When global lessons are not so easily learned

By Junko Mochizuki, Research Scholar, IIASA Risk and Resilience Program

Experts in the field of emergency management like to emphasize that there are important “lessons learned” in the aftermath of disaster situations. After large disaster events such as the 2015 earthquake in Nepal, and 2013 super typhoon Yolanda in Philippines, forensic investigations are often conducted to reveal ”what went wrong”  in the chains of command, identifying what we can do differently when the next big one strikes. Such forensic investigations are not only relevant for the field of emergency management, but also for the field of disaster and climate risk management, which seeks to identify the underlying causes of what went wrong in the long chains of developmental policy intervention.

Survivors of Super Typhoon Yolanda in Tacloban City, Philippines, 2013. (cc) UN Photo/Evan Schneider

Survivors of Super Typhoon Yolanda in Tacloban City, Philippines, 2013. (cc) UN Photo/Evan Schneider

Over the years, researchers have identified a number of root causes that increase disaster risk—such as weak building codes and land use policy enforcement and overemphasis on ex-post emergency response as opposed to proactive management of disaster risk. Also, decades of economic studies looking at the costs and benefits of risk reduction investment show that such investment often pays off in the longer run. Yet, as the recent global trends of rising disaster risk unfortunately testify—we are far from learning these lessons effectively, or at least fast enough to beat the rising risk posed by future climate change: Global annual average disaster loss is estimated to have risen to approximately $300 billion in 2015 according to the UN Office for Disaster Risk Reduction (UNISDR).

As the special representative of the secretary general for disaster risk reduction, Robert Glasser wrote in the Guardian last week, “Every time there’s a mega disaster, there are lessons learned…  The key question is always, how do you keep up the awareness after a couple of years?”

That is why the IIASA Risk and Resilience program’s research is increasingly focused on cognitive, behavioral, and governance aspects of societal learning on disaster risk reduction. We are currently working with public, private, and civil society stakeholders, asking the questions of why we, as a collective society, continue to fail to act on these lessons learned in disaster risk management and what we can do to change it. By combining both quantitative and qualitative systems analysis approaches, we are untangling why we make decisions the way we do, and what processes and institutional mechanisms directly and indirectly affect disaster risk and developmental outcome over the long term.

Given that catastrophic disasters are by definition rare events (hence opportunities for learning is naturally limited), we are doing this using novel methods such as participatory gaming or policy exercises in which we create virtual opportunities for stakeholders to experience complex decision-making in a safe learning environment. By creating stylized context for common decision-making (such as rural farmers making longer-term decisions on livelihood diversification, or urban planners addressing rising disaster risk due to rapid population growth), these gaming spaces serve as mechanisms through which stakeholders can not only learn about their cognitive and behavioral assumptions, but also through which learning can be accelerated, repeated, and shared among different communities facing similar development and disaster risk reduction  challenges.  We are running such policy exercises in the context of our flood resilience project and internal gaming project .

Decades of research have shown that there are common global lessons on development and disaster risk reduction but they are not so easily learned in practice. It is too often that that the windows of opportunities for policy learning are limited and we continue with business-as-usual of “lessons unlearned.” Creating an enabling environment for iterative learning is no easy task under these pragmatic constraints, but we hope that a bit of creativity and lots of hard work will eventually pay off in the long run.

Note: This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of the Nexus blog, nor of the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis.

Aligning politics and practice for climate risks

By Thomas Schinko, IIASA Risk, Policy and Vulnerability Program

Climate change is projected to disproportionately affect people in developing countries, through extreme weather events and slow onset events such as rising sea levels. Because the countries most affected by climate change are also those who contributed the least to the problem and with the least capacities to cope, one of the major issues in recent climate negotiations has been how to support those nations’ efforts to adapt and to address climate impacts beyond adaptation.

To address this problem, in 2013 the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) established the Warsaw International Mechanism (WIM) for Loss and Damage Associated with Climate Change Impacts (WIM).

Yet at the Paris climate talks in December, the future of the WIM was in limbo. The Global South argued for loss and damage to be a key part of an eventual agreement, while the Global North argued for including it under the adaptation agenda. In the end, the Paris agreement quite prominently featured loss and damage. However the Global North’s fears of signing up to a mechanism that makes them liable for unlimited damage claims in the future have been addressed by adding a specific paragraph to the agreement stating, “the agreement does not involve or provide a basis for any liability or compensation.”

©Amir Jina via Flickr

A flood in Bangladesh in 2009. Flooding is project to increase with climate change, yet arguments remain about attributing specific events to the influence of climate change. Photo Credit: Amir Jina via Flickr

Building on this reconfirmed support for the mechanism, the second meeting of the Executive Committee of the WIM was held 2–5 February 2016, in Bonn, Germany. The main purpose of the meeting was to give an update on the delivery of specific activities and to consider relevant requests arising from COP21. The Paris agreement requests the establishment of (1) a clearinghouse for risk transfer to facilitate the implementation of comprehensive risk management strategies and (2) a task force to address displacement issues. On the first issue, discussions have focused on the need to move beyond focusing solely on risk transfer and the link between current disaster risk management practice and climate adaptation as there are important overlaps.

As an observer, I could feel the presence of team spirit among the committee members, all honestly committed to help the most vulnerable people. Yet one issue remained hotly debated: the degree to which anthropogenic climate change can be blamed for natural disasters and extreme weather events. I saw a strong divide between committee members from the Global North and South and between those with a strong background in disaster risk management in contrast to those coming from a climate change background. Nevertheless, even in that regard I see a good chance for a joint vision to emerge, if we can distinguish two levels of the loss and damage discourse: the practical implementation on the ground vs. the political dimension.

On the practical implementation side, a pragmatic compromise became palpable: Building on decades of experience in disaster risk management related to weather extremes and the climate variability, it was identified as an entry point to deal with current and future climate risks – whether they are triggered or intensified by climate change or not. The political level, which circles around climate finance and the question of who is going to pay for losses and damages is quite another matter. Here the anthropogenic element is existentially important, as it builds the foundation for international support under the UNFCCC. If reference to anthropogenic climate change is left out of the loss and damage discourse, the UNFCCC might lose its mandate for support, as disaster risk management falls under national responsibility. Once this door closes it could remain shut, though another one might open (e.g. via civil law).

© Asian Development Bank via Flickr

Women in Thata, Pakistan line up for water following 2010 floods. Photo Credit: Asian Development Bank via Flickr

To overcome the political barriers and to build upon the convergence with respect to the short-term practical implementation, we suggest to foster an iterative and comprehensive risk management approach, linking risk prevention, risk reduction, risk retention, risk transfer, as well as ex-post relief and reconstruction to effectively tackle different layers of climate risks.

However, it is important not to lose track of climate change as a risk driver, by consequently screening new scientific and empirical insights. This is crucial, as future risks might substantially increase due to climate change, requiring an iterative adaptation of current practices and support by the international community.

To support such an approach, rigorous scientific input, bringing together researchers from various disciplines, practitioners, NGOs, and policy makers is crucial. Together with international partner institutions, in November 2015 we initiated a scientific hub on loss and damage to provide such input. The envisaged clearinghouse for risk transfer and the task force for climate-related displacement could become key recipients for information generated by our network, packaged with further information and distributed to make it actionable; particularly addressing the needs of the most vulnerable developing countries.

Note: This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of the Nexus blog, nor of the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis.

Cross-country skiing in Finland: An endangered tradition?

By Mia Landauer, a Finnish postdoc at IIASA Risk, Policy and Vulnerability Program and Arctic Futures Initiative

When I was a child I did not like cross-country skiing. One reason was that like many other schoolmates in Finland, I had no other option than to ski to school throughout the winter, even when temperatures were below -20 C, and even though my skis were too big because I got them from my sister and so old that they could have broken anytime.

When I decided to write my dissertation in Austria about climate adaptation of winter tourism, I found I still couldn’t get away from skiing. My professor at the University of Natural Resources and Life Sciences (BOKU)   asked me to join a research team investigating this topic. “What a great tradition you have in Finland! My friend and colleague from METLA (now Natural Resources Institute) in Finland would love to do research with us but with somebody who knows about cross-country skiing! You are the perfect match!” I guess I was too shy to admit that I was not excited about having cross-country skiing as a case study—but  I decided to give it a try.

Photo Credit: © Mia Landauer

Cross country skiing in Finland is practiced by all age groups (voluntarily or not). Photo Credit: © Mia Landauer

Cross-country skiing is socially and culturally a very important activity in Finland, with considerable health benefits. Forty-two percent of the population practice skiing annually and 98% have the skills. But cross-country skiing, like other snow-based activities, is affected by climate change: even Nordic countries are now seeing lack of snow, shift of seasons, and extreme weather events. The winter 2015/2016 has been no exception. Many Finns are concerned that losing this activity would lead to reduced well-being and loss of cultural tradition. Furthermore, economic impacts on tourism regions brought about by a decrease in skiing would cause problems to local economies heavily dependent on snow-based tourism.

Although vulnerability indicators of some other tourism sectors such as beach tourism exist, nobody had thought about cross-country skiing. So we decided to develop an index, based on climatic observations together with extensive survey data on skiers living in climatically different regions in Finland.

We found that exposure to changes in snow conditions have a considerable effect on regional vulnerability. The most vulnerable skiers are in southernmost parts of Finland, which makes sense. But it is not only the amount of snow and length of winter that matter. We also found that skiers in North and East Finland have the highest capacity to adapt, as indicated by their ability to ski: having the necessary skills and equipment, as well as capacity and willingness to travel to be able to ski.

However, the results also show that if it we could enhance these components of adaptive capacity, also the skiers in the south would have a chance. If there are no adaptation options (no artificial snow tracks, no indoor skiing facilities, or simply no interest to use these, or no money or time to travel to be able to ski), in the short term the Finnish cross-country skiing population will face impacts on health, well-being, and quality of life. In the long term, the skiing culture could be lost. Furthermore, decline in demand would lead to regional economic losses in tourism-dependent local economies.

Attempts are being made to maintain the skiing tradition. Nowadays there are a lot of organized activities where kids are introduced to outdoor activities in a playful and educational environment, and ski school and clubs are being established. They play an important role to create a close and pleasant relationship to nature and increase motivation for skiing. But of course the most important element for skiing is snow.

I have always had a very close relationship to nature. Believe me or not, sometimes I do go skiing although it also brings back the unpleasant memories. Despite them, wintery landscapes and nature experience have motivated me to continue skiing as an adult. The gray and rainy winters make me worried and I simply cannot see myself skiing in a ski tunnel… Albeit “you will never know the true value of a moment until it becomes a memory“, I want snow!

Cross country ski track in Ruka, Finland Photo Credit: © Timo Newton-Syms via Flickr

Cross country ski track in Ruka, Finland Photo Credit: © Timo Newton-Syms via Flickr

More information:

Project: “Map Based Assessment of Vulnerability to Climate Change Employing Regional Indicators” (MAVERIC)” http://www.syke.fi/projects/maveric

References

Landauer, M., Sievänen, T., & Neuvonen, M. (2015). Indicators of climate change vulnerability for winter recreation activities: a case of cross-country skiing in Finland, Leisure/Loisir, 39:3-4, 403-440. http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/14927713.2015.1122283

Landauer, M., Haider, W., & Pröbstl, U. (2014). The influence of culture on climate change adaptation strategies: Preferences of cross-country skiers in Austria and Finland. Journal of Travel Research 53(1), pp. 95-109. doi: 10.1177/0047287513481276

Landauer, M., & Sievänen, T. (2011). Suomalaisten maastohiihtäjien sopeutuminen ilmastonmuutokseen. In T. Sievänen & M. Neuvonen (Eds.), Luonnon virkistyskäyttö 2010 (pp. 91–101). Vantaa: Working Papers of the Finnish Forest Research Institute, 212.

Landauer, M., Sievänen, T., & Neuvonen, M. (2009). Adaptation of Finnish cross-country skiers to climate change. Fennia 187 (2), pp. 99–113. http://ojs.tsv.fi/index.php/fennia/article/view/3697

Neuvonen, M., Sievänen, T., Fronzek, S., Lahtinen, I., Veijalainen, N., & Carter, T. R. (2015). Vulnerability of cross-country skiing to climate change in Finland – An interactive mapping tool. Journal of Outdoor Recreation and Tourism, 11, 64–79. doi:10.1016/j.jort.2015.06.010

Neuvonen, M. & Sievänen,T. (2011). Ulkoilutilastot 2010 (Outdoor Recreation Statistics 2010). In: Sievänen, T. & Neuvonen, M. (toim.). Luonnon virkistyskäyttö 2010. Metlan työraportteja / Working Papers of the Finnish Forest Research Institute 212: 133–190

Perch-Nielsen, S. L. (2010). The vulnerability of beach tourism to climate change – An index approach. Climatic Change, 100(3–4), 579–606. doi:10.1007/s10584-009-9692-1

Note: This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of the Nexus blog, nor of the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis.

Science for climate risk management and climate justice

By Thomas Schinko and Reinhard Mechler, IIASA Risk, Policy and Vulnerability Program

Discussions on dealing with the already palpable as well as future burdens from climate change have moved into the spotlight of international climate policy. They are being tackled as part of the climate negotiations via the Warsaw International Mechanism (WIM) for Loss and Damage associated with Climate Change Impacts (Loss and Damage Mechanism), a measure for dealing with impacts and adaptation related to extreme climate events and slow onset events that was agreed in 2013. Debate on the scope, framing and on how the mechanism will eventually be implemented is still continuing, and is heavily framed around moral issues such as compensation, liability, and a need for attributing disasters to climate change, which is a difficult and complex issue.

Opening of COP 21 on 29 November 2015. Photo: Benjamin Géminel via Flickr

Opening of COP 21 on 29 November 2015. Photo: Benjamin Géminel via Flickr

To help move this contentious debate forward, we recently organized a meeting at IIASA to set up a broad scientific network to support work under the Loss and Damage Mechanism with rigorous and evidence-based research.

Since the first climate negotiations, climate justice has been a major source of contention, with countries disagreeing on the level of responsibility for climate change and the extent to which developed and developing countries should contribute to the solutions. These discussions have predominantly focused on climate mitigation responses, but over the last few years, impact and risk issues have moved into the limelight.

Discussions in the run-up to the 21st Conference of the Parties to the Climate Convention (COP 21) in Paris make it clear that answering key questions revolving around climate justice and climate finance will be pivotal for the conference to deliver on any global climate change agreement.

Even though some rich countries currently appear to acknowledge the central role of a mechanism covering losses and damages within a new global climate agreement to be negotiated at COP 21 in Paris, huge reservations remain. With changing climates, extreme weather events are likely to increase in frequency as well as in intensity. The global North fears exposure to soaring claims for financial compensation by countries of the global South, which will be facing the most severe risks from climate change. In fact, even the meaning and nature of Loss and Damage is still being debated – some suggest the Loss and Damage mechanism should be part of adaptation, while others want it to focus on residual risks that remain after adaptation efforts have been taken. For example, it could finance potential climate-induced migration.

Discussion of compensation raises complex issues about liability, and would presumably require attribution of losses and damages to emitters. Indeed, climate science has been making great progress in attribution research. Recent work has shown a significant human element in mega-events such as superstorm Sandy in 2013 in the US or the Australian heatwave in 2013. Yet, as our kick-off meeting reconfirmed, linking anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions to extreme weather events and to risks for people and property will remain extremely complex, not least as risks from climate-related events are shaped by many factors, including climate variability, rising exposure of people and assets, as well as socio-economic vulnerability dynamics. While the basic case for climate justice has been made, the concrete, enforceable case remains much harder to establish.

A protest for "climate justice" at Quezon City, Philippines on 14 November 2015. Photo: RB Ibañez via Flickr

A protest for “climate justice” at Quezon City, Philippines on 14 November 2015. Photo: RB Ibañez via Flickr

For these good reasons and to not derail the debate by fixating on questions regarding liability, the debate has extended beyond the narrow focus on compensation – the omnipresent elephant in the room of the UNFCCC process. The meeting at IIASA, which brought together 14 researchers from 10 institutions and 8 countries, also suggested that for a productive discussion, it makes sense to focus broadly on managing various climate risks by fostering current policies and practices while keeping the climate justice debate in close consideration.

This proposal essentially suggests to build on a long history of managing climate-related (and geophysical driven) extremes by employing a broad portfolio of different disaster risk management tools, including financial instruments such as insurance or regional risk pools. As identified also by the IPCC’s 5th assessment report, building on this body of knowledge and practice for comprehensively tackling existing and increasing extremes, holds a lot of promise and has seen international support, e.g. by the Sendai Framework for Action.

The discussion at IIASA focused on these two angles – climate justice and climate risk management – and worked out the following specific foci and building blocks for an evidence-based research approach to support the operationalization of the Loss and Damage Mechanism:

  • Articulation of principles and definitions of Loss and Damage, including ethical and normative issues central to the discourse (e.g. liability and responsibility).
  • Definition of the Loss and Damage space vis-á-vis the adaptation space.
  • Research on the politics and institutional dimensions of the debate.
  • Defining the scope for dealing with sudden-onset risk versus slow-onset impacts.

In the coming months the novel network effort will tackle these issues and questions in order to provide actionable but research-based input into the Loss and Damage deliberations.

Note: The authors thank the researchers present at the kick-off event at IIASA for their input on the topic and this blog post: Florent Baarsch (Climate Analytics, Berlin), Laurens Bouwer (Deltares, Delft), Rachel James (University of Oxford), Stefan Kienberger (University of Salzburg), Ana Lopez (University of Oxford), Colin McQuistan (Practical Action, Rugby), Jaroslav Mysiak (FEEM, Venice), Ilan Noy (University of Wellington), Joeri Roegelj (IIASA), Olivia Serdeczny (Climate Analytics, Berlin), Swenja Surminski (LSE, London), Koko Warner (UNU-EHS, Bonn)

References
Bouwer LM (2013). Projections of future extreme weather losses under changes in climate and exposure. RiskAnalysis 33(5):915–930

Herring, S.C., Hoerling, M.P., Peterson, T.C., Stott P.A. (eds) (2014). Explaining extreme events of 2013 from a climate perspective. Special Supplement to the Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society 95(9)

James, R., Otto, F., Parker, H., Boyd, E., Cornforth, R. Mitchell, D. and M. Allen (2014). Characterizing loss and damage from climate change. Nature Climate Change 4: 938-39

Mechler, R. Bouwer, L., Linnerooth-Bayer, J., Hochrainer-Stigler, S., Aerts, J., Surminski, S. (2014). Managing unnatural disaster risk from climate extremes. Nature Climate Change 4: 235-237

Peterson, T.C., Hoerling, M.P., Stott, P.A., Herring, S.C. (2013). Explaining Extreme Events of 2012 from a Climate Perspective. Bull. Amer. Meteor. Soc., 94: S1–S74. doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.1175/BAMS-D-13-00085.1
Trenberth, K.E., Fasullo, J.T., Shepherd, T.G. (2015). Attribution of climate extreme events. Nature Climate Change 5: 725–730. doi:10.1038/nclimate2657

This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of the Nexus blog, nor of the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis.

The city resilient – some systems thinking

By Bruce Beck, Imperial College London and Michael ThompsonIIASA Risk, Policy and Vulnerability (RPV) Program.

What do Arsenal’s Emirates Stadium in London, the now glorious heritage of Islington’s housing stock, and the cable-car system in Kathmandu for getting milk supplies to that city, all have in common?

An aerial view of the Emirates Stadium and surrounding area (credit: Peter McDermott/CC BY-SA 2.0)

They are (or were) all transformative in their own way. All are commendable outcomes from the process of city governance that we argue will be essential for Coping with Change, the subject of our working paper for the Foresight Future of Cities project. Each is a primary case study in the analysis of our paper. We call this kind of governance ‘clumsiness’. It is something that does not evoke any sense of the familiar attributes of suaveness, elegance, and consensuality implied and valued in most other kinds of governance. So what, then, makes this thing with such an awkward, provocative name so relevant to the future of cities?

Before and after: Islington’s clumsy and resilient resurgence.

Imagine the city being buffeted about by all manner of social, economic, and natural disturbances over time. There will be times for taking risks with the city’s affairs, and times for avoiding them, or managing them, even just absorbing them – 4 mutually exclusive ways of apprehending how the world works, as it were, and 4 accompanying styles of coping.

In the financial industry, this risk typology has been referred to as the 4 seasons of risk. These are strategically and qualitatively different macroscopic regimes of system behaviour; coping with change between one and another of them is every bit as strategically significant. Conventionally, we recognise only 2 of these regimes: those giving rise to boom and bust in the economy. They reflect just 2 of the 4 ways of understanding the world and acting within it. The nub of the distinctive advantage of clumsiness over other forms of governance for coping with change and transformation is the richness of its (fourfold) diversity of perspective, from which may derive resilience and adaptability in the city’s response to any disturbance – big or small, economic, social, or natural.

Clumsiness is most assuredly deeply participatory. Its process is assiduously supportive of robust, noisy, disputatious debate: witness the gyrations in the Arsenal, Islington, and (especially so) Kathmandu case studies. This is exactly as one should expect of any meaningful engagement among the city’s stakeholders: the public-sector agencies, community activists, private-sector businesses, and so on, all with their own vested interests. The 4 ways of seeing the world are mutually opposed; each is sustained in its opposition to the others, as will be the shaping of their aspirations for the future. Each needs the challenges from the others, not least to avoid the ‘group-think’ in governance that is of such considerable concern to government in managing financial risk.

At the peak of deliberative quality in governance, all 4 outlooks are granted access and responsiveness in the debate, in the process of clumsiness, in other words, in coming to a decision or policy — with ever higher social consent. And in the clumsiest of outcomes, each opposing group gets more of what it wants, and less of what it does not want, at least for a while, until everything about the city’s affairs is revisited once again, as the various seasons of risk come around, each holding sway in turn. As we say in our working paper, clumsiness is why village communities in the Himalayas and Swiss Alps have remained viable over the centuries, without destroying either themselves (‘man’) or their environments (‘nature’) – sustainability par excellence, in other words.

So now we must ask: can cities be viable and sustainable in the same way as these mountain villages? In particular, how can the city’s built environment – the infrastructure that mediates between nature and man, the natural and human environments – be made resilient and adaptable, especially in an ecological sense? Thus might we possess this much prized attribute of systems behaviour in each of the natural, built, and human environments, and in a mutually reinforcing manner. What role might clumsiness have in all of this?

In closing our working paper, where we “connect the systemic dots” of our entire argument, we touch upon a computational foresight study in seeking a smarter urban metabolism for London. The fourfold typology of clumsiness is employed to define future target aspirations for the city (quantitatively expressed, under gross uncertainty). These should be the distant outcomes of the fourfold narratives of how the world is believed to work and what it is that each attaching vested interest much wants – and decidedly does not want. An inverse sensitivity analysis (redolent of a computational backcasting) identifies what is key (and what redundant) to the ‘reachability’ (or not) of each of the 4 sets of aspirations for the distant future. Imagine then the urine-separating toilet (UST) as the clumsy solution to a smarter metabolism for London – a smarter way, that is, of the city’s processing of the resource flows of water, energy, carbon, nitrogen, and phosphorus passing through its social-economic life. Rather more grandly put, imagine instead the UST as a “privileged, non-foreclosing policy-technology innovation” for today!

Well now … if clumsiness is such a jolly good thing, what else might it do for us and our cities? We submit it promises the prospect of greater resilience and adaptability in the governance of innovation ecosystems, extending thus the lines of evidence recounted for re-invigoration of the industrial economy of NE Ohio in Katz & Bradley’s recent (2013) book Metropolitan Revolution. ‘Resilience’ and ‘ecosystem’ are (for now) ubiquitous in our everyday language. But no-one, as far as we are aware, has thought of applying the immensely rich notion of ecological resilience to orchestrating the creative and clumsy affairs of an innovation ecosystem. We are currently examining this.

Read the full report

Featured image by Peter McDermott. Used under Creative Commons.

For further information on the Foresight Future of Cities project visit: https://futureofcities.blog.gov.uk

A long road ahead on risk-sensitive development in Madagascar

By Junko Mochizuki, IIASA Risk, Policy and Vulnerability Program

As economic losses due to natural disasters rise globally, there is an increasing consensus that the impacts of public and private investments on disaster risk must properly be monitored and evaluated. Such “risk-sensitive investment” is increasingly recognized as good practice in both public and private sector decision making. As we look beyond the Post-2015 development agenda, the incorporation of risk is increasingly becoming a crucial element to sustainable and resilience development throughout the world.

Bamboo shelters and protected water sources can mitigate risks during and following a disaster ©EU/ECHO Malini Morzaria

Risk reduction  measures such as bamboo shelters and protected water sources can mitigate risks during and following a disaster ©EU/ECHO Malini Morzaria via Flickr

While risk sensitive investment will likely receive great fanfare at the World Conference on Disaster Risk Reduction to be held in Sendai next month, the prospects for achieving such investments are still distant for many developing countries. Despite much recent progress to collect and analyze natural disaster damage, loss, and risk information globally, data quality remains largely poor for these countries. Many developing countries also lack the expertise to interpret and use such data effectively.  Even when capacity exists at the technical staff level, political will and financial capacity may not be sufficient to use risk information tangibly and invest in risk reduction activities.

My participation at a recent workshop in Madagascar, the Training Program on Disaster Risk Assessment and Optimization of Public Investments in Reducing Economic Losses in January confirmed my sense of this inadequate on-the-ground reality. With a per capita GDP of approximately $460 per year, Madagascar is one of the poorest countries and, located in the western corner of the Indian Ocean, one of the most highly exposed to natural disaster risk. In 2008 for example, three consecutive cyclones caused more than $330 million in damage and losses. The annual average loss (AAL) from cyclone wind alone is estimated to be $74 million or nearly 1% of the country’s GDP.  After two days of capacity-building training on risk assessment and investment decision-making tools such as IIASA’s Catastrophe Simulation (CATSIM) model and Probabilistic Cost-Benefit Analysis (CBA), discussions by technical staff centered around how to fill the large gap between the reality of where they stand now and where they should be in the future.

At the workshop, the participants asked questions such as “How can we strengthen contingency funding and the mainstreaming of disaster risk reduction at the same time?” and “What can a cash stripped government do when donors themselves do not seem to allocate funding based on the tangible needs of a country’s natural disaster risks?”

Madagascar

Workshop in Madagascar. Credit: Junko Mochizuki

Given the unique constraints facing developing countries, solutions must be tailored to their specific needs, however much of the know-how and technological options that have worked in the developed world cannot be easily replicated in a country like Madagascar.  There are no easy answers, but the participants’ earnest opinions certainly gave me a positive impression that they are serious about taking disaster risk into account in their development.

As we deliberate the post-2015 goals on climate change, disaster risk reduction, and sustainable development, it is vital that the international community consider these important questions: Given the unique constraints of developing countries, what can our state-of-the-art science produce as usable and useful information for the realities of their decision making? There are more dialogues to be had and research to be conducted incorporating their viewpoints. This workshop provided an important opportunity to exchange ideas and a glimpse into the real challenges of risk sensitive investment in the developing world.

Note: This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of the Nexus blog, nor of the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis.