ISDR Informs The Americas

Perceptions of Risk

imagen 1
Photo: © UNICEF/Gonzalo Bell

For many years, risks have been seen as something objective and even quantifiable: the potential damage caused by a disaster. The assumption was that information about risks was something for disaster specialists to deal with, and many studies were conducted to try to estimate such risks. In most cases, however, the studies were limited to analyzing hazards or harm, and determining the urban areas that would be more or less affected by earthquakes, floods, mudslides or landslides.

At the time, information about risks was used to calculate “prevention” needs —but it was a type of “prevention” that had to been supported by what specialists knew about destructive “natural” phenomena and their possible effects on urban populations. Based on this information, warning systems or embankments to shore up riverbanks could be designed.

“Risk zoning” was related to the need to have tools that would guide the way in which urban spaces were to be used, but this idea was not very widespread at first, and had only limited application later due to weaknesses in urban planning.

Risk studies drawn up by specialists have been disseminated (with some limitations) among local authorities so that their recommendations can be implemented (which has rarely happened), but they have not been distributed to community leaders and to the population in general.

Institutions specializing in emergencies have chosen to transmit messages that attempt to raise awareness among the population, and recommendations have been given about what should be done before, during, and after a destructive event. But these recommendations usually grew out of the assumption that it would be impossible to reduce risk significantly in the face of an imminent hazard, and that the only thing the population could do would be to try to mitigate the effects of the event, especially the physical harm to people and to their most valuable possessions.

The “top-down” approach vs. a rights approach
What is described above is an approach primarily centered on external assistance in emergency situations, which also implies that actions taken by the population are only necessary while this assistance arrived.

This approach began to be used in the 1970s and was based on a top-down relationship between the authorities and the population. This kind of relationship has persisted, in spite of the changes that have taken place in our societies—changes that imply a new vision of development associated with citizen rights. Some researchers emphasize that new rights-based development approaches are the result of a confluence of a new international legal framework expressed in various UN conventions that countries have signed, the actions of social movements who are demanding their rights, especially those of women, indigenous, and landless people; and the historic tendency of clientelism to evolve towards the concept of citizenship.

But while societies have slowly begun to leave behind direct assistance strategies in favor of new relationships between citizens and governments, humanitarian assistance in the case of disasters continues to be perceived as something that the government and donors provide. Often, the population has only been able to do what others decide and recommend.

This kind of inertia in times of democratization has had to be questioned in light of its limited effectiveness in emergencies: disasters have been causing increasing damage (a fact that led to the declaration of the 1990s as the International Decade for Natural Disaster Reduction), and many mistakes have been made during the humanitarian crises of the world.

In the mid-1990s, humanitarian crises led many organizations to reformulate their work strategies. This also led to the development of the codes used by the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, as well as minimum standards for humanitarian aid that introduce a more integrated, rights-focused approach to emergency management. These documents are examples of the fact that most humanitarian institutions have now agreed on the need to introduce a rights-based approach into disaster management.

This approach starts by recognizing that people are born with rights and that the realization of these rights is what undergirds the idea of citizenship, and therefore democracy. The government must guarantee certain economic, political, and social rights, and society as a whole must preserve them. Disaster risks do not lie outside of this rights framework, as it can be seen when one analyzes the relationship between poverty and the resulting loss of housing, health, information, and education. Risks arise directly from the insufficient realization of those rights inherent to people.

In order to ensure that people are able to exercise their rights, it is essential for them to participate in decisions that affect their lives, and the State must guarantee the mechanisms to make this possible. One way of doing this would be, for example, to ensure that budgeting planning and related processes are participatory.

The basic assumption of broad-based participation is that people are able to express themselves, discuss important issues, and be involved in decision-making processes. But participation is not possible unless there is organization, and it presupposes dialogue. It is necessary, therefore, to take into account the different and changing opinions and perceptions of people in order to make that dialogue possible. In the case of disaster risks, we cannot take into account only the perceptions of specialists and experts. We must also include the views of the population. Risk perceptions are differentiated visions that exist about risks and the measures necessary to cope with them. Risk perceptions have always existed, but they have changed over the years among the specialists and the population.

The risk perceptions of specialists
The concept of “disaster risk” was defined by specialists in the 1980s as the possibility that certain damage would occur, given the interaction between the probability of a destructive phenomena (hazard) and the level of exposure of people and property to such a phenomenon (vulnerability). But hazards and vulnerability were defined primarily as unsafe conditions, not as changing processes.

This distinction turns out to be significant because if we base our work on the idea of unsafe conditions, we might address them but we may not be able to prevent the same conditions from being generated again and again. On the other hand, if we also are looking for the causes of the unsafe conditions, we will be able to prevent or avoid future risks.

The causes are associated with poverty, but also with gender and age discrimination, as revealed during the International Decade for Natural Disaster Reduction. The Yokohama International Conference made public the idea that roles attributed to and imposed on children have limited their ability to reduce their vulnerabilities. It also became apparent that when disasters did occur, and given existing humanitarian aid strategies, conditions arose for greater oppression of women, because they are usually the ones who carry water when drinking water systems collapse. They are also the ones who bear the greatest burden for assuring the construction of temporary or permanent housing, and they are the ones who are most involved in rehabilitation and reconstruction processes, in exchange for food or money. Finally, the lack of knowledge about, and indifference to, the specific needs of girls, disabled persons, and women in disaster response must be highlighted.

Risk perceptions in the communities
In the last few years, Doctors of the World in Bolivia, and ITDG in Peru, have conducted studies about risk perceptions in highland Andean communities (Potosí and Ancash), in the jungle (San Martín), and among the peasant farmers on the coast (Piura).

Among other things, these studies made it possible to address disaster risk situations in a different way, since these reviews sought to find out not only whether people knew about risks, but also to what extent they had different interpretations and assessments of risks, as well as the mechanisms to learn about and confront them.

Among the most important findings, it is worth highlighting the use of biological indicators as early warning systems and current difficulties in obtaining accurate forecasts; different assessments about the things that need protection (production assets are prioritized over housing, and even over physical safety in the case of the highland Andean populations, and forest protection is a priority for indigenous communities who live in the jungle, etc.); and the importance of spontaneous protection strategies (traditional medicine) and adaptation to extreme climate variability.

Another relevant finding is the existence of different risk perceptions even among communities who live near the same watershed or in similar cultural and territorial environments. Communities that have directly experienced the effects of floods for decades have different perceptions and attitudes than do those who have not been affected. Communities who have experienced disasters have more critical awareness, for example, about how people have been located in certain areas by public policies: disperse populations have been concentrated in smaller areas by installing basic service networks (but these populations tend to be located in areas of lower elevation that are more exposed to landslides).

In sum, there are different perceptions and attitudes that require different strategies on the part of institutions. These strategies should be built on dialogue with the communities themselves and not simply based, as they have been, on the perceptions of “specialists.”

Risk perception among populations is often based on their own experience, and this is a necessary complement to the knowledge of specialists. But, above all, the population will instill a greater sense of ownership for any strategy, if they are taken into account when these are formulated. By considering and studying perception risks of the population, we will open up possibilities to be more proactive in education and training process around risk and disaster-related issues.

The importance of information about risks in formal and non-formal educational processes
In many schools, teaching people about risks has not exactly been a priority. If it occurs, it has often been limited to identifying unsafe conditions in order to respond in case of an emergency. It has usually been left up to technicians and experts to identify what conditions might be unsafe in an emergency. Teachers and students have not been involved.

In contrast, there are three types of formal and non-formal education initiatives that recognize the importance of risk perceptions. The first was developed by PREDES in 1987 and seeks to validate risk studies in communities. It looks at risk zoning and other measures proposed by engineers in the target communities for risk assessment. The result has been truly surprising: elders, women, and even children were able to make critical contributions to the proposals and the engineers could to learn from them.

The second is related to participatory risk assessment and was implemented in the framework of some DIPECHO projects in Peru (Ankash and San Martin). In this case, community leaders and technical experts walked together through the places where landslides start and through vulnerable populated areas. Drawing on this exercise, they began to hold dialogues about risks and adaptation measures. Some important variables have been recorded by developing risk maps with the participation of community leaders, youth brigades, promoters, and technicians. In all cases, the basic idea is not to regulate or plan the use of the territory, but rather, to learn about the risks, considering the perceptions of the people.

The third experience was more associated with the need to evaluate existing knowledge about risks, by talking and interacting with teachers in Central America, the Caribbean, and Peru. Vulnerability analyses conducted in schools should include an assessment of what people know about risks, and we now have some instruments and tools available to do this.

The big challenge in these three types of initiatives has been that of recognizing—as teachers do in the classes that address environmental issues—that there are many ways of relating to nature, and that this diversity depends a great deal on people’s perceptions and the conclusions they drawn from them. If we do not take these perceptions into account, we will be able to do very little to change risk conditions.


Pedro Ferradas Mannucci.
Program Manager,
Disaster Prevention and Local Governance.
Soluciones Prácticas/ITDG.
Jorge Chávez 275. Miraflores, Lima-Peru.
Phone number: 051 1 4475127 (286)