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15.05.2019 – 10:46

Institute for Advanced Sustainability Studies e.V. (IASS)

Advancing Disaster Risk Reduction

Press Release

Risk analysis for systemic risks

Advancing Disaster Risk Reduction

Populations are growing in disaster-prone areas around the world. The interaction of natural hazards with physical infrastructure in these regions can trigger devastating chain reactions, harming societies and their technical foundations. What can be done to address these challenges? A team at the Institute for Advanced Sustainability Studies (IASS) has developed a multi-level risk governance concept for natural disasters.

By definition, natural hazards are natural phenomena that have negative effects on humans or the environment. But such phenomena rarely occur in isolation. From Germany's "Flood of the Century" in 2002, to Cyclone Kyrill in 2007, and the spate of forest fires in Brandenburg in 2018 - so-called natural disasters are frequently linked to or triggered by human interventions. In the examples named here, natural hazards interacted with infrastructure and other facilities, further complicating these events.

The interplay of natural hazards with non-natural risks is particularly apparent in the 2011 nuclear disaster in Japan, where an earthquake caused a tsunami to strike a densely populated coastline and the nuclear reactor complex located there. It was this series of events that led to the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster.

Interactions between natural and human-induced disasters are a more recent phenomenon and are driven by the increased settlement of disaster-prone areas and the vulnerability of technological and urban infrastructure to natural hazards, with grave consequences for gas terminals, pipelines, chemical processing plants and other facilities located in affected areas.

Applying the concept of systemic risk to complex natural events

Sometimes natural hazards are influenced or triggered by human interventions, such as climate change. The interaction of natural and non-natural risks results in an extremely complex field of interrelationships: "Addressing this complexity requires a comprehensive approach to risk analysis," explains Pia-Johanna Schweizer, the lead author of the study "Governance of Systemic Risks for Disaster Prevention and Mitigation", which was published in the Global Assessment Report on Disaster Risk Reduction 2019 (GAR19) of the United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction. "The study presents an approach to the appraisal and management of natural hazards and disasters which is underpinned by the concept of systemic risk", explains Schweizer, who leads a research group on systemic risks at the Institute for Advanced Sustainability Studies in Potsdam.

What are systemic risks?

The authors identify five key characteristics of systemic risks: a high degree of complexity, their transboundary nature, their development is non-linear and includes tipping points, long periods of stability followed by a rapid collapse of the system once a tipping point has been reached, and they are frequently underestimated. All of these qualities can be observed in the interaction of natural hazards with man-made infrastructure.

Evaluation criteria for effective risk governance

The authors recommend the following approach to address the systemic risks posed by natural hazards:

1. In a first step, the risk should be defined with reference to the scale and 
   context of the natural hazard.
2. This is followed by the risk appraisal, comprising a risk assessment and 
   concern assessment. The latter presents a significant challenge; this is due 
   not to a lack of scientific data, but to their complexity. Secondary impacts 
   and interdependencies, the authors argue, should also be considered in the 
   appraisal process.
3. The next phase focuses on knowledge characterization and risk evaluation.
4. The temporal aspect is another important factor and it is critical that 
   natural hazards are addressed within appropriate time frames. Stakeholders 
   should also be involved at this point in order to ensure that the process is 
   informed by local and indigenous knowledge.
5. Information gathered in the preceding phases is utilised in the development 
   of a risk management strategy by means of a multi-criteria analysis. The 
   vulnerability of built environments should form a particular focus of this 
6. Risk communication spans the formulation of the risk through to continuous 
   communication between science and policymakers as well as public-facing 
   communication in order to ensure that citizens are adequately informed of the
   risks and different points of view are taken into account. Risk communication
   provides for a constant flow of feedback between the various governance 
   phases. The study concludes with a number of recommendations for 
   municipalities and administrative bodies. Among these, is the development of 
   a metadata bank to connect existing regional, national and international 
   databases. This would facilitate the harmonisation of diverse databases and 
   lay the foundations for a coherent and shared service for authorities and 
   citizens with the aim of standardizing warnings to ensure they can be clearly
   understood across affected populations.   The study also identifies a clear 
   need to bolster interdisciplinary competence, provide integrated training for
   experts for civil defence and crisis prevention, and build efficient networks
   of experts to foster the exchange of knowledge and expertise, in particular 
   with respect to those natural hazards that are embedded in larger systemic 
   risks. Developing a network of this kind will require resources to create 
   competence teams across countries.   Call for an independent institute for 
   risk assessment   In their conclusion, the authors make a case for the 
   establishment of an independent institute for systemic risk assessment and 
   governance, with the aim of detecting both natural and technological risks at
   an early stage in light of the increasingly interlinked nature of these risk 
   types. Addressing the heightened risk of forest fires in many parts of 
   Germany, lead author Pia-Johanna Schweizer recommends: "Steps should be taken
   immediately to review and update evacuation plans for hospitals, schools, 
   kindergartens, and other public institutions. In addition to this, official 
   coordination centres for disaster relief should be established at the 
   state-level," explains Schweizer, "Simulations should also be carried out in 
   order to identify and address potential vulnerabilities and planning 
   deficits."   Publication:   Pia-Johanna Schweizer und Ortwin Renn: Global 
   Assessment Report on Disaster Risk Reduction (GAR), chapter 2 Global Risk 
   Trends - Governance of Systemic Risks for Disaster Prevention and Mitigation,
   UNDRR, 15.5.2019.   

Contact for scientific information:

Dr. Pia-Johanna Schweizer

Institute for Advanced Sustainability Studies (IASS) Potsdam

Phone: +49 331 28822 457


For further information, please contact:

Sabine Letz

Press & Communications

Institute for Advanced Sustainability Studies (IASS) Potsdam

Phone: +49 331 288 22 479


The Institute for Advanced Sustainability Studies (IASS) conducts research with
the goal of identifying, advancing, and guiding transformation processes towards
sustainable societies. Its research practice is transdisciplinary,
transformative, and co-creative. The institute cooperates with partners in
academia, political institutions, administrations, civil society, and the
business community to understand sustainability challenges and generate
potential solutions. The IASS is funded by the research ministries of the
Federal Government of Germany and the State of Brandenburg.