Disaster risk reduction (DRR) - reducing and preventing the effects of a disaster - is founded on the belief that whilst disasters are inevitable, death and suffering from them is not and humans can take action to ensure this. DRR actions can be political, technical, social and economic and take forms as varied as policy guidance, legislation, preparedness plans, agricultural projects or insurance schemes. With climate change expected to increase the frequency and magnitude of many types of weather related disasters, the relevance of DRR to the broader discussion in the development sector about adaptation to climate change is increasingly apparent and has led to growing efforts to link them, both in policy and practice.
Like climate change adaptation, DRR is far more effective when tackled within larger development projects and policies and development organisations have been making efforts to mainstream DRR for some years. This recognises the links between vulnerability to disasters and social status. In other words those with better access to resources, stable housing, financial fallback and higher social rank are less at risk than the poor, women, children and the elderly. It also reflects the belief that being able to tackle risks posed by current climate variability is the best frontline defence against longer-term climate change impacts.
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The Samaritan's dilemma
It is worth remembering though that this movement towards integration is a relatively new thing. Traditionally DRR has been neglected in many programmes because it falls between the ‘relief’ and ‘development’ sectors. Many DRR programmes are funded from humanitarian budgets and coordinated from humanitarian aid departments but this separates them from the wider development sector and development practitioners have often seen DRR as belonging to the relief sector. Perhaps as a result of this DRR interventions haven’t always been designed to most effectively learn from and secure the participation og those most at risk.
DRR also faces challenges with implementation. Many developing countries struggle to afford the required economic investment needed to reduce risks and there is an argument, often called the Samaritan’s dilemma, that the assurance of outside humanitarian relief once a disaster takes place, can deter them from investing in DRR practices. A potential solution to this would be to make post-disaster aid conditional on the implementation of DRR but effective tools to analyse the capacities of community-based organisations to participate effectively in the design and implementation of risk reduction strategies are in short supply.
It was the Indian Ocean tsunami of 2004 that first put disaster risk reduction high on the international political agenda. Prompted by the devastation and widespread calls to install early warning systems, 168 Governments met at the World Conference on Disaster Reduction in Japan in January 2005. Here the Hyogo Framework for Action (HFA) was agreed which set out a ten-year holistic strategy for DRR. Building on Hyogo at a regional level associations and networks have emerged with the aim of improving communication and coordination between countries and to advocate for DRR and disaster management. These include the South Asian SAARC Disaster Management Centre (SDMC) and the Caribbean Disaster Emergency Response Agency (CDERA).
Hyogo recognised the need to increase awareness and understanding of DRR and the importance of assessing risks and taking preventative action against them. The Framework called for the creation or enhancement of early warning systems, and action to reduce risk factors such as deforestation, unstable housing and the location of communities in risk prone areas.
Perhaps most significantly though the Hyogo Framework highlighted the role of education in increasing the capacity of people to deal with and reduce the risk of disasters. This recognised both the central role that schools play in communities but also the role that children can have in creating solutions and ensuring that DRR becomes a sustainable and long-term focus for those communities.
Local communities are perhaps the most important actor of all in DRR. They are the ones directly affected, who retain local knowledge vital to managing risk and are often responsible for carrying out early warning tasks. When a disaster hits, early warning can save thousands of lives - particularly from hazards such as earthquakes, cyclones and tsunamis - but alerting everyone in the vicinity is difficult. The community must be prepared to respond appropriately and also be consulted on the best way to do this. Participation is the central focus of the community-based DRR approach and priority is given to vulnerable groups. This includes tackling vulnerability caused by unequal development.
Recent research has also emphasised the links between rapid urbanisation and disasters. These links have sometimes been described as reflexive in that cities create their own risks by causing degradation of the local, regional, and global environments. High concentrations of resources and people within cities also means that the economic, social, and environmental costs of extreme events are high and poorly planned urban environments, weak urban governance, a lack of infrastructure and basic services all increased risk. Rapid urban migration and the fragmented or disjointed urban communities that can result from also potentially contribute.
Building back better
The way in which response and recovery efforts are managed can either increase or decrease the risk of future disaster events. Reviews of recent rehabilitation efforts have concluded that they often built back, and in some case even increase, pre-existing risks. Greater awareness of the longer term impacts of climate change has led to the recognition that the objectives of DRR need to go beyond restoring communities affected by disasters to their pre-disaster condition, and to focus instead on the opportunities that disasters provide to create long-term resilience.
This is just one example of where DRR and climate change adaptation sectors are influencing each other. Other examples include the continuing debate on the need for DRR to give greater emphasis to slow onset disasters (rather than extreme one-off events); to re-think how calculations of risk are undertaken; and how DRR interventions incorporate climate modelling and uncertainty.
But we also need to recognise that there are important differences. DRR deals with all hazards, including geophysical hazards (i.e volcanos) where adaptation deals exclusively with climate related hazards. Both CCA and DRR aim to reduce the impact of hydro-meteorological hazards, but on very different timeframes. And, most significantly, adaptation aims to help communities undertake long-term adjustment to changing average climate conditions whereas DRR focuses on dealing with short-term occurrences. So whilst most development and humanitarian organisations are still seeking effective integration, conceptually as well as operationally, this is still very much work in progress.
Part of the issue here is the need to understand what constitutes effective investment in disaster risk reduction and adaptation strategies. Monitoring and evaluation of DRR programme management to date has been weak partly due to the methodological challenges that it presents. Measuring the impact of DRR programmes is difficult because of what has been called its “reverse logic” where the success of a DRR intervention is that the “disaster” does not happen. However, interest in M&E for DRR is rapidly increasing and generating demand for tools to appraise disaster risk reduction projects, identify the most cost effective investments, and measure their impact. In an increasingly challenging funding environment this will surely be a critical area for the future.