We Rarely Hear About the Disasters Which Were Avoided – but There’s a Lot We Can Learn from Them

Vietnam also experiences major floods every year, with almost 12 million coastal people exposed. One five-year project is providing 4,000 flood-resilient houses, while planting coastal mangroves to deal with storm surges. In late 2019, storm Matmo struck Quang Ngai, destroying many houses. Many new flood-resilient houses survived, keeping people safe and supporting agriculture-based livelihoods.

Scaling Up
Individual case studies are important. But if they are to be useful we need to identify what they can teach us, so we can scale up the local and national successes and transfer lessons to other places. We found six overall patterns:

1. The right mindset to tackle the root causes of disasters and to focus on avoiding them. The right mindset includes understanding that disasters do not come from nature, so we do not use the phrase “natural disaster”. They are just disasters. They come from the choices we make to live and build in harm’s way, or more frequently to force people to live and work in harm’s way, without having the political power, resources, or opportunities to help themselves deal with hazards.

2. The right investment at the right time, including showing the evidence that it’s money well spent.

3. Good governance means well-managed investments and funds that deliver meaningful social, environmental, and livelihood benefits. It promotes actions that must be informed, accountable, and enforced.

4. Good data directs good decision-making. We should collect, analyse and act on good data. This data can take many forms and includes the obvious demographic and economic stats, but also observations from satellites, drones, or on-the-ground instruments, or people’s perceptions and experiences.

5. Meaningful inclusion of everyone, to agree on how we create a society that can withstand and live with nature’s energies and forces.

6. Targets that are realistic and achievable with the available resources. When appropriate, targets can be set, managed and linked to global efforts including the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction, the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals, climate change agreements, and those on urban, and humanitarian agendas.

These principles also reveal that not all disasters avoided are due to forethinking. Luck can play a role – in some cases, a disaster was avoided simply because there weren’t many humans living in the hazard-affected area. In other cases a disaster was avoided because short-term actions were taken (safe evacuation and sheltering, for instance), and other times because longer-term actions were taken (such as supporting flexible livelihoods that could be restarted immediately after a major hazard).

These categories indicate how we could and should do better, especially by trying to encourage active work towards longer-term planning and preparedness.

Our work on disasters avoided continues, highlighting that everyone needs to be involved. We are documenting private sector examples of successes while describing the importance of innovation.

Overall, the baseline that we see time and again in avoiding a disaster is that success comes when a wide variety of people and groups come together in a symphony of action. Disasters are avoided when everyone cares for everyone.

Ilan Kelman is Professor of Disasters and Health, UCL; Ana Prados is Senior Research Scientist, University of Maryland, Baltimore County; Brady Podloski is Instructor, Disaster and Emergency Management, Northern Alberta Institute of Technology; Gareth Byatt is Independent Consultant and Visiting Lecturer, UNSW Sydney. This article is published courtesy of The Conversation.