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The state of knowledge on disaster risk

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Introduction

Disasters have been studied for centuries, but ‘modern’ disasters studies have arguably developed over the past half century or so. For instance, the journal Disasters began publication in 1977. During this period, disaster knowledge and practices have evolved from an emergency management framing to a broader perspective encapsulated by ‘disaster risk reduction (DRR)’ (Davis 2019). Priority and focus have shifted from responding to disaster events (i.e. an ex-post approach) to proactively managing and reducing risks (i.e. an ex-ante focus). Risk is widely accepted as a function of hazards, exposure and vulnerability. Such a framing is foundational to how disaster processes are conceptualized, particularly in Western scholarship.

Global policy developments in disasters (including emergency preparedness, disaster management, and DRR) can be traced from the 1990s UN International Decade for Natural Disaster Reduction, to the Yokohama Strategy for a Safer World adopted at the first World Conference on Natural Disasters in 1994, to the Hyogo Framework for Action (2005-2015) adopted at the second World Conference on Disaster Reduction in 2005, and currently to the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction (2015-2030), adopted at the third World Conference on Disaster Risk Reduction in 2015. The names of these events and processes alone suggest a shift in thinking of disasters as natural events (or ‘acts of God’) to acceptance that man-made risk- and development-related decisions and actions determine the disaster impact. This shift has enabled the imperative to reduce risk to grow in priority on global policy fronts – not least in relation to climate change.

Crucial to progress in understanding and managing disaster risk is ‘disaster science’, which spans both natural and social sciences, and cuts across various disciplines, including environmental, earth, economics, geography, engineering, sustainability, ecology, sociology, political science, law, education, health, anthropology and other sciences, as well as their specific branches. As science and research in these areas continue to grow, multiple agendas, coalitions and processes have emerged from global to local levels, around which researchers coalesce with a hope to inform policies.

Recognizing the knowledge and impact of existing networks and programmes, the Integrated Research on Disaster Risk (IRDR) programme seeks to establish a new research agenda to guide the development of disaster science in the coming decade. In the face of growing risks, the agenda will facilitate inter- and trans-disciplinary knowledge production, and contribute to the transition to a peaceful, safe, equitable and sustainable world within the context of DRR.

As part of the development process for this new research agenda, this paper provides context, baseline information and a ‘state of knowledge’ on disaster risk science. Specifically, this paper aims to i) trace the development and evolution of relevant concepts and frameworks, ii) outline the application of relevant methods, tools and approaches, and iii) highlight emerging gaps in data, information, and knowledge.