Letters from Sendai – No 2: Risk Assessment

The United Nations World Conference on Disaster Risk Reduction (WCDRR) continues in Sendai, Japan this week. Swenja Surminski writes from the conference…

Risk assessment is at the heart of any risk management effort. In the context of disaster and climate risks advances are being made to improve our understanding of current and future risks. However, availability and access to data and models is still a major challenge in many parts of the world. This is a key topic being discussed here at Sendai, where a range of information sharing platforms and modelling approaches as well as new technologies are being showcased.

Risk assessments should not simply be done as a stand-alone exercise but should take into account what questions end-users will have to find answers to when using the risk assessment results. This is important as the information requirements and the chosen approach to risk assessment may differ depending on the needs of the decision maker and the context in which this is occurring.

In the ENHANCE research consortium new approaches for assessing natural disaster risks are being developed and applied to a rich variety of case studies of high- profile catastrophic hazards in several EU countries. For example, by accounting for (geographical) interdependencies of hazards and risks using statistical methods, like copulas, we can obtain better-quality estimates of low- probability-high impact risks.

This is subject of a new policy brief, published to inform decision makers here in Sendai about risk assessment methods, that I produced in collaboration with ENHANCE colleagues: Botzen et.al. 2015: Natural Hazard Risk Assessments for Improving Reslience in Europe

As the provided case study illustrates, the kind of risk assessment and its scale depend on how the results are used by decision makers. For example, the EU-wide flood risk assessment informs the design of the EU solidarity fund, while the local assessments of surface water flooding in the UK and drought risk in the Jucar provide useful information for local risk management policies, such as insurance and water pricing.

While climate and disaster risk assessments are becoming increasingly important for the design of policies to increase disaster resilience and promote adaptation they are only the first step. We also need to consider if and how risk assessments are understood and used by decision makers in addressing these challenges.