Core concepts and approaches

Several foundational concepts and approaches have been developed and agreed upon over the decades. They inform the way in which disasters and disaster risk reduction are viewed.

Some of the key concepts or approaches are presented below:

The difference between hazards and disasters

Disasters are not natural. Yes, there are “natural hazards” such as earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, floods and heatwaves but there are no “natural disasters”, for these hazards need not lead to a disaster.

The term “disaster” refers to widespread disruption caused to people’s lives and property by an event or a series of events. If a natural hazard causes no disruption, it does not result in a disaster. Thus, though many hazards may be inevitable, disasters are not. We cannot prevent a volcanic eruption, but we can prevent it from becoming a disaster.

The first step you could take as a reporter is to avoid the term “natural disaster” and use instead “disasters” or “natural hazards”. This will help change the way that opinion leaders and the public at large perceive disasters. By doing so, you will help create a culture of prevention and not just a culture of reaction.

Disaster risk reduction

Disaster risk reduction is the desired outcome of all the measures that can be taken to reduce loss of life, injury and displacement, damage to critical infrastructure including loss of access to basic services, and economic losses, because of man-made or natural hazards. Disaster risk management is the means to achieve this.

A hazard becomes a disaster when it coincides with a vulnerable situation, when societies or communities are unable to cope using their own resources and capacities. Simply put, “disaster risk reduction” refers to the idea that the chances of a hazardous event resulting in a disaster can be reduced by adopting the appropriate strategies and actions. There are many ways to prevent disasters or lessen the impact, for instance by integrating volcano risk in urban planning; reducing the number of people living close to a volcano; educating and alerting them about the dangers; preparing them to evacuate when the volcano erupts; and identifying shelters to protect them.

The video Introducing Disaster Risk Reduction and Resilience provides an overview of critical concepts.
“If I had to select one sentence to describe the state of the world, I would say we are in a world in which global challenges are more and more integrated, and the responses are more and more fragmented, and if this is not reversed, it’s a recipe for disaster.”
– António Guterres, United Nations Secretary-General, January 2019

Nothing undermines development like disasters

The world has been unable to move away from a vicious cycle of disaster–respond–rebuild–repeat. Financing has historically focused on picking up the pieces post-disaster. However, this “band-aid” approach is not appropriate. National and local governments must shift the emphasis from disaster response to preventing risk.

Figure 1: Rising graph. The total number of disasters of different types reported between 1975 and 2019. The graph for ‘All subgroups’ shows a distinct upward trend, indicating that natural hazards are leading to a greater number of disasters. Source: EM-DAT.

Risks are interconnected and systemic

With increasing complexity and interaction of human, economic and political systems (e.g. the international financial system, communications and information technology, trade and supply chains, megacities and urbanization), risks have increasingly become systemic. It is well recognised that disasters often cascade, one hazard triggering another hazard, as is illustrated by the term NATECH, which stands for natural hazards triggering technological disasters. The era of hazard-by-hazard risk reduction is over. We need to reflect the systemic nature of risk in how we deal with it.

Figure 2: Interconnected and systemic: Traditional understanding of risk can be likened to a view of the Himalayan peaks from above, with a cloud cover that obscures the topography below. From above, humans have described and named these peaks of risk as if they are separate and independent, when in fact, below the clouds, the connections are clear. Source: UNDRR: GAR2019.

Prevention pays

Thanks to effective building codes and other DRR measures, Chile’s 8.8-magnitude earthquake in 2010 killed only one person out of every 595 affected; Haiti’s earthquake, while 500 times less powerful, killed one in every 15 affected. No one was killed in a 7.2-magnitude earthquake in Christchurch, New Zealand, in 2010. These huge differences in mortality rates are a stark reminder of the need for a strategic multi-sectoral approach to addressing the risks of disasters.

Figure 3: High impact: Mortality from disasters concentrated in a few intensive events, 1990–2017. Source: UNDRR with data from EM-DAT.

Climate change is a risk amplifier

The threshold of limiting global warming to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels will be surpassed in the late 2030s / early 2040s, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). If the 1.5°C threshold is breached, the possibilities to adapt will diminish as ecosystems in arid and semi-arid regions collapse, leading to more and bigger disasters as well as migration on a scale never seen before. Risk reduction processes have multiple connections with climate change adaptation (CCA), yet few DRR plans take these connections into account (GAR 2019). One estimate from WHO indicated that 250,000 additional deaths could occur each year between 2030 and 2050 because of climate change (Hales et al. 2014).

Risk is everyone’s business

We tend to shift the responsibility for risk to national governments, but the truth is that this responsibility is a shared one and that risk reduction is everyone’s business. While national and state governments play a central role in risk reduction and disaster responses, it is necessary to empower local authorities and local communities with resources and decision-making responsibilities. The media also needs to be aware of its role in building resilience at all levels from the local to the national.

Partnerships and collaboration

We need to build partnerships with other stakeholders and expert organizations to enable strong data-sharing networks and comprehensive reporting. Networks of reporters such as DIRAJ (The Disaster Risk Reduction Association of Journalists) in Africa have proved the utility of collaborative models in which members can share data, contact and tips.