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OPINION: The pandemic shows why we need to take risk seriously

by Mami Mizutori | UNDRR
Tuesday, 13 October 2020 09:45 GMT

A woman wearing a protective mask wades through a waterlogged road after heavy rainfall in Mumbai, India, September 23, 2020. REUTERS/Francis Mascarenhas

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* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Risk left unmanaged soon turns to disaster, as with the COVID-19 crisis - governments must act on their commitments to stop this happening

Looking at the mass casualty disaster events which have occurred in the last 20 years, the death tolls in many cases could have been significantly reduced if there had been greater focus on disaster risk governance. Instead, many times we focus on trying to manage disasters, picking up the pieces after they strike and break us.

The failures to prepare for a pandemic on the scale of COVID-19 underline the importance of disaster risk governance as the theme of this year’s International Day for Disaster Risk Reduction on October 13.  

Warnings about the probability of a global pandemic were often ignored or brushed aside in the daily concerns of governments which, considering the human and socio-economic costs of COVID-19, do not seem so significant now.

The same procrastination is at work when it comes to concerted action on climate change and reductions in greenhouse gas emissions to levels required to keep global temperature rise at 1.5˚C above pre-industrial levels.  

One result is that, over the last 20 years, we have seen the number of major climate-related disasters surge from 3,656 during the period 1980-1999, to 6,681 during the period 2000-2019, according to the Report, “Human Cost of Disasters”, released to mark the International Day for Disaster Risk Reduction by the Centre for Research on the Epidemiology of Disasters (CRED) and the UN Office for Disaster Risk Reduction (UNDRR).

This explains why all National Adaptation Plans prepared under the Paris Agreement list disaster risk reduction as a priority.

However, there is a world of difference between stating that something is a priority and having the will to act and create the capacity for action.

The capacity to act means strengthened disaster risk governance and all that it entails, including having a vision, a national strategy for disaster risk reduction, and competent institutions free of political interference and empowered to act in the public good. Importantly, this needs investment of human and financial resources.


The huge death toll from the Indian Ocean tsunami in 2004 could have been significantly reduced if there had been a tsunami warning system in place such as the one that was established for the Pacific Ocean in 1949.

Early warnings correctly disseminated, together with the preservation of mangrove forests along the coast, would have reduced the death toll from Cyclone Nargis which claimed 138,000 lives in Myanmar.

Buildings that topple in earthquakes have been responsible for hundreds of thousands of lost lives over the last 20 years because much of the building in seismic zones is not risk-informed and earthquake-resilient due to lax governance.

If we are to reduce disaster losses, the priorities for action are set out in the global agendas adopted in 2015, including the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction and the Paris Agreement on climate change. Their implementation is crucial for achieving the Sustainable Development Goals.

Disaster risk governance is no longer a question of managing disasters or responding to the threat posed by single hazards. We need a multi-hazard approach.

This requires a holistic understanding of risk and how risk drivers such as climate change, loss of protective eco-systems, poverty, rapid urbanisation, biological hazards and population growth in disaster-prone areas, combine to create systemic risk, sometimes in unexpected ways.

Good disaster risk governance can be measured in lives saved, less ill-health, injury and loss of livelihoods, as well as the survival of critical infrastructure, and reduced economic losses.

Bangladesh lost some 1 million people in the Great Cyclone of November 1970 but thanks to a government and Red Crescent-supported Cyclone Preparedness Programme, using improved weather forecasts, early warnings and early action, the number of lives lost in similar events since then has come down dramatically.


In the case of COVID-19, every UN member state needs to have its own Pandemic Preparedness Programme, and biological hazards should be fully included in national strategies for disaster risk reduction. An ongoing review of the 93 such national strategies shows that more needs to be done to improve their quality if we are to apply the lessons learned over the last nine difficult months.

The pandemic is widening the resilience gap around the world, creating more poverty and inequality. This makes it ever more urgent that low- and middle-income countries already facing a rise in extreme weather events receive enhanced international cooperation to strengthen their capacity to manage risk and prevent hazards from becoming a disaster.

None of these challenges are going away anytime soon. Risk left unmanaged soon turns to disaster. Managing risk intelligently and in real time requires political leadership, commitment and determined action.

October 13 is International Day for Disaster Risk Reduction, but disaster risk governance needs to be a 24/7, 365-day concern if we are to create a safe and resilient world.