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close this bookAn Overview of Disaster Management (Department of Humanitarian Affairs/United Nations Disaster Relief Office - United Nations Development Programme , 1992, 136 p.)
close this folderChapter 13. Mitigation 1
View the document(introduction...)
View the documentTargeting mitigation where it has most effect
View the documentActions to reduce risk
View the documentThe menu of mitigation actions
View the documentClassification of mitigation measures
View the documentTiming for mitigation


1 Adapted from the UNDP/UNDRO training module, Disaster Mitigation by A.W. Coburn, R.J.S. Spence, and A. Pomonis, Cambridge, June 1991.


Mitigation is one of the positive links between disasters and development. Agencies, communities, and individuals can use their development resources to reduce the risk of hazards through mitigation projects. They can also ensure that their other development initiatives contain components that mitigate against future disaster.

In its broadest usage, mitigation has become a collective term used to encompass all actions taken prior to the occurrence of a disaster (pre-disaster measures). This includes long-term risk reduction and preparedness measures.

Many individuals and institutions, however, apply a narrower definition to mitigation. They use mitigation to mean actions taken to reduce both human suffering and property loss resulting from extreme natural phenomena. The concept of mitigation accepts the fact that some hazard event may occur but tries to lessen the impact by improving the community’s ability to absorb the impact with minimum damage or disruptive effect. More simply stated, for this group, mitigation is risk reduction.

Mitigation applies to a wide range of activities and protection measures that might be instigated: from the physical, like constructing stronger buildings or agricultural diversification, to the procedural, like standard techniques for incorporating hazard assessment in land-use planning.

In the 1990s, a major effort is underway to encourage the implementation of disaster mitigation techniques in development projects around the world. The General Assembly of the United Nations has adopted the decade of the 1990s as the International Decade for Natural Disaster Reduction. The aim is to make a significant reduction in the losses of life and material damage caused by disasters by the end of the decade.

Disasters have, until recently, been seen in much the same way as disease was in the early 19th century: unpredictable, unlucky and part of the everyday risk of living. Concentrations of people and rising population levels across the globe are increasing the risk of disasters and multiplying the consequences of natural hazards when they occur. However, the “epidemiology” of disasters - the systematic science of what happens in a disaster - shows that disasters are largely preventable. There are many ways to reduce the impact of a disaster and to mitigate the effects of a possible hazard, accident, or conflict.

Just like the fight against disease, the fight against disasters has to be fought by everyone together. It must involve public and private sector investment, changes in social attitudes and improvements in the practices of individuals.

Governments can use public investment to improve their countries’ infrastructure and to promote a physical environment where a disaster is less likely to occur. Individuals must also learn how to act to protect themselves. Just as public health depends on personal hygiene, so public protection depends on personal safety.

The type of cooking stove an individual uses, and their awareness that a sudden earthquake could tip it over is more important in reducing the risk of a disastrous fire than having the community maintain a large fire brigade. The type of house individuals build and where they consider a suitable place to live affects the potential for disaster in a community more than large engineering projects to reduce flood risk, or landslide stabilization efforts or sophisticated typhoon warning systems.

Saving life and reducing economic disruption

The worst effects of any disaster are the deaths and injuries caused to the population. The scale of disasters and the number of people they are capable of killing is the primary justification for mitigation. Understanding the way that people are killed and injured in disasters is a prerequisite for reducing casualties.

Q. Summarize what you think are the principal objectives of mitigation.

A. ____________________________________________________________



The principle objectives of mitigation include: saving lives: reducing economic disruption: decreasing vulnerability; increasing capability to resist disasters; decrease chance of civil conflict.

Targeting mitigation where it has most effect

Understanding how the occurrence of a natural hazard or an accident turns into a disaster enables us to forecast likely situations where a disaster is possible. For example, some buildings (elements) are more vulnerable to earthquakes (hazard) than others. Identifying these elements most at risk, can indicate priorities for mitigation.

Identifying locations and situations where combined risk factors coincide helps indicate the elements most at risk. Elements most at risk are the elements (buildings, networks, social groups) that are likely to contribute most to the losses incurred in a future disaster or that are most likely to suffer from the effects of the hazard. These elements may be the least able to recover after the event. Within a city, for example, the portions of housing stock most likely to be damaged can be identified. Mitigation measures applied to that sector will again have the most effect on reducing risk.

Q. In Chapter 4, you identified the most likely disaster that could occur in your community or country. In the discussion on vulnerability in Chapter 8, you identified a community at risk. Within that community, what are the elements at risk?

A. ____________________________________________________________


Actions to reduce risk

Ö Reduce the hazard or reduce vulnerability

Protection against the threats of disaster can be achieved by modifying or removing the causes of the threat, (reducing the hazard) or by reducing the effects of the threat if it occurs (reducing the vulnerability of elements affected). For most types of natural disasters, it is impossible to prevent the actual event from occurring. The focus of mitigation policies against these hazards is primarily on reducing the vulnerability of elements that are likely to be affected. Obviously, some natural hazards can be reduced. The construction of levees along a riverbank is an example of risk reduction.

Ö Tools, powers and budgets

It is evident that risk reduction is complex and needs to be built up through a range of activities happening together. Governments, for example, can employ a wide range of tools and use their powers in many ways to influence the safety of the community. Legislative powers, administrative functions, spending and project initiation are all part of the tools they can employ to bring about change. Powers of persuasion are sometimes classified into two types: passive and active. These are summarized toward the end of this chapter. Another power of persuasion is diplomacy, perhaps the most useful tool to mitigate against warfare or civil conflict.

The menu of mitigation actions

The range of techniques that an authority might consider in order to assemble an appropriate package for disaster mitigation can be classified into:

· engineering
· spatial planning
· economic
· management and institutionalization
· societal
· conflict reduction


Engineering measures are those that result in stronger individual structures that are more resistant to hazards. This is sometimes referred to as “hardening” facilities against hazard forces. Building codes are critical defensive measures for achieving stronger engineered structures. Training techniques to teach builders the practicalities of disaster resistant construction are now well understood and form part of the menu of mitigation actions available to the disaster planner.

Spatial planning

Many hazards are localized with their likely effects confined to specific known areas. For example, floods affect flood plains, and landslides affect steep soft slopes. The effects can be greatly reduced if it is possible to avoid having hazardous areas used for settlements or as sites for important structures. Urban planning needs to integrate awareness of natural disaster risk mitigation into the normal procedures of planning a city.

For populations displaced by hazards or conflict, opportunities to reduce their risk include the identification of safe zones for resettlement in areas with adequate security and resources to support displaced persons.


Economic development is key to disaster mitigation. A strong economy is the best protection against a future disaster. A strong economy means more money to spend on stronger buildings, safer sites, and larger financial reserves to cope with future losses.

Mitigation measures can help a community reduce future economic losses. They can help members withstand losses and improve their recoverability after loss and measures that make it possible for communities to afford higher levels of safety are important elements of an overall mitigation programme.

Economic activities which help a community which hosts displaced persons to absorb this population can mitigate against the development of serious social or political problems.

Some aspects of economic planning are directly relevant to reducing disaster risk. Diversification of economic activity is an important economic principle. A single-industry economy is always more vulnerable than an economy made up of many different activities. The linkages between different sectors of an economy - the transportation of goods, the flow of information, and the labor market may be more vulnerable to disruption from a disaster than the physical infrastructure that is the means of production.

Management and institutionalization of disaster mitigation

Disaster mitigation also requires certain organizational and procedural measures. The timescale over which a significant reduction can be achieved in the potential impact of a disaster is medium and long term. Changes in locational planning, upgrading structures and changes in the characteristics of building stock are processes that take decades. The objectives and policies that guide the mitigation processes have to be sustained over a number of years. They have to survive the changes in political administration that are likely to happen within that time, the changes in budgetary priorities and policies on other matters. The institutionalization of disaster mitigation means the acceptance of a consensus of opinion that efforts to reduce disaster risk are of continual importance.

Education, training and the development of professional expertise are necessary components of institutionalizing disaster mitigation.


The mitigation of disasters will only come about when there is a consensus that it is desirable. In many places, the individual hazards that threaten do not result in disasters, the steps that people can take to protect themselves are not known and the mandate of the community to have itself protected is not forthcoming. Mitigation planning should aim to develop a disaster “safety culture,” one in which the general public is fully aware of potential hazards, chooses to protect itself as fully as possible and can readily support protective efforts made on its behalf.

Conflict reduction

In the disasters and emergencies created by conflict, mitigation must include conflict reduction. Measures at conflict reduction must start with identifying and addressing the root causes of the conflict. Although negotiation will often be the primary tool of conflict reduction, the issues may arise over such causes as land tenure, employment, access to resources, and intolerance of ethnic or religious differences. These issues need to be anticipated through a form of early warning and defused before conflict erupts.

Classification of mitigation measures

Developing a mitigation strategy should include a structure to facilitate decision making. The following series of questions suggests such a structure.

What risk is being reduced?
To what level should the risk be reduced?
What criteria are used to reduce the risk?
Who decides what the criteria are?
What is the political process to implement the measure?

Mitigation measures may be classified in several ways. The following list of such classifications includes many categories which overlap in their implementation.

Active and passive: For active measures, authorities promote desired actions by offering incentives. For passive measures, authorities prevent undesired actions by using controls and penalties.

Structural and non-structural: Structural mitigation involves physical measures taken to reduce risk by erecting structures (such as dams). Non-structural measures are policies and practices of development whose implementation reduces the risks to development.

Short-term and long-term: Short-term measures are those which are taken rapidly and which have a short life or usefulness such as sand bag reinforcements of a dyke. Long-term measures may include a process that is itself long in implementation, consider an extended timeframe, and change public attitudes through education.

Restrictive and incentive: Restrictive measures result in practices that promote safety by making some actions or development unlawful or prohibitively expensive. Incentive measures provide financial, legal or other advantages to promote activities which are also beneficial in terms of mitigation.

Sectoral based activities: Sectoral based activities start from the vantage point of a sector, such as agriculture, and ask: “within this sector, what can be done to reduce risk?” A response might be to introduce hazard resistant crops, or to diversify cropping patterns.

Timing for mitigation

The risk reduction measures of mitigation are often placed in the pre-disaster time frame. In fact, the most opportune time to implement mitigation is in the period after a disaster. Public awareness of the problems posed by hazards is high and the political will to act may also be at its peak. This period probably will not last for more than two to three years before other development priorities take precedence.

Q. Select one of the mitigation activities from the preceding discussion and apply it to the element most at risk that you identified in the previous question. Describe one example of a mitigation activity that will reduce the vulnerability to an element at risk.

A. ____________________________________________________________