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New perspectives for risk assesment

Created: 25 July 2014

During the week of 30 June – 5 July, the World Bank Global Facility for Disaster Reduction and Recovery organized the Understanding Risk Forum (URF) in London. My overall impression from the event was very positive. It presented new insights, interesting speakers, and a high professional level of participants.

The Forum attracted leading experts, research centers, universities, national policy-makers, international development and humanitarian organizations, and private sector representatives from across the globe.

A variety of issues were discussed to further our understanding of disaster risk and risk assessment and most importantly the implications for the development policy and programming. Special attention was paid to the shift from managing risks in isolation to more integrated and whole-of-society risk assessment that covers not only disaster risk but any type of risk (for instance, financial risks, climate-related risks, commodity price risks, critical infrastructure risks, etc.).  Such whole-of-society risk assessment is already being conducted in many countries (including the UK, the Netherlands, Morocco, Sweden, the USA, and many others) with the support of their national authorities, the World Bank and the OECD.  The discussion revolved largely around the ‘how’ question.

Using new technologies, innovative solutions and big data for disaster risk management is gaining much attention nowadays. Examples presented at the URF include Google’s efforts to create high-resolution Digital Elevation Models; the open data movement to build resilience (openDRI); InaSAFE software (inasafe.org) that produces natural hazard impact scenarios; application of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) for mapping, surveying, 3D modelling, and enhancing search and rescue operations; use of whole-Earth imagery dataset (PlanetLab), crowdsourcing. These developments deemed to improve the precision of disaster risk assessment, both its likelihood and its impact.

Also the behavioural aspects of risk management, its governance and financing were addressed. Very interesting presentations were made on, for example, the role of emotions in decision-making; consideration of the economic benefits of disaster risk management; the use of disaster risk data; and the importance of risk financial protection and disaster insurance models. An interesting example of emotions-based decision-making is the behaviour of pet owners during evacuations. Owning a pet is known to be the biggest factor in people failing to evacuate as they are usually reluctant to abandon their pets. Understanding this relationship and in response to the effect that losing a pet had on Katrina victims, the Pets Evacuation and Transportation Standards Act was signed into law in USA in 2006. This case shows how insights into emotion-based decision-making can lead to a policy change to ensure better protection of human and animal lives.

The clear message throughout the conference was that disaster risk is a contingent liability and requires massive communication and everybody’s engagement in risk reduction, prevention and preparedness. This triggers discussions around new forms of governance. Many interesting insights were shared on this topic. An excellent point was made by the Secretary of Finance of the Philippines, Mr. Cesar V. Purisima, during the panel session ‘A Conversation with Champions for Disaster Resilience’. He brought to our attention the very fundamental challenge of today’s (disaster) risk management, namely, the disruption of cause-and-effect relationships of risk consideration. Such disruption occurs in various dimensions: across generations, geographic areas, sectors, institutions…  a ‘butterfly effect’ that escapes our attention! For instance, the factors generating and amplifying risk might be contributed to by one group of actors, whereas the effects of the risk can be significant for another group (think of the recent financial crisis, for instance). Or risks we are causing today may have an impact over generations (think of climate risk, for instance).

Our growing understanding of these dimensions opens up a whole new perspective for risk assessment.  This requires embracing the whole variability of cause-and-effect relationships, identifying those that contribute to the cause of a risk and those that may be potentially affected by the risk. Also, response mechanisms must be tested against the question ‘whose threats and whose opportunities’. This is a road with many pitfalls: limitations of jurisdictions, high level of uncertainties, lack of political leadership, lack of capacities and many more.

There is growing understanding of the complex relationships between the cause and effect of risk shift attention from mainly hazard and vulnerability assessment to governance considerations. An effective risk governance mechanism (be it a multi-stakeholder fund, an inter-ministerial committee, an open platform, or another form of collaborative effort) can provide a legitimate basis for risk response across all dimensions, timely risk communication and effective management of both threats and opportunities. This is an emerging reality that we all are facing and, most importantly, shaping. To what extent we will be able to effectively overcome the challenges and address the cause-effect considerations of (disaster) risks, remains to be seen. But we have set out on the journey…. so, bon voyage!