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Overcoming barriers to proactive response in slow-onset disasters

Source(s):  United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction (UNDRR)

Disasters differ markedly in their speed of manifestation, which in turn greatly affects how researchers as well as authorities interpret and respond to them. In theory, disasters with a gradual and creeping onset are easier to manage than sudden and unexpected ones. However, the unfortunate reality is that hazards with a slow-onset are often ignored, left smouldering in the background, while their impacts gradually build up and strengthen over time – sometimes irreversibly so – until eventually becoming critical emergencies. This is also true for disasters where forecasts provided decision makers with several days' advance notice. Enhancing the understanding of these phenomena, including why they rarely secure proactive response, is therefore central in achieving the ambitious targets set out in the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction (SFDRR).

By focusing on six traits, or lessons associated with slow-onset disasters, this background paper sets out to elaborate on the unique challenges posed by slow-onset disasters with implications for disaster risk reduction (DRR) work. This paper summarizes these traits as:

  1. Early warning technologies do not necessarily secure proactive response to slow-onset disasters due to political and practical obstacles in the way of timely action. 
  2. Generic all-hazards DRR strategies, while best practice in the context of sudden-onset disasters, are generally inappropriate for the management of slow-onset disasters.
  3. Slow-onset disasters often fall outside the mandate of specialized disaster management agencies.
  4. The geographically dispersed nature of slow-onset disaster impacts reduces their perceived severity and political salience.
  5. The concept of disaster is often equated with sudden-onset disasters.
  6. The vast majority of disaster research and theory revolves around sudden-onset disasters, generally the largest and most destructive historical events. 

Addressing these obstacles head on as the SFDRR process matures will enable both better prescriptive policy recommendations, as well as research that is more sensitive to the different demands introduced by slow-onset disasters.

This paper is a contribution to the 2019 edition of the Global Assessment Report on Disaster Risk Reduction (GAR 2019).

To cite this paper: 

Staupe-Delgado, R. Overcoming barriers to proactive response in slow-onset disasters. Contributing Paper to GAR 2019



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  • Overcoming barriers to proactive response in slow-onset disasters
  • Publication date 2019
  • Author(s) Staupe-Delgado, Reidar
  • Number of pages 16 p.

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