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Integrating Disaster Risk Management into Projects Applying a Systemic Approach

FROM: Eveline Studer, Nicole Clot, Zenebe B. Uraguchi – 09. May 2016
© Helvetas

In this blog post we provide emerging experiences from projects implemented by Helvetas and its partners on integrating disaster risk management (DRM) in projects that apply systemic approach. This blog posts presents why this is important, what it involves and how it can be done. In order to make this blog post more concrete and relevant, we will be presenting, in the coming weeks, supplementary blog posts covering specific cases from Nepal and Bosnia & Herzegovina.

Why it matters: rationale

Every year millions of people are affected by disasters. A single disaster event can, within seconds, destroy development progress achieved over several decades. Disaster events kill people, affect their livelihoods and cause major economic losses. There are many more indirect impacts, such as loss of productive assets, interrupted market access and prices, reduced quality/quantity of production that hinders investment and development.

Risk factors like poverty, lack of governance and conflict multiply the impacts of hazards on affected population. The gap between reducing existing risks and creating new ones is widening because of factors such as rapid population growth, uncontrolled urbanisation, climate change and environmental degradation. The frequency and intensity of hazardous events have been increasing in the past 20 years.

With the above rapid changes and challenges, development organisations are often faced with the question of: are their actions reducing risks in the long term?  Are they leading to the creation of new risks?  How durable are the changes? Do the permanent actors in a system adopt improved ways of planning and working?

Large-scale and long-lasting changes require an approach that guides our efforts to address root causes related to the impacts of greenhouse gas emissions, settlements in disaster prone areas, institutional capacities, etc. A systemic approach can lead to clear analysis of permanent actors (mandates, incentives, capacities and measures) and their successful engagement in DRM. DRM is the application of disaster risk reduction policies, processes and actions to prevent new risks, reduce and manage existing disaster risks, thereby contributing to the strengthening of resilience. With the ratification of the international Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction (DRR, 2015 – 2030), 187 states have committed to substantially reduce their disaster risks at all levels.

Why should development projects care? Some of the reasons include:

  • Improved contribution to flexible/adaptive and realistic actions, and meaningful impacts in environmental, social, political and economic aspects;
  • Increased chances of securing development gains by avoiding setbacks in many contexts in which our projects work;
  • High possibility of minimising or avoiding cases where unsustainable development increases disaster risk; disaster losses can considerably be reduced, mitigated or prevented through effective DRM; and
  • Improved DRM matters most to our primary stakeholders – vulnerable, poor and disadvantaged women and men who do not live isolated, but are linked to a range of actors of DRM; these are multiple actors ranging from local authorities and private actors for services such as water supply to the multiple users of a watershed.

Our projects’ strategies accordingly need to be consistent with the above aims. Yet, in reality, many issues in DRM are complex and challenging. For example, regulatory strategies and policies defining responsibilities and resources are often lacking. A strong collaboration between actors of different sectors, governments, private sector enterprises and civil society organisations is essential but challenging. In addition, good technical and management capacities, innovative technologies to reduce local risks and well-formulated responses are some of the key requirements. Development projects quite often work in dynamic and complex contexts that require adaptive/agile management capacities. Aligning actions of different actors for long-term and large-scale changes is a common challenge.

What it is all about

Disaster risks have to be considered to foster and protect long-term and large-scale development gains and impacts – in economic, social and environmental terms.  Disaster events can also be a momentum for change. During cyclone events in Bangladesh or the Balkan floods in 2014, local governments, civil society organisations and private sector actors spontaneously joined forces to intervene, which improved collaboration mechanisms in the longer run. This has contributed to raised awareness and better understanding of the relevance and feasibility of DRM at different levels.

Improved DRM means having in place a well-thought strategy for feasible policies, defined responsibilities, adequate capacities and resources to prevent, mitigate and prepare for disaster risks. It is proactive, with locally adapted combination of prevention, preparedness and adaptation measures in a short to long-term perspective, considering also climate change and other trends. This is different from reactive/impulsive and direct actions that only lead to short-lived impacts.

The main focus is to:

  • Provide guidance to projects towards achieving better results. In other words, a systemic approach (re)defines the role of projects – it provides a framework for a facilitative role (instead of doing things by projects) in providing solutions to problems. These solutions consist of a combination of multiple measures involving different actors with their instruments and mechanisms to reduce, pool and prepare relevant disaster risks.
  • Contribute to improved legal, institutional and policy frameworks and support/administrative services and mechanisms related to the management of both disaster risks (ex ante) and disaster events (ex post), with an increasing overlap urging development projects and other actors to collaborate (key topic of the world humanitarian summit 2016). This, in turn, requires a clear strategy from the start of project design.
  • Stimulate further changes in behaviour and capacities of different actors we collaborate with for a better functioning DRM – that is, a shift from isolated to joint action based on guiding policies, defined responsibilities, allocated resources, improved collaboration mechanisms, strengthened capacities, etc. to plan, implement and manage required risk reduction measures.

The ‘how’ question: key considerations

A systemic approach is based on good analysis of the context, risks and challenges, and is guided by clear strategy, carefully taking into account incentives and capacities of different actors.  A good analysis, for example, is one that:

  • Serves as a filter, starting with understanding the wider socio-economic context and then narrowing down the focus of analysis to identify specific constraints;
  • Is not a one-off study, but should build on continuous understanding [1] through appropriate information to shape decision-making and informed actions; and
  • Is guided by the ‘spirit of curiosity’ by asking critical questions to identify potential drivers of change and partners for implementation.

Helvetas has developed an operational guideline using the experiences of its projects. The overall objective of the guideline is to identify the most climate resilient sub-sectors in a given context and to determine the potential impacts and relevant measures in the field of adaptation to climate change and disaster risk management to further increase resilience in a market system. The guideline can be applied for the following (not exclusive) cases:

  • Actors identify best options for the selection of the most resilient (sub)-sectors;
  • Actors adapt their involvement in a market system based on climate risk resilience;
  • Actors determine options to make a (sub)-sector more climate resilient;
  • Actors understand the impacts of climate change on natural resource based (sub)-sectors in the short (1 to 5 years) and mid-term (6-15 years).

The guideline shall help a range of actors in understanding climate risks and opportunities in (sub)-sectors, identify where emerging opportunities exist and develop a comprehensive climate risk management approach that shall be part of an enterprise/investment. The guideline is not a new tool, but builds on existing tools and approaches. Moreover, this helps involved actors, in a particular DRM context, not only contribute to the improvement of the system, but also ‘do no harm’ through unsustainable interventions (e.g. badly designed protection dams, unfair risk insurance systems etc.).

Ideally, risk analyses should be conducted in a systematic manner at an early stage of designing and planning to avoid unintended negative impacts and eventually to contribute to resilience at the local, regional and national levels. In practice, this means defining hazards, vulnerabilities, and risks; defining and prioritising risk reduction/adaptation options; defining actors, collaboration mechanisms for its implementation; setting up a functional monitoring and evaluation system, etc.

Reality is often different, and such analyses are often conducted at a later stage, reducing the contribution of an intervention and adding costs.

The guideline builds on the adaptation process [2] and applies key principles of systemic approach. These include:

  • Setting strategic framework based on adaptation needs – risk and vulnerability assessment;
  • Understanding adaptation to climate change/disaster risk management options;
  • Setting the vision through prioritising and choosing the best adaptation to climate change/disaster risk management measures;
  • Planning and implementing adaptation to climate change/disaster risk management measures
  • Developing a functional monitoring and results measurement system

Emerging experiences from Helvetas

To date, the following initiatives of Helvetas in different projects have been documented:

  • Nepal: guideline on assessing climate change and vulnerabilities in value chains following a systemic approach to development (tested draft version).
  • Armenia: integration of DRM in a market systems development project focussing on fruit value chain.
  • Bosnia and Herzegovina: a market systems development project focussing on youth employment; promotion of DRM interventions of common interest for business zones and municipalities.
  • Georgia: integration of DRM in a market systems development project focussing on diary value chains.
  • Bangladesh: pilots on community based DRM in a market systems development project.
  • Honduras: climate risks analysis in the value chain of cacao.

From here to where: outlook

Application of a systemic approach requires commitment and adequate understanding of key principles and challenges of the approach. Helvetas first steps towards developing the guidance is a multi-disciplinary work, joining the experience and know-how of experts from different backgrounds. This helps to critically reflect our vision and constantly remind ourselves if our roles in development projects will make meaningful contributions that are long-term and large-scale.

The development of the guideline has also the potential of increasing the consolidation and reflection of existing experiences (good practices and failures) for improving results of our work in current and future development initiatives. In addition to the above projects, Helvetas actively leads and contributes to knowledge and learning among the wider development community through the Swiss NGO DRR Platform.

Additional sources:


[1] In practice, continuous inquiry can also lead to ‘paralysis by analysis’ that prevents informed actions.

[2] Based on the OECD guidelines on “mainstreaming adaptation to climate change in development cooperation” (2008), and the PROVIA’s guideline on assessing vulnerability, impacts and adaptation to climate change (2014).

[3] The learning event on 28 April 2016 at Helvetas office in Bern.

Senior Advisor Adaptation to Climate Change
Programme Coordinator, East and Southeast Europe, Senior Advisor, Sustainable & Inclusive Economies
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