is from a monthly series called Asia’s Scientific Trailblazers. Click here to read other articles in the series.
Copyright: Asian Scientist Magazine.
Disclaimer: This article does not necessarily reflect the views of AsianScientist or its staff.