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Q&A: Heidi Tuhkanen on analyzing the “trade-offs” between development and disaster risk reduction

Senior expert Heidi Tuhkanen discusses the initial results from a case study analyzing the “trade-offs“ between development and disaster risk reduction. She outlines how recognizing and addressing five key trade-offs are key in decision-making: power, equity, time, risk and aggregation. This analysis is part of her ongoing work with the SEI initiative on transforming development and disaster risk.

Rajesh Daniel / Published on 18 October 2017

Written by

Rajesh Daniel

Head of Communications, SEI Asia


SEI Asia

Heidi Tuhkanen
Heidi Tuhkanen

Senior Expert (Green and Circular Economic Transformations Unit)

SEI Tallinn

An unhappy woman near a pile of rubble

A local woman in a region hit by the Nepal earthquake in April 2015. In the rebuilding phase after a disaster, groups of people who do not have a strong voice, or are not represented politically, may not get their needs prioritized. Photo: ILO in Asia and the Pacific / Flickr.

RD. It seems development can come into conflict with disaster risk reduction (DRR). As your trade-offs discussion brief posits, development often exacerbates vulnerability, because poor decisions put people and property in harm’s way. Could you elaborate?

HT. Development decisions can create disaster risks if they increase exposure and vulnerability. For example projects which promote building on areas like mangrove forests increase the vulnerability of that area and surrounding areas. This is because mangrove forests can act as a natural buffer and mitigate the impacts of hazard events such as storms.

It should also be noted that it can go both ways – that disaster risk reduction can increase vulnerability and thus negatively impact development. For example, in the rebuilding phase after a disaster, groups of people who do not have a strong voice and are not represented politically, may not get their needs prioritized. Their needs may not be known or well-understood or may conflict with the needs of another group, or meeting their needs may not be politically beneficial for those in power.

The negative impacts they face may result from an oversight in planning, insufficient scope of analysis, or cultural structures. However, the result is that the increased vulnerability from e.g. a family being relocated to an area which has lower disaster risk, but where they do not have a social network or livelihood opportunities, can potentially become an obstacle to further development.

Despite knowing how development creates vulnerabilities, people choose to pursue those risky paths anyway. Why is that and how can we address this risky approach?

Development can be pursued in a number of ways, all of which have different impacts – direct and indirect. When choices are made, we assume that there are at least perceived benefits, which in the eyes of the decision-maker exceed the losses from that decision. However, questions such as how the perceived gains and losses are measured, how they are distributed, and who is involved and left out of the decision-making processes are questions that TDDR is asking in order better understand and make visible why we continue to create vulnerabilities and risks.

The article says “development inherently involves trade-offs”. Can you briefly elaborate on the key trade-offs with practical examples from your work in TDDR?

Development is never zero-risk. It involves numerous trade-offs with gains and losses for different actors. In TDDR, we are bringing attention to these trade-offs with the aim of identifying spaces for intervention which can lead towards transformation. In addition to identifying the gains and losses, we are looking at how they are distributed, and over what time periods. Also important are how the winners and losers are represented in the decision making processes, as well as how different risks are prioritized.

For example, people face numerous risks, all of which cannot be mitigated – thus, some risks must be prioritized over others. In order to successfully reduce disaster risk, authorities have to understand and account for how risk is perceived, interpreted, and acted upon by different groups in society, especially the more vulnerable groups of people such as the poor.

In addition to various disaster risks including environmental pollution, vulnerable groups also often face daily risks related to their basic necessities, practicing their livelihoods and providing for their families’ safety and security. Often the risks that authorities and external experts have identified as the risks that should be mitigated, are not the ones prioritized by locals. Decreasing risk from the outside is difficult without commitment from those actually facing the risks.

We know that power relations are crucial to shaping the development and DRR agendas as they determine whose interests are considered and prioritized. But understanding how power works is a huge challenge especially for local communities marginalized or affected by development projects. How do you think we can better understand power structures?

I think we can better understand power structures by studying the decision-making processes and understanding how the power structures that are in place impact or limit the possibilities for change. We can also identify ways to empower communities so that they are able to better represent themselves in and insert themselves into the current power structures or decrease their dependency on power structures in case that they do not meet their needs or support their efforts to decrease their own vulnerability.

What is the “Building Back Better” approach to post-disaster recovery? How can it help in transforming development approaches and addressing vulnerabilities?

Building Back Better was a term coined after the Indian Ocean Tsunami in 2004 to take advantage of the window of opportunity which appropriate post-disaster recovery and reconstruction provide. I am speaking here about natural disasters, which actually refer to a situation in which the risks originate from within our societal structures rather than externally. Here, the pre-disaster situation of the affected area – its vulnerability and exposure – determine whether or to what extent a disaster occurs. Thus, in Building Back Better, the idea is to learn from the development and disaster situation in order to decrease vulnerability and exposure and avoid or lessen the impacts of future disasters.

What are the next steps in your work recognizing and addressing trade-offs and testing these theories in the TDDR Initiative?

We are in the process of testing our theoretical framework in a case study in Tacloban City in the Phillipines. We have done a brief field visit, which will be followed up with further field work later this year. Based on our results, together with decision makers, we hope to co-design a way to operationalize and integrate our findings into disaster risk reduction and development decision making processes.

Design and development by Soapbox.