Pre-empting natural disasters


26 January 2011

Developing mitigation strategies for natural disaster risk reduction and risk reaction is a problem of global proportions. The risk of natural disasters is increasing across the world, as is their impact, partly as a result of climate change and also because of the co-location of large conurbations and high-technology sites. The costs of natural disasters are multiple and devastating in terms of lives lost and also financially. Much attention has been devoted to the anticipation and management of manufactured risks, especially those associated with scientific and technological developments. But attention is also turning increasingly to the anticipation and management of natural risks.

Research by Bridget Hutter, Professor of Risk Regulation and Director of the ESRC Centre for Analysis of Risk and Regulation at the LSE, looks at how to manage these natural risks.

Risk regulation anticipates risk and prevents it. In relation to natural disasters, risk regulation is primarily useful in pre-event mitigation and can effect significant risk reduction. Avoiding land use in known hazardous areas, along with establishing and enforcing building codes to prevent the collapse of poorly constructed buildings, can help us avoid the costs of disaster recovery, save lives as well as preventing injury. Understanding these benefits can also encourage longer-term thinking and investment in mitigating disasters, which may otherwise be perceived as uncertain and improbable.

Crucial policy decisions need to be made about balancing the anticipation of risks and resilience to them. This means putting in place emergency plans and capacities where one can realistically anticipate and act constructively, and focusing on resilience in less certain areas. The knowledge base is crucial for formulating policy. The past is not always a good predictor of the future. We need to be realistic about the reliability of our information.

Working locally to enhance sustainability and resilience is important in all areas vulnerable to extreme events. Where levels of certainly are high, more detailed risk regulation measures and planning are also possible.

We also need to take factors that can influence the efficacy of risk regulation strategies into account. These include cultural influences such as how anticipatory or fatalistic a culture is, and socio-political conditions such as stable governance systems which are capable of enforcing regulations. Local variations will often influence the effectiveness or even possibility of using some forms of mitigation. This needs to be dealt with by providing regulations which can be tailored to local circumstances, and here the role of social scientists is crucial.

From the ESRC magazine Britain in 2011