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Preparing for the Unpredictable: Risk Management & Natural Disasters

When it comes to risk management, the stakes are never higher than when dealing with people’s safety. Failure to ensure that the correct protocols are followed means that the danger of death becomes very real. Like any project, implementing safety measures for potential natural disasters needs to be approached with the pillars of modern project management methodology in mind.

So how do you go about trying to prepare for the unpredictable? Natural disasters by their very nature are unexpected and potentially extremely volatile. These processes, through the threat they pose to human society, are wrought with risk and therefore need to be approached pragmatically. This is to ensure the minimisation of damage to human life and, secondarily, the damage to property and infrastructure – although usually these two factors will be linked intrinsically. By gaining an understanding of the risks that natural hazards expose us to, we can begin to take steps towards serious damage limitation.

The energy required to undertake a project of this magnitude is huge. In order to successfully mitigate hazards, those at the project’s helm must take into account an extremely diverse range of factors that expand beyond the usual realms of project management. Whereas time, cost and human resources are usually the three main areas that project managers will need to focus on, disaster prevention requires equal attention on the complex science of probability.

What hazard is the most likely to hit a particular region and why? Which scientific principles govern the natural processes responsible for the predicted event? What is the chance that such a hazard will turn into a natural disaster (i.e. how will humans be affected)? These are all contributing factors to a risk management strategy, and all need to be considered before the biggest question – how can each disaster be predicted and mitigated – can be answered.

The effects of these natural disasters are extremely diverse and are huge in number. The risk management setup would first need to consider the primary effects of the disaster, events that occur as a direct result from it, such as water damage during a flood or the collapse of buildings during an earthquake. Then, the secondary effects would need to be taken into account. These are events that are caused by a primary effect, such as the disruption of electrical power or the starting of fires. The tertiary effects are the more long term issues that arise from the disaster. Loss of habitat, permanent changes in river channels, crop failure – these are all equally integral to the risk management process as a whole.

The reason why there is such an emphasis on successful project management when it comes to hazard or disaster prevention is because of the huge array of factors that contribute to the overall structure of the plan. It is not just approached from a scientific perspective but a socio-economic one too. The location of areas of infrastructure in relation to the area of predicted damage is central to this. The probability of human interaction to the disaster via these areas of infrastructure also needs to be considered, and through this the project managers will able to estimate just how vulnerable the surrounding communities are should the event occur.

With an adequate risk assessment plan in place, the project’s decision makers and scientists can compare and evaluate their findings regarding potential hazards and through that determine what their biggest priorities are when beginning to implement their prevention structure. They can also recognise what areas of their project need to be addressed with further research or a greater distribution of resources.

In normal project management scenarios, the next stage would be to transfer the model to real life scenarios. When dealing with natural disasters, this is not a practical way of testing the project’s validity so the methodology applied by project leaders must be flexible enough to cater for this. Practical implementation must be assessed to avoid the risk of failure, but this needs to be approached in a different way. The project managers need to have the correct training or experience in this field in order to ensure the correct precautions are taken.

This is undoubtedly one of the most complex strands of both project and risk management alike. While many of the attributes discussed here will not be directly applicable to the demands of white-collar businesses, for example, there are still many valuable lessons to be learnt. The consideration of possible dangers, no matter how unlikely or distant they may seem, needs to be factored into any risk management structure that wishes to succeed.