Preventing and Mitigating Humanitarian Emergencies through the Reduction of Disaster Risks and Vulnerabilities: The challenges for the humanitarian sector

The world is experiencing an upsurge in natural disasters. From 2000 to 2009, more than 2.2 billion people were affected by 4,484 natural disasters, and 840,000 people were killed.1 In 2010 alone, 263 million people were affected by disasters, 110 million more than in 2004, the year of the Indian Ocean Tsunami. By 2015, climate-related disasters alone are predicted to affect over 375 million people every year. Other disasters, such as earthquakes and conflicts, will affect many more

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Introduction Continued

Today’s disasters are aggravated by global trends such as population growth, urbanization, food insecurity, and climate change.3 The prospect of ‘synchronous failures’, systems collapsing under the weight of disasters, is a growing concern.4 Disasters such as pandemics, economic shocks, and conflicts often have global impacts.

Disasters can occur wherever people and property are exposed to natural hazards—such as earthquakes, floods, droughts, or cyclones. In 2011, for example, high profile disasters struck in developed countries, including floods in Australia; an earthquake in Christchurch, New Zealand; and an earthquake, tsunami and nuclear disaster in north-eastern Japan.5

But disasters most often affect poor countries. In 2010, disasters caused massive devastation in developing countries, including Haiti’s earthquake and Pakistan’s floods, as well as hundreds of smaller climate-related disasters in Benin, Brazil, Colombia, the Philippines and elsewhere.6 Oxfam estimates that, on average, 1,052 people die in any given disaster in less developed countries, compared to 23 in developed countries.7

Disasters also wreak worst damage on vulnerable communities. By definition, natural hazards only result in a ‘disaster’ when a community’s or a society’s own coping capacity is overrun.8 A disaster is thus understood primarily as a function of community vulnerability,9 which, in turn, is determined by physical, environmental, social, economic, political, cultural, and institutional factors.10

Disaster Risk Reduction

In the past decade, the international community has reinforced its response to disasters, through concerted efforts at disaster risk reduction (DRR). Systematic efforts have been made to reduce exposure to hazards, lessen vulnerability of people and property, manage land and environment better, and improve preparedness for adverse events. 11

In 2005, the Hyogo Framework for Action 2005-2015 (HFA)12 outlined the work required from all international sectors and actors to reduce disaster losses. Adopted by 168 states, the Framework aimed to make DRR a priority; improve risk information and early warning; build a culture of safety and resilience; reduce risks in key sectors; and strengthen preparedness for response.

Primary responsibility for implementing the HFA rests with states, but it requires collaboration and cooperation among all stakeholders, including international humanitarian and development actors. In 2007, the United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction (UNISDR) developed a guide for implementing the HFA13, calling inter alia on international organizations to integrate DRR into their programmes to assist disaster-prone countries.

The HFA emphasizes that DRR is a critical issue for development policies. Disasters undermine development achievements, impoverishing people and nations. Without serious efforts to address disaster losses, disasters will become an increasingly serious obstacle to the achievement of the Millennium Development Goals.

UNISDR Principles (2007)

Based on DRR experience collected, UNISDR offered the following principles:14
  • Effective disaster risk reduction requires community participation.
  • States have the primary responsibility for implementing measures to reduce disaster risk.
  • Disaster risk reduction must be integrated into development activities.
  • A multi-hazard approach can improve effectiveness.
  • Capacity development is a central strategy for reducing risk.
  • Decentralise responsibility for disaster risk reduction.
  • Gender is a core factor in disaster risk and in the reduction of risk.
  • Public-private partnerships are an important tool for disaster risk reduction.
  • Disaster risk reduction needs to be customised to a particular setting.

In this context, how does DRR relate to humanitarian action? What are the DRR responsibilities for humanitarian actors? What challenges does DRR pose for all humanitarian professionals, donor representatives, agency directors, and field practitioners? Based on a review of published secondary sources, this Brief outlines four DRR-related challenges for humanitarians: strengthening disaster prevention; funding humanitarian action and DRR; mainstreaming DRR in strategies; and developing good practices.


  1. Disaster Risk Reduction: Spending where it should count , (Global Humanitarian Assistance | Development Initiatives, Jan Kellet tand Dan Sparks, March 2012)
  2. Humanitarian Emergency Response Review (HERR); (The Humanitarian Emergency Response Review, March 2011)
  3. Ibid
  4. Humanitarian Futures Programme,(2010) The Waters of the Third Pole: sources of threats; Sources of survival.
  5. The Right to Survive: The Humanitarian Challenge for the Twenty First Century, (Oxfam International 2009)
  6. Global Assessment Report on Disaster Risk Reduction 2011: Revealing Risk, Redefining Development; (UNISDR)
  7. Op. Cit (Oxfam 2009)
  8. A disaster is defined by UNISDR as a ‘serious disruption of the functioning of a community or a society involving widespread human, material, economic or environmental losses and impacts, which exceeds the ability of the affected community or society to cope using its own resources.’ (UNISDR Terminology)
  9. Vulnerability is defined by UNISDR as ‘The characteristics and circumstances of a community, system or asset that make it susceptible to the damaging effects of a hazard.’ (UNISDR Terminology)
  10. Disaster reduction terminology: a common-sense approach, (J. Twigg, Humanitarian Exchange Magazine, Issue 38 June 2007).
  11. UNISDR defines disaster risk reduction as the concept and practice of ‘reducing disaster risks through systematic efforts to analyse and reduce the causal factors of disasters.’ (…) DRR ‘involves every part of society, every part of government, and every part of the professional and private sector.' (UNISDR, What is Disaster Risk Reduction?)
  12. Hyogo Framework for Action 2005-2015: Building the Resilience of Nations and Communities to Disasters (Extract from the final report of the World Conference on Disaster Reduction [A/CONF.206/6], International Strategy for Disaster Reduction UN/ISDR-07-2007-Geneva)
  13. Words Into Action: A Guide for Implementing the Hyogo Framework Hyogo Framework for Action 2005-2015: Building the resilience of nations and communities to disasters (United Nations International Strategy for Disaster Reduction, 2007)
  14. Ibid.

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