IRDR’s 3rd WCDRR Public Forum Side Event Focused on the Role of Science in DRR

1(Sendai, Japan, 15 March 2015) The Integrated Research on Disaster Risk (IRDR) programme welcomed a full house of attentive participants to its side event during the Third UN World Conference on Disaster Risk Reduction (3rd WCDRR) Public Forum. Held at the Kawauchi-kita campus of Tohoku University the session, entitled “Integrated Research on Disaster Risk: the Role of Science in Disaster Risk Reduction,” presented on the methodological advances, case studies and results from three of IRDR’s four core projects, which responds to calls for more effective development and application of scientific research for disaster risk reduction. The session comprised three sub-sessions, one for each project, with each sub-session commenting on different innovative ways to address the science-policy interface at different levels (global, regional, national, local).

Sub-Session 1: The Disaster Loss Data (DATA) Project
“The Natural Hazard Loss Datascape” (Download presentation)
Presenters: Prof Susan Cutter and Dr Daniele Ehrlich, IRDR DATA Project Co-Chairs

The goal of the IRDR DATA project is to bring together loss data stakeholders to identify common data needs and improvements in quality. The project is helping to develop guidelines to harmonise data across databases and to define losses more consistently. Prof Cutter and Dr Ehrlich presented on the project’s two main efforts currently underway: harmonising peril classifications, and the development of a guidance on impact indicators.

(l-r) Prof Susan L. Cutter and Dr Daniele Ehrlich, co-chairs of the IRDR DATA project working group.
(l-r) Prof Susan L. Cutter and Dr Daniele Ehrlich, co-chairs of the IRDR DATA project working group.


As it concerns harmonising peril classifications, the IRDR DATA project expert working group has completed a framework for classifying perils with three levels ranging from the most general (family) to the most specific (peril). The classification system was designed to apply to multiple types of databases: global, national and subnational. A primer has been produced on the peril classification (IRDR DATA Project Report No. 1), which also includes a glossary.

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For the three main global databases (Munich Re, EM-DAT, Swiss Re) as well as the more than 55 national disaster loss databases, there is no consistent set of human or economic impact measures. Further, there is confusion on the definitions of some of the existing loss accounting variables. For example, in some databases mortality includes deaths and missing persons, while in others it only includes deaths. This leads to inconsistent and incomplete data on impacts, and data that are highly variable from one database to another. To reduce the inconsistencies, the IRDR DATA Project developed guidance for the minimum set of desired indicators across all loss databases, and a glossary of definitions to maintain consistency in counting (IRDR DATA Project Report No. 2).

Sub-Session 2: The Forensic Investigations of Disasters (FORIN) Project
“FORIN: Advancing Research and Analysis of Root Causes of Disaster” (Download presentation)
Presenters: Profs Irasema Alcántara-Ayala and Anthony Oliver-Smith and, IRDR FORIN Project Co-Chairs

The IRDR FORIN project has developed, disseminated and implemented a radical new approach in disaster risk research that seeks to identify and explain the underlying risk drivers, including the growth in magnitude and frequency of, very large disaster events. FORIN examines these root causes and the dynamic processes of risk drivers through an integrated, interdisciplinary and comprehensive analysis of the causes and consequences of disasters. It is through the identification of the risk drivers that factors, which attenuated or accelerated the impacts, can be identified and then translated into improvements in disaster risk management policies and practices. The analysis of root causes and risk drivers of FORIN research employs a longitudinal perspective with four basic approaches: retrospective longitudinal analysis, projective longitudinal analysis, comparative analysis, and meta-analysis.

Profs. Alcántara-Ayala and Oliver-Smith provided the audience with an overview of the social construction of risk, the objectives of the IRDR FORIN project and the utilisation of FORIN to analyse the root causes and risk drivers of large disaster events, specifically the cases of the 2010 Haiti earthquake via retrospective longitudinal analysis; hurricane Mitch and the social construction of vulnerability in Honduras via projective longitudinal analysis; a comparative analysis of hurricane Luis’ impacts on St Maarten in 1995; and an example of the use of meta-analysis via an examination of James K. Mitchell’s (1999) Crucibles of Hazard: Mega-Cities and Disasters in Transition.

(l-r) Profs Anthony Oliver-Smith and Irasema Alcántara-Ayala, co-chairs of the IRDR FORIN project working group.
(l-r) Profs Anthony Oliver-Smith and Irasema Alcántara-Ayala, co-chairs of the IRDR FORIN project working group.

While there will be challenges, the IRDR FORIN project co-chairs noted that the recognition of the social construction of risk, utilising FORIN, will enable societies to positively intervene in the social deconstruction or avoidance of disaster risk.

Sub-Session 3: The Risk Interpretation and Action (RIA) Project
“Risk Interpretation and Action: Integrating New Science with Policy Planning” (Download presentation flyer)
Presenters: Prof Mark Pelling (IRDR RIA Project Co-Chair), Prof Kevin Ronan (Central Queensland University, Australia); Mr Buh Gaston (Geotechnology, Environmental Assessment and Disaster Risk Reduction – GEADIRR, Cameroon); Terry Gibson (Global Network for Disaster Reduction – GNDR, UK); and Dr Victoria Johnson (Massey University, New Zealand, via pre-recorded video).

The IRDR RIA project focuses on the question of how people—both decision-makers and ordinary citizens—make decisions, individually and collectively, in the face of risk. RIA has been charged with advocating for research support and communicating the best science that can help to improve outcomes for disaster risk reduction. In particular this agenda is shaped around the observation that, despite continuing improvements in science, technology and data for disaster risk assessment and management, losses continue to rise, especially in everyday events and at the levels of livelihood disruption and people made homeless.

Approaching this global challenge the IRDR RIA project is guided by four priority areas:

  • Decision-making for uncertainty;
  • Early warning systems;
  • Adaptive management and resilience; and
  • Individual perceptions and risk behaviour.

These four areas of interest are cross-cut by three work priorities:

  1. Integrating new science with policy planning by facilitating the interaction of science with research-users;
  2. Community building by providing an international focal point for pure and applied research, and for risk management professionals working on risk perception, communication and governance; and
  3. Research leadership by championing risk perception, communication and governance concerns through the research process, including providing expertise for integrated research activities and providing guidance to research funders.
(l-r) Mark Pelling, Buh Gaston and Terry Gibson, Kevin Ronan and Victoria Johnson (via pre-recorded video)
(l-r) Mark Pelling, Buh Gaston and Terry Gibson, Kevin Ronan and Victoria Johnson (via pre-recorded video)

The RIA segment of the session profiled three approaches to integrating science with policy and practice. The aim was to show success: where methods have been developed and networks do exist and have been sustained, and improved impacts for disaster risk reduction outcomes could be seen. This was a good news story! Yet these successes are not as widely recognised as they might be, as outputs do not fit neatly with the incentives of academic careers. The discussions following the presentations therefore focused on the identification of new formulations of science-policy/practice coproduction and associated collaborations that IRDR could help to champion.

IRDR’s 3rd WCDRR Public Forum side event was chaired by Prof David Johnston, Chair of the IRDR Science Committee and Director of the Joint centre for Disaster Research (JCDR) at Massey University in Wellington, New Zealand. Supported as a pioneering programme by the UNISDR, ICSU and ISSC, IRDR therefore tests the capacity of all actors to confederate their efforts and insights to advance towards higher objectives of disaster risk reduction and resilience.

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