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A (love) letter to disaster risk reduction

Alongside the Sustainable Development Goals and the Paris Agreement, another critical and interlinked global agenda was adopted: the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction (DRR). The framework is crucial for Asia, home to some of the world’s most disaster-prone regions. With the ongoing Mid-term Review of the Sendai Framework, this piece reflects on why the knowledge and engagement of local communities are critical to achieving the framework’s priorities in disaster risk reduction.

Minh Tran / Published on 18 May 2023
Super Typhoon Odette

Photo: Carl Kho / Unsplash.

Dear Disaster Risk Reduction,

Our first encounter was a course I took to fulfil the “scientific investigation” requirement of my undergraduate liberal arts degree, titled “Natural Hazards and Populations”.

After lectures upon lectures on geologic processes, from the movements of tectonic plates to the displacement of the oceans with calculation formulas I still don’t fully comprehend, came an open-ended essay prompt for the final exam that left most of my quiz-loving peers confounded. But I, however, was glad to finally have a chance to ask where the people were in all these processes and behind the mind-boggling numbers on disaster destruction. Who are the “populations” alongside natural hazards, and what are their roles?

I submitted a paper on community-based disaster prevention in Viet Nam, to which my professor said it was different from what she was looking for. Luckily, she found it a refreshing perspective as a geologist and earth scientist. (I did not dare to admit my doubt that I could have articulated anything at length and with precision about subterranean movements and the likes.)

As much as I enjoyed writing the paper (thank you, professor), I felt disconnected from the study of natural hazards and how it was taught. I pursued my interests in urban development. Yet the topics of disaster risks were always present, whether in the courses I took on urban environments, climate change in cities, or in development work that involved communities at risk of floods and landslides.

My affair with DRR got more serious when I started working with SEI on various projects ranging from building resilience through inclusive risk reduction and the close links between DRR and health to durable solutions for disaster-displaced communities, alongside brilliant colleagues teaching me about women environmental defenders in DRR. I learned of local communities’ role at the heart of disaster risk reduction.

Then came the seventh session of the Global Platform on DRR (GP) in 2022, also my first experience at a multi-stakeholder forum at an international level, where everything was about disaster risk reduction.

I continue to see hope in a field that often deals with destruction and inspiration from communities most-affected.

But disaster risk reduction was not everything there. In these big, high-ceiling, shiny conference rooms in Bali, outside the high-level panels where resilience and vulnerability were discussed at an abstract level, I was reminded of what truly matters: laughter, tears, passion, commitment, drive, hope, sadness, disappointment, fear, bravery, wisdom, knowledge and so much more. Things beyond the workings of our atmosphere, oceans and tectonic plates are equally crucial in disaster risk reduction.

I remember the youth forum during the weekend before the GP. Young activists and advocates took the podium to recount their experiences fighting to be heard as young women and Indigenous people – oft-silenced voices. I remember how some of them, in the end, walked the room barefoot as though their fancy shoes were not strong enough to support their passion for how to protect the forests, how to help communities prepare for disasters, and to build resilience. I remember tears rolling down their faces and silences breaking up their speeches as they shared the dreams and hopes that keep them moving.

In another session, I remember sitting in a circle with grassroots women leaders, listening to stories about the Covid pandemic as a disaster and how women groups could get organized, respond and manage on their own without outsiders’ support. The victim lens that often labels specific communities as a “vulnerable group,” a participant shared, must be challenged, as in most cases, it is the vulnerable conditions they are put under. In reality, “vulnerable” women at the grassroots level own specific DRR knowledge, skills, and capacities that are slow to be recognized and acknowledged, and acted upon by governments.

I remember feeling so moved by their commitment and dedication, so inspired by the diversity of knowledge and experience, and so in love with the faces and hearts of this field. They taught me of the importance, yet often an absence, of local voices and local knowledge in knowledge production and policy processes.

They are the force behind much of the progress assessed this week at the High-Level Meeting of the UN General Assembly in New York, where the global community will review the Sendai Framework for DRR implementation.

UNDRR’s Report of the Midterm Review of the Sendai Framework 2015–2030, synthesizing countries’ voluntary reviews and regional analyses, and the International Science Council’s Report for the Midterm Review showcase progress made in all four priority areas of the Sendai Framework, as well as setbacks and worrying trends brought about by cascading, systemic and compounding risks alongside development, governance and policy failures.

As progress is reported, we must ask who is measuring whose and what progress. Both reports highlight the challenges that remain in terms of civic engagement and the inclusion of marginalized communities in policy and decision-making. Much of disaster loss and risk monitoring remains quantitative, leaving out non-tangible, non-economic losses, values, and achievements that the youth and women discussed at the Global Platform. Local, traditional and Indigenous knowledge and experience at the grassroots level are often overlooked, while affective, cultural, and embodied dimensions of disasters and disaster management are undervalued in disaster studies and policy realms.

In Bali, youth were frustrated by how much time they must spend fighting to be heard. Similarly, women grassroots leaders were always begging for attention and a seat at the table despite all “inclusive” agendas.

While I have always questioned the relevance of such big international UN platforms to local realities and lived experiences on the ground, my encounters at the Global Platform were hopeful. Reflecting on my personal journey and the privileges I have had in my education and work, I continue to see hope in a field that often deals with destruction and inspiration from communities most-affected. I wish to continue to see the voices of local communities getting louder, more impactful and taken more seriously on all levels of governance, including international policy forums.


An early-career DRR researcher

SEI author

Profile picture of Minh Tran
Minh Tran

Research Fellow

SEI Asia

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