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Disaster Risk: Objectives?

The definition of risk in the Risk Management International Standard is the effect of uncertainty on objectives. This definition works quite easily in the corporate context, where a business has a clearly defined set of objectives, but what about in disaster management.

Communities are a bit messier than a business. They don’t get together and articulate their objectives over the next ‘corporate planning period’. Although governments do attempt gather general views and aspirations of the community, these efforts are coloured by the purpose of the engagement and more vocal individuals that they tend to capture.

Most disaster risk management experts would characterise their objective as the reduction of disaster risks. Plug that into the risk definition and you get something that’s pretty close to being circular. Unpack it a bit further, though and disaster risk reduction boils down to this:

  • Protecting communities from harm; and
  • Minimising the immediate and long-term impacts of that harm on communities.

Applying the risk definition to these objectives shifts the focus from the hazardous events to our ability to anticipate, protect and recover from the community impacts of hazardous events.

The risks that we’re trying to manage are not floods, storms and chemical leaks. They’re that our levees may be full of holes, our logistical coordination arrangements are inadequate and that the community is not prepared to shelter-in-place during an emergency.

This approach offers new opportunities. It allows emergency managers to:

  • Focus on actions that are much more within our control;
  • Identify potential failure points in our emergency management system before the disaster occurs; and
  • Prioritise improvements to existing systems, equipment and infrastructure rather than re-inventing the wheel.

Knowledge of hazardous events is still important, though. Knowing how disasters will test our capabilities mean understanding both and their interaction.

Applied a capability focussed risk management process? Let me know in the comments.


Welcome to Casus Calamitas

Welcome to Casus Calamitas, a blog about disaster risk, risk reduction and resilience in the modern world. Casus Calamitas loosely translates from latin to mean ‘chance of disaster’.

Latin doesn’t really have a word for risk, at least not in the modern sense. So what is the difference between chance and risk?

Central to modern systems of disaster management is the concept of ‘risk’. The International Standard on Risk Management (ISO 31000) defines risk as the effect of uncertainty on objectives. In the disaster context this uncertainty can relate to:

  • When will the hazardous event occur;
  • how intense will it be;
  • how will it impact on communities and the environment; and
  • how well will those communities respond to the impact.

Chance just refers to the timing of the event. Risk involves much more than chance. Unfortunately, people often focus just on this element missing the opportunity to do much more about minimising their risk. Mature risk management systems are able to bring in all the dimensions to strive towards a much broader and objective view of the disaster risks.

I’ve talked about the uncertainty associated with disasters, but that’s just half the ISO31000 definition. What are the objectives that this uncertainty impacts on?

That’s something I’ll focus on next time.