Journal Article

IDS Bulletin Vol. 39 Nos. 4

Creating Less Disastrous Disasters

Published on 1 September 2008

For decades, the disaster literature has called attention to the dual character of climate-related risk.

On the one hand is the level of exposure to the  hazard (the storm, the flood, the drought, etc.), and on the other hand is the vulnerability of different socioeconomic systems to the effects of different natural hazards. To address this vulnerability, some form of risk management can currently be found in most countries of the world, although the efficacy of the risk management systems varies widely. Political ecologists and others have long advocated that responding to climate risk should include both short-term disaster risk response – that is, action to prepare for and recover from the immediate effects of disaster (e.g. early warning systems) and structural reforms that seek to address the factors that define people’s vulnerability to disasters to begin with (poverty, lack of education, etc.). Calls for better policy design and implementation at these two levels are not new. Yet after 20 years, it is surprising that more research has not tried to understand why the bulk of responses to disasters to date have failed to account for both sides of the vulnerability equation.

Our lack of understanding on why disaster risk reduction has not fared better historically becomes even more critical when we consider the expected impacts of climate change on the exposure and adaptive capacity1 of human systems. Adaptation – defined as the amount of (potential) damage caused to a system by a particular climate-related event or hazard – if successfully designed and implemented should result in an equal or improved situation (when compared with the initial condition). Unsuccessful adaptation occurs when the outcome situation is worse than before. The latter is frequently the case when poor countries and the poor within these countries have barely recovered before the next storm or drought hits.

The compounding effects of repeated climaterelated hazards makes it almost impossible to avoid and break the cycle of successive inadequate or inappropriate adaptation. The ability of different actors, organisations and systems to break this cycle hinges specifically on their level of adaptive capacity. Given the large uncertainty in scenarios of future climate change and their contextual character, it makes more sense to focus on building adaptive capacity than specific adaptations, through identifying and characterising the attributes necessary to make these adaptations successful. While all adaptation is local, adaptive capacity is not. Generalisations can be made across the divide between disaster risk reduction and ‘deeper’ structural reform to promote risk management that contributes to social transformation.

Considerable effort has been made in the literature to theorise what attributes may enhance the capacity of human and sociopolitical systems to prepare for and recover from negative impacts of climate-related phenomena (Smit et al. 2000; Folke et al. 2002; Tompkins and Adger 2005; Eakin and Lemos 2006). Yet, there have been relatively few empirical studies that seek to understand how this capacity can or has been built (or not) in the real world. What factors make human, social and political systems less vulnerable to climate-related phenomena? We argue that building adaptive capacity is a two-tiered process that must include both risk management to climate impact and deeper level socioeconomic and political reform that addresses the root causes of vulnerability, especially among the vulnerable poor.

Tier one comprises the design and implementation of risk management institutions – such as disaster preparedness plans, early warning systems and emergency disaster relief – that can potentially mitigate the most immediate and egregious effects of climate-related impact, especially among the poor in society without the capacity to self-rescue. Tier two encompasses socioeconomic and political reform that addresses the range of inequalities at the root of differential vulnerabilities that keep the poor living in poverty. Reforms such as income redistribution, land reform, universal education and healthcare access, and political democracy are just a few that might be necessary to decrease poverty and vulnerability in less developed countries. Although these kinds of reforms have been on the development agenda for a long time, their povertyreducing benefits have proved elusive to most poor countries in the world. The threat of climate change as an emergent stressor that will exacerbate vulnerability makes their implementation more urgent.

Beyond the state – but certainly not without it – this two-tiered process must involve a broad number of institutions within the state–private–community continuum as well as across different scales of decision-making (Lemos and Agrawal 2006; Dodman and Satterthwaite, this IDS Bulletin). On the one hand, the kind of deep transformation needed to address inequalities that perpetuate vulnerability among the poor has historically been economically, socially and politically too costly for most governance systems to tackle and the daunting character of its implementation may be intimidating at best and paralysing at worst. On the other hand, aiming at deeper transformation does not have to be an all or nothing proposition.

One way to spearhead change is to identify which, among risk management actions currently in place, can be more or less conducive to create the conditions for structural reform. Moreover, because these are not discrete processes, action in one tier can affect and be affected by action in another, in a way that creates a positive synergy between them. Hence, it is important to identify how risk management institutions can contribute not only to building adaptive capacity to specific climate-related hazards but also to decreasing overall vulnerabilities among groups at risk. For example, by subscribing to risk management approaches that create positive synergies across the state–society divide, drought response planning, hurricane preparedness, or water management, institutions may create the conditions to build longer-term adaptive capacity among vulnerable groups.

Approaches that are inclusionary (participatory), accountable, transparent and democratic, may be more conducive to the creation of an empoweredcitizenry better equipped to break free from clientelist systems and to mobilise for social reform. Similarly, approaches that integrate risk management with sustainable natural resources use and adaptive governance may be more conducive to social learning and to building adaptive capacity and social capital than top-down approaches that insulate decision-making from stakeholders (Lemos 2007).

Related Content

This article comes from the IDS Bulletin 39.4 (2008) Creating Less Disastrous Disasters

Cite this publication

Lemos, M., C. and Tompkins, E., L. (2008) Creating Less Disastrous Disasters. IDS Bulletin 39(4): 60-66


Maria Carmen Lemos
Emma L. Tompkins

Publication details

published by
Institute of Development Studies