Consecutive disasters can no longer be ignored

Scientific models tend to view disasters as separate events. However, disasters regularly occur in relatively quick succession, and this can also worsen their impacts. Researchers Marleen de Ruiter, Anais Couasnon and Philip Ward of the VU Institute for Environmental Issues (IVM-VU) recently published a paper on consecutive disasters. The researchers developed a roadmap for research and policy leading to a more holistic approach to disaster risk management.

03/05/2020 | 1:33 PM

Forest fires
In recent decades, a striking number of countries have suffered from consecutive disasters: events whose impacts overlap both spatially and temporally, while recovery is still ongoing. The risk of consecutive disasters is further increased by growing exposure, the interconnectedness of human society and the increased frequency and intensity of non-tectonic hazards. Australia’s prolonged season of forest fires, for example, has aggravated the effects of the subsequent rainfall in the country. With the tree population decimated and the ground dry and barren, the rainfall immediately triggered flash floods. The two cyclones that hit Mozambique and neighbouring countries last year provide another telling example of one disaster rapidly following another.

Disaster risk management
As advanced as our hyper-modern risk assessment models and their output may be, they do not allow a thorough representation and analysis of consecutive disasters. The IVM-VU researchers’ paper gives an overview of the different types of consecutive disasters, their causes and consequences, and how clearly those consequences can differ from those of disasters that occur in isolation. The research team used existing empirical disaster databases to show the global probabilistic occurrence for selected hazard types. They argue that widespread lack of understanding and adherence to the single-hazard approach is primarily due to the many challenges presented by addressing and combining hazards of different natures and taking into account their interactions and dynamics. Disaster risk management needs to become more holistic and researchers, policymakers, aid workers and companies need to find ways of acting together. In the future, we need a paradigm shift in order to take a holistic view of risk, which in turn will enable the development of more sustainably designed measures and a holistic risk management policy.