Tag Archives: UNISDR

How to Accelerate the Understanding of Disaster Risk

RMS is delighted in playing an integral role at the United Nations’ Global Platform for Disaster Risk Reduction in Cancun next week.  This is the first time that government stakeholders from all 193 member countries have come together on this subject since the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction was adopted in March 2015.  Cancun looks forward to welcoming some 5,000 participants.

Continue reading

The Sendai World Conference on Disaster Risk Reduction and the Role for Catastrophe Modeling

The height reached by the tsunami from the 2011 Great East Japan earthquake is marked on the wall of the arrivals hall at Sendai airport. This is a city on the disaster’s front line. At the four year anniversary of the catastrophe, Sendai was a natural location for the March 13-18, 2015 UN World Conference on Disaster Risk Reduction, to launch a new framework document committing countries to a fifteen year program of actions. Six people attended the conference from RMS: Julia Hall, Alastair Norris, Nikki Chambers, Yasunori Araga, Osamu Takahashi, and myself, to help connect the worlds of disaster risk reduction (DRR) with catastrophe modeling.

The World Conference had more than 6,000 delegates and a wide span of sessions, from those for government ministers only, through to side events arranged in the University campus facilities up the hill. Alongside the VVIP limos, there were several hundred practitioners in all facets of disaster risk, including representatives from the world of insurance and a wide range of private companies. Meanwhile, the protracted process of negotiating a final text for the framework went on day and night through the life of the meeting (in a conference room where one could witness the pain) and only reached final agreement on the last evening. The Sendai declaration runs to 25 pages, contains around 200 dense paragraphs, and arguably might have benefited from some more daylight in its production.

RMS was at the conference to promote a couple of themes—first, that catastrophe modeling should become standard for identifying where to focus investments and how to measure resilience, moving beyond the reactive “build back better” campaigns that can only function after a disaster has struck. Why not identify the hot spots of risk before the catastrophe? Second, one can only drive progress in DRR by measuring outcomes. Just like more than twenty years ago when the insurance industry embraced catastrophe modeling, the disasters community will also need to measure outcomes using probabilistic models.

In pursuit of our mission, we delivered a 15-minute “Ignite” presentation on “The Challenges of Measuring Disaster Risk” at the heart of the main meeting centre, while I chaired a main event panel discussion on “Disaster Risk in the Financial Sector.” Julia was on the panel at a side event organized by the Overseas Development Institution on “Measuring Resilience” and Robert was on the panel for a UNISDR session to launch their global work in risk modeling, and on a session organized by Tokio Marine with the Geneva Association on “How can the insurance industry’s wealth of knowledge better serve societal resilience?”—at which we came up with the new profession of “resilience broker.”

The team was very active, making pointed interventions in a number of the main sessions, highlighting the role of catastrophe models and the challenges of measuring risk, while Alastair and Nikki were interviewed by the local press. We had prepared a leaflet that articulated the role of modeling in setting and measuring targets around disaster risk reduction that was widely distributed.

We caught up with many of our partners in the broader disasters arena, including the Private Sector Partners of the UNISDR, the Rockefeller 100 Resilient Cities initiative, the UNEP Principles for Sustainable Insurance, and Build Change. The same models required to measure the 100-year risk to a city or multinational company will, in future, be used to identify the most cost effective actions to reduce disaster risk. The two worlds of disasters and insurance will become linked through modeling.

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.

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.”