Disaster risk reduction (DRR) refers to the policy objective of anticipating, and reducing risk. Although often used interchangeably with DRR, disaster risk management (DRM) can be thought of as the implementation of DRR, since it describes the actions that aim at achieving the objective of reducing risk. DRM is actually a continuum that seeks to reduce the disaster impact through prevention, mitigation, and preparedness, and as evident from the disaster management cycle it includes post-disaster response, and recovery. Implementation of activities, and measures related to these should include a number of associated interventions, such as:
- Identification, and assessment of disaster risk
- Education, and knowledge development
- Informing people about their risk; awareness generation
- Incorporating DRM into national planning, and investment decisions
- Strengthening institutional, and legislative arrangements
- Providing financial protection to people, and businesses at risk; finance, and contingency planning
- Integrating DRR across multiple sectors, including health, environment, and the like
The DRM activities could be structural, for instance land use planning, and implementation of building codes, or non-structural, such as awareness raising, advocacy, policy formulation, and legislation. The manner in which governments, civil society, and other actors organise DRM, for example through institutional arrangements, legislation and decentralisation, and mechanisms for participation, and accountability is termed risk governance. There is clear evidence to suggest that low-income countries with weak governance are more vulnerable, and less resilient to disaster risk.
Disaster risk is increasingly being considered a result of poor development choices, failed or skewed development, unsustainable economic, and social processes, and ill-adapted societies. Reducing disaster risk therefore requires integrating DRR policy, and DRM practice into sustainable development goals.
What is disaster risk reduction?
Historically, dealing with disasters focused on emergency response, but towards the end of the 20th century it was increasingly recognised that despite being associated with natural hazards disaster incidences are not natural, and that prevention of losses, and alleviating the impacts of disasters is possible by reducing, and managing conditions of hazard, exposure, and vulnerability.
Despite best efforts the occurrence of natural hazards cannot be manipulated, and therefore the opportunity for reducing risk lies in thoughtfully manipulating vulnerability, and exposure in a planned manner. Reducing these two components of risk however requires identification, and systematic reduction of the underlying drivers of risk that are particularly related to poor economic, and urban development choices, and practices, degradation of the environment, poverty, and inequality, and climate change, which create, and exacerbate conditions of hazard, exposure, and vulnerability. Addressing these underlying risk drivers is understood as being the key to reduce disaster risk, lessen the impacts of climate change, and consequently maintain the sustainability of development.
Managing risks, and not just disasters is therefore the main issue.
DRR is all about clearing disaster induced bottlenecks in development, and it is in fact an inseparable ingredient of sustainable development. It must therefore involve every section of society, government, non-governmental organisations, and the professional, and private sector. It therefore requires a anthropocentric, and multi-sectoral approach, building resilience to multiple, cascading, and interacting hazards, and creating a culture of prevention, and resilience.
Consequently DRR includes strategies designed to:
- Avoid development of new risks
- Address pre-existing risks
- Share, and spread risk to prevent disaster losses being absorbed by other development outcomes, and thereby creating additional poverty
Planned combination of top-down institutional change, and strategies with bottom-up local, and community-based approach are required for the success of DRR. The related programs should not therefore be standalone but integrated within developmental planning, and practice. The approach should accordingly address different layers of risk from intensive to extensive risk, together with underlying risk drivers, and be tailored to local contexts. There is however no ‘one-size fits all’ approach, but there exist a number of approaches, and frameworks, which have been effectively implemented in different regions, and countries to reduce disaster risk.
However before attempting to reduce risk, one needs to fully understand the hazards, exposure, and vulnerability of people, and assets to those hazards.
Reducing disaster risk
For DRR to succeed in reducing risk it is a must to reinforce the strengths, attributes, and resources available within a community, society or organization – collectively identified as their capacity. Various DRR initiatives should therefore be designed to increase the resilience of people, communities, society, and systems to resist, absorb, accommodate, and to recover from, and improve well-being at the face of multiple hazards. Activities aimed at reducing, and managing risks could therefore provide a means for bringing forth resilience to other risks. In addition to development, DRR should therefore be integrated across a number of sectors, including climate change, and conflict.
Identifying and understanding risk
Awareness, identification, understanding, and assessment of disaster risks are all clearly fundamental underpinnings of DRR that is all about decisions, and choices, including a lack of. Risk information has a role in five key areas of decision making that are discussed below.
It is a real fact that there is severe paucity of authentic data relating to disaster-induced losses, particularly economic losses. There is therefore general lack of awareness on the implication of disasters on economy, and development in concrete terms. DRR activities therefore don’t get high priority. Appropriate communication of robust risk information at the right time could raise awareness, and trigger action.
Hazard, and risk information could be utilised to inform a broad range of activities to reduce risk; from improving building codes, and designing risk reduction measures such as flood, and storm surge protection, to carrying out macro-level assessments of the risks to different types of buildings for prioritising investment in reconstruction, and retrofitting.
An understanding of the affected geographic area, along with the intensity, and frequency of different hazard events, is critical for planning evacuation routes, creating shelters, and running preparedness drills. Providing a measure of the impact of different hazard events—potential number of damaged buildings, fatalities, and injuries, secondary hazards—makes it possible to establish detailed, and realistic plans for better response to disasters, which could ultimately reduce the severity of adverse natural events.
Disaster risk analysis developed out of the financial, and insurance sector’s need to quantify the risk of comparatively rare high-impact natural hazard events. The risk information is required by the state as it seeks to manage its sovereign financial risk or support programs that manage individual financial risks such as micro-insurance or household earthquake insurance.
Risk assessment could play a critical role in impact modelling before a disaster or it could provide initial, and rapid estimates of human, physical, and economic losses on the aftermath of an incidence. Moreover, risk information for resilient reconstruction should be available before an event as on the aftermath of the disaster it is often hard to collect information to carry forward resilient design, and land-use plans.
Unless the households, businesses or governments exposed to hazards are aware of the risks they face, there exists no incentive for them to invest in risk reduction. However, while risk awareness might be a precondition, the importance people attach to managing their risks could only be understood in the context of the full range of social, economic, territorial, and environmental constraints, and opportunities they face.
Despite having vast repository of research on disaster risk, the same is not available in a form that is understandable or useful to those who need it the most. There is therefore a need for risk scientists, and researchers to shift their focus towards producing risk information that is understandable, and actionable for different kinds of users. This shift however requires active, and ongoing collaboration, and partnership between scientists, and researchers, and those involved in DRR, ranging from governments to local communities.
Governments need to invest in the collection, management, and dissemination of risk information, including disaster loss, and impact statistics, hazard models, exposure databases, and vulnerability information. At the same time, they need to put standards, and mechanisms in place to ensure openness, and transparency so that users not only have access to the information they need but are aware of its underlying assumptions, and limitations.
The generation of understandable, and actionable risk information needs to be particularly sensitive to extensive risk, which, because it is configured to a large extent by social, economic, and environmental vulnerability, can be reduced effectively through risk management, and sustainable development practices.
Are we reducing disaster risk?
Some progress has certainly been made in reducing disaster mortality associated with intensive risks. But then, due to continuously increasing exposure of people, and economic assets the mortality, and economic losses from extensive risk are going up, and thus absolute global economic losses from disasters are increasing, although not relative to GDP.
It is a harsh reality that we have been generating risk faster than we have been reducing it. More efforts are therefore required to prevent new risks, which are emerging fast owing to urbanisation, climate change, and other risk drivers.
It needs to be understood that we have made more progress in managing disasters than in reducing disaster risk. Over the previous 10 years, there has been significant progress in strengthening disaster preparedness, response, and early warning capacities, and in reducing specific risks. However, progress has been limited in most countries when it comes to managing the underlying risks.
We certainly know ways, and means of reducing disaster risk, there however seems lack of incentive to do so. Individuals, governments, and businesses tend to discount low-probability future losses, and seem reluctant to invest in DRR. Despite the magnitude of disaster costs, risk reduction is often accorded low priority as compared to fiscal stability, unemployment or inflation.
New evidence demonstrates that the opportunity cost of disasters is high, and that many low, and middle-income countries are unable to cope financially with the predicted future disaster-induced losses while also maintaining their capacity to develop. In other words, these are not resilient.
The costs, and benefits of DRR are therefore required to be fully encoded into public, and private investment at all levels, into the financial system, and into the design of risk-sharing, and social protection mechanisms. Cost-benefit analyses could therefore be expanded to highlight the trade-offs implicit in each decision, including the downstream benefits, and avoided costs in terms of reduced poverty and inequality, environmental sustainability, economic development, and social progress. These could also help in identifying as to who retains the risks, who bears the costs, and who reaps the benefits. Such a broad approach to cost-benefit analysis could increase the visibility, and attractiveness of investments in DRR.
The good news is that we can achieve great things when we invest in DRR. There are countless success stories of reducing disaster risk ranging from community-based participatory approaches to the global reduction in disaster mortality associated with intensive risks.
However, we need to recognize that the impact of some DRR measures might not be immediate. It might take decades for the outcome of improved planning regulations, and building standards to translate into reduced disaster losses, as a critical mass of new, risk-sensitive building and urban development has to be achieved.
The future of DRR requires that we assess the costs, and benefits of risk reduction initiatives, reform risk governance, move from risk information to knowledge, and strengthen accountability.