Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Richard C Hazel. Making Mitigation Matter: The Critical Pathway to Achieving Resilience:

Richard C. Hazel is an International member of the Black Emergency Managers Association and originally posted this article for publication in the area of public investment and disaster risk reduction.  

Resilience is a word that has become much touted in discussions surrounding disaster risk reduction (DRR). As a goal and a standard it represents a true litmus test for how effectively a community or nation has performed across all phases of the disaster management cycle. It requires long term strategies that involve demonstrable commitments to DRR including multidisciplinary partnerships amongst key stakeholders, continuous knowledge development, and investments that are financial and intellectual in nature. The goal of resilience cannot be achieved if mitigation remains the most underserved phase of the disaster management cycle. This article examines long term mitigation as an essential prerequisite to the overarching goal of disaster resilience amongst communities and its role in the priority established by the Hyogo Framework for Action to utilize “knowledge, innovation, and education to build a culture of safety and resilience at all levels”.

Human history coupled with the forces of nature continually serve as a reminder that disasters care little for socio-economic conditions, electoral boundaries, seasonally dependent industries or stock market outcomes. “The losses, costs, and impacts of future natural disasters will be the consequence of today’s mitigation decisions and nondecisions”.1   In our efforts to prepare for, respond to and recover from the adverse impacts of a disaster event, mitigation maintains a unique role in this iterative process. It has been stated that unlike the other emergency management disciplines, mitigation “looks at long-term solutions to reducing risk as opposed to preparedness for hazards, the immediate response to a hazard, or the short-term recovery from a hazard”. 

It has also been viewed as “the only component of comprehensive emergency management that has the potential to break the cycle of damage and reconstruction that can occur when a community is subjected to repeated natural hazards”.3   Whether either perspective is preferred or disputed, mitigation can remain distinguished as the most event-independent phase of the disaster cycle.  (see figure 1)

Figure 1. Event-driven versus Event independent phases of the Disaster Management Cycle

Just as essential operational and response characteristics typify participants in the event driven phases of the cycle; mitigation in its true form demands an even greater commitment. It requires a diverse set of stakeholders whose efforts to achieve the resilience goal must remain unwavering well beyond the advent or aftermath of any singular disaster event.

For developing countries this may also require the active participation of regional or international stakeholders and policy considerations of a political, economic, social and environmental nature that may quickly extend the scope beyond the existing mandate of local disaster and emergency management professionals. The most important decisions to be made by public and private stakeholders are deliberated and transpire long after the focusing event has occurred and faded from the media headlines and public outcry. Therefore a tendency to prioritize the visible activities of the event driven phases to the detriment of mitigation could stem from the fact that “disasters and emergencies provide excellent windows of opportunity for public officials to demonstrate their leadership capabilities and their willingness to tackle difficult problems”4  whilst recognizing that a failure to resolve such visible issues in an efficient manner can easily endanger an incumbent administration’s political future.

Increased proficiency across the event-driven phases of preparedness, response and recovery whilst neglecting long term mitigation activities will not achieve the goal of resilience. The Hyogo Framework’s established priorities are reasonable, but for many developing nations the harsh reality may be that their local disaster and emergency management agencies are viewed as deserving neither elevated concern in the order of investment priorities, nor an equal seat at the public investment table alongside traditional GDP stalwarts such as Tourism, Agriculture and Manufacturing. Unless an actual disaster event has occurred and is threatening to negatively impact the normalcy of economic activities, DRR priorities may be easily superseded by seemingly more acute needs.

Resilience as a goal emphasizes “planning and strategic mitigation…it aims to thwart, diminish, or curtail a disaster’s worst effects well in advance of calamity... it is deliberate, strategic, and enduring for the affected community”.5

Mitigation as its principal prerequisite requires the willingness to sacrifice returning to old norms which may themselves be culpable for the resulting disaster consequences. It is a shared responsibility that will test the resolve of political leaderships, private sector entities and civil society to adopt a proactive mitigation posture that charts a path toward resilience. The neglect of mitigation as a key element in risk reduction strategy is often borne out in the exacerbated impacts of recurrent hazard events on the most vulnerable nations. Locations at highest risk are predominantly occupied by financially vulnerable communities. Such population segments are generally unable to independently recover from any disruption without significant external assistance, are often unaware of the true nature of the hazards inherent in the locations they inhabit, or may have simply chosen to ignore such risks in light of promised disaster recovery assistance from local governments or international agencies6.

As the forces of nature continue to intensify (either as a direct result of greater human/technological interactions with the environment or just the evolutionary nature inherent in any living planet), it also increases the probability that we experience more frequent disaster events that threaten to disrupt or paralyze the socio-economic conditions we have come to expect. For example it has been stated that “economic losses worldwide from natural disasters in the 1990s could have been reduced by as much as $280 billion by investing only as much as $40 billion in risk reduction strategies”.7   Decades later in the presence of such prior information, it still presents an easier alternative to focus efforts on heightened preparedness activities and short term investment in response and recovery efforts. Much of what can be done to elevate this phase in policy consideration is feasible and well within reach but may have been avoided to delay unpopular decisions and sacrificing of old norms. Any meaningful effort aimed at building resilient communities and nations cannot avoid the hard decisions inherent in mitigation.

The pervasive nature of new media for communication and information sharing must be integrated into disaster management activities that assist in knowledge development and stimulating a culture of disaster resilience. Mainstream and new media entities often focus their reporting almost exclusively on the response and immediate recovery efforts. This can inadvertently convey to the public that a disaster event is successfully resolved once the recovery phase is complete. Ending the focus here ignores the critical risk reduction role of mitigation. An enlightened media can help ensure that mitigation becomes the phase of greater concern and discussion amongst the affected population, adjacent communities and an action item for elected decision makers.

International lending and development agencies are key stakeholders for many developing nations and their involvement in key aspects of mitigation can be facilitated without usurping the sovereign authority of country governments. The economic uncertainty gripping many leading nations will be magnified in lesser developed nations for several years to come. The ability of G20 countries to provide the expected levels of pre and post disaster financial and technical assistance to other nations will be severely tested. What this means for disasters of the future is that larger numbers of vulnerable people may resort to taking greater risks. “Growth pressures in communities have resulted in the failure of governments to enact stricter building and disaster prevention standards that would reduce the need for and the cost of disaster response and recovery.”8   Public and private sector leaders will continue to make prudent budget decisions addressing immediate economic concerns but may also relegate mitigation to the back seat of policy priorities.

International lending and development institutions can ensure that disaster mitigation efforts become one of the key metrics in a ‘balanced scorecard’ approach to their assessments and reports on the economic stability and outlook of vulnerable nations. At the same time care must be taken to ensure that any preconditions attached to loan or development assistance do not inadvertently derail local efforts to pursue DRR strategies. Failure to ensure that mitigation’s role in DRR is fully understood and supported at all levels through multidisciplinary efforts, makes the goal of resilience more elusive than it needs to be.

We are now inside the final segment of the Hyogo Framework’s initial 2015 timeline for substantive reductions in repetitive disaster losses. In facing the economic uncertainties and climate variability of another year, the final critique of how well we lived up to our obligation to build a culture of resilience hinges on our collective success or failure to pursue proactive mitigation measures well in advance of the next disaster event.

Richard Hazel
Graduate Student in the Crisis, Emergency and
Risk Management Program,
Institute for Crisis, Disaster and Risk Management
The George Washington University

Works Cited

1 Mileti, D. S. (1999). Disasters by Design: A Reassessment of Natural Hazards in the United States. Washington, DC: Joseph Henry Press. p.65

2 Haddow, G. D., Bullock, J. A., & Coppola, D. P. (2008). Introduction to Emergency Management. (3rd ed.). Burlington, MA, USA:  Elsevier Inc. p.75

3 Unit of Sustainable Development and Environment. (1997). USAID/OAS Caribbean Disaster Mitigation Project Planning to Mitigate the Impacts of Natural Hazards in the Caribbean. Retrieved from: manl.pdf p.II-1

4 Sylves, R. T. (2008). Disaster Policy and Politics: Emergency Management and Homeland Security. Washington, DC: CQ Press. p.18 Page 3 of 3

5 McCreight, R. (2010). Resilience as a Goal and Standard in Emergency Management. Journal of Homeland Security and Emergency Management 7(1):15.

6 Hazel, R. C. (2011). Socio-economic Indifference to Natural Forces: Can Proactive Land use Policies Make New Orleans a Resilient City? Unpublished manuscript, Department of Engineering Management & Systems Engineering, The George Washington University, Washington, DC.

7 Charvériat, C. (2000). Natural Disasters in Latin America and the Caribbean: An Overview of Risk. Retrieved from WP-434.pdf pp.90-91

8 Ward, R., & Wamsley, G. (2007). From a Painful Past to an Uncertain Future. In C. Rubin (Ed.), Emergency Management: The American Experience 1900-2005.Fairfax, VA: Public Entity Risk Institute. p.233 

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