Tag Archives: disaster risk reduction

The Journey to Sendai and Beyond

Sendai is a city of a million people 2 hours north of Tokyo on the Shinkansen bullet train. From March 14-17, 2015 it will attract seven thousand people to the 3rd UN World Conference on Disaster Risk Reduction (WCDRR). Twelve heads of state (including one king and one emperor), seven prime ministers and 135 ministers and vice ministers, will be present to launch a fifteen year program of coordinated action around disaster risk reduction.

The conference is being hosted in Sendai because of the city’s recent experience of a mega-catastrophe. Just four years after the great Tohoku earthquake and tsunami in March 2011 and the coastal villages adjacent to Sendai still bear the scour marks where the great tsunami surged inland through the pine forests, removing many buildings off their foundations.

The original International Decade for Disaster Risk Reduction ran from 1990-1999. The second decade from 2005-2015, renewed at Kobe ten years after its devastating 1995 earthquake, was called the Hyogo Framework for Action. The continuation of this international program is currently designed to last for fifteen years. The fact that the frameworks have been renewed reflects reality—while there have been successes for particular regions and perils, the broader goals of worldwide disaster risk reduction have not been met. For example, the 2011 Tohoku earthquake was not anticipated, and as a result had grievous consequences in terms of loss of life and damage to the Fukushima nuclear power plants.

RMS will have four people at the Sendai WCDRR conference. We have obtained a coveted presentation on the main IGNITE stage—the equivalent to a “TED talk.” I will also be speaking on two panel sessions, one organized by The Geneva Association and Tokio Marine, “Insurance as contributors to problem solving and impact reduction,”and a second on the launch of the global set of catastrophe models developed by the UNISDR agency, for which RMS has provided high-level input. We have offered to host these worldwide UNISDR catastrophe models on RMS(one), which will open up access to the models for public officials in developing countries.

We have also worked on a couple of papers (for example, ‘Setting, Measuring and Monitoring: Targets for Disaster Risk Reduction: Recommendations for post-2015 international policy frameworks’) articulating how to measure progress in disaster risk reduction. At present, international frameworks have shied away from setting numerical commitments. We have argued that only probabilistic methods, which simulate thousands of possible events, can show baseline levels of risk, what actions will achieve progress, and whether targets have been achieved. We take Michael Bloomberg’s quote from the foreword to the Risky Business report: “if you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it.”

The work by the UNISDR on catastrophe modeling highlights the accelerated recognition of the role of modeling in managing and reducing disaster risk. There is now a real focus on public-private partnerships in achieving disaster reduction. With RMS’ rich and deep experience in catastrophe modeling, there is much we can offer to these expanded applications. For users of models in governments, public organisations and NGOs, models are required to:

  • explore how to manage a wide range of potential disasters
  • perform cost benefit analyses of alternative actions to reduce risk of loss of life or economic impacts
  • explore potential implications of climate change
  • explore holistically the potential for significant financial shocks to national economies

If you are attending the conference, come and visit us at our booth on the 6th floor of the Sendai International Center where we will be distributing information about our proposals for disaster risk modeling, and articulating our role as leaders in catastrophe risk modeling. It will be a highly publicized event with 500 journalists and around 300 private sector members, including several of our key clients. We will also be meeting with other organizations with which we are affiliated, including the UN Principles for Sustainable Insurance and the Rockefeller Foundation’s 100 Resilient Cities initiative.

We look forward to sharing more insight after the event.

Measuring Disaster Risk for Global UN Goals

A dispiriting part of the aftermath of a disaster is hearing about the staggering number of deaths and seemingly insurmountable economic losses. Many of the disaster risk reduction programs that implement disaster prevention and preparedness capabilities are helping to create more resilient communities. These worthwhile programs require ongoing financing, and their success must be measured and evaluated to continue to justify the allocation of limited funds.

There are two global UN frameworks being renewed this year:

Both frameworks will run for 15 years. This is the first time explicit numerical targets have been set around disaster risk, and consequently, there is now a more pressing need to measure the progress of disaster risk reduction programs to ensure the goals are being achieved.

The most obvious way to measure the progress of a country’s disaster risk reduction would be to observe the number of deaths and economic losses from disasters.

However, as we have learned in the insurance industry in the early 1990s, this approach presents big problems around data sampling. A few years or even decades of catastrophe experience do not give a clear indication of the level of risk in a country or region because catastrophes have a huge and volatile range of outcomes. An evaluation that is purely based on observed deaths or losses can give a misleading impression of success or failure if countries or regions are either lucky in avoiding (or unlucky in experiencing) severe disaster events during the period measured.

A good example is the 2010 Haiti earthquake, which claimed more than 200,000 lives and cost more than $13 billion. Yet for more than 100 years prior to this devastating event, earthquakes in Haiti had claimed fewer than 10 lives.

Haiti shows that it is simply not possible to determine the true level of risk from 15 years of observations for a single country. Even looking at worldwide data, certain events dominate the disaster mortality data, and progress cannot be measured.

Global disaster-related mortality rate (per million global population), 1980–2013 (From Setting, measuring and monitoring targets for disaster risk reduction: recommendations for post-2015 international policy frameworks. Source: adapted from www.emdat.be)

A more reliable way to measure the progress of disaster risk reduction programs is to use a probabilistic methods, which rely on a far more extensive range of possibilities, simulating tens of thousands of catastrophic events. These can then be combined with data on exposures and vulnerabilities to output metrics of specific interest for disaster risk reduction, such as houses or lives lost. Such metrics can be used to:

  • Measure disaster risk in a village, city, or country and how it changes over time
  • Analyze the cost-benefit of mitigation measures:
    • For a region: For example, the average annual savings in lives due to a flood defense or earthquake early warning system
    • For a location: For example, choosing which building has the biggest reduction in risk if retrofitted
  • Quantify the impact of climate change and how these risks are expected to vary over time

In the long term, probabilistic catastrophe modeling will be an important way to ensure improved measurement and, therefore, management of disaster risk, particularly in countries and regions at greatest risk.

The immediate focus should be on educating government bodies and NGOs on the valuable use of probabilistic methods. For the 15 year frameworks which are being renewed this year, serious consideration should be given on how to implement a useful and practical probabilistic method of measuring progress in disaster risk reduction, for example by using hazard maps. See here for further recommendations: http://www.preventionweb.net/english/professional/publications/v.php?id=39649 

2015 is an important year for measuring disaster risk: let’s get involved.

Disaster Risk Reduction: Catastrophe Modeling Takes the Stage at the United Nations

The UN meeting room at the Palais de Nations in Geneva is oval shaped and more than 100 feet long with curved desks arranged in a series of “U”-shaped configurations. Behind each desk, delegates sit with their placards. On the long desk at the front, from left to right the placards read “IIASA” (a systems research institute based in Austria), “Mexico,” “Japan,” “Netherlands,” and “Risk Management Solutions.”

What was RMS doing on the podium at the UN?

Last month I presented on investing in disaster risk reduction, giving the modeler’s point of view on how risk modeling can be linked with incentivizing actions to reduce the impacts of disasters.
This was a key meeting of what was called “PrepComm,” aimed at coordinating national action for disaster risk reduction. The first such agreement, known as the Hyogo Framework for Action (the HFA), initiated in 2005, is up for renewal in 2015. The plan is to create a tougher and more tangible set of goals and procedures with demonstrable outcomes to reduce the loss of lives, livelihoods, and wealth in disasters.

In some form, catastrophe risk models or modeled outputs are required for setting and monitoring progress in disaster risk reduction. I often use the story of Haiti to make the point: fewer than ten people were killed in earthquakes in Haiti between 1900 and 2009; then in one afternoon in early 2010, an estimated 200,000 people were killed. You cannot use previous disaster data to measure future disaster risk; the underlying distribution of impacts is so skewed, so fat-tailed, and so unknown, that a decade of disaster outcomes reveals nothing about the mean risk.

The UNISDR—the influential UN agency that focuses on disaster risk—recognized the power of probabilistic modeling five years ago. However, it remains hard to communicate that to monitor progress on disaster risk reduction you will have to find some proxies for impacts, or use a model. That was the subject of my address to this session. Borrowing a quote from Michael Bloomberg, sponsor of the Risky Business study for which RMS was the modeler of all the future coastal and hurricane risks: “if you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it.”

The delegate from Algeria was skeptical about how to get the private sector involved in disaster risk reduction. I told the story of Istanbul, where the government makes deals with developers to demolish and reconstruct the most dangerous apartment buildings, rehousing the original occupants while the developer profits from selling extra apartments.

The Philippines wanted to know about empowering local authorities. My answer: get the future risk-based costs of disasters on their balance sheet.

Austria wanted to spread the idea of labeling the risk on every house. The Democratic Republic of Congo wanted to know why conflict is not considered a natural hazard. There were many questions and points of discussion over the course of the meeting.

When the next iteration of HFA arrives in a few weeks time, we will see how all the advice, debate, and consultation from the UN meeting has been digested. Regardless, when governments sign off on the new protocol in Sendai, Japan next March, catastrophe risk modeling is likely to become a core component of the global disaster risk reduction agenda.

Because as Michael Bloomberg said, “If you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it.”