Disaster risk reduction and sustainable development, two sides of the same coin | Matilde Mordt

16 Mar 2017

 Cash transfers is a great tool to help the most vulnerable populations during the early recovery process in Latin America and the Caribbean. Photo: UNDP Ecuador

Disaster risk reduction is an intrinsic part of sustainable development.

This message came out forcefully during the Fifth Regional Platform for Disaster Risk Reduction in the Americas, held last week in Montreal, Canada, in which delegates debated the connections between disaster, climate change and sustainable development. 

One way of looking at this is by adopting the so-called “integrated risk management” approach. This is a conceptual and practical approach that today replaces traditional concepts about emergency or disaster management, which focus on the immediate response to an event and the subsequent recovery process. 

Integrated risk management requires a more thorough knowledge and understanding of the scenarios of risk. The notion of the "social construction of risk" is central, which points to the existence of chronic risk due to poverty (as expressed in unemployment, low income, malnutrition, etc.), environmental degradation and governance challenges. These drivers of risk reflect the structural conditions of unsustainable development models. 

In Central America for instance, El Niño is an event that adds stress to already existing environmental, climatic and vulnerability conditions. Thus, the causes of crisis in the agricultural, health or water sectors are more related to human actions, such as overexploitation of resources, poor land use planning and inadequate technologies, than to physical events.

Historically, risks have been dealt with without addressing the structural elements that cause or contribute to risk. One examples of this type of action is the construction of dikes to protect settlements in flood prone areas - without considering strategies to change the situation of poverty that led to settlement at that location in the first place, or the development and enforcement of land use plans. 

Another way of addressing risk is to seek changes in the conditions of poverty, exclusion and marginalization, which fuel the construction of risk. This transformational change is exactly what the Sustainable Development Goals are about.  It is important to recall that Agenda 2030 stems from an urgent need to do development differently.  In the context of planetary boundaries, particularly climate change, and increasing risks, business as usual is no longer an option. 

At UNDP, we stress the importance of taking into account the situation of the most vulnerable populations. These are the people who suffer the greatest impact from disasters, who have the least capacity to recover or bounce back to re-establish normalcy. They have less control of or access to resources and less participation or power in terms of decision-making.

So, how is this done in practice? There are many ways of integrating social policies and disaster risk reduction. One opportunity is to take advantage of existing social protection schemes to create safety nets and buffer to shocks. For instance, cash transfer schemes can be agile and efficient way to reach populations in an emergency. 

A UNDP study on cash transfers as tool to help early recovery in LAC showed that they have great potential to help the most vulnerable populations. Examples of this already exist in the region, from Ecuador, Mexico, Chile and Dominican Republic. 

The biggest challenge for comprehensive risk management is, without doubt, to anticipate future risk and reduce its likelihood. Again, this prospective management is intrinsically linked to the notion of sustainable development, which seeks to achieve improvements in well-being, livelihoods and infrastructure, among others.  

Development processes should seek to ensure that populations, livelihoods and infrastructure have lower levels of risk – and be oriented to avoid creating new risks in the future.  In this way, the concepts of sustainable development and integrated risk management are two sides of the same coin.