Ditching the disaster cycle: Focus on sustainable development to manage risk

March 16, 2015
Dr Dorothea Hilhorst
People in the Philippines rebuild their communities after the Tropical Storm Washi

This week, some ten thousand people are gathered in Sendai, Japan, for the World Conference on Disaster Risk Reduction. In a well-attended session, the UN's new Global Assessment Report on Disaster Risk Reduction was launched.

The disaster response cycle, initially developed in the 1970s, prescribes that post-disaster reconstruction plans incorporate measures to ensure that the next disaster is better prepared for.

Yet, the DRR community is now faced with calls for the disaster cycle to be replaced – “instead of putting disasters in the centre, we should focus on sustainable development". What makes this comment remarkable is that it did not come from a radical NGO representative, but rather from Andrew Maskrey, the representative of the UN International Secretariat for Disaster Reduction (UNISDR). The UNISDR is responsible for charting the balance of global risks and responses every two years.

The Global Assessment Report on Disaster Risk Reduction 2015 shows that the costs imposed by disasters are equal to those associated with diseases like malaria. In disaster-prone countries, such as the Bahamas or Philippines, disaster-related costs equal 50 to 300% of national social expenditure.

These damages can only partially be ascribed to the natural hazards themselves, as the negative effects of disasters are compounded by societal weaknesses. Extensive risks, including inequality and poverty, drive the damage and ongoing erosion of development assets, such as houses, schools, health facilities, roads and local infrastructure particularly in low and middle income countries.

It is not a given that disasters trigger economic loss or crisis but the fact remains that they cause many countries to experience economic disruption, hampered growth and stifled investment in social development. The capacity to deal with future disasters may in turn be undermined, further challenging the fiscal resilience required to deal with the losses brought by disasters.

These effects are particularly visible in large cities, where the availability of and access to services is highly unequal. Inequality is also visible at a global level, where the concentration of capital generates social and territorial inequalities. The richest 2% of the world population owns 50% of global wealth whereas the bottom 50% own less than 1% of global wealth. Such stark numbers are key to explaining why so many countries and people cannot properly invest in disaster reduction.

The overconsumption embedded in unlimited economic growth impacts on energy, fresh water, forests, marine habitats, clean air and rich soils, further driving vulnerability now and in the future. This is why UNISDR states that a real reduction in the destruction wrought by disasters is not about warning systems or insurance schemes, but about sustainable development.

During the presentation of the Global Assessment Report in Sendai, Alan Lavall elaborated what this means for disaster studies and data gathering:

  • We need to debunk the notion of a natural disaster as an exogenous event and base our understanding of disasters on endogenous risks.
  • We need to abandon our notion of disasters as extremities. Instead, we need to consider disasters as a continuum from small, to medium to mega disasters. Small and recurring disasters are the most frequent type and hence more prominent in poor people's lives.
  • We should not look at disasters as standalone events but instead analyse them in relation to other local-level risks, including those related to poverty and health.
  • Instead of focusing on response, we need to pro-actively redefine development. Disaster risk reduction is not primarily about money, but about moralities, behaviour and ethics. We need a change of mind-set.

After the session, Dewald van Niekerk of North-west University in South Africa framed it as follows: "We don't have a ministry of disease control, but a ministry of health. We don't have a ministry to combat illiteracy but a ministry of education. In a similar vein, we should not think of institutes of disaster management, but of ministries of sustainable development."

Dr Dorothea Hilhorst is Professor of Humanitarian Aid and Reconstruction at Wageningen University and general secretary of the International Humanitarian Studies Association, hosted at at the University of Groningen.


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