We live in an age of disasters. From floods and hurricanes to volcanoes, droughts and earthquakes, natural hazards are affecting vulnerable communities worldwide. At the same time, modern media, the Internet and social networking tools all ensure that news about today’s disasters are delivered to global audiences in “live time”, via our televisions, computers and smartphones.
Extreme events, however, do not need to spell disasters.
Does our increased awareness of hazards and vulnerability correlate to a rise in actual disaster risk reduction? How can we rate and compare the risks posed to different countries by natural hazards and climate change?
The new WorldRiskReport 2011, launched Friday 2 September in Brussells, takes a fresh look at these pressing questions. Comprising a comparative index, descriptive content, practical case studies and colourful maps and charts, the report explores why some countries are able to cope better than others in response to disasters and climate change. Produced by the United Nations University Institute for Environment and Human Security (UNU-EHS) and edited by the Bündnis Entwicklung Hilft (Alliance Development Works), the report offers scientists and practitioners alike an invaluable resource for evaluating the interactions between exposure to natural hazards and climate change on the one hand, and factors of social vulnerability (such as levels of poverty, education, food security and governance) on the other.
The WorldRiskIndex, developed by UNU-EHS, is the core feature of the report. The index calculates and compares risk values for 173 countries worldwide, and shows regions and countries that face a high disaster risk. Countries are ranked based on four key components that take both natural hazards and social factors into account: exposure (to natural hazards and potential risks), susceptibility (likeliness of suffering harm, susceptibility as a function of public infrastructure), coping capacities (governance and capacity to reduce negative consequences of hazards) and adaptive capacities (capacity for long-term social change).
The report clarifies that disasters cannot be attributed to meteorological or geological phenomena alone, but that they are determined also by social structures and processes.
“Extreme natural events do not necessarily cause disasters, because risk not only depends on the hazard, but is very much determined by social and economic factors,” explained the Scientific Head of the WorldRiskIndex project at UNU-EHS, Dr. Joern Birkmann, at the launch of WorldRiskReport 2011.
The South Pacific island nation of Vanuatu scores most highly on the WorldRiskIndex as the country with the greatest disaster risk, due to its high exposure to natural hazards and climate change and weak coping capacities. The index reveals a very high disaster risk for many Asian and Latin American countries, including the Philippines, Bangladesh, Timor-Leste, Cambodia, Guatemala, Costa Rica and El Salvador. Strikingly, in addition to Vanuatu, two other small island nations (Tonga and Solomon Islands) are among the top fifteen countries with the highest risk.
In contrast, Japan and the Netherlands, which all have high levels of exposure to disaster, do not score particularly highly in terms of overall risk, demonstrating that good disaster preparedness (particularly coping and adaptive capacities) can significantly reduce a country’s overall disaster risk. Qatar, followed by Malta, scored as “lowest risk” worldwide.
Risk reduction begins long before a natural hazard occurs. WorldRiskReport 2011 highlights the impact of governance issues and civil society on disaster risk. Drawing on detailed, real-life case studies from countries such as India and Bangladesh, it demonstrates that weak governance is one of the most important risk factors with regard to the severity of impact of natural hazards.
WorldRiskReport 2011 is also the first comprehensive global map that brings together the social and economic dimensions of vulnerability with classical hazard analysis. The index offers a new approach to risk assessment, enabling policy makers and practitioners to devise future-oriented assessments and initiatives. The reduction of social vulnerability (e.g., by reducing poverty), the promotion of better coping capacities (e.g., through good governance and strengthening of social networks) and the strengthening of adaptive capacities (e.g., through education) all present realistic options for actions to reduce risk and prevent future disasters.
Recognizing the significant contribution of the WorldRiskIndex 2011 to disaster management, Prof. Dr. Jakob Rhyner, Director of UNU-EHS, said: “I am pleased that the Institute´s expertise has produced such important results for the practical aspect of humanitarian aid and development cooperation. This fully corresponds to the mandate of the United Nations University to conduct research for practice.”