‘Unprecedented’ events and ‘unexpected’ impacts are commonly to blame after major floods and other disasters. While the realities of both disaster risk and climate change are that they are uncertain, many disasters have historical precursors and foreseeable impacts if careful attention is paid to the dimensions of risk including physical hazards and the exposure and vulnerability of people and assets to harm. Building disaster resilience requires learning from both the past and present, and from successes and failures, to prepare for whatever the future may hold—and it’s best not to wait until the next disaster strikes.
The PERC approach
The Zurich Flood Resilience Alliance developed the post-event review capability (PERC) in 2013 as a means to learn from past flood disasters. The PERC is a disaster forensics study that focuses on why a specific flood event became a disaster and evaluates the success and failures in the management of disaster risk prior to the event, during disaster response, and in post-disaster recovery. PERC studies identify entry points and opportunities for improving disaster risk management and, overall, for building multi-hazard resilience. PERCs have been conducted in rural to urban settings and in both the developing and developed world on four continents.
These studies have generated significant interest in their contexts as they provide clear lessons and tangible recommendations for building resilience across sectors and scales. As the PERC library has grown, it is becoming increasingly clear that these studies are identifying lessons and recommendations that are applicable globally.
A “non-event” PERC
In 2016/2017, the Zurich Flood Resilience Alliance conducted its first PERC-based analysis that did not focus on a recent major disaster. Given forecasts in Peru for a severe El Niño event in 2015/2016 likely to generate major coastal flooding, a typical post-event PERC was planned. Yet although the 2015/2016 El Niño was a powerful event globally, it had relatively minor impacts in Peru.
IIASA in collaboration with Practical Action Peru decided to proceed with a PERC-inspired study to gain a better understanding of the country’s El Niño-related risks and the effectiveness of the diverse preparedness measures that the Peruvian government pursued prior to the 2015/2016 El Niño. This “non-event” study also analyzed the current Peruvian disaster risk management system, which went through a major redesign in 2011, and explored several scenarios of disaster risk management and development to consider how investing in different types of risk reduction and preparedness measures could influence future flood outcomes. The study concluded with a series of policy-focused recommendations for reducing disaster risk and building flood resilience.
A surprise “coastal El Niño”: Lessons learned
At the very end of December 2016, sea surface temperatures off the northern Peruvian coast warmed rapidly and unexpectedly, and by late January 2017 torrential rains began to fall across the region. Flooding continued for nearly three months, affected over 1.5 million people, caused 162 deaths, and resulted in extensive damage to critical infrastructure, businesses and homes. This localized coastal event, which was not actually a global El Niño but generated similar impacts to past severe El Niño events in Peru, both highlighted the relevance of the non-event study’s findings and provided a setting in which to conduct a traditional PERC. This latter PERC study, conducted in July 2017 by ISET-International in collaboration with Practical Action Peru, found that the 2017 flood disaster was largely human-caused and foreseeable, a result in line with the findings of the non-event study.
A notable and expected difference between the two studies is that the non-event study focused primarily on national policy issues, whereas the post-event study had greater focus on the local level and how national and sub-national policies and practices led to local-level impacts. The combination of the two studies, with the non-event study recommendations focused on policy and the PERC study recommendations focused on practice, provides a strongly complementary set of information for practitioners across the disaster risk management spectrum.
Despite the differences in the focus of analysis, both the non-event study and the PERC identify several common key lessons and recommendations:
- Greater investments in local level disaster risk management capacity-building are needed: A common complaint in Peru is that local governments lack the capacity to fulfill national government policies. Regional governments often hold responsibility for what should be local-level projects, and local governments are frequently not given the funds they need to implement disaster risk management projects. Lack of capacity at the local level often stems from a lack of national and regional government investment in capacity building, and not from a lack of interest and willingness to engage.
- Local government needs to be better represented in regional and national planning and policy processes: Local governments have largely been left out of higher level planning and policy processes, leading to tense relationships between levels of government and to policies and plans that do not reflect local needs and realties.
- Collaboration and coordination between sectors needs to improve: Both disaster risk management and resilience building require multi-sectoral coordination. However, in Peru sectors are siloed, making it difficult to conduct coordinated and efficient disaster response, or to plan and implement comprehensive disaster risk reduction and recovery actions.
- High-risk settlements and communities need to be the focus of disaster risk management efforts: A substantial percentage of the Peruvian population live on lands highly exposed to floods. Minimizing the risk faced by these communities requires discussion on: (a) whether these communities should be resettled, (b) where and how they could be resettled, (c) and how recurrent settlement on high risk lands will be prevented.
These recommendations, which were generated in both reports, are important entry points for building resilience in Peru. They are also applicable to virtually all flood-prone environments. Disaster risk management practitioners and governments do not need to wait for a disaster to happen to reveal key gaps in disaster risk management and resilience. It is possible to learn from floods anywhere, anytime and to start building resilience today.