7 things science teaches us about disaster risk reduction

2016 is a critical year for the rhetoric-to-action phase of the three landmark UN agreements agreed last year on climate change, sustainable development and disaster risk reduction. The first milestone takes place at the end of January in Geneva, with an important UN meeting on the science and technology roadmap for the Sendai Framework on Disaster Risk Reduction.

Here are 7 reasons why science has a critical role to play in smart policy decisions for disaster risk reduction.

1. Science is central for achieving and monitoring progress towards the Sustainable Development Goals. Science based frameworks for monitoring and evaluation provide rigorous and transparent procedures for indicator selection, measurement and analysis. In the multi-sector and international context of global agreements science can also clarify the right questions to ask in achieving a stated goal. This is especially important when considering interactions between goals and indicators across the framework even when common aspirations appear straightforward. The Overseas Development Institute has demonstrated how difficult it is to satisfactorily track resilience within the Sustainable Development Goals process.

2. Disaster risk reduction is part of climate change adaptation and as such science has a role to play in developing policy approaches with co-benefits. Surfacing smart disaster risk reduction needs investigative science. Disaster risk reduction co-benefits for climate change and development are not always deliberate and may not be visible to routine monitoring and evaluation processes. Science teams deployed by UNISDR and Oxfam have identified examples of these unplanned processes which led to co-benefits. For example, in New Zealand, a charity formed after the Christchurch earthquake went from grant provision to young Maori students and entrepreneurs to a national youth development programme. In the Dominican Republic, disaster risk reduction projects have overcome entrenched distrust among neighbourhoods, leading to better police safety for women and enabling small businesses to grow.

3. Where development is the problem, science can be a critical friend for policy making from resilience to transformation. The disasters community has a long tradition of aiming to accelerate improvement in development opportunities for the poor and vulnerable through reconstruction and disaster risk reduction projects. Climate change adaptation and mitigation and the Sustainable Development Goals seem increasingly likely to need transformative policy options. Systematic analysis of the social and political context for progressive disaster risk management and disaster risk reduction offers lessons.

Tensions between structural vested economic and broader public interests are key and led to failure of a planned Transformative Development Strategy following Hurricane Mitch. Lessons on how to overcome, or at least recognise such barriers will be important going forward. Leadership at the national level in the Philippines has approached these tensions head-on through legislating a Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Act (2010), and Climate Change Act (2009) that identify root causes in social and economic status and provide a framework for national policy to reduce risk through social policy combined with hazard mitigation.

4. Science can help those living with uncertainty. Research by Christian Aid has shown that it is possible to demonstrate tangible benefits in using scientific information to reduce uncertainty in short timeframes. Farmers in the Mbeere region, Kenya receiving localised seasonal and sub-seasonal forecasts and updates by SMS and following climate information training with some farmers have doubled their yields or more.

5. Greater investment in transparent risk governance saves lives. The Nepal earthquake, 2015, demonstrates the urgency of integrating science into DRR practice. Impact studies and root cause analysis of the Nepal earthquake show how the 7.8 earthquake that took place April 2015 was not a surprise. Scientists had warned of a large event for decades with some even predicting the exact epicentre location. Yet when the event came, lack of preparedness and the depth of accumulated vulnerability was clear. How can this be?

Lessons from Nepal and elsewhere show that to reduce risk requires analysis of the organisational and institutional as well as the physical determinants of risk; understanding of the decision-making culture and capacity of households, governments and other actors; and effective knowledge exchange between science and science-users.

6. Big gains for society come when technological innovations are coupled with social understanding. One of the greatest success stories of the 20th century was the reduction in lives lost from natural hazards associated with early warning. Individual success stories show how innovative, multi-disciplinary science can lead to major outcomes for risk reduction, for example in Bangladesh. The best early warning systems bring together hazard and vulnerability analysis with an understanding of the behaviour of individuals, crowds and economies once a warning is issued.

Computing power as well as anthropological awareness is needed to make early warning as relevant as possible to the behaviour of people at risk.

7. Science provides a strong basis for trust-based platforms that can foster collaborations among many communities. Building resilience requires relationships across all communities, and science can drive these relationships. New Zealand’s integrated approach to recovery from the Christchurch earthquake has produced innovations in early warning, land-use planning and experiments in local democracy, economic and social development. This is built on close, yet independent relationships between science, policy and communities at risk with well funded and flexible science working with other stakeholders to frame research agendas and policy directions. Christchurch is now one of the Rockerfeller 100 Resilient Cities.

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