Sustainability 101: Disaster Risk Reduction

As a child, I had an irrational fear of tsunamis, which was caused by my viewing of the 1998 disaster movie Deep Impact at an age where I should’ve only been watching Blues Clues. I have vivid memories of family vacations at the beach, my seven-year-old self looking nervously at the water with Morgan Freeman’s end-of-times speech echoing in my head. It’s funny to look back on those memories now, especially because my understanding of major disasters and their causes has been greatly improved by time and education. All humor aside, I do genuinely believe that my childhood paranoia reveals an interesting truth about natural disasters and the way in which they’re presented to and perceived by the public.

Definition of Disaster Risk Reduction

Photo courtesy of PCDN

My research for this column led me to the concept of disaster risk reduction. The United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction provides a few examples of DRR:

  • reducing exposure to hazards,
  • lessening vulnerability of people and property,
  • wise management of land and the environment, and
  • improving preparedness and early warning for adverse events.

Natural disasters have increased exponentially over the last several decades and affect both rich and poor countries. According to a report by the IRDR (Integrated Research and Disaster Risk) and ICSU (International Council for Science), several hundred million people are affected by disasters annually. Financial losses reached a record $135 billion in 2017. There is one line in the report that I found to be particularly relevant:

A geophysical hazard event may be natural but its impacts depend on the circumstances of people, households, and societies, which in turn arise from diverse micro-to macro-level political, social, economic, and environmental processes.

DRR and Sustainability

The biggest factor in successful disaster risk reduction is a solid sustainable development plan. For example, the Hyogo Framework Initiative, which emphasizes the environmental degradation associated with disasters. The report touches on floods, hurricanes, climate change, earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, tsunamis, and tornadoes. These events don’t just have a financial impact, they also have the capability to destroy and deprive the world of valuable natural resources that are instrumental to our survival. The plan was constructed around four key elements, all of which rely on physical, social science, and environmental expertise:

  1. Creating a hazard profile
  2. The exposure of people and assets
  3. The vulnerability of people and assets to hazards (including community and institutional capacities and the related concept of resilience).
  4. The losses that occur, such as mortality, morbidity, livelihood, and asset loss, social and macroeconomic impact, etc.

Then there’s the Sustainable Development Report of the Second Committee, which stresses how disasters are an international issue which require collaboration and cooperation between all nations to prevent. If you look at disasters strictly as a domestic issue, you lose sight of how much they truly affect humanity as a whole.

Finally, consider the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, which devotes an entire section to the necessity of building a resilient infrastructure and the importance of reducing exposure/vulnerability of the poor to natural disasters. This report focuses not only on what we can do now but also on how sustainability is a multidimensional, long-form process that sometimes takes years, even decades to properly implement. It’s better to start now than later, especially with the unpredictably associated with these disasters.  

Photo Courtesy of DRR Dynamics

The Bottom Line

The examples given above are just three of many sustainable development initiatives pertaining to disaster risk reduction. They all arrive at one essential conclusion: disaster risk reduction requires sustainable policies, planning, and programming at every level. It’s critical to acknowledge the connection between an “eco-friendly” lifestyle and disaster risk reduction. You can’t put the DRR puzzle together without the existence of one integral piece: environmental awareness. You have to understand how the decisions you make and the perceptions you have indelibly shape the environment. I don’t want to scare you in the way that disaster films once did to me. Instead, I encourage you to understand that natural disasters aren’t just something you see on TV. It’s cliche to say “they could happen to you,” but they very well could. It’s better to prepared and knowledgeable about how you can prevent them or rebuild more sustainably after they occur.

For more information on disaster risk reduction and sustainability, visit For information on building more sustainable communities, see the Resilient Cities LibGuide.