What you can’t measure, you can’t manage. This was one of the core messages of Margareta Wahlström, Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Disaster Risk Reduction, at the Global Platform for Disaster Risk Reduction in 2013. Disasters prevented, losses that did not occur and less socio-economic impact on society are not easily accounted for. To do so, impacts of disasters must be recorded at quite a detailed level and using methodologies that allow aggregation over space and time. Moving from anecdotal evidence driven mainly by media coverage of disastrous events to a scientific method to consistently and accurately recording losses is essential, and new partnerships between science and DRR actors are enabling just this.
The Hyogo Framework for Action (HFA) is a 10-year plan (from 2005 to 2015) to make the world safer from natural hazards. It was endorsed by the UN General Assembly in the Resolution A/RES/60/195 following the 2005 World Disaster Reduction Conference, and a follow up is being negotiated for launch in January 2015. HFA aims to explain, describe and detail the work that is required from all different sectors and actors to reduce disaster losses. The outcomes of the 2013 Global Platform for Disaster Risk Reduction, the bi-annual conference of HFA, stressed the role of science: “It is expected that the HFA2 will recognize the need to govern disaster risk reduction and resilience through clear responsibilities, strong coordination, enabled local action, appropriate financial instruments and a clear recognition of a central role for science. The Platform called [...] to develop targets and indicators to monitor the reduction of risk and the implementation of HFA2.”
Loss accounting is not new. It is the business of the insurance industry, which has developed industry standards for recording losses. However, insured losses are only a fraction of total losses in most countries, it doesn’t cover all disaster types equally, and the method depends largely on customers filing insurance claims. Human losses have been recorded systematically and for the purpose of humanitarian action at national and international levels. Since 1988 the WHO Collaborating Centre for Research on the Epidemiology of Disasters (CRED) has been maintaining an Emergency Events Database EM-DAT, which is the most cited database. It is an initiative aimed to rationalise decision making for disaster preparedness, as well as providing an objective base for vulnerability assessment and priority setting. However, its data collecting methods rely mainly on collecting and analysing media reports and/or official government figures, which are typically only available for the larger events, are not collected in a scientific manner and therefore can’t provide a consistent, comprehensive and accurate picture. The United Nations addressed this issue by fostering the development of national databases, often based on open source software they developed, DesInventar. The idea is that more accurate measurements are made at higher scales. There are now more than 40 countries that have implemented DesInventar-based loss recording systems, and the European Commission is funding UNISDR to expand this to another 30. The Global Assessment Report 2013 has indeed shown that more accurate measurements reveal 50% more losses than previously accounted for.
But why stop at national level? The private sector is measuring losses on a house-by-house level, so why not establishing this for the public sector too? Some countries where the risk is carried mostly by the public sector have indeed done so. Slovenia has precise and comprehensive loss databases and recording losses is a standard part of emergency management processes. The issue is one of cost. The Slovenian model may be too costly to implement in larger countries, and the benefits may not outweigh the costs in countries where the risk is mostly transferred to the private sector.
The key in all this is to strike a balance depending on the circumstances. This requires appropriate standards for recording loss data, that are allow for (1) collecting data in a rigorous and scientific way, (2) make it possible to compare or integrate databases from different municipalities, regions or nations and (3) allow for aggregating and sharing data with Europe and UN for global accounting.
The JRC has stepped up work in this area. JRC is part of several international groups that aim to develop loss standards, including the Integrated Research on Disaster Risk DATA working group. More concrete, a study on standards for loss databases in the EU was delivered to ECHO in July 2013 and outlines the key challenges, but also the key benefits of loss databases. These include of course loss accounting, to better understanding composition of disasters, their impacts and their patterns, but also support for two other disaster risk reduction measures. First, disaster forensics is the detailed analysis of what went wrong and why society could not cope with a hazard. Typically this is either because the hazard was too big, because population and infrastructure was exposed without protection measures, or because of a lack of mitigation measures. An accurate loss record is key evidence in forensic studies. Second, loss data is essential to develop hazard impact and early warning models. From loss data, the vulnerabilities of population and assets can be derived.
JRC will continue to work with ECHO, Member States, ISDR and international organisations in to provide scientific advice in this area.