Understanding disaster risk in Canada: An introduction

By the HazNet editorial team

Understanding risk is foundational for effective emergency management and disaster risk reduction. The Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction identified “understanding disaster risk in all its dimensions” as the first of four priority actions. Similarly, the Emergency Management Strategy for Canada outlines the commitment of the federal, provincial, and territorial governments to prioritizing and advancing disaster risk assessments: “Access to accurate risk information, through an open and inclusive dialogue, is critical to informed decision-making” (p. 13).

Image: Disaster risk is the dynamic intersection of hazard, exposure, and vulnerability.

The past decade has seen astonishing advances in technological capabilities and scientific understanding of the hazard component of disaster risk, from robots that map the insides of volcanoes to drones that sail into the eyes of hurricanes to statistical modelling techniques that leverage deep machine learning to improve our ability to predict big rare events, such as earthquakes or pandemics.

But understanding hazards is only part of the equation. We need accessible (available, easy to find, and easy to understand) and accurate (reliable data and source) risk information to inform decision-making across all sectors of society, from individuals to businesses to communities to Indigenous groups to governments. What might a future look like if, working together, we realized these goals?

What if… disaster policies were directly informed by the people they impact?

What if… equitable access to risk information addressed the information asymmetry between people and institutions that price risk – such as insurance, lending institutions, developers, and governments – so we can all make decisions based on the same understanding of risk?

What if… funding programs were designed to target risk, and to work with the most at-risk communities and neighbourhoods to accelerate adaptation and mitigation, ultimately reducing the costs and impacts of disasters for everyone?

What if… urban planning design considered disaster risks in the same way as community amenities and access to schools, services, and parks?

What if… building codes were designed to recoverability standards, so buildings could better withstand the impacts of hazards and be repaired more quickly, minimizing cost and disruption after a disaster?

What if… infrastructure was designed to be resilient not only in today’s climate, but that of the future?

What if… disaster financing programs could quickly provide assistance and serve the people who need help most, reducing the unequal impacts of disasters?

What if… honouring Indigenous Science, communities were developed to work with the natural environment, leaving room for rivers to flood and forests to burn as part of natural cycles of renewal without putting people in harm’s way?

Understanding disaster risk in all its dimensions can help us get there.

Risk assessment tools and resources

In this edition, our feature section focuses on some of the work currently underway to understand disaster risk in Canada. We begin with an interview with Dr. Ellen Prager, marine biologist and science communicator, who describes the current state of what is known and not known about natural hazards, and the important work still remaining to improve how this knowledge is shared. We then feature snapshots of a select number of Canadian risk assessment initiatives to showcase the advancements being made in understanding our disaster risk:

The Risk Profiler tool focuses on earthquake risk and helps users explore a range of earthquake scenarios and visualize the potential impacts.

The Flood Hazard Identification and Mapping Program is accelerating the mapping of high-risk flood areas in Canada to improve land use planning and inform mitigation and adaptation strategies.

Climate Data features a range of tools to help people understand how Canada’s climate is changing and what this means for different locations in Canada, with informative videos to make this data more accessible.

The Social Vulnerability Index goes beyond looking at hazards to exploring another key dimension of risk: vulnerability. This index integrates socio-demographic, financial, housing, economic, and other measures to identify places that may face greater vulnerability to disasters due to systemic factors and lack of access to resources.

This is not an exhaustive list of all initiatives underway to understand disaster risk in Canada, but highlights the important progress being made and the need to continue to invest in making risk data accessible and accurate so it can inform decision-making for all of us.


United Nations. (2015). Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction, 2015-2030. Available at: https://www.preventionweb.net/files/43291_sendaiframeworkfordrren.pdf

Public Safety Canada. (2019). Emergency Management Strategy for Canada: Towards a Resilience 2030. Available at: https://www.publicsafety.gc.ca/cnt/rsrcs/pblctns/mrgncy-mngmnt-strtgy/mrgncy-mngmnt-strtgy-en.pdf