SEI Initiative on Transforming Development and Disaster Risk

Submitted by Ruth Butterfield 20th November 2015 16:06
Crews search through the rubble after the Nepal earthquake in April 2015

Crews search through the rubble after the Nepal earthquake in April 2015

Introduction

There is a growing recognition globally that development is crucial to reducing vulnerability to disasters, but it is also a major driver of disaster risk. The Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction (DRR) identifies rapid urbanization as a key concern in this context, as it concentrates large populations in what are often high-risk areas, such as coastlines, with the poorest people often in slums.

In the Asia-Pacific region, for example, the average number of people exposed to yearly flooding more than doubled from 1970 to 2010, from 30 million to 64 million. Urban areas are now home to 46% of the population, and half a billion live in slums, in precarious dwellings without access to safe water or sanitation. When disasters strike, the impacts on them can be devastating.

This SEI Initiative on Transforming Development and Disaster Risk (TDDR) seeks to integrate disaster risk reduction around the world with equitable, sustainable and resilient development by transforming the relationship between development and disaster risk reduction (DRR). It will carry out context-specific research on a range of environmental risks, aiming to generate knowledge to support changes in governance, policy and practice.

The goal is to improve understanding of how risks are created and how they accumulate, recognizing that disaster risk and development are closely interlinked. The role of climate change is another key consideration, as it poses additional layers of risk and may complicate future DRR efforts.

Three key gaps in disaster risk reduction

Despite tremendous progress in knowledge and technology for understanding and dealing with disaster risks, the basic dilemma between development and disaster risks remains unchanged. That is, globally, development is more often a root cause of disaster risk, rather than a means to reduce it.

The reasons are manifold, but we see three key gaps:

  • A failure to adequately understand the complexity of vulnerability creation;
  • A failure to be scale-appropriate and apply what we know to the scale at which fundamental change is required; and
  • A fixation within contemporary DRR research and practice on the goal of “reducing” risk, rather than understanding the trade-offs that underpin decision-making processes at all levels (from individual and community ;to society at large).

Addressing these fundamental gaps requires both a development perspective on risk, and a risk perspective on development.

The need to articulate this dual perspective and explore supportive analytical approaches and tools are the primary motivations underlying this Initiative.


Building local capacity is a key aspect of building resilience. Above, local men build a retaining wall on the banks of the Harirod River in Herat, Afghanistan. Floods have been worsened by unpredictable weather, mismanagement of natural resources, and infrastructure that has encroached on the natural riverbed. Photo credit: UNOPS / UNISDR / flickr

Methods and Tools

 Our research will build on these insights in three interlinked research work packages:

  • Understanding development and disaster risk reduction in a social-ecological systems framework;
  • Understanding equitable social-ecological resilience; and
  • Understanding adaptive processes for governance of socialecological systems.

The Initiative builds on SEI’s partnerships and considerable expertise and experience in research, capacity building and policy support on vulnerability, risk, resilience, adaptation and environmental governance. Our goal is to generate new knowledge on responses to disaster risks, synthesize and integrate existing knowledge, and contribute scientific insights, guidelines and recommendations to support key policy processes in DRR and development.

The timing of the Initiative will also allow us to monitor and assess progress in DRR during the first two years of implementation of the Sendai Framework, to provide critical reflections on project experiences, lessons learnt and good practice, and to identify opportunities, challenges and limits.

Key challenges in Disaster Risk Reduction

Despite tremendous progress in knowledge and technology for understanding and dealing with disaster risks, the basic dilemma between development and disaster risks remains unchanged. That is, globally, development is more often a root cause of disaster risk, rather than a means to reduce it. The reasons are manifold, but we see three key gaps:

  • A failure to adequately understand the complexity of vulnerability creation;
  • A failure to be scale-appropriate and apply what we know to the scale at which fundamental change is required; and
  • A fixation within contemporary DRR research and practice on the goal of “reducing” risk, rather than understanding the trade-offs that underpin decision-making processes at all levels (from individual and community to society at large).

Addressing these fundamental gaps requires both a development perspective on risk, and a risk perspective on development.

The need to articulate this dual perspective and explore supportive analytical approaches and tools are the primary motivations underlying this Initiative.

We will apply the social-ecological systems (SES) framework to diagnose how disaster risk in development can be understood and acted upon. This means looking at feedbacks between social and ecological systems; the geographical, cultural, personal and professional identities bound up in these linked systems; and the subjective perspectives of different system actors.

The SES framework provides a useful analytical entry point for illuminating the connections between socially desirable forms of natural resource use and socially undesirable natural hazards. For example, development can increase risk in the long term by increasing greenhouse gas emissions that drive climate change; in the near term, it can exacerbate risks by removing natural storm-surge barriers such as mangroves in favour of aquaculture farms or beachfront properties.

Disasters, meanwhile, can hinder and even reverse the benefits of development. Disasters strike both developed and developing countries. Development is a key factor in reducing vulnerability – for example, by improving basic infrastructure, increasing income, or increasing literacy so people can better understand evacuation notices and early warning information.

However, disaster preparedness has generally lagged behind the introduction of new vulnerabilities, so large advances in DRR knowledge and practice have, at best, slowed the rate of increase in disaster impacts.

In many places, emergency response capacity has improved even as resilience has weakened – a common outcome of development. The integration of economies globally has also meant the faster transmission and far-reaching impacts of disasters: for example, the 2011 flooding in Thailand inundated several industrial zones and affected global supply chains.


The New Jersey National Guard assists displaced people in Hoboken, NJ, after Hurricane Sandy in 2012.  Photo credit: US Army / Spc. Joseph Davis / flickr