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Transforming disaster risk governance in Asia-Pacific

Published : Friday, 18 December, 2020 at 12:00 AM  Count : 105
Atiq Kainan Ahmed

The ongoing Covid-19 pandemic has shown us that we must transform how disaster risk is governed. In December 2004, people hardly knew what 'tsunami' was and after one and half decade later we did not have any clue about 'Covid-19'! Two decades of disaster risk management efforts are deployed. Where are we now, what progresses have we made to manage future risks? Do we need a transformation of our efforts and look for something else or improve our means?

After this Covid-19 onslaught, people are talking about bringing major 'transformations' and looking for something new. But what is that? Who envisions that? Who would govern an unforeseen risk? How the transformed approaches would align with the existing frameworks or processes? Many questions need to be answered.

In moving into 2021 (and beyond), we should reflect on our experiences and see how the disaster risks around the Asia-Pacific were governed. We should re-analyze our ways and means. Recapitulate our lessons on what has worked and what has not. The fundamental question flags up "why we have not been able to anticipate the COVID-19 pandemic? Why it has been a new surprise? We have ample evidences now to show that we should question to our existing ways of risk governance whether these are coming from loopholes of national risk governance or fell through the gaps of global frameworks such as WHO's capacities to anticipate such health risks, disaster risk reduction communities to foresee such disasters, impacts of climate change, oreven lack of coherence in sustainable development goals.

I feel before we adopt any new drastic transformations, we should first look at our existing systems and analyze those and then look for better alternatives. We can start this by looking into the regular processes of understanding 'risk'. Identification and foreseeing Covid-19 or even tsunamis in 2004 were so lacking even though it happened more than decades apart. We need to widen our understanding of risk for sure as these rarely able to capture these newer surprises. For example, disaster risks need to be looked at: a) beyond of 'risk landscapes'; b) beyond profiling predominant of only the existing set of 'hazards' (multi-hazard); c) beyond the 'exposure' of limited set of aspects; d) beyond the regular 'vulnerable groups'.

We need to be more accurate and more precise with the foresight and understanding the dynamism that creates risks and eventually shapes the disasters. While understanding of the known risks iselemental, we should not be limited torigid affixation of those to set our 'normal'. New normals are always in making. In disaster risk governance, we need to be exhaustive, challenge our thinking process, and provision ourselves into foresee surprises and newer risks that we are creating in our environment.

We need to transcend our traditional thoughts and try to have widely shared (or even contested) understanding of formulations of known and unknown phenomenon, changing patterns of hazards, compositions of multiple elements into dynamic risks that can be foresighted and actions can be taken towards surprises that do not essentially create disasters.

On the other hand, before thinking of transformation, we should also re-analyze the issues of manageability of risks or even 'surprises'. Actually, in retrospect, we all have a lot in our 'knowledge bags' but perhaps those are kept in silos.

Climate scientists had their useful data nicely clustered into their own'cold servers'; Governments have kept busy with their cabinet meetings and their disaster risk management plans are often 'shelved into cabinets of enclosures';Humanitarians, social scientists, local governments have kept their relentless love for working with communities, inequalities, inclusions to reflect realities only short-lived as long as they are in the 'field', Activists raised their shambles as long as they are in 'campaign mode'.

But the tyranny is, often we forgot to connect our servers, databases, cabinets, field of realities, and our knowledge bags per se with others. Perhaps, we need to find out ways to do that first before we try to transform. Our own systems perhaps need to be changed and connected to a 'whole' to see the system in a wholistic manner. Action towards surprises requires coherent actions, connecting ourselves and going beyond our own comfort zones and knowledge silos.

But perhaps, all of us are too afraid to change ourselves and forgot thinking of how we can address these new risks, let alone the emerging surprises! This has truly manifested during  COVID-19 among the DRR practitioners and we have gone back to age old situation response mode again! Perhaps we should be more 'smarter' than that.

Shall we then take a moment to rethink these issues passionately? COVID-19 probably has given us ample of reasons to do so, not to repeat the same mistakes time and time again. We are all committed to Global Frameworks for Disaster Risk Reduction (SFDRR), Climate Change (i.e. Paris Agreement), and Sustainable Development (i.e. SDGs) and trying to do something meaningful. This unprecedented time is asking us to renew our commitments. Let us not just leap into the bulldozer of transformation and the instruments of so-called 'resilience'or'development' but think through those visions factoring in foresights for 'different'avenues.

Therefore, we need to think about the 'whole system' rather only planning  for our 'own systems' in isolation.  Let's think out of our own boxes, circles, supply-chains, or whatever ways we want to operate. Both the instances of Tsunami 2004 and now the COVID-19 have given us surprises and challenged our risk governance paradigms. We have done something good, something bad but still learning great lessons for future. The risk governance mechanisms in the Asia-Pacific countries for disaster risk reduction, climate change, and sustainable development need to be more robust to meet the environmental-social surprises, challenges of poverty and inequality; and accountability to generations to come.
The writer is senior
regional expert working at Asian Disaster Preparedness Center (ADPC) Bangkok since 2005

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