Hazards are often merely the trigger event of a disaster waiting to happen since vulnerability already exists.
Without applying a multi-faceted approach to disaster risk reduction, solutions will continue to be ineffective.
An interconnectivity lens is necessary for building the long-term resilience of communities and ecosystems, making them better able to prepare, respond, and cope with disasters when they strike.
By Jack O’Connor, Senior Scientist, UN University Institute for Environment and Human Security (UNU-EHS), and Caitlyn Eberle, Research Associate, UNU-EHS
Our world is facing an unprecedented level of disasters, from record-breaking heatwaves and floods to historic droughts and wildfires. When they strike, disasters often fill the headlines with their tragic impact, but do not stay in the public discourse long enough to address social factors that may have played a role in the lead-up, giving the impression that they are unfortunate but isolated, natural occurrences.
The 2021/2022 ‘Interconnected Disaster Risks’ (IDR) report explains that there are no “natural disasters.” The disasters we see on the news are a result of decisions and behaviors that lead to vulnerabilities, although they are hidden beneath the surface, with the actual disaster merely being the tip of the iceberg.
There are no natural disasters
Disasters can be characterized by the interaction between a hazard event, such as a heatwave or a wildfire, and the vulnerability or exposure of people or places to its effects. This vulnerability is influenced by existing social factors and societal structures, such as the state of the infrastructure, governmental policies, landscape dynamics, or cultural risk awareness. In this way, the report explains, hazards are often merely the trigger event of a disaster waiting to happen since vulnerability already exists. This is true for many different types of disasters occurring in different parts of the world.
To be able to effectively manage disaster risk, we must look at the reasons why vulnerabilities exist and address them before the next disaster strikes.
Disasters share the same root causes
A forensic analysis of ten disasters from the past year reveals interconnections, including shared underlying causes, rooted in our behaviors and choices, driving the severity of impacts in each case. For example, deforestation can lead to soil erosion. The lack of trees and roots means there is no protection from wind and rain, and the soil is easily washed or blown away. This creates ideal conditions for multiple disasters to develop, such as landslides during the 2021 earthquake in Haiti, sandstorms in southern Madagascar that exacerbated the food crisis, and the sedimentation of water reservoirs in Taiwan that clogged critical water infrastructure, exacerbating the drought.
The widespread loss of forests around the globe is not only contributing to disaster risk but also decreasing carbon storage, crippling our ability to mitigate climate change, and playing a central role in the biodiversity crisis by increasing the rate of human-induced habitat loss. Choices to deforest certain lands can often be traced back to economic interests with no regard for the environmental externalities, such as sacrificing natural habitats to expanding urbanization and large infrastructure projects – a root cause of disasters the report defines as “undervaluing environmental costs.” For example, IDR 2021/2022 illustrates how the loss of natural coastal ecosystems due to urbanization booms in Lagos, Nigeria, contributes to the increasing severity of floods in the region.
Systemic issues require integrated solutions
To address systemic issues related to our collective behaviors and choices, there needs to be a shift in the collective mindset towards solutions that can build resilience to various hazards, designed with interconnectivity in mind. One prominent example found in IDR 2021/2022 is the idea of “letting nature work,” or using natural processes for our overall benefit. This includes techniques such as unearthing previously buried rivers to mitigate flood risks or using prescribed burning to mitigate wildfire risk. The idea is to reframe our relationship with nature and view disaster risk from a long-term, landscape-level, systemic perspective.
Another solution that crosscuts across various hazard risks by reducing environmental and social vulnerability is to “consume sustainably,” which means rethinking the way we use goods and materials and considering their whole life cycle.
Though these types of solutions are shared across a wide range of disasters and locations, it is important that implementation be designed with local needs in mind. A tree-planting strategy in Haiti cannot be replicated in southern Madagascar, and a prescribed fire plan that works in British Columbia might need adjustments to work in the Mediterranean. Engaging local communities to understand local contexts is therefore critical for successful implementation of solutions.
The solutions mentioned in the report often already exist but are either not taken up on a wide enough scale or do not operate with the interconnected and systemic nature of disasters in mind. For example, while deforestation in Haiti can be tackled with reforestation or agroforestry projects, anyone who looks at the 2021 earthquake disaster will tell you that the answer cannot be to simply plant trees. Disasters are multifaceted, and thus require a package of solutions that can tackle the problem from multiple angles at once. In Madagascar, for example, reforestation initiatives can reduce the severity of sandstorms and rehabilitate soils, but food security risk would remain an issue unless combined, in an integrated way, with other solutions, such as strengthening local governance, protecting and enhancing livelihoods, and promoting agricultural innovations. This will require new partnerships between citizens and governments. IDR 2021/2022 illustrates that it is not just what we do, but how we do it that matters.
An interconnectivity lens to address disaster risk
As we look at the root causes of unsustainable development practices that drive disasters, we can see that thinking in fragmented, insular ways is no longer tenable. This same idea is reflected in frameworks like the SDGs, which seek to capture the breadth of societal challenges to achieve sustainable development. For example, making progress towards zero hunger (SDG 2) is dependent on also advancing SDG 6 (clean water and sanitation) and SDG 13 (climate action).
Although sustainable development can build the resilience of society to disasters, there is only one SDG target that explicitly mentions disaster risk. What we have seen in the past years, however, is that interconnected disasters significantly impact progress towards many SDGs. Without applying a multi-faceted approach to disaster risk reduction (DRR), solutions will continue to be ineffective. Therefore, an interconnectivity lens is necessary for building the long-term resilience of communities and ecosystems, making them better able to prepare, respond, and cope with disasters when they strike.