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Then and Now: 25 years of disasters, responses, and risk management

A timeline of the evolving strategies to tackle storms, floods, and earthquakes.

A high wave hits a seawall in Tanohata village, Iwate Prefecture, Japan one of the areas hit hardest by the 2011 earthquake and tsunami.
A high wave hits a seawall in Tanohata village, Iwate Prefecture, Japan one of the areas hit hardest by the 2011 earthquake and tsunami. (Kim Kyung-Hoon/REUTERS)

A stitch in time saves nine. When it comes to disaster management, this has been proven correct time and time again. Investing beforehand in risk reduction – think flood defences, early warning systems, evacuation plans – minimises the damage, the loss of life, and the financial cost of the response after disaster strikes.

So why, if this is so obviously true, have humanitarians historically maintained a reactive approach, even when disasters are recurrent and predictable?

Money is certainly part of it. It’s hard to direct stretched resources towards problems that haven’t reached crisis points, and donors have tended to be more comfortable funding post-disaster response. But some have also argued that risk reduction is mission creep and falls more squarely within the development realm – humanitarians should stick to the business of saving lives and providing emergency aid (joining up the two is of course a wider debate).

But change could be afoot. As climate change threatens ever more frequent, powerful, and overlapping disasters, some organisations have begun to shift approach, putting more resources up front. Advances in data and forecasting, as well as the ability to communicate and act upon those forecasts, have allowed for these changes. Whether this move towards “anticipatory action” is just the latest example of preparedness and risk reduction regaining prominence in the humanitarian-development enterprise or a longer-lasting and more significant trend remains to be seen.

This timeline tracks the evolution of this shifting focus from managing disasters to managing risks – among states and within the aid sector, both in policy and in practice.

Hannah Stoddard contributed research and reporting.

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