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'Climate smart' disaster risk reduction

Written by Tom Mitchell


Many of the major disasters of 2010 (the Pakistan flood, the Russian heat wave and a slew of landslides in East Asia and Central America) match the IPCC’s 2007 prediction that climate change will cause rains to become more intense, and hot and cold snaps to become more extreme. A new report from the DFID-funded ‘Strengthening Climate Resilience’ (SCR) consortium, launched today on the UN’s International Day for Natural Disaster Reduction, suggests that climate change will have diverse impacts on disaster risks and not just on weather hazards.

The report claims that climate change impacts will also increase people’s vulnerability and exposure to hazards through greater water scarcity, decreased agricultural yields, health effects and more people living on marginal lands – like unstable hill slopes on the edges of cities. Additionally, climate change will bring more surprises and greater uncertainty, meaning that knowledge of previous extreme weather patterns is not as good a way to predict the future as before. To avoid disasters even worse than experienced in Pakistan this summer, there needs to be a major shift in the way disaster risks are managed – in the strategies designed to reduce risk and in the processes of post-disaster reconstruction. The SCR report introduces a new approach called ‘climate smart disaster risk management’ (CSDRM). If fully implemented by governments, civil society and donors, CSDRM promises added resilience to the disaster risks of a changing climate.  

Before joining ODI in August this year as Head of the Climate Change, Environment and Forests programme, I had the privilege of leading the SCR consortium and developing the CSDRM approach with over 500 practitioners, policy-makers and researchers from multiple communities of practice – disasters, climate change and development – and from ten developing countries. It was clear from these discussions that current international agreements and standards, such as Sphere  and the Hyogo Framework for Action, are not providing adequate guidance on how to cope with the new kinds of climate-related disasters and disaster risks that frontline practitioners are facing.  For example, there is little understanding on how to factor climate information into detailed disaster risk assessments, and few agencies, whether government or civil society, conduct scenario planning exercises that explore system robustness for disasters of different kinds. As a consequence, national development planning is rarely based on adequate information about the nature of future disaster risks and post-disaster reconstruction may actually increase rather than decrease risks.

CSDRM seeks to change this by setting out an integrated approach that encourages policies and programmes to tackle changing disaster risks and uncertainties, build adaptive capacity and address the structural causes of poverty and vulnerability. Naturally, this encourages disaster, climate change and development people to work together. Taking the recovery of Pakistan’s Sindh Province as an example, if Governor Dr Ishrat Ul Ebad Khan adopted the CSDRM approach, he would take a very broad view of ‘build back better’ to:

  • ensure good disaster risk assessments are conducted that factor in the best available climate, vulnerability and exposure information to work out future flood and landslide risk. This will help to decide where best to site critical infrastructure or new settlements for example, though such risk assessments will need to be updated as information is dynamic.
  • strengthen people’s access to information (through education, media or dedicated early warning systems) about these risks and about the potential impacts of climate change.  
  • create agencies and systems that are well connected across scales, can easily learn from each other, have space to innovate and experiment with approaches and conduct scenario planning exercises with regularity.
  • find ways to increase people’s equitable access to markets and services, strengthen their ability to participate in decision-making and protect their rights.
  • initiate high standards of environmental protection in efforts to grow the economy and take advantage of international assistance to make Sindh a low carbon development hub – generating green jobs and ’building back greener’. This will ultimately lead to a safer Sindh through avoided emissions and, hence, avoided impacts.

Major disasters, terrible as they are, do provide an opportunity to do things differently: to take significant steps to increase a population’s adaptive capacity and to generate growth through shifting to a low carbon economy. They may, therefore, inadvertency kick start a form of development that is much more compatible with a changing climate.

Tom Mitchell is Head of the Climate Change, Environment and Forests Programme at ODI. He also serves as a coordinating lead author of the IPCC Special Report Managing the Risks from Extreme Events and Disasters to Advance Climate Change Adaptation. Tom is one of the speakers at the UK event being held to mark the UN International Day for Natural Disaster Reduction.