29 March 2018

Everyday Risk: Obstacle or Opportunity for Disaster Risk Reduction?

29 March 2018 - The United Nations system, coordinated by the United Nations Office for Disaster Reduction, has guidelines for nations and municipalities to manage natural hazard risk. Foremost among these, in many regards, is the Sendai Framework for Disaster Reduction. There has also been a rapid increase in mapping, monitoring and warning technologies and tools. For a long time, this legal, institutional and technical apparatus focused on a small number of high-impact natural hazards that account for most deaths, injuries, financial and physical losses: large floods, earthquakes and tsunamis, landslides, tornadoes and coastal storms. More recently, however, the focus has been enlarged to include the many small-to-moderate hazard events and slow-onset hazards such as drought that are less deadly but erode the livelihoods of affected people (see, for example, the 2015 Global Assessment of Disaster Risk Reduction).

Yet even when the United Nations system concerns itself with both so-called intensive and extensive risk, many low-income and marginalized people around the world perceive and prioritize risk differently. They live in an environment of what can be called “everyday risk”. They may well be aware of their exposure to flood, earthquake and landslide risk, or to the hazard of coastal storms and wildfires. Nevertheless, what concerns them on a day-to-day basis are such matters as crime, gang violence, access to health care, clean water and poverty.

Surveys by the Global Network of Civil Society Organisations for Disaster Reduction, using a tool called “Frontline”, elicited people’s priority risks in a number of countries during 2015 and 2016. (See Gibson, T. and Wisner, B. “Let’s Talk About You…: opening space for local experience, action and learning in disaster risk reduction”. Disaster Prevention and Management 25 (2016), 5: 664-684). Such surveys were organized through a cascade of networked civil society organizations in 15 countries in Asia, Africa and the Caribbean, yielding 6,173 records of individual experiences of and reflections on everyday threats. As can be seen in our data represented in the accompanying figure, results include a mixture of what natural hazard experts would think of as high priorities (e.g. flood and drought) was well as social hazards (e.g. insecurity and alcoholism) and hazards linked to economic opportunities and access to services (e.g. poverty and disease).

An appreciation of everyday risk helps explain an apparent paradox: people who experts perceive to be exposed to geophysical and climate-related hazards nevertheless may not follow official advice meant to assist avoidance or reduction of risk. Many resist re-location when it is offered. They do not make investments in flood proofing, seismically securing or wind-proofing homes that seem economically viable to the experts. Such people are not ignorant or perverse. The compelling logic of their social and economic lives is such that they have other priorities.

Some may see this disparity in risk perception as an obstacle to “capacity-building” or “disaster risk communication” outreach by authorities. An understanding of the more holistic way people live with risk and understand it, however, can also provide the entry point for a more comprehensive, participatory developmental approach to disaster risk management. What is required are more flexible and longer-term approaches than the usual “project cycles” of most government and non-governmental initiatives. Ideally this would begin with a “conversation” of the sort at the core of Frontline. People would be invited to share their view of threats (of any kind), the consequences of threats, ideas about what can be done about them and obstacles to reducing threats. Then, with flexible funding protocols, initial community-based activity could focus on a top priority. In the course of working on this, confidence and trust can be built, and later, the intervention could extend to other lower priority risks as understood by the people. Such an approach would require budgeting and cooperation across government ministries and non-governmental programmes. That is hard for political and sociological reasons, but is it not possible?

Human institutions can put a human being on the moon, nearly eradicate some diseases with vaccination, transfer water from one river basin to another, map the human genome ... Can our institutions not also break down silos and compartmentalized thinking so that flexible, participatory approaches can put development at the heart of disaster risk reduction—and disaster risk reduction at the heart of development?

The author, Ben Wisner, is Visiting Professor, Institute for Risk and Disaster Reduction, University College London