Moving from Crisis to Risk Management: Changing the Paradigm

In 1986, an international symposium and workshop was organized at the University of Nebraska that focused on the principal aspects of drought, ranging from prediction, early warning and impact assessment to response, planning, and policy. The goal of this meeting was to review and assess our current knowledge of drought and determine research and information needs to improve national and international capacity to cope with drought (Wilhite and Easterling 1987). Reflecting on this meeting today, 30 years later, and its outcomes, it would seem that the symposium may represent the beginning of the movement to a new paradigm for drought management— one focusing on reducing societal vulnerability to drought through a more proactive approach.

Following directly on this framing, the National Drought Policy Commission (NDPC 2000) noted that drought risk management should:

  • 1. Favor preparedness over insurance, insurance over relief, and incentives over regulation
  • 2. Set research priorities based on the potential of the research results to reduce drought impacts
  • 3. Coordinate the delivery of federal services through cooperation and collaboration with nonfederal entities

In addition, the European Union Water Framework Directive (EU 2000, Chapter 18 of this volume) in addressing water scarcity and drought identifies "improving drought risk management" as one of its seven key policy options.

As previously stated, progress on shifting the paradigm for drought management has been slow. Clearly, it has taken time for the policy and the practitioner communities to become more aware of the diverse and escalating impacts of drought, their complexities, and the ineffectiveness of the reactive postimpact or crisis management approach. The factors explaining the slow emergence of this new paradigm are many, but it is clear that it has emerged today in many countries and in many international organizations dealing with disaster management and development issues. Drought-related crises, such as those that recently occurred in the Horn of Africa and elsewhere, reveal major concerns regarding detailed examination of the root causes of the lack of early action (Verver 2011). A more proactive, risk-based approach to drought management must rely on a strong science component. It also must occur at the interstices of science and policy—a particularly uncomfortable place for many scientists.

While some have argued (see Stakhiv et al. 2016) that the entire development of water infrastructure in regions such as the western United States,

Egypt, and elsewhere illustrates our capabilities in effectively managing drought risk, we posit that in most such cases (e.g., the western United States), the reality is that this infrastructure evolved over a century or more and relied on instream water originating in wetter climates upstream that was technically in surplus (i.e., not yet fully exploited) since full development had not yet taken place. Most such systems now find themselves to be closed. As illustrated by the Colorado River, understanding how vulnerability is shifting is central to identifying future management pathways and reform options (Kenney et al. 2010). In addition, this infrastructure is also now aging and in need of retrofitting and repair.

Figure 4.1 illustrates the cycle of disaster management, depicting the interconnectedness or linkages between crisis and risk management. The traditional crisis management approach has been largely ineffective, and there are many examples of how this approach has increased vulnerability to drought because of individuals' (i.e., disaster victims) greater reliance on the emergency response programs of government and donor organizations. Drought relief or assistance, for example, often rewards the poor resource manager who has not planned for drought, whereas the better resource manager who has employed appropriate mitigation measures is not eligible for this assistance. Thus, drought relief is often a disincentive for improved resource management. Should government reward good stewardship of natural resources and planning or unsustainable resource management? Unfortunately, most nations have been following the latter approach for decades because of political and other pressures associated with crises and the lack of preparation. Redirecting this institutional inertia to a new paradigm offers considerable challenges for the science and policy communities.

As has been underscored many times by the contributors to this book, reducing future drought risk requires a more proactive approach, one that emphasizes preparedness planning and the development of appropriate mitigation actions and programs, including improved drought monitoring through the development of comprehensive early warning and information delivery systems. The contrasting characteristics of crisis versus risk management are illustrated in Table 25.1. However, this approach has to be multithematic and multisectoral because of the complexities of associated impacts and their interlinkages. Risk management favorably complements the crisis management part of the disaster management cycle such that in time one would expect the magnitude of impacts (whether economic, social, or environmental) to diminish. However, the natural tendency has been for society to revert to a position of apathy once the threat accompanying a disaster subsides (i.e., the proverbial hydro-illogical cycle; see Figure 4.2 in Chapter 4).

This raises an important point that has been addressed by many authors throughout this book: what constitutes a crisis? Crises are inextricably tied to decision-making. The Merriam-Webster, 1977 dictionary gives the following definitions of crisis: the decisive moment (as in a literary play); an unstable or crucial time or state of affairs whose outcome will make a decisive difference

TABLE 25.1

Crisis Versus Risk Management: Characteristics, Costs, and Benefits

Crisis Management

Risk Management


  • • Costs + costs of inaction
  • • Repeats past mistakes


  • • Short-term—EWS, building networks, collaborations, institutional capacity
  • • Long-term—structural adjustments, policy shifts


• Drought relief/emergency assistance


• Risk assessments, mitigation

Rewards poor resource management

Identifies and addresses the root causes of vulnerability

Treats the symptoms of vulnerability (i.e., impacts)

Promotes improved stewardship of natural resources

Increases vulnerability, reliance on government and donors

Reduces vulnerability, builds self-reliance, reduces need for government and donor interventions

Assists climate change adaptation

for better or for worse. The word crisis is taken from the Greek krisis, which literally means "decision." A crisis may be said to be occurring if a change or the cumulative impacts of changes in the external or internal environment generates a threat to basic values or desired outcomes and results in a high probability of involvement in conflict (legal, military, or otherwise), and there is a finite time for a response to the external value threat. A crisis is not yet a catastrophe; it is a turning point. Crisis situations can be ameliorated if different levels of decision makers perceive critical conditions to exist and if a change of the situation is possible for the actors. Thus, informed decisionmaking is key to effective mitigation of crises conditions and the proactive reduction of risk to acceptable levels. Being proactive about hazard management brings into play the need for decision support tools to inform vulnerability reduction strategies, including improved capacity to use information about impending events.

A key decision support tool for crisis mitigation is embedded within the concept of early warning. Early warning systems are more than scientific and technical instruments for forecasting hazards and issuing alerts. They should be understood as scientifically credible, authoritative, and accessible information systems that integrate information about and coming from areas of risk that facilitate decision-making (formal and informal) in a way that empower vulnerable sectors and social groups to mitigate potential losses and damages from impending hazard events (Maskrey 1997; NIDIS 2007).

Natural hazard risk information (let alone vulnerability reduction strategies) is rarely if ever considered in development and economic policymaking. Crisis scenarios can let us view risk reduction as much from the window of opportunity provided by acting before disaster happens as from the other smaller, darker pane window following a disaster. Given the slow onset and persistent nature of drought, mitigating potential impacts, in theory and in practice, must be recast as an integral part of development planning and implemented at national, regional, and local levels. Impact assessment methodologies should reveal not only why vulnerability exists (who and what is at risk and why) but also the investments (economic and social) that, if chosen, will reduce vulnerability or risk to locally acceptable levels. Studies of the natural and social context of drought should include an assessment of impediments to flows of knowledge and identify appropriate information entry points into policies and practices that would otherwise give rise to crisis situations. Issues of sustainable development, water scarcity, transboundary water conflicts, environmental degradation and protection, and climate change are contributing to the debate on what outcomes are being valued in the management of water.

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