Convergence of climate change adaptation and disaster risk reduction in the urban context (Cities, Disasters, and Climate risk)

Climate change and potential adaptation strategies are connected with existing disaster response and hazard management strategies in several ways (ICS, 2008; International Strategy For Disaster Reduction, 2010; Mercer, 2010). Disaster risk reduction management includes several phases such as risk assessment and preparedness planning; response, relief, and recovery; and structural hazard mitigation activities and non-structural hazard mitigation activities. Conditions of climate change and increased climate variability can affect the success and effectiveness of critical phases of disaster and hazard management. Such interactions are used as opportunities to more closely link climate risk adaptation and disaster risk reduction strategies and avoid the potential of the two remaining separate, become duplicative, fragmented, and overlapping risk assessments that do not well serve local decision-makers.

Climate change provides disaster risk reduction in cities several important opportunities for advancement, and vice versa (Pelling 2003, Pelling et al., 2009; Prabhakar et at, 2009). The most important opportunity is that climate change raises the profile and importance of disaster risk reduction efforts. Climate change can help to connect disaster management to cutting-edge national and international policy issues, which are garnering the attention of governments at all levels and the NGO community as well. Conversely, since the disaster risk reduction agenda has often been built up over the past decade in the finance and planning agencies in many cities, this presence can help the climate change adaptation agenda to evolve from its current often-constrained situation in environment departments. Furthermore, disaster risk reduction planning frequently has well-developed platforms and coordination mechanisms, such as interagency task forces and mutual aid agreements, at the regional and city level to which climate change adaptation planning can be linked. Governments typically have plans, institutions, and policies already in place for disasters, while climate change adaptation planning is still very much under development.


The disaster management community also provides the main entry points to climate change adaptation for the general public. The public in cities often connect greenhouse gas reduction when hearing of climate change, but the questions "How do we deal with disaster impacts here and now?" and "What are the solutions to reduce the disaster impacts/vulnerabilities?" are questions that disaster management officials deal with on a regular basis. Thus, to incentivize officials at all levels to engage in the climate change agenda, disaster reduction can provide a key policy entry point.

City governments have begun to recognize the importance of disaster risk reduction at times other than during and just after a disaster event (Van Aalst, 2006; Van Aalst et al., 2007). Climate change heightens the awareness and concern for the potential of climate-related perturbations, such as cyclones, droughts, and floods. In many cities, the specter of increased intensity and frequency of extreme events is the primary policy concern associated with climate change. As this concern is raised, so is the focus on disaster risk reduction strategies and planning. Resilience initiatives emerge as one of the best "no regrets" actions that can be taken in the short term to reduce disaster vulnerability, from both current threats and those emerging from climate change. This increased interest not only presents opportunities for those promoting in disaster response and recovery, but also more importantly for long-term disaster risk exposure reduction and non-structural hazard mitigation strategies (e.g., promoting resettlement away from low-lying coastal sites that will affected by sea level rise, increased storm surge, and inundation).

Disaster preparedness planning is predicated on understanding the hazard and risk potential within the locale through analysis of historical hazard events and ongoing socio-physical shifts – e.g., increased urbanization and changing flood potential. Climate change increases the need for reassessment of disaster planning assumptions because of the potential for change of the environmental baselines (e.g., coastal evacuation plans need to be reevaluated because of heightened storm surge and flooding potential). Similarly, disaster recovery and reconstruction efforts will need to be reexamined, because in the future more-numerous climate-related disasters could have greater threat to life and property and be associated with more widespread and higher numbers of displaced people, homelessness, and property damage.

Structural and non-structural hazard mitigation policies will need to be reevaluated in the context of climate change (Thomalla et al., 2006). Additionally, the efficacy of large-scale infrastructure and capital improvement projects will need to be reevalu-ated. Projects possibly deemed as not cost-effective or overly ambitious, such as storm barriers or other flood-control devices in cities, might become feasible and needed as climate change impacts increase the possibility of more frequent disasters and greater losses per event. Non-structural approaches, which currently might seem as not appropriate or necessary, might need to be considered. Moving critical infrastructure out of highly vulnerable floodplains or coastal zones is just one example.


The interactions between climate change and disaster management provide opportunities to promote more structured coordination, planning, and communication, and eventually the effectiveness of both. The blending of initially diverse policy and research arenas is not without precedent within disaster management. During the 1980s, the previously disparate streams of natural hazards and technological hazards (including hazardous chemical releases and exposures) were effectively blended in an all-hazards management approach in some governments, such as the in USA through its Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). Lessons learned from this experience can contribute to understanding how best to link climate change adaptation and disaster risk reduction.

The climate change community is now providing increasingly sophisticated climate models and scenarios that are enabling the disaster risk reduction managers in cities to better evaluate in terms of risks and vulnerabilities (World Bank, 2008). In turn, the disaster risk reduction community has brought to climate change planning a long history of experience and lessons learned and well-developed tools, such as probabilistic risk assessment techniques and frameworks for decision-making. For example, the disaster risk reduction community has developed the Hyogo Framework for Action 2005-2015 (HFA), an international agreement to build the resilience of nations and communities to disasters. The HFA provides the foundation for the implementation of disaster risk reduction. Agreed at the World Conference on Disaster Reduction in January 2005, in Kobe, Japan, by 168 governments, its intended outcome is the substantial reduction of losses from disasters in the next 10 years.

Critical components in this process of convergence include the development of common protocols for data gathering and reporting, and for assessment. Within the past half decade, climate change and climate variability studies increasingly have been able to utilize conceptual assessment frames present within the disaster risk reduction community. Critical concepts being explored include hazard, vulnerability, and adaptive capacity. In the next section, we detail these concepts and their emerging connections to climate change adaptation strategy development and risk assessment.

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