Uncertainty and the Future in Disaster Resilience

AAYLF delegate from Singapore Nanthini Sambanthan explores the challenges and dangers of Natural Disasters in the ASEAN region.

The Asia-Pacific region is the most disaster-prone region in the world. In 2018, almost half of 281 global natural disaster events occurred in this region, with 8 out of the 10 deadliest events occuring in the Asia-Pacific (Guha-Sapir 2019). Moreover, climate change has added an extra element of uncertainty to the weather patterns, as can be seen by out-of-season extreme disaster events such as the intensifying bushfires affecting Australia and the myriad of typhoons, earthquakes and cyclones affecting the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) countries (ESCAP 2019). 


Although technology and increased data availability have increased the predictability of and preparation period for some natural disasters, natural disasters ‘triggered’ by climate change tend to deviate from the ‘norm’, thus reducing the usefulness of the historical record (ESCAP 2019). A key example is Cyclone Nargis, which made landfall in 2008. One of the most deadliest cyclones to ever make landfall, its impact was likely worsened due its location in the Irrawaddy Delta, where there had been no historical record of cyclones and little preparation for such an event (Horton, De Mel et. al 2017). This uncertainty caused by climate change has led to a growing awareness that the usual disaster risk management context may not be as useful as it has been previously, and as such may need to be viewed at from a different angle.

Resilience in Disaster Risk Management

Resilience is a cornerstone of the current disaster risk management context. According to the Hyogo Framework of Action (UNISDR 2005), resilience in a disaster management context refers to the “capacity of a system, community or society potentially exposed to hazards to adapt, by resisting or changing in order to reach and maintain an acceptable level of functioning and structure.” In other words, resilience refers to the preparedness of a system, community or society to ‘bounce back’ from a disaster event. 


   Resilience is usually viewed through a forward-planning linear lens- when a disaster occurs, it impacts a community and then, lessons are learnt which are later used to strengthen the resilience of a community. Most frameworks such as the Sendai Framework and the ASEAN Agreement on Disaster Management and Emergency Response (AADMER) would have resilience as a core theme underlying national disaster risk management policy. However, beyond acknowledging the impact caused by climate change on the intensity and frequency of natural disasters, most of these frameworks do not pay enough attention to its effect on the frameworks themselves.

Impact of Uncertainty on Resilience-based Frameworks 

The uncertainty caused by climate change has meant that the importance of historical records has somewhat diminished (ESCAP 2019). It is no longer enough to simply plan based on previous and/or ‘normal’ natural disasters, as the context in which they occurred has shifted causing deviations in the ‘norm’. As natural disasters have become less predictable and more likely to deviate from the ‘norm’, simply ‘forward-planning’ is not enough, authorities have to ‘plan backwards’. In other words, they have to shift their perspective. Rather than plan for the future based on information gathered from past events, they should instead plan from the future and work backwards to identify the actions that need to be taken to achieve a particular future scenario. 

   With the effects of climate change growing ever more apparent in the natural disasters unfolding in the Asia-Pacific region, to which both Australia and the ASEAN belong, disaster management continues to be a key area of interest for both- as seen in the recently finalised 2020-2024 Plan of Action to Implement the ASEAN-Australia Strategic Partnership. As such, both parties should collaborate in the reframing of current regional disaster management policies, such as the 2016-2020 AADMER Work Programme, to include an element of planning from the future when creating policies. it is vital that the frameworks through which disaster risk management is viewed be able to compensate for increasing uncertainty.


More to explore