The Disaster Cycle
The disaster cycle is a very useful concept for referring to and managing the broad set of activities that can be undertaken before, during, and after disaster events or other shocks to minimize disaster risks, impacts, and losses. By aligning activities these time “phases” in relation to disaster events, the disaster cycle can be a powerful tool for organizing and planning a comprehensive range of disaster risk management activities.
At the same there are limitations to treating the distinct phases within the cycle too literally. Many of the activities necessary to address disaster risk and strengthen community resilience more generally must be linked across the full set of phases in order to be truly effective.
Classically the disaster cycle mentioned four phases: mitigation, preparedness, response, and recovery. More recently these are often shortened to three phases – preparedness, response, and recovery – both to better link mitigation and preparedness activities which together enable disaster risk reduction and to avoid confusions in terminology with the climate change community, which uses “mitigation” in a different sense. In this three phase variant, the disaster cycle does indeed map well to the before, during, and after disaster events. The “Phases” of Emergency Management presents a good overview of how this concept of phases has developed and evolved over time.
Looking beyond the cycle to broader visions of resilience
In reality the phases are not always distinct from one another, and often should be interwoven for an effective disaster risk management strategy. In fact, sometimes the greatest opportunities for preparedness occur during periods of response and especially recovery, when the reconstruction process provides an opportunity for “building back better”.
In this context, effective preparedness and resilience require the marrying of a number of concepts:
- Adaptation, recognizing the overlap between climate change adaptation and preparedness and risk reduction measures undertaken for other non-climate related hazards (such as earthquakes and volcanos)
- Disaster risk reduction (DRR), focusing on the variety of approaches available to reduce risks and prevent hazards from evolving into disaster events. A significant part of the DRR approach is the recognition that disaster risk is a combination of both physical exposure to hazard events and social and economic vulnerability to those events.
Risk = Hazard x Exposure x Vulnerability/Capacity
The goal in DRR then is to identify and target the various factors that combine to produce disaster risk.
- Disaster risk management (DRM), frequently used to mean the sum total of activities to manage risks pre-disaster and as well as the risks and impacts once disaster events occur.
- Humanitarian vs. development, representing the dichotomy between relief and recovery activities to restore communities to their pre-disaster level of functioning and more extensive ‘building back better’ activities that necessarily link to the longer-term development trajectories of those communities. Many practitioners increasingly recognize this is an un-necessary and unhelpful distinction as the boundaries between humanitarian and development are often unclear and effective and efficient programming often requires interventions that straddle the two.
In local government contexts, this same divide is often represented in the separation of emergency management and planning functions, which often leads to a break-down in the pursuit of comprehensive risk reduction and risk management measures.
- Risk reduction and risk management without the “disaster”, recognizing that effective community resilience requires integrated cross-sector approaches that reach beyond planning for disasters and recognize the relation to other types of threats and crises that are being addressed in the health, livelihoods, and water and sanitation sectors.
These terms are defined in more detail in the glossary section on this page.
- The American Red Cross has undertaken an extensive “re-engineering” of its disaster services structure to better recognize and align to the disaster cycle.
GlossaryTermMeaningAdaptationThe adjustment in natural or human systems in response to actual or expected climatic stimuli or their effects, which moderates harm or exploits beneficial opportunities.Disaster risk managementThe systematic process of using administrative directives, organizations, and operational skills and capacities to implement strategies, policies and improved coping capacities in order to lessen the adverse impacts of hazards and the possibility of disaster.
Disaster risk retentionThe concept and practice of reducing disaster risks through systematic efforts to analyze and manage the causal factors of disasters, including through reduced exposure to hazards, lessened vulnerability of people and property, wise management of land and the environment, and improved preparedness for adverse eventsEmergency managementThe organization and management of resources and responsibilities for addressing all aspects of emergencies, in particular preparedness, response and initial recovery steps.MitigationThe lessening or limitation of the adverse impacts of hazards and related disasters.PreparednessThe knowledge and capacities developed by governments, professional response and recovery organizations, communities and individuals to effectively anticipate, respond to, and recover from, the impacts of likely, imminent or current hazard events or conditions.PreventionThe outright avoidance of adverse impacts of hazards and related disasters.RecoveryThe restoration, and improvement where appropriate, of facilities, livelihoods and living conditions of disaster-affected communities, including efforts to reduce disaster risk factors.ResilienceThe ability of a system, community or society exposed to hazards to resist, absorb, accommodate to and recover from the effects of a hazard in a timely and efficient manner, including through the preservation and restoration of its essential basic structures and functions.ResponseThe provision of emergency services and public assistance during or immediately after a disaster in order to save lives, reduce health impacts, ensure public safety and meet the basic subsistence needs of the people affected.
Source of these definitions: UN-ISDR, http://www.unisdr.org/we/inform/terminology
 “Building back better” is a phrase often attributed to Bill Clinton and his staff in the UN and Clinton Foundation that supported recovery and reconstruction efforts after the 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami.