Climate change adaptation and disaster risk reduction: comparison, contrasts, and emerging synergies (Cities, Disasters, and Climate risk)

The basic assumptions and institutional conditions under which climate change adaptation strategies and disaster risk reduction activities have emerged are reviewed here, as well as areas where additional potential opportunities for synergy within the urban context are starting to emerge.

Urban climate change adaptation strategy efforts have responded to increased awareness of the potential threat of climate change and enhanced climate variability. In the past decade, government and international organizations within cities have begun to assess how climate change could have a wide variety of primary and secondary impacts. The foundation for emerging climate change and adaptation policy has been science-based studies and assessments. Premier examples of such efforts are the four major assessment reports of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which have been produced since 1990. These reports, along with a host of regional and national scientific reports as well as city-based assessments, serve as the basis for city-scale action. The administrative response to the emerging pressure of climate change impacts and associated scientific assessment, however, remains largely diffuse and uneven, often-times driven by a single agency or concerned officials within several agencies, without firm legislative mandates, and/or without financial or human resources to implement action plans. In many least developed country cities, if a climate change adaptation agenda exists it is often buried in environmental ministries or agencies that have very little voice and often even less influence.


In other managerial contexts, urban theorists and practitioners, with their emphasis on rational comprehensive planning as the primary tool to regulate city development, have evolved into a more bottom-up community-oriented approach of advocacy planning widely used in urban governance in the past decade (Campbell and Fainstein, 1996). Here as well, most city managers do not yet address climate change in their policy planning and strategies largely because city-specific risks remain undefined and more short-term problems, such as lack of basic services or overextended and aging infrastructure, take precedence.


Where climate change concerns are actually being recognized by policymakers and managers at the local level, climate risk literature looks predominantly at hazards – temperature, precipitation, and sea level trends and projections. This emphasis can be explained by the fact that in the near future most climate change impacts are likely to be in the form of enhanced climate variability, i.e., increased frequency and intensity of extreme events. While the observed and projected trends in climate parameters are a prerequisite to any assessment of climate risk and associated management strategies, in the context of cities two additional vectors are critical and often neglected – namely vulnerability and adaptive capacity. Vulnerability of a city is determined by a host of internal characteristics of the city set within a larger socio-environmental context. Adaptive capacity is a function of the ability and willingness of the city stakeholders to respond to and prepare for future climate-induced stresses.

In contrast to recent developments in climate change adaptation strategy action, disaster risk reduction planning developed out of much longer term efforts over the past half century in cities to provide emergency disaster response and recovery services for affected populations and economies (Blaikie et al. 1994; Helmer and Hilhorst, 2006; O’Brien et al, 2006). Previous to this, indigenous disaster resilience techniques were used. Disaster risk reduction planning and efforts in most cities emerged only after a major catastrophe occurred and where the potential for coherent local and national response efforts was possible. Prior to the past several decades, deficient communication and transportation infrastructure, political instability, and/ or lack of governance structure made the response to disasters in cities quite limited. These challenges are still present in many less-developed countries’ cities.

In further contrast to climate change adaptation, disaster risk reduction efforts typically grew out of public safety and civil defense mandates in the wake of a major event, instead of scientific study as with climate change and IPCC-style assessments. In its origin, urban disaster management focused largely on response and recovery to address the immediate pain and suffering of disaster aftermath rather than the underlying socioeconomic foundations of vulnerability and adaptive capacity.

In the past two decades, as it became clear that disasters cannot be managed only as one-time events to be dealt with through humanitarian response and economic reconstruction, a significant amount of focus in disasters work has shifted toward a new approach that addresses the root causes of disaster vulnerability through either structural or non-structural adaptations (Blaikie et al., 1994). The new perspective has engendered considerable focus on risk assessment, institutional capacity building, risk mitigation investments, emergency preparedness, and catastrophe risk financing. Examples of significant improvements include development and implementation of building codes, early warning systems, drainage systems, hazard mapping, agricultural insurance, and financial risk pools.

Another central difference between climate change adaptation and disaster risk reduction as they are currently implemented in cities is the type of events they address and the implication of the events. Coupled with these distinctions are differing definitions and terminologies (for terms like hazard, risk, and sensitivity), which further divide the communities. For example, disaster risk reduction focuses on extreme events, the damage they cause, and short-term response. These extreme events often are conceptualized and defined as aberrant, isolated moments outside the norm, and the appropriate government response should to be bring the environment and social life in the affected zone "back to normal" as soon as possible. Climate change can exacerbate existing disaster risks and increase the potential for new risk levels, but in many cases causes gradual changes that are not typically associated with disasters – e.g., shifts in ecosystem zones that can affect local and regional hydrology, and spread of public health disease vectors, and changes in heating and cooling energy demand. Under climate change, extreme events and gradual shifts are seen as part of an increasingly variable and dynamic physical environment and that new "normal" conditions are constantly evolving.

While the origins and basic precepts are different, there is a large amount of common ground between climate change adaptation and disaster risk reduction planning in cities (Huq et al., 2004). They share a common goal: managing hazards, building resilience and adaptive capacity in vulnerable communities. Adaptation strategies and disaster risk reduction increasingly are connected by their dual focus on the significance and impact of extreme climate events; analysis of the root cause of exposure and vulnerability and integration of these concepts into planning and action; and the significant role of management. Both communities seek to mainstream their activities (i) through the development of management plans aiming to incorporate these into the local and regional development plans and strategies, and (ii) by having existing agencies and departments and local governments integrate key sectoral guidelines and issues into their planning and implementation activities. Both communities support local capacity building and have an increasing recognition of the importance of both expert knowledge and local knowledge in addressing their policy concerns. We further explore and assess this blending of the two sets of activities in the next section.

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