Disaster Risk Management

Most countries have demonstrated some success in responding to disasters. Does it imply that as a species we have learnt how to handle disasters, and that disaster risk management has fi nally come of age? As discussions on the formulation of the successor to the Hyogo Framework for Action (2005-15) gather momentum, it is time to take a look at the conceptual underpinnings of disaster risk management.
Vinay Asthana (astvinay@gmail.com) is a Fellow of the Indian Institute of Management, Lucknow.
The effective handling of Cyclone Phailin in 2013 earned India worldwide praise for its disaster risk management efforts. Particularly remarkable was the success in ensuring minimal loss of human lives as compared to a cyclone of similar strength – Cyclone 05B – in the same region in 1999 (Harriman 2013). Fortunately, this is not a singular instance. Around the world, most nations have demonstrated more or less similar success in responding to disasters. Does it imply that we have learnt how to handle disasters, and that disaster risk management has finally come of age?
Disasters: Historical Trends
A look at the available empirical evidence, however, reveals a different picture. An analysis of the Emergency Events Database (EM-DAT) maintained by the Centre for Research on the Epidemiology of Disasters (CRED) (EM-DAT 2014) unambiguously points to three striking trends.
First of all, the mortality associated with hydrological hazards (for example, floods), meteorological hazards (for example, storms) and climatological hazards (for example, droughts) has declined significantly over the past five decades. This comforting trend is in line with the effective handling of Cyclone Phailin and other storms, floods and droughts in recent years.
This can be explained in terms of advances in science and technology – for example, early warning systems and emergency response operations – that have resulted in improved disaster response. At the same time, however, the mortality associated with geophysical hazards (for example, earthquakes) has witnessed a rising trend. Quite intriguingly, all-round technological progress has not been able to arrest this alarming uptrend. Abject failure on this count continues to be the most disturbing area of concern for disaster risk management.
Second, the economic and livelihood losses have shown a steeply increasing trend. To some extent, these trends can be attributed to a growth in population and increase in the value of assets exposed to various hazards. But this cannot be used as a justification for the failure to reduce economic losses.
Finally, the number of disasters occurring due to hydrological and meteorological hazards has shown an explosive growth, shooting up nearly five times in the past 40 years. Also, the decadal growth in the total number of disasters continues to be dreadfully high (Guha-Sapir et al 2012).
Combining these trends together, it becomes abundantly clear that barring partial success in reducing the mortality rate associated with some hazards, the current state of disaster risk management is far from satisfactory. In fact, the trends indicate that the situation is likely to deteriorate further at an increasing pace. This puts a question mark on the effectiveness of the massive disaster reduction efforts undertaken around the world so far. The issue assumes critical significance for developing countries because a lack of adaptive capacities forces them to face a disproportionately higher share of adverse consequences of disasters (Julca 2012). Moreover, the loss of economic and social capital sets back the process of development by several years, resulting in reversals on the poverty front.
This grim reality should throw us out of any sense of complacency that may have set in because of partial success in reducing the mortality rate, and compel us to re-examine the theoretical underpinnings of disaster risk management.
Hyogo Framework for Action
The current thinking on disaster risk management is largely reflected in the “Hyogo Framework for Action (HFA) 2005-15 – Building the Resilience of Nations and Communities to Disasters” (UNISDR 2005), which is a non-binding policy framework endorsed by 168 nations at the Second UN World Conference on Disaster Reduction held in Kobe (Japan) in 2005. The United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction (UNISDR) has been monitoring the progress made by each nation in the implementation of HFA. The current HFA will come to an end in 2015 and the post-2015 framework will be finalised at the Third UN World Conference on Disaster Risk Reduction, scheduled to be held in Sendai (Japan) in March 2015 (UNISDR 2012). In the run-up to this major event, disaster risk and development specialists are questioning the fundamental premises of disaster risk and the current HFA.
In the first place, it must be emphasised that the HFA marked a significant progress in disaster risk management as it was based on a paradigm shift in the way societies handle disasters: from an emergency response to a more proactive approach aimed at the reduction of disaster risk. It seeks to guide nations in their efforts at the management of disaster risk by setting three strategic goals1 and five priorities for action,2 which are monitored against a set of 22 core indicators.3 The expected outcome HFA strives to achieve is “the substantial reduction of disaster losses in lives, and in the social, economic and environmental assets of communities and countries” (UNISDR 2005), which highlights the disaster risk reduction paradigm embodied in the HFA.
Increasing progress in its implementation has been reported by nations in their self-assessment reports. HFA implementation has strengthened disaster preparedness for effective response, and considerable progress has been made in ensuring that disaster risk reduction becomes a national and local priority, backed by strong institutional arrangements. What comes as a puzzle is that increasing implementation of HFA has failed to arrest the disturbing trends outlined above.
In view of this cardinal contradiction, it has been argued that a mere continuation of the current paradigm in the post-2015 period will only amount to repeating the same mistakes all over again. Ongoing discussions on the formulation of the successor to HFA present an ideal opportunity for a critical evaluation of the current paradigm for disaster risk management. This is particularly significant because the other two closely interrelated instruments – climate change adaptation and sustainable development agenda – are also under discussion. This coincidence offers a rare opportunity to develop a coherent post-2015 paradigm that can harmonise policies and actions across the three instruments.
Deficiencies of the Paradigm
The fundamental problem with the current HFA is that it treats disasters as exogenous shocks which need to be reduced in order to protect the development processes. This is the essence of the disaster risk reduction paradigm underlying the current HFA. It is simple and intuitively appealing. Unfortunately, it is also the root cause of a series of vexing problems that become intractable in the current framework.
To begin with, it makes the existing paradigm fundamentally flawed even in theory, assuming away all practical problems of implementation. Development processes have their own risk-return trade-offs, which lead to a generation and accumulation of risk along with development gains. Treating disaster risk as exogenous to the development framework ignores the inherent risk-return trade-off, and leads logically to the unsustainable outcome in which development gains get privatised while disaster losses are socialised. This is a self-defeating mechanism because it is designed to protect the very economic processes that are contributing to the generation and accumulation of risk.
This fundamental flaw can readily explain why increasing implementation of HFA has been particularly unsuccessful in halting or reversing the accumulation of risk. To illustrate, consider the development processes involving groundwater extraction, landfill, or building a dam in a seismically active zone, all of which are known to have an impact on the possibility and severity of earthquakes. The gains of these development activities will be cornered by the beneficiaries (privatisation of development gains), but if an earthquake occurs, the disaster losses will be borne by all (socialisation of disaster losses). Koyna dam (associated with the 1967 Koyna earthquake) and Tehri dam (associated with the 1991 Uttarkashi earthquake) are classic examples of reservoir-induced seismicity.
In addition to that, considering disaster risk reduction as a separate goal imposes a conceptual framework wherein disaster risk is separated from normal economic activities. Although the current HFA talks of a holistic approach, its basic premises, in reality, directly lead to compartmentalisation. As a result, very little progress has been achieved in the integration of disaster risk management with climate change adaptation and sustainable development goals, despite repeated declarations calling for an integrated approach.
Moreover, disaster risk reduction regarded as a separate, autonomous sector fails to become a part of the main concerns of the government, thereby leading to a lack of political and economic commitment. Hence, disasters hit headlines once in a while, but disaster risk management never becomes a mainstream political issue.
Finally, viewing disasters as exogenous shocks reinforces the popular belief that disasters are “acts of God” (Basher 2008), and the resulting fatalism relieves authorities from all considerations of accountability and responsibility. Needless to say, it serves as an in-built incentive for authorities to support this paradigm.
Proposed Paradigm Shift
To a large extent, these problems explain why the progress towards the implementation of the current HFA has not led to the desired outcome. This has prompted many experts (Lavell and Maskrey 2013) to suggest another paradigm shift: from disaster risk reduction to making disaster risk endogenous to development. This is one fundamental change that can effectively tackle the problems listed above. Under this paradigm, disasters are not viewed as exogenous shocks to the development process, but as manifestations of development problems that have not been resolved.
Hence, disaster risk reduction becomes an integral part of all development processes and is no longer treated as a separate goal. Instead of shielding development processes from external shocks, disaster risk management aims at transforming development processes to incorporate risks and strengthen resilience. In other words, the focus shifts from risk reduction (corrective risk management) to avoiding risk construction and accumulation (anticipatory or prospective risk management).
Given the conventional wisdom of treating disasters as acts of god, the idea of disasters as unresolved development problems may appear to be counterintuitive, if not radical. Even though the idea has been around for several decades now, not much progress in its implementation has been observed. Still, a couple of cases where successful disaster risk management efforts were built around this idea may be mentioned here.
The case of the Lower Lempa River Valley, El Salvadore (Lavell 2004) during the previous decade is noteworthy because it illustrates successful implementation of a disaster risk management intervention built around the central premise that reduction of disaster risk can only be achieved through a reduction of “everyday risk”, that is, the risks associated with regular development problems like poverty, inequality, poor infrastructure, etc. To tackle the risk of floods and droughts, the intervention comprised a portfolio of development projects along with disaster risk projects. Its success is particularly notable because several earlier interventions had been unsuccessful. Similarly, the close connection between everyday risk (development problems) and disaster risk has been demonstrated in the case of Bolivian Chaco (Reyes and Lavell 2012) and other studies (UNISDR 2009).
To be fair to the current HFA, we must emphasise that it also creates a space for prospective risk management. In fact, HFA Priority 4 seeks to address underlying risk drivers; however, very little progress in its implementation has been reported (UNISDR 2013a). And this is along expected lines because the fundamentally flawed mechanism created by regarding disaster risk as exogenous to development fails to make risk creators accountable to risk bearers. The resulting socialisation of disaster losses ensures that very little actual progress is made in pre-empting the construction and accumulation of risk. In contrast, the new paradigm takes care of the problem of separation of development gains and disaster losses by directly addressing the risk-return trade-offs associated with development processes that lead to the generation and accumulation of risk.
Seen in this light, the controversy surrounding Sardar Sarovar Dam can be interpreted as an attempt by the protesters to make risk creators accountable to risk bearers, precisely in line with the proposed paradigm. The protracted controversy also demonstrates the intractability of the problem of socialisation of disaster losses, especially when we consider investments not only by public bodies, but also by innumerable agents in the private sector.
Furthermore, the problem of compartmentalisation gets automatically eliminated because the new paradigm is based on the integration of disaster risk management with the process of development. Hence, disaster risk management and climate change adaptation can be systematically integrated into the development framework. To varying degrees, this has been attempted by various countries. For example, Mozambique’s intervention (2001-07) for managing the adverse consequences of floods included a poverty reduction programme (Murray et al 2012).
Also, by making disaster risk endogenous to the development framework, disasters come to occupy the mainstream agenda of governments. This is conducive to creating an environment which provides strong incentives for strengthening political and economic commitment to disaster risk management. Moreover, as disasters are no longer seen as acts of god, it becomes logically acceptable to create mechanisms for fixing accountability and responsibility.
At least in theory, the proposed paradigm shift appears to come up with neat solutions to the intractable problems of the current HFA. But moving from a framework of extreme exogenous shocks to a framework that focuses on managing risks in development processes poses formidable theoretical and practical challenges. Risk-return trade-offs are typically difficult to interpret and implement. Moreover, the threat of loss in the distant future is often not enough in comparison to the short-term gains that can accrue from not investing in disaster risk management (Bender 2011).
Consider, for example, the case of the 2005 flooding of Mumbai, which shows that the drivers of flood risk (in fact, a complex portfolio of interrelated risks, including risk of landslides, risks associated with reclaimed land, risk of outbreak of infectious diseases, risk of disruption of networks of critical infrastructure, etc) are located in a web of socio-economic factors like poverty, slum settlements, infrastructure, and the ecosystem. No wonder that multi-hazard risk plans for coastal megacities prove to be difficult to formulate and implement (Murray et al 2012).
Combination of Approaches
The challenges of implementation of the new paradigm are further complicated by the existence of powerful incentives for politicians and administrators to maintain the status quo. After all, striving hard to ensure that nothing happens (which is the expected scenario under the new paradigm) is certainly less appealing than putting up heroic efforts to save lives and contain destruction in the aftermath of a disaster (which is the reality under the existing paradigm).
The proposed paradigm shift, however, does not imply that the compensatory approach followed so far can be abandoned immediately. Shift in paradigm is a gradual process and not an abrupt one-off event. It is expected to be a gradual shift in focus from short-term reduction of risk to long-term avoidance of risk construction. We cannot simply abandon the risk reduction paradigm because the existing levels of risk are already too high to be tackled within a reasonable period of time through the alternative paradigm. As the stakes involved are enormous – not just economic costs, human lives are at stake too – the only sensible solution would be a coexistence of the two paradigms. Fortunately, it is possible to achieve that by complementing the existing compensatory approach with the one that focuses on prospective risk management.
Now, that sounds paradoxical. But a closer look reveals that employing both the paradigms simultaneously is not logically inconsistent. This holds true because the existing disaster risk reduction paradigm focuses on the short-term consequences, whereas the proposed paradigm is essentially a long-term approach. Hence, it is entirely possible to create a structure based on the new paradigm and complement it with the efforts under the existing paradigm wherever immediate consequences need to be tackled. The existing approach, therefore, can coexist with the new approach as its subservient short-term instrument. Given the enormity of the challenge posed by disaster risk, this combination of approaches is probably our best bet for the successor to the current HFA.
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