Changing the mindset for dealing with natural disasters

From emergency management to disaster risk reduction

Helen James, Douglas Paton, Petra Buergelt

Environment & energy, Government and governance | Australia, Asia, East Asia, South Asia, Southeast Asia, The Pacific, The World

15 December 2016

Faced with a future marked by even more natural disasters, governments need to get on board with how best to confront and manage them, Helen James, Douglas Paton, and Petra Buergelt write.

International disaster governance has changed markedly since the mega-disasters of the early 1990s. While Asia still experiences most of the world’s disaster-related losses in human and financial terms, both extreme natural events and the losses incurred by them are decreasing.

This decrease may be a consequence of the people-centred approach encapsulated in the 2005 Hyogo Framework for Action and its 2015 successor, the Sendai Framework, which urge national governments to develop practical disaster risk reduction (DRR) plans around a set of five governance principles. They are: ensure DRR is national and local and provide an institutional basis; identify, monitor disaster risks and enhance the effectiveness of early warning systems; focus on knowledge, education, and innovation to build a culture of safety and resilience at all levels; reduce underlying risk factors (socio-cultural, economic, political); and, strengthen disaster preparedness for effective response.

These five principles detail the social, economic and political aspects of enhancing community and individual resilience to disasters, which should be incorporated in national DRR plans. The Sendai Framework takes these principles a step further in setting out the ‘Build Back Better’ policy, although various researchers have asked, Build what? For whom? It is also acknowledged that it is neither possible nor desirable to build ‘back’ to what has been destroyed. Through mobilising adaptive capacities, DRR policy encourages communities and their broader societies to embrace the opportunities for positive socio-political change, which disasters present.

More on this: The vital link between sustainable development and disaster risk reduction

While national-based DRR governance plans are being developed in high-risk disaster-prone countries, especially those in Asia and around the Pacific Rim, in many cases these remain just plans and are not fully implemented. The Philippines, for example, has a sophisticated legal framework for disaster governance, but in practice, this is barely implemented and the country continues to prioritise emergency management, which provides more plentiful opportunities for political gain. The Philippines is not alone in this regard; this experience applies to many other such countries, including those in the Pacific.

In coming decades there will be rising sea levels, higher temperatures on both land and sea, and more intense, extreme weather events arising from the impact of climate change, making it imperative that governments have well-practised and implemented preparedness, mitigation, recovery and reconstruction policies. The task ahead, therefore, will be to encourage national governments to move the balance away from emergency management to DRR. This will require a change in mindset.

Climate change and changes in land use patterns increase the risk of cyclones, typhoons, flooding, bushfires and landslides. These risks are exacerbated in many countries from Asia to Africa and the Caribbean where rural-urban migration and continued population growth are leading to large conurbations where significant populations are placed in the path of risks from potential natural phenomena including, in peri-urban areas, the risk of bushfires and attendant losses. These multi-dimensional risks require active policy responses to develop effective early warning systems and evacuation protocols; robust risk communication plans and knowledge sharing; and innovative approaches to reducing underlying risk factors and developing a culture of safety and resilience.

Societies can be proactive in facing these potential risks. International disaster policy urges all governments to design and implement policies and practices that provide opportunities for effective preparedness, response and long-term recovery. Respect for Indigenous knowledge is one pathway by which DRR can be effectively implemented as demonstrated in Mozambique and Malawi during the 2015 floods, and among the Sea Gypsies of the Andaman Sea Coast of Western Thailand during the 2004 and 2012 tsunamis. DRR, through disaster education, draws on knowledge about creating and maintaining harmonious relationships between people and nature. For many Indigenous people living in harmony with nature and caring for country reduces the likelihood of extreme natural events occurring. This approach can also be seen in China and Taiwan where farming practices enable people to effectively recover from periodic and significant disruptions from typhoons. In Japan, the concept of kyozon emphasises the importance of learning to live with extreme natural events. DRR strategies are integral to how humans can adapt to living in harmony with nature and each other.

More on this: Current approaches to natural disasters are missing data, missing guidelines, and missing the boat

In the developing world, where most disasters occur, huge annual expenditure on emergency management is not sustainable. Community-based DRR is recognised to be more cost-effective than emergency management. Research conducted for the World Bank, by Benson and Clay in 2004 and Kelman in 2014, has shown that all over the world, dollar for dollar, DRR strategies which seek to make communities and individuals more resilient are four times more cost-effective than the parallel emergency management approach, and are of more enduring benefit to society. Every US$1 spent on DRR saves US$4 in disaster response and recovery.

In Japan, one of the best-prepared countries which factors DRR into all phases of disaster policy, the impact of the tragic 11 March 2011 Tohoku Triple Disaster, the costliest in global terms at US$210 billion, would have been much greater had the communities along the Sendai coast not had well-entrenched DRR policies and practices.

Yet, despite the overwhelming evidence, national governments are still reluctant to invest in DRR, preferring the instant credit from media-attractive activities at the time of an emergency. National governments should adopt a multi-dimensional approach to disaster risk reduction by investing in budgetary measures to reduce poverty, implement disaster preparedness programs in at-risk communities, and prioritise climate change adaptation and development which will encourage social, political and economic transformation.

Disaster risk reduction needs to be seen as part of a cycle rather than a linear experience. Thus effective disaster preparedness should be part of an integrated set of policies which together reduce losses from a disaster crisis, speed up recovery, make reconstruction part of the ‘Build Back Better’ framework, and contribute to enhanced societal resilience.

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James, Helen, Douglas Paton, and Petra Buergelt. 2017. "Changing The Mindset For Dealing With Natural Disasters - Policy Forum". Policy Forum. http://www.policyforum.net/changing-mindset-dealing-natural-disasters/.

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