The only way to reduce risk is to understand it

May 11, 2018

As climate change continues to exacerbate the impact of natural hazards, the importance of valuable and contextually appropriate risk information cannot be overstated. According to Swiss Re’s estimations, insured losses resulting from natural and man-made disasters was a record-breaking US$136 billion in 2017, mainly due to the three hurricanes that hit the US and the Caribbean, as well as the wildfires in California.

Although the costs and impacts of disasters continue to break records, events like this year’s 2018 Understanding Risk Forum are great opportunities for sharing what countries around the world are learning, which is that understanding risk equals better designed and more sustainable development.

UNDP, with nearly 170 country offices and as the largest implementer of disaster risk reduction programming in the UN System, is at the forefront of efforts to understand risk. And through my role, I have had the privilege to work with partners as they have made impressive steps in this regard.

For instance, I had the opportunity to support the development of the National Risk Atlasa comprehensive risk profile to advance risk-informed development, by the Government of Rwanda and UN colleagues. The Atlas followed a string of disasters from 2005 onwards, and was a recognition of the fact that, in order to safeguard development gains and achieve Agenda 2030, a thorough risk assessment would be necessary. The Atlas, supported by European Union-Africa Caribbean and Pacific (ACP) and the World Bank’s Global Facility for Disaster Risk Reduction (WB-GFDRR) and covering five hazards (drought, flood, landslide, earthquake and windstorm) and six elements at risk (population, buildings, roads, schools, hospitals and crops), helped generate evidence-based risk information to guide national and sub-national development planning and investment.

The only way to reduce risk is to understand it

Following a string of disasters, Rwanda developed its National Risk Atlas to advance risk-informed planning and protect development gains. Photo: UNDP Rwanda

Yet, while it was easy to conceptualize the National Risk Atlas and to justify the need, undertaking the exercise proved to be more daunting than anticipated due to minimal data sets and a lack of technical expertise and modelling capacity. Furthermore, the need for a comprehensive multi-hazard risk assessment and the fact it was the first of its kind in Africa, compounded the uncertainty. Many expressed concern that this very technical process would deliver complex outcomes, with limited scope for real-world application in development decision-making.

This could not be further from the truth.

In order to overcome the challenges, a number of measures were undertaken:

  • First, it was decided that proxy data would be used to engage regional and international organizations (like RCMRD, USGS, EM-DAT) and draw upon international expertise (viz. OpenQuake).
  • Second, in the face of limited in-country technical capacities, a ‘learning-by-doing’ approach was adopted to train local experts and government staff.
  • Third, MIDIMAR’s (Ministry of Disaster Management and Refugee Affairs) leadership helped access relevant databases/information and build a strong sense of ownership and accountability. Finally, collaborating with the Volcanic Observatory of Goma (DRC), the Regional Centre for Mapping of Resources for Development (Kenya), the Famine Early Warning System Network (Rwanda), and the Nile Basin Initiative and Royal Museum of Central Africa, advanced South-South Cooperation, ensuring the sharing of data, tools and methodology as well as building regional expertise.

The National Risk Atlas was launched by its partners, with the Rwandan Government’s MIDIMAR emphasizing that “disaster risk reduction is everybody’s business, it is a cross-cutting concern.”

The only way to reduce risk is to understand it

UNDP is the largest implementer of disaster risk reduction programming in the UN System. Photo: Laxmi Prasad Ngakhusi

Although the first stage in the risk assessment cycle has been successfully completed, I believe numerous challenges remain to make it actionable. Developing an implementation plan, disseminating risk information in a user-friendly format, and strengthening risk governance institutions and systems at national, local and sectoral levels will be essential. Developing a roadmap to facilitate application of the findings of the Atlas will be the logical next step.

Development is itself a driver of risk, making it imperative to ensure risk information is accessible and can be easily acted upon in development decision-making. As I head to Mexico for the Understanding Risk Forum, I hope that other countries will take heed of Rwanda’s example, and its National Risk Atlas will serve as a model for other countries in Africa and beyond.