Previously a bastion of disaster preparedness, in the post-March 2011 world, Japan will stand for something more. Its tragedy will define how the notion of ‘acceptable risk’ comes to be debated in the public domain. 

This debate will be significant for two reasons:

One, we are inching towards a global moral consensus that will consider death and damage from disasters in the 21st century as unacceptable. Disasters have long been treated as a disruption to business as usual, as aspectacle from the developing world and as an industryfor reconstruction, aid and investment. 

But today, we know that deaths and most damage from disasters are in fact preventable – and hence, unacceptable. In the emerging context, it is very likely (and desirable) that disasters will be governed by the same kind of moral consensus that governs our present international response to war, famine, slavery, genocide or extreme poverty. 

Two, its now recognized that risk science, its application and management have inherent limitations. Risk science is probabilistic - it scopes out the ‘unknowns’ to varying degrees. But, its interpretation, application and enforcement are deterministic because such actions are based on human perceptions of risk. These perceptions are rooted in a social, economic and political context. What is the margin of error? - Quite significant, it turns out. 

In the aftermath of recent disasters, the oft-repeated sentiment from affected communities has been: we though we were safe. Risks from a nearby nuclear plant or a levee or a city bridge were underestimated and/or not clearly communicated. 

As our environments get more ‘built’ over the next decade and climate variability increases, risk management will become more and more complex. Our environments will experience more uncertainties, the range of risk probabilities will grow wider and our chances of error in interpreting risk will be multifold. These emerging scenarios will daunt our current risk management practices. Are we prepared? How prepared? To deal with what kind of risks? 

The Japan tragedy begs us to make space for public conversations on what kinds of risk can be deemed acceptable by societies in the 21st century.

But such shifts in public discourse do not just happen – people and ideas are instrumental in ushering them. Most of all, we have to enable a more democratic and public understanding of disaster risk.


This post first appeared online 'the disaster diary' - on April 17, 2011.

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