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What We Need to Understand About Disasters with Mr. Ricardo Mena

Jan 06, 2023

From tsunamis and hurricanes to the COVID-19 pandemic and the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the understanding of disaster management and risk reduction has been evolving. It is no longer just about hazards. International organizations are now taking into account all other aspects of the risk formula to detect early signs of the next health crisis or natural catastrophe to hit the world. 

In this conversation with host Kyle King, Ricardo Mena dives deeper into the major changes in disaster risk reduction, the current state of how international organizations fund risk mitigation, where the responsibility of implementing an integrated DRR ultimately falls on, the important tools that can influence nations to mitigate risk, and the role of local emergency managers in preventing what could go wrong in the future.

Who is Ricardo Mena?

Ricardo Mena has ample experience in all the facets of disaster risk reduction and its links with sustainable development, climate change and humanitarian crisis. He served in the United Nations in various capacities and duty stations for the past 29 years. The last three years he held the position of Director of the United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction (UNDRR) based in Geneva, Switzerland.

Ricardo Mena is a Director at the United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction (UN DRR), with over 20 years of experience in the various aspects of disaster risk reduction.  He is both a prolific writer and a founding member of the Network of Social Studies in Disaster Prevention for Latin America, LA RED, and a member of the UN Development Group, UNDG-LAC.

Prior to his engagement with the United Nations, Mr. Mena held managerial positions in the private sector in Ecuador and worked with the organization, Partners of the Americas. Mr. Mena holds a Master Degree in Risk, Crisis and Disaster Management from the University of Leicester, UK.

DRR Goes Beyond Hazards

In the last 15 years, international organizations have realized that disaster management and risk reduction goes beyond understanding the hazards alone. As disasters become more frequent, massive, and unexpected in nature, disaster management and risk reduction needs to look at all aspects of the risk formulabeyond identifying hazards and into a comprehensive analysis of what makes people vulnerable. 

Instead of merely enumerating the risks, Mr. Ricardo Mena urges international organizations and local emergency managers to first understand their underlying drivers.

The COVID-19 pandemic has changed how society views these matters. In early 2020, the world came to a halt as governments imposed lockdown and quarantine restrictions to mitigate the increasing rates of COVID-19 infections. Infections increased exponentially and the world was in a frenzy as it witnessed deaths at an overwhelming scale and pace. Doctors and health personnels first identified that the most vulnerable patients are those with underlying medical conditions—cardiovascular diseases, diabetes, immune deficiencies, etc. But when healthy people began to die after contracting the virus, one of the real causes of vulnerability turned out to be the state of public health.  

According to Mena, most of the aspects that make people vulnerable to the impact of hazards are linked closely with the way in which development is taking place. If this development has not been risk-informed, it will generate significant concerns that are manifested when the hazard actually occurs. He further elaborates that understanding underlying drivers of risk and what needs to be done from the development side can ensure that societies are more resilient and less exposed to hazards. 

The field of DRR has also learned that mitigating risk and building resilience requires the active participation of all development actors. In the past, the people who exclusively engaged in disaster risk reduction and disaster risk management were mainly from the sciencesengineers, chemists, geologists, volcanologists, hydrometeorologists, etc. Today, DRR management includes sociologists, economists, and other actors from the development sector. 

In addition, the COVID-19 pandemic and the war between Russia and Ukraine showed international organizations that there is an interconnection between different types of hazards and disasters happening around the world. For instance, the Russian invasion of Ukraine affected the global economy in terms of the cost of items, supply chain, and inflation. Thus, Mena says that the perspective on risk has also changed.

“We have to look at risk in a more comprehensive way. We can no longer look at each hazard independently. We have to identify all triggers of hazards and see the possibility of cascading and ripple effects that could have a greater impact on society.” 

Of course, these major changes in DRR did not happen in a vacuum. He enumerates that the five catalysts that are continuously transforming DRR as we know it today are: 

  • An evolving understanding of hazards and risks
  • A need to minimize cost in the face of scarce funding by acting preventively and ex ante 
  • Extending the responsibility of DRR beyond civil protection agencies and emergency management agencies to all sectors of the government
  • Active efforts and discussions of the international community to raise awareness and create solutions 
  • Amplification of climate change and its consequences

Unfortunately, investment and funding in DRR have not yet kept up with the major changes in perspective and understanding of risks. Mena explains that funding for disaster risk reduction activities is just a tenth of every dollar spent on disaster response. With the intensification of the effects of climate change, funding risk reduction can no longer wait until funds are available. Hence, he stresses that society should insist with governments and the international development assistance community to make sure that disaster risk reduction is actually funded in a more predictable and substantive way. 

But he also notes international organizations do not necessarily need to choose between funding disaster risk reduction and disaster response. In fact, it’s possible to incorporate risk reduction measures during humanitarian response so that they do not contribute to generating more risk. 

What We Learned

Effective disaster risk reduction requires an integrated, all-of-government approach to risk governance. All development actors—the government, civil society, private sector, industries and commerce, as well as the community responsible for actively participating in this matter to avoid a compartmentalized approach that actually does not lead to any positive result. 

For that reason, effective disaster risk reduction also requires a shift in the way nations and communities see risk reduction. 

Mena notes that it will take time to change a nation's systems and perspective towards risk reduction but it is not impossible especially with a set of effective tools. He explains that the most important tool to influence nations in using an all-of-government approach to risk governance is the Sendai Framework. It includes priority areas for action and it describes what is the responsibility at the local, national, and international level—the best tool in understanding how to bring theory into action. 

The risk landscape is rapidly changing and the future is shrouded in uncertainty. Moving forward, Mena thinks a lot of things could still go wrong in mitigating future risks. But as governments and international communities deal with the larger geopolitical and strategic issues concerning disaster risk reduction, he encourages local emergency managers and citizens to stand up and put pressure on their elected officials so that the understanding of disaster risk is brought to a higher level. 

This is the role of civil society—to be a voice that triggers or elicits the action of elected officials towards mitigating risk. Whoever you are and whatever position you may have in society, Mena invites you to join the cause of advocating for a stronger and more effective disaster risk reduction. After all, it is the key priority in achieving good governance and building the resilience of communities in the face of crises.

To know more about Andy Chastain's views and opinions on energy security and renewable energy, listen to the full podcast episode here.

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