A new perspective on disaster risk management and development

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

The main objective for the WCDRR is straightforward: to create more resilient communities and nations. However, no silver bullet exists, and approaches range from resilience lessons for school children, construction of flood dams, cultivation of mangrove buffer zones to high-level mortality reduction targets for countries. These different tools and methods are usually framed under the headings ‘disaster risk reduction or ‘disaster risk management (DRM)’, and are split into various categories such as ‘soft’ (as in land-use) and hard (build structures such as flood walls). The overall rationale is to save lives and reduce loss from disasters by undertaking preventive measures.

Debates in Sendai show that despite some progress in some countries there is still a general lack of public investment in DRM – expenditures on prevention are almost always lower than those on response to the aftermath of disaster. There are many reasons for this ‘underinvestment’ in DRM,  including a lack of resources in poor countries, limited understanding of risks and impacts, greater political buy-in for more visible post disaster support initiatives, as well as pressure to respond to other needs. These reflect the typical  trade-offs arising when distributing limited public funds. In this context, DRM appears often as a detriment to growth and development – for example by the rejection of planning applications in coastal zones.

A new interim report, launched today in Sendai, proposes to address the underinvestment challenge by refocusing the approach to measuring the benefits of DRM.  Experts from the Worldbank, the Global Facility for Disaster Risk Reduction, the Overseas Development Institute and the Grantham Research Institute call for a rethink when making the economic case for DRM.  In the report Unlocking the triple resilience dividend we argue that the traditional ‘loss centric’ view of DRM is too narrow: Focusing on avoided losses and reduced negative impacts in case of disaster is clearly important and will remain a key objective of these measures, but it has one clear limitation: realizing these loss-avoidance benefits will only occur in the event of a disaster. This brings uncertainty, as well as a temptation to take a gamble and focus on more pressing short-term needs instead of DRM.  Our team suggest that this perception of DRM as ‘sunk costs’ is flawed. Instead we propose that even if a disaster does not occur for a long time, investing in DRM yields real benefits in both the short and long term.  These further benefits can arise in two different ways:

  • Unlocking development potential by stimulating innovation and bolstering economic activity by reducing disaster-related background risk. This benefit of DRM arises from enabling ‘positive risk taking’ : the mere possibility of a future disaster can have real impacts on present-day decisions and economic growth. Excessively risk-averse households and firms avoid long-term investments in productive assets, restrict entrepreneurship, shorten planning horizons – and as a consequence lose out on development opportunities.
  • Capturing the co-benefits that DRM investments may generate as a result of the ‘spill-over’ of social, economic and environmental benefits arising from DRM investments themselves. For example boats that are intended for evacuation purposes are also providing the local community with new income opportunities through fishing.

Together with the traditional ‘losses avoided’ benefit the above two concepts form the ‘triple resilience dividend’. The team is now investigating this approach at different scales, considering evidence from local projects through to national level.

While this discourse may seem familiar in the context of green growth or low-carbon growth, it is a relatively new narrative in the context of climate resilience. Tying investment in DRM into a story about growth, development, wealth creation, shared prosperity, and poverty reduction may even convince those involved in this summer’s ‘UN Financing for Development’ conference in Addis Ababa to pay more attention to disaster and climate resilience. Many stakeholders here in Sendai see that as the real chance for change.

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