Of the Importance of Risk Management

As of late, environmental scientists have recognized the need for an undertaking that addresses more than just the physical hazards resulting from the planetary boundaries that were discussed before.

The social impacts of transgressing these boundaries are not merely limited to how people are affected by such environmental hazards, but also to how such communities are socio-economically resilient in response.

To understand the concept of “risk” and its corresponding response–that is “resilience”–is important as it serves as the bridge into determining how communities can direct their environmental management efforts as based on their socioeconomic improvement.

For instance, two countries exposed to the same environmental hazards may not be experiencing the same risk under such hazards because of their respective states of development. For a country that has sufficient financial means, a capable and properly functioning government, and an organized civil society structure, the country could more or less invest in countermeasures against such hazards.

This capability is what we call vulnerability. Thus, coming from this fundamental understanding of risk, the World Risk Index of 173 countries calculates risk as the product of both exposure and vulnerability.

Risk = Exposure x Vulnerability

Risk is the interaction of both factors.

Exposure means that a certain good (generally: population, infrastructure, environmental areas) is exposed to the impacts of one or more natural hazardsVulnerability, on the other hand, relates to social, physical, economic, and environment-related factors that make people or systems susceptible or resilient to the harm to which one is exposed.

Under “vulnerability”, there are three constituents—susceptibility, coping capacities, and adaptive capacities—all of which share equal weights.

Vulnerability = 1/3 (susceptibility) + 1/3 (coping capacities) + 1/3 (adaptive capacities)
  1. Susceptibility is the likelihood of sustaining harm as based on factors such as current state of infrastructure, nutrition, housing conditions, and economic status.

  2. Coping capacities refer to various abilities of societies to minimize the negative impacts of environmental hazards via direct action and the resources at their disposal.

  3. Adaptive capacities, unlike #2m are long-term strategic processes aimed to target future natural events.

Examples of specific indicators under exposure and the three factors of vulnerability are as follows.

(c) World Risk Report 2013

(c) World Risk Report 2013

In the case of the Philippines, the country has been on the index as the 3rd country at most risk to environmental hazards, after small island states Vanuatu and Tongga. It has consistently been at that rank for three years since 2011.

In fact, UNU-EHS Director Prof. Jakob Rhyner said, “The World Risk Index reveals global hotspots for disaster risk in Oceania, Southeast Asia, southern Sahel and especially in Central America and the Caribbean. In these places a very high threat of natural disasters and climate change meets very vulnerable communities. [Meanwhile,] in Europe we find countries which are [also] highly exposed to hazards, for example the Netherlands and Greece, but due to their level of preparedness the actual risk is quite low.”

With this information, it is thus very important that the Philippines aim to possess an adaptive capacity as an ultimate goal if the country is to pursue a path of constant progress.





World Risk Report 2013. Rep. Alliance Development Works, 2013. Web. 20 Jun. 2015. <http://collections.unu.edu/eserv/UNU:2018/WorldRiskReport_2013_online_01.pdf&gt;.

Panela, Shaira F. “PH Is 3rd Most Disaster-prone Nation in the World Again.” GMA News Online. GMA Network Inc., 16 Oct. 2012. Web. 20 Jun. 2015. <http://www.gmanetwork.com/news/story/278482/scitech/science/phl-is-3rd-most-disaster-prone-nation-in-the-world-again&gt;.


Japan’s First Dam Removal Site: Ecology & Engineering of Kuma River

On June 12 and 13, 2015, I attended a two-day event, organized by Ecology and Civil Engineering Society, in Kumamoto City.  A symposium was held on the afternoon of the 12th and an all-day field trip was arranged for the 13th, for discussing sedimentation in water flows from the river to the sea.  The presentations focused on many initiatives on Kuma River, which has received international attention for being the first river in Japan with a major dam removal projectthe Arase Dam.


The Friday symposium was kicked off by Sumi Tetsuya (Kyoto University), who presented on the problem of dams and sedimentation.  He talked about the problems caused by sedimentation, such as changes to the downstream environment, and some examples of solutions, such as bypass channels and dredging, in Japan and around the world.  Professor Sumi focused on dam removal as one of these solutions to the problem of sedimentation, and discussed the change in sedimentation, water quality, and environmental changes after a dam is removed.

P1040668This was followed by Horiuchi Shinji, who formerly headed the Arase Dam removal team of Kumamoto Prefecture.  He explained the history of Arase Dam, from its construction in the immediate postwar period when the hydroelectric plant supplied power to the area, to the process of building general consensus to dismantle the dam.  With great detail he explained the six-stage dismantling process, still underway, which was planned through talks with the sweetfish (ayu) fishing cooperatives so as to halt any work during the fish’s spawning season.  He also discussed the environmental monitoring efforts, whose results thus far indicate that the dam removal is having, overall, a positive effect on the environment, such as increased vegetation, more variety of sediment size, and the formation of rapids and pools in the river.

Asazaki Katsuyuki presented on the effort to release sediment built up behind dams on Mimikawa River in Oita Prefecture.  As the vice head of the Mimikawa River Hydropower Management Office of Kyushu Electric, Asazaki explained that environmental concerns as well as safety concerns were the reasons for adding water gates to two dams so as to prevent sediment build up.  He presented on results of environmental monitoring, which showed evidence of growing variability in habitats for various river creatures, some of which are registered as endangered species.

P1040734The next presenter, Onikura Norio (Kyushu University), presented on his finding from an on-going research project to measure the effect of the sedimentation flowing due to the Arase Dam removal in the delta of the Kuma River.  A biologist who specializes in brackish and freshwaters of river estuaries, he is part of a “working group” of biologists and civil engineers who are overseeing a few nature restoration projects along Kuma River.  He noted that the dam removal seems to have resulted in increased variety of sedimentation particle size and elevation — two key factors in providing a wider range of habitats the area.

The next presentation was by Takigawa Kiyoshi a professor emeritus of Kumamoto University who has headed and is still involved in environmental monitoring projects for Ariake and Yatsushiro Seas.  For this occasion he gave an overview of the two seas and then focused on the Yatsushiro Sea, into which Kuma River flows.  Prof. Takigawa explained how these seas are environmentally degrading because not enough water is flowing into the sea.  Coastal land reclamation have further deteriorated the tidal mudflats for many creatures in these seas.  He explained a few of the initiatives that are in the works to restore these valuable marine environments.

Lastly Shimatani Yukihiro (Kyushu University), who presented on the role of sedimentation management in river restoration efforts.  He foregrounded his discussion with a general overview of how different components of the river provide habitat for living creatures.  Then he discussed the specific effects of dams on sedimentation in rivers, such as the reduction of larger particles downstream and the lowering of the river bed, for example.  He then introduced the Hachinoji Wier Restoration Project on Kuma River, which incorporate the revival of a river engineering technique from the early Tokugawa period.

The final event was a panel discussion in which the speakers summarized the presentations and answered a few questions from the audience.  The discussion moved to the difficulties in evaluating these nature restoration projects because of the lack of concrete targets when it comes to recreating a suitable habitat for wildlife.  Another issue raised was the general sense that this association has done more work in river restoration compared to the sea, perhaps because of the complexity of the ocean compared to that of rivers.

P1040624The second day was a field trip to Kuma River.  About 80 participants hopped on two buses from Kumamoto City.  It rained most of the time but the trip participants managed to visit the major restoration projects along the river.

The group stopped by the following spots:

  • Yōhai Weir – Hachinoji Weir
  • Arase Dam Removal Site
  • Nakakita Area Reed Field Restoration Site
  • Minami River Tidal Flat – Biosurvey of fish and crabs
  • Yatsushiro Port Seashore Restoration Experiment Site

At each site, we were given explanation of the project by the key members involved in these projects.  We unfortunately couldn’t see much of the Hachinoji Weir, because of the rain and the rise in the water level.  But we were able to walk on the remaining parts of the Arase Dam removal site — parts that are scheduled to be dismantled later this year.  The tidal flats areas downstream were fascinating, as some of us were able to walk far onto the flats.  Graduate students, who was spending the morning in the mud, showed us many species of fish and crab that are on the IUCN endangered species list.  It was a great opportunity to hear about these projects from those directly involved in them.

For lunch we went to a restaurant that specializes local cuisine, including boar meat and shaku ayu — large sweetfish that grow to be as large as 30cm.  During lunch we heard from Shoko Tsuru, who heads a local NGO involved in the environmental restoration of Kuma River.

All in all, the two-day event provided a unique perspective on the state of river engineering in Japan today, especially as it pertains to the work of nature restoration.

On breaking news: 4 planetary boundaries now crossed!

Human activity on the environment has tremendously increased within the two centuries that have passed since the age of industrialization, altering earth system processes to beyond recognition of what has been known for billions of years.

It is for this purpose that planetary boundaries have been established—to inform and guide mankind regarding the threshold approximations and the ways by which humanity can continue to thrive whilst living sustainably.

Such tipping points must not be met as transgression puts forth the risk of triggering non-linear rates of change, several of which, it is important to note, are irreversible. To add is the multi-faceted nature of ecological alteration—an influence on one boundary is likely to affect mankind’s position in terms of another boundary.

The nine planetary boundaries, as debated and discovered to be in need of utmost attention, are as follows with their current status also being shown.

Among the nine, four have already been transgressed as of January 16, 2015.

(c) TedX

Meanwhile, for cross-comparison of all nine boundaries, check the figure below. To zoom, simply click on the image and bring it to the address bar.

(c) The Carbon Brief

It should be noted that these transgressions are not a result of natural variability. While Earth system processes show variance as is the case with extreme events (e.g., the Ice Age), such events were occasional and not increasing in manner. Instead, the causes of these transgressions were anthropogenic in nature.

As validated through systems modeling, the present conditions of for example, warming temperatures, do not match the natural rate of greenhouse effect present in the atmosphere, but rather the continuous and exponential rise of greenhouse emissions from human activity—mostly from energy supply production.

These being said, with men at the core of the problem and also being subject to the very consequences thereof, there lies the question of how we should strategically respond to such issues.

In this regard, environmental scientists have found it important for nations to understand and incorporate the concept of risk management in their sustainable development goals.

See next post: Of the Importance of Risk Management.





“Planetary Boundaries 2.0 – New and Improved.” Stockholm Resilience Centre. Stockholm University, Jan. 2015. Web. 15 Mar. 2015. <http://www.stockholmresilience.org/21/research/research-news/1-15-2015-planetary-boundaries-2.0—new-and-improved.html&gt;.