Thursday, 30 May 2019

The 2019 Global Assessment Report (GAR)

The United Nations International Strategy for Disaster Reduction was born out of the International Decade for Natural Disaster Reduction, 1990-2000. On 1 May 2019 it was renamed the UN Office for Disaster Risk Reduction. UNDRR remains a relatively small  unit of the United Nations, but it has a truly world-wide reach. DRR is thus now truly mainstreamed at the global level.

UNDRR has a recurrent initiative for assessing the state of disaster preparedness around the world, and this results in a document, the Global Assessment Report (GAR), which is issued biennially to coincide with the UN's Global Platform on DRR. The 2019 report is accompanied by an executive summary called GAR Distilled. The GAR proper consists of 15 chapters in four sections: introductory, the Sendai Framework (SFDRR), its implementation (and interaction with sustainable development), and managing risk nationally and locally. The document is decanted from many different studies, some of which have been commissioned specially for it. These may be published separately in an academic journal. An example of this for the 2013 GAR can be found in Di Mauro (2014). This edition of the GAR is the first to report on the implementation of the Sendai Framework for DRR.

The 2019 GAR starts with a quotation from UN Secretary General António Guterres, who observes that in the modern world global challenges are more and more integrated and the responses are more and more fragmented. This is a powerful argument for joining forces and using a common agreed policy at the world-wide scale.

The GAR uses the 'pressure-and-release' model of Wisner et al, (2004) in an adapted form, consisting of: context. stressors, thresholds (nowadays known as 'tipping points' and impacts (which it terms 'systemic failure'). One great lesson that the modern world teaches us is that changes that we thought were gradual can be suddenly overwhelming. Perhaps we are unaware when the 'tipping points' are passed, and that is a dangerous situation to be in.

The GAR urges that international agreements (the Sendai Framework, the Sustainable Development Agenda, the Paris Agreement on Climate Change and the New Urban Agenda) be viewed collectively through the lens of systemic risk. It is clear that the world is still struggling to achieve the transition from a focus on responding to disaster impacts to one on reducing the risks associated with future impacts. The verdict on major risk is a resounding "sooner than expected", which, of course, reduces the time available to prepare. Initiatives need to coalesce around "risk informed sustainable development".

I have argued elsewhere (Alexander 2017) that the number of times the word 'should'  is used in an official document is an inverse indicator of its utility. The road to the nether regions is paved with things we should do (but for one reason or another have not done), and so a high 'should ratio' (the number of "shoulds" per page) is a proxy indicator for an ineffective instrument. The 'should ratios' of the GAR and GAR Distilled are 0.26 and 0.32, both below the alarm-signal threshold of 0.40. However, parts of the GAR bristle with "shoulds". Moreover, there are only two mentions of 'rights' and none of 'human rights'. The latter are very important to disaster risk reduction because they constrain or determine what can be done in the way of preparedness, action and reaction. UNISDR had a tendency to shy away from human rights issues, perhaps because it needed to remain engaged with countries that have a poor record in this respect.

The section of the GAR on 'challenges' is welcome, as the challenges are indeed legion. However, the two short paragraphs devoted to political challenges are extremely weak. It could be argued that political decision making is the greatest barrier of all to successful disaster risk reduction. We live in a world in which Terry Cannon's 'cure to damage ratio' is paramount. Globally, about a thousand times as much is spent on hydrocarbon exploration and extraction than on the mitigation of the climate change that results from burning fossil fuels (Mechler et al. 2019). Unofficial voices have suggested that the 'cure to damage ratio' for natural hazards is 1:43. In any case, there is no doubt that much more is spent on making the problem worse than on solving it. What is needed is a brutally honest assessment of why this is the case.

Notably, the GAR has finally come around to the view that we all bear the burden of reducing disaster risk. In putting individuals at the centre of a diagram of actions we see people either crushed between the rock of hazards and the hard place of risk-informed sustainable development or as protagonists in combatting the former with the latter. The GAR notes that "we all live in communities". No doubt we do, but the DRR community needs to do more to define what a community is, how it functions and whether it is really the right vehicle for solving our problems.

One of the most intransigent problems with the predecessor of the Sendai Framework, Hyogo Framework for Action, 2005-2015, was its resolute reliance on a 'top-down' approach. Studies showed that the HFA had had little impact at the local level (GNCSODR 2015). The Sendai Framework and all the United Nations impedimenta that goes with it tend to perpetuate this issue, despite the launch in 2010 of the UN Safe Cities programme (about 1% of towns and cities have signed up for it). Consequently, the greatest present-day challenge is to achieve change from the local level against rigid power structures and massive vested interests at the national and globalised levels. For the sake of survival, it must be done. The GAR helps, and no one would deny that a coordinated world-wide approach is needed, but there is a growing feeling that progress will never be rapid enough until there is a fundamental reorientation.

Further Reading

The full and abbreviated Global Assessment Report 2019 can both be freely downloaded from

Alexander, D.E. 2017. The 'should ratio'. Disaster Planning and Emergency Management, 18 July 2017.

Di Mauro, M. (ed.) 2014. Global probabilistic assessment of risk from natural hazards for the Global Assessment Report 2013 (GAR13). International Journal for Disaster Risk Reduction 10(B): 403-502.

GNCSODR 2015. Views From the Frontline: Beyond 2015. Recommendations for a Post-2015 Disaster Risk Reduction Framework to Strengthen the Resilience of Communities to All Hazards. Global Network of Civil Society Organisations for Disaster Reduction, Teddington, UK, 12 pp.

Mechler, R., L.M. Bouwer, T. Schinko, S. Surminski and J-A. Linnerooth-Bayer (eds) 2019. Loss and Damagefrom Climate Change: Concepts, Methods and Policy Options. Springer Open, Cham, Switzerland, 557 pp.

UNISDR 2005. Hyogo Framework for Action 2005-2015: Building the Resilience of Nations and Communities. United Nations International Strategy for Disaster Reduction, Geneva, 22 pp.

UNISDR 2015. Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction 2015-2030. United Nations International Strategy for Disaster Reduction, Geneva, 25 pp.

UNDRR 2019a. Global Assessment Report on Disaster Risk Reduction, 2019. United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction, Geneva, 472 pp.

UNDRR 2019b. GAR Distilled. United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction, Geneva, 26 pp.

Wisner, B., P. Blaikie, T. Cannon and I. Davis and 2004. At Risk: Natural Hazards, People's Vulnerability and Disasters (2nd edition). Routledge, London, 496 pp.

Monday, 27 May 2019

Leonardo and the Deluge

Leonardo da Vinci: Storm over a town in the mountains.

The 500th anniversary of the death of Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519) is an occasion to reflect once again on the life of a genius with a very complex and sophisticated mind. Leonardo's reputation as a painter has never wavered, despite the relative paucity of his output (and notwithstanding his disastrous attempts at fresco in Florence and Milan). Much of his life was dedicated to the preparation of a 'scientific' treatise on painting, which reflected his love of objectivity and his outstanding clear-sightedness. Although it is tempting to see Leonardo as unique in his portrayal of nature, he did in fact come from a milieu in which there was increasing interest in portraying nature and landscapes as they were, rather than as a stylised backdrop to the human or spiritual drama. Painters of the 13th and 14th centuries saw no reason to depict nature as it is, which reflected the prevailing philosophy of life as something that was heavily predetermined by celestial will. Naturalists were few and far between. Ristoro d'Arezzo, La composizione del mondo, 1282, and Dante Alighieri, Quaestio de Aqua et Terra, 1320, represented the first awakening of interest in the natural world, Petrarch's ascent of Mont Ventoux in 1336 sealed the knot. Leonardo's reputation as a painter rests upon his skill with the brush and his brilliance in composition and observation.

Leonardo as a natural scientist requires a more complex interpretation. Until fairly recent times, the social order has been preserved by visiting extreme cruelty on anyone regarded as a heretic or counter-culturalist. No doubt Leonardo wished to avoid the fate of Girolamo Savonarola, who in 1498 was burnt at the stake for heresy. Leonardo wrote for himself, privately, often using his ambidextrous skills to write in mirror image. We are now treated to the irony of long queues forming to look at pages and notebooks whose author regarded them as intensely private. Leonardo's reputation as a polymath rests upon the curious fact that no one could be bothered to throw away his jottings. Nor, for more than four centuries, could they be bothered to read them.

Leonardo was the illegitimate son of an accountant and an immigrant serving girl, born in a modest farm house about a kilometre from the outskirts of the Florentine town of Vinci. It has been suggested that his lack of formal education catalysed his ability to observe objectively: he has no knowledge of Latin or Greek and hence could not read the classic texts of orthodox learning. Nowadays, it would be fatal to ignore the body of knowledge accumulated in any field - the equivalent of trying to become an eminent surgeon by Googling illnesses. In the Renaissance, there was not only a growing desire to question ancient orthodoxies, there was an imperative to do so. Centuries later, George Bernard Shaw summarised it as follows: "A reasonable man adapts himself to the world. An unreasonable man persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore, all progress depends upon the unreasonable man." Leaving aside the latent sexism (in Shaw's day, 'man' was considered to be acceptable shorthand for 'man or woman'). Yet strangely, Leonardo, the archetypal Renaissance polymath, did not take on the world. His fascination in the modern era consists of a mixture of his genius in many fields (painting, natural history, hydraulics, flight, mechanics, architecture, military strategy, weaponry, anatomy, and so on) and his secretiveness.

Another aspect of his fascination concerns the uncanny ability of his inventions, discoveries and observations suddenly to appear relevant to modern preoccupations. In has native Italy, climate change appears to have intensified microcyclonic storms, which the public has begun to call 'water bombs'. These can cause sudden, catastrophic floods, often compounded by wind or hail damage. Towards the end of his life he became preoccupied with the threat of the Universal Deluge (in this he was not alone: see my paper on the etymology of the term 'resilience'). His sketches of deluges draw on observation of violent storms, particularly in alpine environments, and the knowledge of hydraulics and hydrology that he obtained by studying the middle Arno Valley and the Valdichiana in Tuscany. Despite a certain stylisation, some of the drawings are remarkably realistic representations of extreme meteorological and hydrological events. Scholars have seen this preoccupation as his reflection on his own impending death. It clashes with the uniformitarianism of much of his earlier work on fossils, strata and rivers, although he was never able to resolve the balance of evidence between catastrophism and uniformitarianism. It is curious how, in an age of vastly increases scientific knowledge, that dilemma has resurfaced in an equally intractable form.

Further Reading

Alexander, D.E. 1982. Leonardo da Vinci and fluvial geomorphology. American Journal of Science 282(6): 735-755. DOI: 10.2475/ajs.282.6.735

Alexander, D.E. 1984. The reclamation of Val-di-Chiana (Tuscany). Annals of the Association of American Geographers 74(4): 527-550.
DOI: 10.1111/j.1467-8306.1984.tb01472.x

Alexander, D.E. 1986. Dante and the form of the land. Annals of the Association of American Geographers 76(1): 38-49. DOI: 10.1111/j.1467-8306.1986.tb00102.x

Alexander, D.E. 2013. Resilience and disaster risk reduction: an etymological journey. Natural Hazards and Earth System Sciences 13(11): 2707-2716. DOI: 10.5194/nhess-13-2707-2013

Clayton, M. 2019. Leonardo da Vinci: A Life in Drawing. Royal Collection Trust. Windsor, UK, 255 pp.