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Covid-19 has shown us how vulnerable we are to natural disasters and how important proper Disaster Risk Reduction would have been in better preparing the world for destructive events on this scale. 

Words By Lukas Preining


Disaster Risk Reduction

According to the United Nations, ‘there is no such thing as a natural disaster, only natural hazards’. Disaster Risk Reduction (DRR) is the processes of aiming to reduce the impact natural hazards have on our society. Natural hazards include everything from avalanches, floods, earthquakes, tsunamis and, as the world has learned, pandemics.

None of these events constitute a disaster without their interaction with human society – a sandstorm passing through the Empty Quarter might register as a meteorological phenomenon, but it only becomes a disaster when it strips the paint off cars and carries away everything not properly secured.

Disaster Risk Reduction has been a continuing topic in the international community since 1990, with the ‘global decade for Natural Disaster Reduction’. In part, this includes planning and preparation for predictable events, such as construction guidelines in Japan to protect the buildings from the earthquakes that regularly shake Japan. More importantly though, DRR is the process of identifying and addressing weaknesses in our society, in order to reduce our exposure to natural hazards, properly manage our environments and a general preparedness for disasters to strike.

In order to practice DRR, we need to understand that risk reduction encompasses our society as a whole, and permeates every aspect of our lives. It has to do with choices we make in our own homes, all the way to the decisions made by large, trans- national corporations and world governments.

DRR includes the choices we make about the food we eat and where we grow it, how we design and build our homes and how we manage our energy needs. This goes all the way to the forms of government and laws in place to empower or limit our leaders and the lessons we teach children in school about the world we live in and how to treat it. If everyone does their part to be more sustainable and protect the environments we live in, these environments will, in turn, be less adverse to the continuation of our lives.

A good example of this is deforestation, as continued deforestation has a multitude of impacts on our lives. When an area is deforested, it looses the complex root systems that stabilize the ground and absorb water, increasing the risks of flooding and landslides as the ground becomes unstable. Animals whose habitat is destroyed by deforestation become extinct or have to adapt to live with humans that now claim their habitat. This leads to loss of biodiversity, which can cause the collapse of ecosystems and even makes the spread of diseases more likely as animals carrying dangerous pathogens come in closer contact with humans.

Sustainable Development Goals 

To practice Disaster Risk Reduction is to simultaneously practice sustainable development, as managing our resources sustainably reduces our exposure to natural hazards by maintaining balanced eco-systems. This can clearly be seen in the various connections between the sustainable development goals (SDGs) and DRR.

Goals 12 (Responsible production and consumption) and 16 (Peace, Justice and strong institutions) link directly to DRR, as by achieving goal 12, we reduce our dependence on practices exposed to natural disasters, such as global shipping or products produced on the other side of the planet, and rely more on locally sourced resources that are simultaneously more resistant to shocks due to natural hazards.

Goal 16 directly links to national and international cooperation and preparedness for disasters, as strong institutions are able to react dynamically to changing circumstances and can prepare for potential disasters before they occur, mitigating the impact when they do occur. Moreover, by ensuring stability and peace, furthering goal 16 means more resources are available to combat natural threats, rather than human ones. Other SDGs are linked to DRR less directly, such as zero hunger and ending poverty – these goals strengthen the people most affected by natural hazards, and reduce the impact of disasters, when they strike.

Covid-19 as a Crisis or as a Disaster

The impacts of Covid-19 have permeated the whole world, and as the world still grapples with the serious impacts it has had on people’s lives, social scientists are saying we should not treat covid-19 as a crisis, but rather as a disaster. Crisis implies a situation deviating from ‘normal’, reaching a peak and then returning to said ‘normal’. Yet when we consider what turned covid-19 from a simple respiratory virus into a global pandemic, we have to confront that ‘normal’ is what got us here.

Our lives before covid-19, increasing globalization, the interconnectedness of everything and everyone, deforestation and social inequity were the driving factors that allowed covid-19 to spread so quickly and efficiently around the world.

While many countries had some form of preparation for this kind of event, such as laws that govern a health crisis’ or stockpiles of masks or other protective gear, covid-19 once again reiterates what anthropologists already knew; it is difficult to prepare for a disaster you have never experienced.

This ‘new’ threat to many countries is, in part, responsible for what made covid-19 so devastating, as the systems in place to protect us either failed to work or were never meant to combat a disaster on this scale. Certain countries, such as South Korea, Singapore and Vietnam who have dealt with outbreaks of SARS and MERS in the recent past were able to combat covid-19 more effectively, as they have had ‘practice’ in dealing with this kind of event.

While we cannot prepare for future disasters whose processes we don’t yet know, in the aftermath of covid-19, we are faced with the reality that we need to act preemptively and try to reduce our vulnerability to events of any kind, in order to ensure our continued quality of life.

As covid-19’s immediate health impacts become manageable in certain parts of the world, the impact this disaster has wrought on all other parts of society becomes more apparent. Social, environmental, economic and political factors have all been affected by the pandemic, and now the world faces a twofold challenge.

We need to rebuild what was lost during the pandemic, but we cannot go back to how it was before; we need to plan forwards and rebuild in such a fashion that we become less vulnerable to the next disease that might appear. In order to do that, we need to develop sustainably; working within the tangled web of the Sustainable Development Goals and Disaster Risk Reduction to create a stronger, safer world as we move forward, rather than returning to the vulnerability that led us here.