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Disasters, climate change and development: Reducing risk by tackling the drivers of vulnerability

This discussion brief examines the relationship between climate and disaster risk reduction, aiming to identify ways for them to work better together.
Multiple Authors


Efforts to reduce disaster risks and climate change risks have co-existed for a long time, and in recent years, there has been growing attention to the relationship between climate change adaptation and disaster risk reduction. Not only are there considerable similarities in the types of actions needed to reduce both kinds of risks, but there is great scope for mutual learning.

Climate-related disasters have also become a rallying point in the international climate negotiations – a tangible, immediate reason to push for more ambitious climate action. The relationship between climate change and disaster risk – and between strategies to address them – is thus a very timely and policy-relevant issue.

This discussion brief examines the relationship between climate and disaster risk reduction, aiming to identify ways for them to work better together. Insights from our analysis may be useful to policy-makers from the international to the local level, as well as to interested members of civil society.

The text below is significantly abridged. For the full text please download the document from the right-hand column of this page or via the link provided under further resources.

This discussion brief is based on the background paper “Climate Change and Disaster Risk Reduction” prepared for the 2015 Global Assessment Report on Disaster Risk Reduction. A link to the background paper is provided under further resources.

Disasters, climate change and development

Despite many overlaps, disaster risk reduction (DRR) and adaptation have evolved separately, with distinct differences. For example, DRR focuses on current and near-term risks (as well as remediation after disasters), while adaptation typically takes a longer view.

The role of climate change itself in shaping future disaster risk – how greenhouse gas concentrations might affect the frequency and severity of storms, floods, droughts, etc. – is a less-explored area. Yet this dimension is critical for understanding how climate-related disaster risks may evolve and how DRR (and adaptation) will have to evolve to address them.

Since disaster risk is so closely tied to exposure and vulnerability, both adaptation and DRR have to be understood in the context of wider social and economic development. This is conceptualised in Figure 1, which illustrates the interactions between climate, disaster risk and development:

Figure 1 (from p.2 of the discussion brief): A framework for understanding disaster risk, adaptation and development. Adapted from IPCC (2012, p.4)

Rethinking approaches to climate and disaster risk

There is a growing recognition of the need to make stronger connections with climate change mitigation, adaptation, and sustainable development. Within the DRR field, this is part of a broader effort to address several concerns about the effectiveness of current approaches:

  1. Disaster risk continues to increase dramatically in many parts of the world, arising from a combination of natural hazards, climate change, environmental degradation, rapid and poorly planned urban development, and insecure livelihoods.

  2. New risks are arising from existing and emerging economic and social processes, and growing faster than existing risks are being reduced.

  3. Climate change is expected to continue to drive disaster risk, with significant increases in the frequency, intensity, spatial extent and duration of extreme events.

  4. Despite a growing recognition among scientists of the importance of social, cultural, economic and political factors in driving vulnerability to disasters, the underlying causes of social vulnerability are still not well understood or addressed in policy or practice. Assessments of the Hyogo Framework for Action (HFA), for example, have found the least amount of progress was made in addressing the underlying risk factors and causes of risk creation (UNISDR 2011; UNISDR 2013). The HFA has had limited impact on improving governance at the national and sub-national levels to reduce social vulnerability and empower vulnerable groups.

  5. Important linkages between natural resource management, development, DRR, and climate change mitigation and adaptation exist but are frequently not understood or considered.

  6. The DRR paradigm itself has been questioned, because efforts continue to focus primarily on emergency management and preparedness, and corrective or compensatory risk management, not on the underlying drivers of risk.

  7. A new emphasis on disaster resilience offers some new ways of thinking, but interpretations of the concept vary, and it is poorly understood by many policy-makers and practitioners.

Understanding the relationship between DRR and adaptation

Disaster risk reduction and adaptation are two ways of reducing the risk posed by natural hazards. Both are concerned with reducing vulnerability, monitoring hazards, and raising societal capacities to reduce and manage risks. DRR considers a broader range of potential hazards, however (including geophysical, biological, and chemical hazards), as well as their interactions and cumulative effects (ADPC 2013). The overlap between DRR and adaptation is in managing disaster risk related to climate variability and climate extremes, and preparing for risks related to climate change.

A refugee camp in Dadaab, Kenya, during the East Africa food crisis in 2011, taken from p.4 of the discussion brief.

Entry points for linking DRR and adaptation

Despite the challenges of addressing DRR and adaptation simultaneously in policy, projects and planning, there are strong arguments for promoting frequent interaction between DRR and adaptation experts. Both issues are framed in similar ways, presenting numerous opportunities for a robust relationship. The overlaps range from simple things, such as the fact that both DRR and adaptation planning tend to focus on specific sectors (e.g. water, agriculture, health, transport, energy, urban development, etc.) and/or a specific scale (international, national, local) or geographic area (village, town, city, coastal area, etc.), to more complex issues, such as that both are currently the subject of high-level international political negotiations.

One of the most important reasons for linking DRR and adaptation is that some current DRR practices can undermine opportunities for reducing vulnerability to natural hazards in the longer term. For example, international NGOs and humanitarian agencies frequently provide only “temporary”, poor-quality shelter after a disaster, leaving governments or other actors to help build new, more resilient housing, with no guarantee that this will occur.

This “business as usual” approach to DRR and disaster aid that focuses largely on disaster response and recovery is no longer desirable. DRR practitioners need to pay greater attention and resource to disaster prevention and preparedness. This needs to be couched in thinking about reducing vulnerability and risk in a more holistic way, rather than on an event-by-event basis.

The poorest people in developing countries often live in marginal areas such as this slope in Piñas, Ecuador, where a landslide left four families homeless. (Taken from p.5 of the discussion brief).

Transformative change

For a truly effective, integrated approach to adaptation and DRR, however, we will need a radical transformation in how we think about these issues. This requires:

  1. A change in thinking about how adaptation is done, starting with an acknowledgement that decision-makers and practitioners see adaptation as a set of incremental steps, not as the continuous, long-term process that researchers envision. This incremental understanding of adaptation fits the nature of ex- isting development assistance projects and programmes, but it will not produce the transformational change in attitudes, economies, behaviours and politics needed to reduce vulner- ability to hazards.
  2. A willingness to actively engage actors whose agendas influence vulnerability: those responsible for shaping priorities for national and international economic development, those bartering for peace in war zones, health organizations, the private sector, etc.
  3. Multi-hazard risk reduction units, that house units studying hazard and vulnerability together, so that they can collaborate and better understand each other’s perspectives and challenges.
  4. Guidance for disaster response and recovery on how to incorporate climate change in planning and programming.
  5. A human rights-based approach, since many of the causes of vulnerability to climate change impacts and other hazards are rooted in poverty, inequality and injustice with respect to basic human rights and a lack of access to resources.

Both DRR and adaptation must be closely linked to poverty reduction and sustainable development, because climate change and disaster impacts threaten progress on poverty reduction and the achievement of development goals. A more effective way of bringing adaptation into DRR is to take vulnerability reduction as the starting point, rather than risk reduction. As the IPCC (2012) has stressed, social welfare, quality of life, infrastructure and livelihoods need to be part of disaster risk reduction to facilitate adaptation. Thus, rather than thinking about how to address risk, the focus should be on addressing the greatest drivers of risk.

Learning about disaster risk and climate change

The question is then how the DRR and climate change communities can exchange knowledge and learn from each other in order to inform more effective policies to manage future climate risks. There is ample evidence to suggest that disasters can spur learning among policy-makers and lead to new policies and change in approaches to risk management. However, the extent of that learning and change depends critically on the severity of the disaster, beliefs about its causes and consequences, the availability of policy-relevant resources, the openness of decision-making processes, and the social and economic structures and underpin them (Johnson et al. 2005; Brody et al. 2009; Vulturius 2013).

Special attention thus needs to be paid to the ways in which new knowledge about disaster risk and climate change is developed and how it moves into the policy realm. How can new knowledge and experience with disaster risk best be harnessed for policy-making? Given that hazards such as floods occur regularly in many places, and that climate change may alter the frequency and magnitude of some of these hazards, learning and decision-making about suitable risk manage- ment options is likely to happen in multiple iterations.

Iterative risk management, illustrated in Figure 3, has been endorsed by the IPCC (2014c) as an effective approach to adaptation decision-making because it is most suitable for dealing with large uncertainties, long time frames, and the influence of both climate and non-climate related changes in disaster risk. It also offers decision-makers formalized methods to analyse vulnerability, risk and uncertainty and to assess possible policy responses (for an in-depth discussion, see PROVIA 2013).

Figure 3 (from p.7 of the discussion brief): Climate change adaptation as an iterative risk management process. Adapted from IPCC (2014c, Figure SPM.3).

These insights suggest that governance mechanisms involving adaptation and DRR need to become more flexible and conducive to learning in order to be able to adapt to new experiences and knowledge. At the moment, however, risk management is often subsumed in established planning and decision-making structures that are less likely to be conducive to transformative change. Decision-making for DRR and adaptation also often involves competing views about the causes of disaster risks and suitable actions to reduce them (Albright 2011). Stakeholder platforms can offer a forum for joint learning among different policy actors, bridging gaps and potentially leading to collective action.

This brief was written by Marion Davis and Gregor Vulturius. It is based on: Schipper, E.L.F., Thomalla, F., Vulturius, G., Johnson, K., and Klein, R.J.T. (2015). Climate Change and Disaster Risk Reduction. Background paper prepared for the Global Assessment Report on Disaster Risk Reduction 2015.

The full discussion brief can be downloaded here.

The background paper can be downloaded here.

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