Global Assessment Report on Disaster Risk Reduction 2011
Revealing Risk, Redefining Development
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The 2011 Global Assessment Report on Disaster Risk Reduction (GAR11) highlights the political and economic imperative to reduce disaster risks, and the benefits to be gained from doing so. Importantly, it offers guidance and suggestions to governments and nongovernmental actors alike on how they can, together, reduce disaster risks.

Many countries have made commendable progress in reducing mortality risk, at least for weather-related hazards. Deaths from floods and tropical cyclones are concentrated in Asia, but the mortality risk is now declining. Unfortunately, far less progress is being made addressing other disaster risks, and the cost of disaster-related economic loss and damage is still rising. Damage to housing, local infrastructure and public assets such as schools and health facilities is soaring in many low- and middleincome countries. Drought risk is also still poorly understood and badly managed.

Governments report successes in strengthening their capacities to prepare for and respond to disasters, but admit having difficulty addressing the drivers responsible for increasing risk. Few governments are investing sufficiently to reduce recurrent losses that affect public assets or lowincome households, or to protect themselves from future catastrophic loss. Even fewer have appropriate risk governance arrangements in place. Unfortunately, despite the growing interest shown by governments at the second session of the Global Platform for DisasterRisk Reduction in June 2009,1  many countries have yet to find a clear political and economic imperative to ‘invest today for a safer tomorrow’.

The previous Global Assessment Report on Disaster Risk Reduction (GAR09) provided compelling evidence to show how certain drivers increase disaster risks, including badly planned and managed urban and regional development, degraded ecosystems, and poverty. It also highlighted how disaster losses can feed back into other outcomes such as deteriorating health and education, and broader and deeper poverty. Reducing disaster risk is thus critical to the achievement of the Millennium Development Goals, and addressing underlying risk drivers is also vital to climate change adaptation, especially in the short- and medium-term.

Public investment is typically 3–15 percent of GDP in low- and middle-income countries (UNFCCC, 2007


UNFCCC (United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change). 2007. Investment and financial flows to address climate change. Bonn, Germany: Secretariat of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change.
). In 2008 for example, it was US$5.7 billion or 4.5 percent of GDP in Morocco, and US$9.6 billion or 15 percent of GDP in Ethiopia (World Bank, 2010a


World Bank. 2010a. Africa development indicators. Washington DC, USA: The World Bank.
). How sensitive such investments are to risk strongly influences whether disaster risk will decrease or increase over time.

Any decision to invest public resources in disaster risk management (DRM) involves tradeoffs with other priorities in which the same resources could have been invested. At present, most countries do not systematically account for the cost of recurrent disaster losses, let alone the cost of indirect impacts on health, education and productivity. Even fewer comprehensively estimate the maximum losses they may incur. As such, governments are poorly positioned to assess the trade-offs implicit in their public investment decisions, and have difficulty justifying increased investment in DRM. By navigating in a sea of risks without a compass, public resources are constantly being diverted to rehabilitate or reconstruct damaged or destroyed assets, and disasters continue to surprise governments without adequate contingency measures in place.

A lack of data alone, however, does not explain the weak imperative to invest in reducing disaster risks. Although there has always been a strong political incentive for disaster response, the incentives for risk reduction are far more difficult to leverage. Recurrent losses in localized disasters, which mainly affect the assets and livelihoods of low-income households and communities, rarely have the gravity to translate into significant political momentum for risk reduction. Given short-term political time horizons and the tendency to strongly discount low-probability future losses, the political incentive to address catastrophic risk may be equally elusive. Addressing underlying risk drivers may involve tackling politically charged issues such as land ownership or water rights. Also, it is often easy to evade political responsibility and accountability for avoidable losses, and attribute disaster risk to historical causes or factors such as climate change – over which individual governments may have little or no control.

Any further progress in reducing disaster risk and adapting to climate change, therefore, depends on clearly identifying the political and economic imperatives to invest in DRM, and on strengthening the necessary risk governance capacities in order to do so.

GAR11 explores these challenges. It highlights the need for systematic accounting of disaster losses and impacts, and comprehensive assessment of disaster risks. These are critical transformative steps that allow governments to visualize and assess the political and economic trade-offs. The economic imperative to invest is becoming increasingly clear. Case studies commissioned for this report confirm that making public investment risk-sensitive is generally less costly than retaining disaster risks and absorbing the losses. Putting in place risk financing mechanisms to anticipate catastrophic risk strengthens fiscal stability and reduces the political risk of being seen as unprepared. Being able to see these trade-offs does not automatically generate political incentives, but it does mean that decisions not to invest in DRM are taken consciously and with eyes wide open.

Innovative approaches are also emerging that suggest a new risk governance paradigm, such as the adaptation of existing policies and development instruments in areas such as public investment planning and social protection. These not only address underlying risk drivers, but also facilitate significant up-scaling of initiatives otherwise impossible with individual projects and programmes, by building on existing institutions and capacities and harnessing significant volumes of public investment. Furthermore, additional political incentives accrue by acknowledging the ‘developmental by-products’ of improved infrastructure and services. Creative partnerships between civil society and central and local governments in urban areas are also generating innovative ideas. These are critical, given that future disaster risk will largely be determined by how towns and cities are planned and managed.

The kind of institutional and legislative arrangements that many countries have adopted to manage their disaster risks may be effective in responding to disasters, but they do not necessarily address the underlying risk drivers. Reforming these arrangements is therefore essential to further progress. This report discusses the case for locating policy responsibility for disaster risk management in a ministry with political responsibility for national planning and public investment, and with leverage and influence over development sectors. It also discusses the case for appropriately distributing responsibilities across governance scales, and for strengthening mechanisms to ensure accountability and partnerships with civil society.

Key definitions

This report uses a widely accepted model, in which disaster risk is considered to be a function of hazard, exposure and vulnerability. Disaster risk is normally expressed as the probability of loss of life or destroyed or damaged assets in a given period of time. Generic definitions of these and other terms are available in the UNISDR Glossary2,  while the way these terms are used in GAR11 is explained below.

GAR11 uses the term physical (rather than natural) hazard to refer to hazardous phenomena such as floods, storms, droughts and earthquakes. Processes such as urbanization, environmental degradation and climate change shape and configure hazards, which mean it is becoming increasingly difficult to disentangle their natural and human attributes. Major hazard is used to refer to global or regionally important hazards such as earthquakes, tsunamis, flooding in large river basins and tropical cyclones. Localized hazard is used to refer to smaller-scale hazards such as flash or surface water flooding, fires, storms and landslides, which tend to affect particular localities. Exposure is used to refer to the location of people or economic assets in hazard-prone areas. Vulnerability is used to refer to their susceptibility to suffer damage and loss, due for example to unsafe housing and living conditions. Resilience is used to refer to the capacity of systems (such as a household economy or community) to absorb or buffer losses, and recover.

Extensive risk is used to describe the risk of low-severity, high-frequency disasters, mainly but not exclusively associated with highly localized hazards. Intensive risk is used to describe the risk of high-severity, low-frequency disasters, mainly associated with major hazards. Emerging risk is used to describe the risk of extremely low-probability disasters associated with new patterns of hazard and vulnerability. Geomagnetic storms, for example, have always occurred, but the associated risks are now magnified by the growing dependence of modern societies on networks which are vulnerable to these storms. Underlying risk drivers are development-related processes such as badly planned and managed urban and regional development, environmental degradation and poverty, which shape risk patterns and trends.

Disaster risk reduction (DRR) describes the policy objective of reducing risk. Disaster risk management (DRM) describes the actions that aim to achieve this objective. This includes prospective risk management, such as better planning, designed to avoid the construction of new risks; corrective risk management, designed to address pre-existing risks; compensatory risk management, such as insurance and risk transfer, designed to avoid disaster losses spilling over into poverty and other outcomes, and; disaster management measures such as preparedness and response. Risk governance is used to describe how national or local governments, civil society and other actors organize DRM, for example through institutional arrangements, legislation and decentralization, and mechanisms for participation and accountability.

1  Held on 16-19 June 2009 in Geneva, Switzerland, it was attended by 1,668 participants from 152 governments and 137 organizations. The Chair’s Summary recorded that “since the first session of the Global Platform in 2007, there has been a dramatic increase in political will in all regions to address disaster risk, across both developed and developing nations and [in] both Governments and civil society organizations.”

2  UNISDR, 2009. Terminology on Disaster Risk Reduction. Geneva, Switzerland: UNISDR.

GAR 11 Background documents

GAR11GAR 2011 Contributing Papers

No GAR 11 Contributing Papers
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