Disaster risk reduction
Disaster risk reduction (DRR) is a systematic approach to identifying, assessing and reducing the risks of disaster. It aims to reduce socio-economic vulnerabilities to disaster as well as dealing with the environmental and other hazards that trigger them: Here it has been strongly influenced by the mass of research on vulnerability that has appeared in print since the mid-1970s. It is the responsibility of development and relief agencies alike. It should be an integral part of the way such organisations do their work, not an add-on or one-off action. DRR is very wide-ranging: Its scope is much broader and deeper than conventional emergency management. There is potential for DRR initiatives in just about every sector of development and humanitarian work.
The most commonly cited definition of DRR is one used by UN agencies such as UNISDR and UNDP: "The conceptual framework of elements considered with the possibilities to minimize vulnerabilities and disaster risks throughout a society, to avoid (prevention) or to limit (mitigation and preparedness) the adverse impacts of hazards, within the broad context of sustainable development."
Only 4% of the estimated $10 billion in annual humanitarian assistance is devoted to prevention, and yet every dollar spent on risk reduction saves between $5 and $10 in economic losses from disasters.
Development of the concept and approach
The evolution of disaster management thinking and practice since the 1970s has seen a progressively wider and deeper understanding of why disasters happen, accompanied by more integrated, holistic approaches to reduce their impact on society. The modern paradigm of disaster management — disaster risk reduction (DRR) — represents the latest step along this path. DRR is a relatively new concept in formal terms, but it embraces much earlier thinking and practice. It is being widely embraced by international agencies, governments, disaster planners and civil society organisations.
DRR is such an all-embracing concept that it has proved difficult to define or explain in detail, although the broad idea is clear enough. Inevitably, there are different definitions in the technical literature, but it is generally understood to mean the broad development and application of policies, strategies and practices to minimise vulnerabilities and disaster risks throughout society. The term ‘disaster risk management’ (DRM) is often used in the same context and to mean much the same thing: a systematic approach to identifying, assessing and reducing risks of all kinds associated with hazards and human activities. It is more properly applied to the operational aspects of DRR: the practical implementation of DRR initiatives.
There have been growing calls for greater clarity about the components of DRR and about indicators of progress toward resilience — a challenge that the international community took up at the UN’s World Conference on Disaster Reduction (WCDR) in Kobe, Japan, in 2005, only days after the 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake. The WCDR began the process of pushing international agencies and national governments beyond the vague rhetoric of most policy statements and toward setting clear targets and commitments for DRR. The first step in this process was the formal approval at the WCDR of the Hyogo Framework for Action (2005–2015) (HFA). This is the first internationally accepted framework for DRR. It sets out an ordered sequence of objectives (outcome – strategic goals – priorities), with five priorities for action attempting to ‘capture’ the main areas of DRR intervention. The UN's biennial Global Platform for Disaster Risk Reduction provides an opportunity for the UN and its member states to review progress against the Hyogo Framework. It held its first session 5–7 June 2007 in Geneva, Switzerland.
UN initiatives have helped to refine and promote the concept at international level, stimulated initially by the UN's designation of the 1990s as the International Decade for Natural Disaster Reduction.
Some issues and challenges in DRR
It is unrealistic to expect progress in every aspect of DRR: capacities and resources are insufficient. Governments and other organisations have to make what are in effect ‘investment decisions’, choosing which aspects of DRR to invest in, when, and in what sequence. This is made more complicated by the fact that many of the interventions advocated are developmental rather than directly related to disaster management. Most existing DRR guidance sidesteps this issue. One way of focusing is to consider only actions that are intended specifically to reduce disaster risk. This would at least distinguish from more general efforts toward sustainable development. The concept of ‘invulnerable development’ attempts this: In this formulation, invulnerable development is development directed toward reducing vulnerability to disaster, comprising ‘decisions and activities that are intentionally designed and implemented to reduce risk and susceptibility, and also raise resistance and resilience to disaster’.
Partnerships and inter-organisational co-ordination
No single group or organisation can address every aspect of DRR. DRR thinking sees disasters as complex problems demanding a collective response. Co-ordination even in conventional emergency management is difficult, for many organisations may converge on a disaster area to assist. Across the broader spectrum of DRR, the relationships between types of organisation and between sectors (public, private and non-profit, as well as communities) become much more extensive and complex. DRR requires strong vertical and horizontal linkages (central-local relations become important). In terms of involving civil society organisations, it should mean thinking broadly about which types of organisation to involve (i.e., conventional NGOs and such organisations as trades unions, religious institutions, amateur radio operators (as in the USA and India), universities and research institutions).
Communities and their organisations
Traditional emergency management/civil defence thinking makes two misleading assumptions about communities. First, it sees other forms of social organisation (voluntary and community-based organisations, informal social groupings and families) as irrelevant to emergency action. Spontaneous actions by affected communities or groups (e.g., search and rescue) are viewed as irrelevant or disruptive, because they are not controlled by the authorities. The second assumption is that disasters produce passive ‘victims’ who are overwhelmed by crisis or dysfunctional behaviour (panic, looting, self-seeking activities). They therefore need to be told what to do, and their behaviour must be controlled — in extreme cases, through the imposition of martial law. There is plenty of sociological research to refute such 'myths'.
An alternative viewpoint, informed by a considerable volume of research, emphasises the importance of communities and local organisations in disaster risk management. The rationale for community-based disaster risk management that it responds to local problems and needs, capitalises on local knowledge and expertise, is cost-effective, improves the likelihood of sustainability through genuine ‘ownership’ of projects, strengthens community technical and organisational capacities, and empowers people by enabling them to tackle these and other challenges. Local people and organisations are the main actors in risk reduction and disaster response in any case.
The DRR approach requires redefining the role of government disaster reduction. It is generally agreed that national governments should be main actors in DRR: They have a duty to ensure the safety of citizens, the resources and capacity to implement large-scale DRR, a mandate to direct or co-ordinate the work of others, and they create the necessary policy and legislative frameworks. These policies and programmes have to be coherent. More research is needed into why some governments are more successful than others in disaster management. There is still no general consensus on what drives changes in policy and practice. The shifting relationship between central government and other actors is another area requiring research.
Accountability and rights
The principle of accountability lies at the heart of genuine partnership and participation in DRR. It applies to state institutions that are expected to be accountable through the democratic process and to private sector and non-profit organizations that are not subject to democratic control. Accountability is an emerging issue in disaster reduction work. Accountability should be primarily toward those who are vulnerable to hazards and affected by them.
Many organisations working in international aid and development are now committing themselves to a ‘rights-based’ approach. This tends to encompass human rights (i.e., those that are generally accepted through international agreements) and other rights that an agency believes should be accepted as human rights. In such contexts, the language of rights may be used vaguely, with a risk of causing confusion. Security against disasters is not generally regarded as a right although it is addressed in some international codes, usually indirectly. The idea of a ‘right to safety’ is being discussed in some circles.
Policy and investment
In a June 2012 study, researchers at the Overseas Development Institute highlighted the need for more focus on disaster risk management (DRM) in the international policy frameworks to be agreed in 2015. Economic costs of disasters are on the rise, but most humanitarian investment is currently spent on responding to disasters, rather than managing their future risks. If this pattern continues, the researchers argue, then "spending on reconstruction and relief will become unsustainable." A more developed evidence base, enhanced political commitment, and dialogue across policy areas will be needed for this mainstreaming of disaster risk management to happen.
Major international conferences & workshops
With the growth of interest in disasters and disaster management, there are many conferences and workshops held on the topic, from local to global levels. Regular international conferences include:
- The annual conference of TIEMS: The International Emergency Management Society.
- The International Disaster and Risk Conferences (IDRC) and workshops, held each year since 2006, in Davos, Switzerland (even-numbered years), and other locations (odd numbered years).
- The meetings of the International Research Committee on Disasters (IRCD), held as part of the International Sociological Association's World Congress of Sociology.
- Wisner B et al. 2004, At Risk: Natural hazards, people’s vulnerability and disasters (London: Routledge)
- Living With Risk: A Global Review of Disaster Reduction Initiatives, UNISDR, 2004; pg. 17
- "A Needless Toll of Natural Disasters", Op-Ed, Boston Globe, 23 March 2006, by Eric Schwartz (UN Secretary General’s Deputy Special Envoy for Tsunami Recovery
- § UN ISDR 2004, Living with Risk: A global review of disaster reduction initiatives (Geneva: UN International Strategy for Disaster Reduction), 
- McEntire DA 2000, ‘Sustainability or invulnerable development? Proposals for the current shift in paradigms’. Australian Journal of Emergency Management 15(1): 58-61. 
- § Quarantelli EL 1998, Major Criteria for Judging Disaster Planning and Managing and their Applicability in Developing Societies (University of Delaware: Disaster Research Center, Preliminary Paper 268).
- § Dynes RR 1994, ‘Community Emergency Planning: False Assumptions and Inappropriate Analogies’. International Journal of Mass Emergencies and Disasters 12(2): 141-158.
- § Maskrey A 1989, Disaster Mitigation: A Community-Based Approach (Oxford: Oxfam).
- Mitchell, T. and Wilkinson, E. (2012) Disaster risk management in post-2015 policy frameworks: forging a more resilient future. Overseas Development Institute Briefing Paper 
- Emergency Capacity Building Project
- EM-DAT: The International Disaster Database
- Global Facility for Disaster Reduction and Recovery
- United Nations - International Strategy for Disaster Reduction
- United Nations - International Strategy for Disaster Reduction- Regional Unit for the Americas
- UN-SPIDER - United Nations Platform for Space-based Information for Disaster Management and Emergency Response
- Preventionweb - Building the resilience of nations and communities to disasters
- Education for hazards - What to do A guide for children and youth
- International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies Disaster Management pages
- The ProVention Consortium - Red Cross and Red Crescent
- UNDP DRR links
- The World Bank, Hazards Management Unit
- United Nations Platform for Space-based Information for Disaster Management and Emergency Response
- Earthquakes and Megacities Initiative
- International Recovery Platform
- Toward Resilience: A Guide to Disaster Risk Reduction and Climate Change Adaptation
- Disaster prevention: a role for business? - ProVention & Maplecroft
- Tools for Mainstreaming Disaster Risk Reduction: Guidance Notes for Development Organisations - Charlotte Benson and John Twigg with Tiziana Rossetto, IFRC & ProVention
- Natural Disaster Hotspots Case Studies - World Bank
- World Disasters Report 2006, IFRC
- Indigenous Knowledge for Disaster Risk Reduction UNISDR
- Words Into Action UNISDR
- Living with Risk UNISDR
- UNISDR Informs UNISDR
- Guidance Notes on Safer School Construction World Bank, INEE, ISDR
- Guidance Note on Integrating Disaster Risk Reduction into the CCA and UNDAF UNDG
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