Disasters: Moving to a Risk Reduction Mindset

“Disasters are designed by society.”

That was Professor Kuniyoshi Takeuchi of ICHARM, speaking at the Disaster Risk Reduction session on day four of the Forum.

The UN estimates (conservatively) that in the past two decades, disasters have killed 1.3 million people, affected 4.4 billion and resulted in economic losses of $2 trillion. Surely most of us still vividly remember the incredible disasters in the past two years, from Japan and Haiti to Thailand and Australia.

According to Gordon McBean, Director of Institute for Catastrophic Loss Reduction in Canada, roughly 75 percent of the disasters are climate or weather related, 75 percent of the financial costs of disasters are climate or weather related and almost half of all deaths from disasters are related to climate or weather.

“Risk management is a precondition for sustainability,” said Peter Höppe of the Corporate Climate Centre in Germany. “Wealthy economies are not affected in the long-run after disasters, and sometimes even grow faster,” he observed, “but in poorer countries, those dips mean that some may never recover.”

What drives disaster: Man or Nature?

The biggest factor in disaster risk is – nature or humans – is still a hot topic. Members of panel here seem to point the finger squarely back on us.

“We should stop talking about ‘natural’ disasters,” argued Alan Lavell of IRDR. “A good part of disaster risks comes from unsustainable development driven by humans.”

This doesn’t mean natural factors are not in play. Höppe’s research suggests that even after you account for population growth and increased wealth, you still find a significant rise in the number of natural hazards.

“We think this is [due to] global warming,” Höppe added: “The most convincing evidence for this is that there is strong increase only in climate-related events, and not geological ones.”

Yet the assembled experts agree with Walter Ammann of the Global Risk Forum, who argued: “We cannot reduce the number of hazards – nature has its own process. We can only influence development.”

“Disaster risk reduction must therefore be linked into sustainable development planning at all levels,” Lavell argued further, “If we just invest in disaster response, we will never get to sustainability.”

Changing mindsets

So what should we do differently? The panel offered an abundance of ideas.
For one, we must change mindsets. This Forum has repeatedly heard that inter-connected challenges need inter-connected solutions. If disaster risks and human development are intertwined, reducing risk and vulnerability will require addressing all aspects of development.

But, unfortunately, this is not yet the case.

“In most countries, disaster risk management is still separate from development work, urban planning or anything else related to the environment,” observed Ana Maria Cruz. “We need integration on the ground, from governments to communities.”

“It’s clear to me that a systems approach is the way to go,” contended Professor William Makgoba of ICSU in the audience, “We are stuck in a box and we need to get out of it.”

There is a critical need to focus beyond the “CNN disasters”, as Lavell calls them. “Much of the growing losses are actually due to small and medium scale events that are not extreme.” The only explanation is unsustainable development, according to him.

We must also realize that the best answers are not always high-tech.

“We need to learn from traditional knowledge. Many of these communities have been around for a thousand years,” said Dr. Jane Rovins, a co-convener of the session.

Her statement echoed a challenge put forward by Professor John Baglin in the audience: The challenge for science, technology and innovation is to come up with accessible solutions so cost is not a barrier to adoption.

Educating minds

The panelists also placed heavy emphasis on education.

Rovins cited a study by Forensic Investigation of Disasters (FORIN) showing that in Japan, children discuss disasters and what to do in class, and loss of lives was exceptionally low in those age groups. “When you grow up in a risk-reduction mindset, you perpetuate that from generation to generation,” she argued.

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