Systems Approach to Management of Disasters – A Missed Opportunity?

Slobodan P Simonovic


Everyday life is overwhelmed by critical phenomena that occur on specific spatial and temporal scales. Typical examples are floods, land slides, storm surges, and similar. All these phenomena might have, whenever they occur, significant negative consequences for human lives. They often result from complex dynamics involving interaction of innumerable system parts within three major systems: (i) the physical environment; (ii) the social and demographic characteristics of the communities that experience them; and (iii) the buildings, roads, bridges, and other components of the constructed environment. In nonscientific terms, such events are commonly referred to as disasters. Proper management in the face of a natural disaster necessitates a transformation of attitude towards integration of economic, social and environmental concerns related to disasters, and of the actions necessary to deal with them.
Recent trends in confronting disasters include consideration of the entire region under threat, explicit consideration of all costs and benefits, elaboration of a large number of alternatives to reduce the damages, and the greater participation of all stakeholders in decision-making. Systems approaches based on simulation, optimization, and multi-objective analyses have great potential for providing appropriate support for effective disaster management in this emerging context.
The systems approach to managing disasters outlines proven strategies for pooling interdisciplinary resources more efficiently to boost emergency responses. Looking at the disaster management practice, with primary focus on Canada, this paper explores the question of why advances in systems theory have failed on a broader scale to majorly transform management of disasters. The paper identifies whether and how that knowledge and systems science can be deployed to improve disaster management in the face of rapid climate destabilization so that sustainability becomes the norm, not the occasional success story.


systems approach; disaster management; simulation; optimization;

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