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Agenda Setting and Natural Hazards  

Rob A. DeLeo

Agenda setting describes the process through which issues are selected for consideration by a decision-making body. Among the myriad of issues policymakers can consider, few are more vexing than natural hazards. By aggregating (or threatening to aggregate) death, destruction, and economic loss, natural hazards represent a serious and persistent threat to public safety. While citizens rightfully expect policymakers to protect them, many of the policy challenges associated natural hazards fail to reach the crowded government agenda. This article reviews the literature on agenda setting and natural hazards, including the strain between preparing for emerging hazards, on the one hand, and responding to existing disasters, on the other hand. It considers the extent to which natural hazards pose distinctive difficulties during the agenda-setting process, focusing specifically on the dynamics of issue identification, problem definition, venue shopping, and interest group mobilization in natural hazard domains. It closes by suggesting a number of future avenues of agenda-setting research.

Article

Evolution of Strategic Flood Risk Management in Support of Social Justice, Ecosystem Health, and Resilience  

Paul Sayers

Throughout history, flood management practice has evolved in response to flood events. This heuristic approach has yielded some important incremental shifts in both policy and planning (from the need to plan at a catchment scale to the recognition that flooding arises from multiple sources and that defenses, no matter how reliable, fail). Progress, however, has been painfully slow and sporadic, but a new, more strategic, approach is now emerging. A strategic approach does not, however, simply sustain an acceptable level of flood defence. Strategic Flood Risk Management (SFRM) is an approach that relies upon an adaptable portfolio of measures and policies to deliver outcomes that are socially just (when assessed against egalitarian, utilitarian, and Rawlsian principles), contribute positively to ecosystem services, and promote resilience. In doing so, SFRM offers a practical policy and planning framework to transform our understanding of risk and move toward a flood-resilient society. A strategic approach to flood management involves much more than simply reducing the chance of damage through the provision of “strong” structures and recognizes adaptive management as much more than simply “wait and see.” SFRM is inherently risk based and implemented through a continuous process of review and adaptation that seeks to actively manage future uncertainty, a characteristic that sets it apart from the linear flood defense planning paradigm based upon a more certain view of the future. In doing so, SFRM accepts there is no silver bullet to flood issues and that people and economies cannot always be protected from flooding. It accepts flooding as an important ecosystem function and that a legitimate ecosystem service is its contribution to flood risk management. Perhaps most importantly, however, SFRM enables the inherent conflicts as well as opportunities that characterize flood management choices to be openly debated, priorities to be set, and difficult investment choices to be made.

Article

Hazards, Social Resilience, and Safer Futures  

Lena Dominelli

The concepts of hazards and risks began in engineering when scientists were measuring the points at which materials would become sufficiently stressed by the pressures upon them that they would break. These concepts migrated into the environmental sciences to assess risk in the natural terrain, including the risks that human activities posed to the survival of animals (including fish in streams) and plants in the biosphere. From there, they moved to the social sciences, primarily in formal disaster discourses. With the realization that modern societies constantly faced risks cushioned in uncertainties within everyday life, the media popularized the concept of risk and its accoutrements, including mitigation, adaptation, and preventative measures, among the general populace. A crucial manifestation of this is the media’s accounts of the risks affecting different groups of people or places contracting Covid-19, which burst upon a somnambulant world in December 2019 in Wuhan, China. The World Health Organization (WHO) declared Covid-19 a pandemic on March 11, 2020. Politicians of diverse hues sought to reassure nervous inhabitants that they had followed robust, scientific advice on risks to facilitate “flattening the curve” by spreading the rate of infection in different communities over a longer period to reduce demand for public health services. Definitions of hazard, risk, vulnerability, and resilience evolved as they moved from the physical sciences into everyday life to reassure edgy populations that their social systems, especially the medical ones, could cope with the demands of disasters. While most countries have managed the risk Covid-19 posed to health services, this has been at a price that people found difficult to accept. Instead, as they reflected upon their experiences of being confronted with the deaths of many loved ones, especially among elders in care homes; adversities foisted upon the disease’s outcomes by existing social inequalities; and loss of associative freedoms, many questioned whether official mitigation strategies were commensurate with apparent risks. The public demanded an end to such inequities and questioned the bases on which politicians made their decisions. They also began to search for certainties in the social responses to risk in the hopes of building better futures as other institutions, schools, and businesses went into lockdown, and social relationships and people’s usual interactions with others ceased. For some, it seemed as if society were crumbling around them, and they wanted a better version of their world to replace the one devastated by Covid-19 (or other disasters). Key to this better version was a safer, fairer, more equitable and reliable future. Responses to the risks within Covid-19 scenarios are similar to responses to other disasters, including earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, wildfires, tsunamis, storms, extreme weather events, and climate change. The claims of “building back better” are examined through a resilience lens to determine whether such demands are realizable, and if not, what hinders their realization. Understanding such issues will facilitate identification of an agenda for future research into mitigation, adaptation, and preventative measures necessary to protect people and the planet Earth from the harm of subsequent disasters.

Article

Lessons on Risk Governance From the UNISDR Experience  

Sálvano Briceño

In the context of this article, risk governance addresses the ways and means—or institutional framework—to lead and manage the issue of risk related to natural phenomena, events, or hazards, also referred to popularly, although incorrectly, as “natural disasters.” At the present time, risk related to natural phenomena includes a major focus on the issue of climate change with which it is intimately connected, climate change being a major source of risk. To lead involves mainly defining policies and proposing legislation, hence proposing goals, conducting, promoting, orienting, providing a vision—namely, reducing the loss of lives and livelihoods as part of sustainable development—also, raising awareness and educating on the topic and addressing the ethical perspective that motivates and facilitates engagement by citizens. To manage involves, among other things, proposing organizational and technical arrangements, as well as regulations allowing the implementation of policies and legislation. Also, it involves monitoring and supervising such implementation to draw further lessons to periodically enhance the policies, legislation, regulations, and organizational and technical arrangements. UNISDR (now known as UNDRR) was established in 2000 to promote and facilitate risk reduction, becoming in a few years one of the main promoters of risk governance in the world and the main global advocate from within the United Nations system. It was an honor to serve as the first director of the UNISDR (2001–2011). A first lesson to be drawn from this experience was the need to identify, understand, and address the obstacles not allowing the implementation of what seems to be obvious to the scientific community but of difficult implementation by governments, private sector, and civil society; and alternatively, the reasons for shortcomings and weaknesses in risk governance. A second lesson identified was that risk related to natural phenomena also provides lessons for governance related to other types of risk in society—environmental, financial, health, security, and so on, each a separate and specialized topic, sharing, however, common risk governance approaches. A third lesson was the relevance of understanding leadership and management as essential components in governance. Drawing lessons on one’s own experience is always risky as it involves some subjectivity in the analysis. In the article, the aim has, nonetheless, been at the utmost objectivity on the essential learnings in having conducted the United Nations International Strategy for Disaster Reduction—UNISDR—from 2001 to around 2009 when leading and managing was shared with another manager, as I prepared for retirement in 2011. Additional lessons are identified, including those related to risk governance as it is academically conceived, hence, what risk governance includes and how it has been implemented by different international, regional, national, and local authorities. Secondly, I identify those lessons related to the experience of leading and managing an organization focused on disaster risk at the international level and in the context of the United Nations system.

Article

Scalar Politics in Flood Risk Management and Community Engagement  

Thomas Thaler

Recent extreme hydrological events (e.g., in the United States in 2005 or 2012, Pakistan in 2010, and Thailand in 2011) revealed increasing flood risks due to climate and societal change. Consequently, the roles of multiple stakeholders in flood risk management have transformed significantly. A central aspect here is the question of sharing responsibilities among global, national, regional, and local stakeholders in organizing flood risk management of all kinds. This new policy agenda of sharing responsibilities strives to delegate responsibilities and costs from the central government to local authorities, and from public administration to private citizens. The main reasons for this decentralization are that local authorities can deal more efficiently with public administration tasks concerned with risks and emergency management. Resulting locally based strategies for risk reduction are expected to tighten the feedback loops between complex environmental dynamics and human decision-making processes. However, there are a series of consequences to this rescaling process in flood risk management, regarding the development of new governance structures and institutions, like resilience teams or flood action groups in the United Kingdom. Additionally, downscaling to local-level tasks without additional resources is particularly challenging. This development has tightened further with fiscal and administrative cuts around the world resulting from the global economic crisis of 2007–2008, which tightening eventually causes budget restrictions for flood risk management. Managing local risks easily exceeds the technical and budgetary capacities of municipal institutions, and individual citizens struggle to carry the full responsibility of flood protection. To manage community engagement in flood risk management, emphasis should be given to the development of multi-level governance structures, so that multiple stakeholders share fairly the power, resources, and responsibility in disaster planning. If we fail to do so, some consequences would be: (1), “hollowing out” the government, including the downscaling of the responsibility towards local stakeholders; and (2), inability of the government to deal with the new tasks due to lack of resources transferred to local authorities.