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Humanitarian Aid on the move #11, special issue: Resilience

Resilience and disasters: a UN perspective
Presentation by John Harding

This presentation aims to look at how disaster risk has evolved. How have our agendas evolved, and what practical measures are governments and local authorities trying to implement? What is the UN doing in this context?

Risk represents the probability of an event occurring, and UNISDR’s (United Nations International Stategy for Disaster Reduction) work is articulated around a pretty clear set of shocks. Risk is based on natural hazards (“natural hazards and related environmental and technological events”). A nuclear incident does not necessarily fall into that category, but on the other hand, a tsunami does.

Since the Hyogo Framework was established, climate change has become the biggest threat to the global community. Climate change-related risks are assessed through global circulation models, impact, and sensitivity and their agenda is built around mitigation and adaptation. Some of the most important issues in relation to climate change are impact assessment, adaptation plans and financing. Climate change also means that some countries have a bigger responsibility than others, which is not the case with Disaster Risk Reduction.

Resilience is now at the core of our work. It can be defined as the capacity to cope with, to recover from or to avoid shocks, hazards, and economic and environmental threats. Even though we can agree on a definition, the idea of “building resilience” is still a bit of a question mark.

Some of the concepts are pretty well established, but others are still a little broader:




Establishing a common set of terms was an extremely lengthy process. During the early 2000’s, resilience was discussed extensively, and sets of terms from different actors (governments, regions, etc…) were gathered. A final set of definitions was then drawn up, which is probably the one that is referred to most often in publications. When climate change issues emerged, UNISDR published a paper called “On Better Terms” [1], looking at how governments were using and relating to these terms. In 2012, the IPCC published a special report focused on extreme events. Hundreds of authors from all around the world contributed to this report, looking at the issues of climate change, disaster risk reduction and contexts of sustainable development adaptation. A lot of these terms were then further clarified and reflected upon.

We tend to look at two types of risks: the disasters that occur regularly and are less intense, and the disasters with very low frequency but very high impact, very often difficult to predict. If we take a closer look at what types of damages that have been caused by the impacts on different sectors, beyond the fact that they are very high, is the fact that each one of these impacts once was a public or private investment. This means that we are either building up the stock of risk in a country or community or we are reducing it. It is very much an ongoing development issue, but it also means that at any given place, at the moment, there is a certain stock of risk (to infrastructure, buildings, people…). In any context, resilience actors will have to deal with existing risk, and then may reduce it or increase it through on-going development decisions. A lot of decisions have to be made about how to deal with existing risk. Disaster risk reduction requires a reactive environment.

[1] On Better Terms, United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction (UNISDR), 2006, 22p.

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