Every two or three years, UNDRR and partners release a “Global Assessment Report on Disaster Risk Reduction” (GAR). The reports, similar in nature to the IPCC Assessment Reports, set out how societies and communities are experience and responding to disaster risks, and make recommendations for building resilience and reducing vulnerability and exposure.

The GAR reports are not only a science-based assessment of the status of disaster risk, but also a vehicle to accelerate DRR action and move towards more resilient societies. The latest report, GAR2022 , calls for working in a multi-stakeholder and interdisciplinary way to mitigate systemic risks, which are defined as risks that go beyond single event-based disasters to manifest cascading impacts across geographical boundaries, supply chains and infrastructure networks.

As the impacts of climate change continue to grow in severity, humankind is entering into new risk landscapes and grappling with how to adapt to the growing complexity of disasters.

Tackling cascading impacts with innovative tools

A central framing of GAR2022 is cascading impacts and risks. As demonstrated by natural hazard-related disasters that have occurred during the Covid-19 pandemic, global interconnected systems facilitate disaster impacts cascading across geographical boundaries, supply chains and infrastructure networks.

According to GAR2022, approaches and tools for assessing and managing risk cascades are lacking at present. The current methods are short-sighted and tend to neglect complex feedback loops, latent vulnerabilities and cross-scale drivers, all of which can generate cascading effects.

Innovative methods and tools that can capture cascading impacts and risks are needed as an important component of DRR. For example, systemic risk modelling can assist decision-making to reduce risks reflective of future risk landscapes in light of climate change.

In HydroHazards, SEI is utilizing a network-based model in Halmstad, Sweden, to simulate critical infrastructure interdependences exposed to hydrometeorological hazards. This model allows the identification of vulnerable infrastructures and measuring cascading effects caused by systemic disruptions. The results assist planners to prioritize investments in flood protection and adaptation measures.

Participatory approaches for understanding systemic risk

GAR2022 emphasizes participation as a process through which systemic risk can be reframed and better understood by actors. Specifically, one of the report’s three calls for action is to “reconfigure governance and financial systems to work across silos and be designed in consultation with affected people.”

Top-down and “expert-led” decision-making processes dominate DRR governance, while decentralized and locally led processes do exist, but are few and far between. GAR2022 highlights numerous inclusive practices and participatory case studies, including participatory risk assessment, co-design, co-creation, crowdsourcing and collaborative approaches. However, the discussion of implementation challenges is limited.

Meaningful and effective participation requires investment of time and resources directly with at-risk populations. Collaborative DRR processes that aim for equitable outcomes require changes in the way that we view ourselves in relation to each other, which is highlighted in GAR2022, but also needs transformative changes in our decision-making processes and power structures.

In disaster recovery contexts, for instance, participation towards defining sustainable recovery pathways should account for community sense of place, social equity, political capabilities, and utilization of local and Indigenous knowledge. However, this is far from standard practice, and more proactive efforts to overcome structural and procedural barriers to participation are needed to address systemic risk.

The need for just and equitable urban governance processes

GAR2022 re-emphasizes urbanization as a driver of risk and vulnerability, as is framed in the Sendai Framework for DRR, especially as coastal cities continue to expand rapidly despite the known climate threats from rising sea levels and more frequent and intense storms.

Poorly managed and unregulated urban development is driving vulnerable communities to the margins to poor housing conditions with high exposure to disasters and climate change and limited access to resources and services. To transform urbanization from a root cause of risk to a sustainable development process, it must first be understood as complex social, economic, political and spatial processes and relationships that actively shape and are shaped by risk.

Cities are not passive spaces where risks take shape and disasters happen. Urban development does not simply evolve around neutral technological and engineering solutions. Just as disasters can reconfigure spaces and communities, urban social and spatial relationships determine who is at risk, who has the power and resources to reduce risk, how burdens are distributed and where.

Just and equitable urban governance, therefore, is key to the success of risk reduction efforts in cities. The notion of “disaster justice“, particularly in urban contexts, has received increasing attention in research and policy. However, “justice” itself is barely discussed in GAR2022 compared to the IPCC AR6 WGII report. The impact of urbanization on risk means that DRR must not only consider procedural, recognition and distributive justice, but also spatial justice. Just and equitable DRR measures are required to protect certain groups, but should not be implemented at the expense of others.

The importance of WASH services for building resilience to systemic risks

The Covid-19 pandemic demonstrates the interconnected and systemic nature of risk. As all disasters tend to do, the pandemic has also exposed structural inequalities and our inability/unwillingness to prioritize the most vulnerable. For example, in Mexico, cascading impacts of the pandemic restricted homeless people’s access to water and sanitation services as many facilities were scaled-back or altogether closed down, in turn affecting their health, safety, and dignity.

Covid-19 has also put a spotlight on the importance of access to safe and reliable water, sanitation and health (WASH) services for building resilience. According to UNICEF, in the midst of the pandemic in 2020, over three quarters of a billion people globally did not have access to safe water, increasing their vulnerability to all disasters, not only Covid-19. This has been particularly true in Asia, where it is imperative to ensure equitable access to safe drinking water and hygiene facilities.

Efforts to build disaster resilience need to consider system level and sectoral relationships, such as how access to WASH services shapes vulnerability of marginalized urban populations . Increased cooperation across sectors, scales and stakeholder groups may hold the key to unlocking the solutions to understand and tackle systemic, cascading risks and hazards, both natural and biological, under the umbrella of transformative DRR.

As the DRR community gathers this week to discuss and tackle disaster risk issues at the Global Platform for DRR, the key messages from GAR2022 should be ringing in delegates’ ears. In light of the climate crisis and the Covid-19 pandemic, humanity is grappling with new risk landscapes, and we must find the transformative solutions required to build resilience, particularly for and with the most vulnerable.