Risk to Resilience: Climate change, disasters and the WMO-UNDRR Centre of Excellence

Climate change is increasing the frequency, intensity, spatial extent, duration and timing of adverse weather and climate events in all areas of the world. Interconnected and globally-networked energy, water, health, trade and finance sectors, along with technological interdependencies and the daily lives of people living in poverty are expanding vulnerabilities to unfamiliar and unprecedented levels. Interactions and impacts propagate across communities, the economy and then beyond administrative or national borders. Risk can no longer be considered in isolation as they cascade and compound along entire systems with impacts that are multi-pronged, long-lasting and non-linear.

Cascading risks and resulting impacts were evident in Puerto Rico in 2017 when Hurricanes Irma and Maria caused critical system failures, loss of or reduced services in various sectors, internal displacements and, in some cases, migration. In January, when an underwater volcanic eruption in the South Pacific sent a tsunami racing towards Tonga, the population – already reeling from the tropical cyclone season – confronted physical devastation and health threats from volcanic ash and gases.

Cascading impacts often extend beyond national borders. In the Tonga example above, the pressure and tidal waves from the volcano travelled around the globe, stacking up impacts, including an oil spill off the Peruvian coast. Other examples further illustrate the globally-networked nature of risks:

  • the 2011 floods in Bangkok, Thailand, affected the car industry in Japan as its suppliers were in the flood areas
  • the 2010 Russian droughts affected food imports in different parts of the world
  • the 2020/2021 drought in Taiwan, China, is currently affecting semiconductor chip production and supply in the global marketplace (Forbes 2021).

The rapidly changing risk landscape presents both challenges and opportunities for communities and governments that are implementing the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction 2015-2030, the Paris Agreement of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) and the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Currently, few disaster risk methods consider the spatial or temporal correlation and dynamic consistency between global to local drivers of extreme events. As a result, there is considerable uncertainty about triggering events, shock propagation and remotely linked or indirect impacts (Palmer and Stevens, 2019; Lloyd and Shepherd, 2020). Superficial treatment of these elements could limit the benefits of, or lead to ineffective, adaptation efforts. In the worst cases, this could lead to maladaptation and the further exclusion of socially marginalized people in resilience efforts.

To respond to these issues, the WMO and United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction (UNDRR) launched a Centre of Excellence for Disaster and Climate Resilience (hereafter referred to as “the Centre of Excellence”) on the 2021 International Day for Disaster Risk Reduction. In the Centre of Excellence, WMO and the UNDRR will work together with partner agencies to strengthen efforts to transform scientific knowledge and tools into action supporting climate change mitigation, adaptation and DRR. At the 2021 International Day, WMO and UNDRR leadership both offered complementary and compelling visions for the Centre of Excellence:

"This new Centre of Excellence for Climate and Disaster Resilience will act as an information hub about the escalating impacts of climate change and extreme weather and how we can manage and mitigate these risks.” – Prof. Petteri Taalas, WMO Secretary-General

"This new Centre of Excellence will concentrate minds on what extreme weather and other hazards mean for daily life on planet Earth for the foreseeable future and spur efforts to adapt and cope with that reality." – Mami Mizutori, the UN Secretary-General’s Special Representative for Disaster Risk Reduction

Three initial activity areas have been proposed for the Centre of Excellence and are being discussed and validated with partners. These are introduced below.


1. Strengthened climate and disaster risk governance

The UNDRR, together with the UNFCCC, noted that “the coherence between climate change adaptation and disaster risk reduction is a defining issue for risk governance in the 21st Century.” (UNDRR-CRED 2020). In keeping with this statement, management across the Disaster Risk Reduction (DRR) – Climate Change Adaptation (CCA) continuum is hereafter referred to as comprehensive disaster and climate risk management or “CRM”.

Three major challenges have been identified for CRM:

  • creation of synergies between DRR and CCA implementing agencies at the local, national, regional and international levels
  • enhancement of risk management capabilities by bridging the gap between science and policy at the local and national levels
  • facilitation of more efficient and effective management of globally-networked and transboundary risks. (Casajus Valles et al, 2021; UNDRR 2021)

While hazards and triggers are more easily identified today, gaps exist in understanding and addressing the underlying factors that make people vulnerable. The root causes of vulnerability can include social and economic inequalities, ecosystem degradation, poorly designed urban infrastructure, access to and capacity to use information, conflict and displacement (IPCC 2012; 2022; Oliver-Smith et al 2016; UNDRR 2021). Understanding the multiple dimensions and dynamics of vulnerability will provide a more comprehensive picture of systemic risk and accelerate transitions towards systems based and prospective approaches to risk management.

Managing the complexity of systemic risk requires transformation across the dimensions of risk governance. Effective governance includes the actions, processes, traditions and institutions – formal and informal – by which collective decisions are reached and implemented.

The recent Central American case study (see box at end of the article) highlights the need for strengthened risk governance in the context of tropical storms, droughts and the COVID-19 pandemic. Successes in aligning regional capabilities to help meet national and local risk identification and management are illustrated. Several challenges remain for developing effective governance and enabling capabilities, however, immense opportunities for developing research, information and learning to overcome these challenges exist within and across regions.

The dimensions of effective governance include but are not limited to (UNDRR 2021):

  • Coordinated sectoral and cross-sectoral policies that align and leverage collaborative multi-stakeholder partnerships
  • A diversity of actors from national and sub-national governments, the private sector, research bodies, and civil society, including community-based organizations offering a broader portfolio of opportunities and equitable solutions
  • Strengthened global-to-local financial architectures that enables greater access to resources and that views resilience as an investment in present and future economic, social and environmental sustainability.

With these opportunities and a sense of urgency due to the rapidly changing climate, the Centre of Excellence aims to improve the knowledge of systemic risks and informed governance to facilitate value creation in addressing structural and complex risks. These efforts will help to better sustain the critical interdependent and complex systems on which economies, ecosystems and communities depend.


2. Increased understanding of the systemic nature of climate and disaster risks

At present, there are few well-documented examples of national disaster risk management systems and associated risk management measures explicitly integrating knowledge of, and uncertainties in, projected changes in exposure, vulnerability, and climate extremes. As described in the Central American Case study, a coordinated information platform can successfully anticipate potential impacts, including the exposure of communities and critical infrastructure, hazard variables and characteristics, but there is a need to scale theory into practice globally.

Systemic risks might be easy to mitigate early, yet failure to appreciate the role of underlying drivers of systemic risk will allow small, manageable risks to grow into major whole-of-society problems. Failed interventions and missed opportunities will increase both economic and human losses.

The Centre of Excellence will support interdisciplinary research to better understand how extreme weather and climate events interact with other drivers of risk to amplify disaster impacts in unprecedented ways. Multi-Hazard Early Warning Systems (MHEWSs) analysis is envisioned to support understanding on how hazards and/or impacts can co-evolve in contexts where hazardous events may occur alone, simultaneously, in a cascade or cumulatively over time and can result in interrelated effects. The integration of local knowledge with additional scientific and technical knowledge will be advanced to improve disaster risk reduction and climate change adaptation.

The enhanced risk analytics will be used to inform EWS design to avoid maladaptation. A global flagship report on risk with regionally, nationally and locally relevant good practice and technical guidance on data standards, leveraging hazard classification and cataloguing of disaster related statistics, is envisioned. This information will connect decision-makers to both incremental and transformational solutions to mitigate these risks and guide resource investments to the right areas at the right time to reduce levels of risk and mitigate and prevent future disasters.


3. Risk-informed development and humanitarian action

Stronger efforts at the international level alone will not necessarily lead to substantive and rapid results at the local level. And while the threats, hazards, risks and their implications are intertwined, the systems to prepare for, prevent and deal with them are not. The current landscape is fragmented across a multiplicity of disconnected climate, development, humanitarian, disaster risk and environment stakeholders, often working and in parallel towards the same goals, but with different approaches. The lack of coherence across these sectors hampers the overall effectiveness.

Moving forward with shared goals and objectives and on knowledge co-development requires driving positive feedbacks between science, policy and actions to manage and reduce risks. The Centre of Excellence will support these links. On a practical level, the Global Multi-Hazard Alert System (GMAS, see The Global Multi-Hazard Alert System Framework – Supporting alerting capacities of Members in the climate crisis in this issue) Framework will enhance Member alerting capabilities to close the EWS coverage gaps and strengthen connections between EWSs and decision-making processes. Furthermore, the WMO Coordination Mechanism (WMI, see Stepping Up Support to the UN and Humanitarian Partners for Anticipatory Action in this issue) will enhance WMO support to the United Nations and other humanitarian agencies to improve access to authoritative products made available by WMO Members, complemented with added-value advice. These efforts are targeted to support disaster risk reduction, preparedness and response – to save lives and livelihoods, and thus protect development gains in regions repeatedly battered by high-impact events and/or the cumulative impacts of sequences of multiple events.

The Centre of Excellence will focus attention on highly vulnerable and fragile contexts where needs are greatest, but obstacles make resilience building especially challenging. Where vulnerability is high and adaptive capacity low, changes in climate extremes can make it difficult for systems to adapt sustainably without transformational changes. Transformations that address future climate related resilience as a systemic challenge will require profound shifts in institutions, technologies, consumption patterns and personnel, as well as in the ecological, economic and social processes they influence. The Centre of Excellence will serve to identify and and guide testing of transformative solutions in fragile contexts, building on the understanding that transformation is facilitated through increased emphasis on adaptive management and learning (White et al 2001; Nissinen et al 2015; UNDRR 2021).


The path forward: the Centre of Excellence for Disaster and Climate Risk Management

Following the first meeting of the Steering Committee of the Centre of Excellence in December 2021, WMO and UNDRR launched a series of bilateral consultations with partner agencies to refine the Centre of Excellence’s theory of change and to prioritize activities for the annual work plan. Partners were unanimous that initial activities should be based on the core competencies of the agencies involved to enable quick action and wins to build momentum in delivering tangible results to countries and communities most at risk.

While consultations are ongoing, the discussions have already yielded tremendous insight into the modalities to achieve the Centre of Excellence’s principal aspirations:

  • Amplifier – A platform to elevate the work of individual agencies through coordinated action, to enhance the impact and reach of what each can achieve alone (foster connections between agencies that have expertise in data and science, policy, economic agenda setting and those with boots on the ground to develop the science, policy and practice interface)
  • Connector – A space that provides the “glue” between the various activities across the fragmented sets of actors, identifying not only areas of intersection, but gaps and entry points where a coherent approach is needed
  • Accelerator – A space for learning where ideas can be tested, brought to acceptability and scaled-up faster through joint action and collaboration
  • Agent for transformational change – Actions that range from incremental steps to transformational changes are essential to reduce risks – the Centre of Excellence will serve as an incubator to cultivate transformational change.

Following the conclusion of the partner consultations, the annual work plan will be drafted for Steering Committee review and then public consultation at the Global Platform for Disaster Risk Reduction in May 2022.

The WMO, UNDRR and the Centre of Excellence’s partners are committed to working across disciplines and institutions. The principal aim will be to develop products, services and processes to guide science, policy and practice to accelerate achievement of the Sendai Framework, the Paris Agreement and the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.

A major aspiration for the Centre of Excellence will be to foster behavioral change. The Centre of Excellence aims for improved use of integrated knowledge and approaches by international, national and local partners in demand-side management to significantly reduce pressures on resources and adaptive buffers, thus substantially limiting reliance on externally driven interventions and humanitarian relief.

Efforts will be made to identify and leverage existing capabilities that may have been overlooked to protect and enhance the sustainability and capacity of the systems as a whole (IPCC 2012; Casajus Valle et al 2021; UNDRR 2021). In addition, training and capacity development with Centre of Excellence partners will engage more systematic science/ policy and science/practitioner interfaces to enhance coherence and ensure results to the end of the last mile.


Crafting a virtuous cycle between, research, policy and practice: A Central American Case study

The IPCC points to Central America as the tropical region most sensitive to climate change (IPCC 2014). Four of the fifteen countries facing the highest risk of disasters globally are in Central America: Costa Rica, Guatemala, El Salvador and Nicaragua. The number of disasters in the region more than quadrupled since the 1970s (UNISDR-CEPREDENAC 2014). In recent years, Central America has improved its disaster response capacity by developing strategies to address the root causes of risk and position DRR at the heart of the sustainable development agenda as further described below.


Hurricane Iota.png
The Category 4 Atlantic Hurricane Iota made landfall in Nicaragua on 17 November 2020 and went on to cause severe damages in areas of South America already devastated by Hurricane Eta less than two weeks earlier

Tropical storms, droughts and other factors

The impacts of Hurricanes Eta and Iota in late 2020 evidenced the fragility of the Early Warning Systems (EWSs) and the diverse levels of response across the region. These late-season storms – both Category 4 – produced torrential rainfalls and catastrophic wind, flood and storm surge across Central America, affecting more than 7.5 million people and multiplying high economic, environmental and productive asset losses.

The events occurred on the heels of five consecutive years of drought. The region has become significantly hotter and dryer in recent decades. Large portions of Guatemala, Honduras, Mexico, and Nicaragua received less than 80% of the average rainfall in the summer of 2020 and climate-induced lack of food was identified as a driver of displacement and migration in the region (WFP, 2019).

The COVID-19 crisis, which significantly affected the region both in terms of economic activity and employment (ECLAC-UNDRR 2021), played a large role in the context of  historical and inherent risk drivers. These drivers include the informal economy, inequality, rapid urbanization, poverty and lack of political representation. This resulted in a disproportionate impact on the most vulnerable (ECLAC-UNDRR, 2021), as the opportunities to participate and design targeted interventions suitable to their contexts were reduced.

Better understanding of these cascading risks and how they propagate is necessary to develop ways to identify, manage or prevent them in the future. The need is urgent.


Governance and enabling capabilities

CATHALAC.jpegCATHALAC regional workshop on Adaptation to climate change in the water sector: How does research respond to the needs of decision-makers? (Source: CATHALAC)

In 2020, the Coordination Centre for the Prevention of Disasters in Central America and the Dominican Republic (CEPREDENAC), developed the SICA COVID-19 Information and Coordination Platform, with assistance from NASA, World Bank and UNDRR. The platform was designed to support national pandemic strategies and used geographic information system mapping software alongside consultation services and digital materials to monitor, manage and report on the impact of the pandemic.

The platform also included weather, flood and landslide data, supported by regional partners such as CATHALAC, the Central American Climate Forum and the Regional Hydraulic Resources Committee (CRRH). The platform successfully anticipated the potential impacts – the exposure of communities and infrastructure, hazard information, etc. – of  Tropical Storm Amanda, and Hurricanes Eta and Iota in 2020. This experience shows the potential of cross-institutional collaborations and partnerships in the Central American Region.

WMO1 and UNDRR2 regional frameworks, private sector networks3 and other regional counterparts mentioned above, provide spaces for cooperation to strengthen interaction. They offer innovative ways to work from regional to local scales to enhance the efficiency of MHEWS and risk management systems in the region. Most critical has been the creation of multi-stakeholder spaces at national and regional DRR platforms, which can be leveraged to improve climate data and DRR governance.


Addressing comprehensive disaster and climate risk management in the region

An intensified collaboration between WMO and UNDRR, extended to their network of partners,4 would contribute fundamentally to bridging the gap between science, policy and action. It will strengthen regional integration and cooperation for more effective regional DRR governance. With its architecture of specialized institutions, Central America is a fertile ground for the guidance and coordination that can be facilitated by the Centre of Excellence.


1. Such as Regional Specialized Meteorological Centre in Miami, WMO Regional Climate Outlook Forum, Regional Climate Centres, Regional Training Centres
2. Such as UNDRR Regional Scientific & Technological Advisory Group
3. Such as Central American ARISE
4. Including the Regional Science and Technical Advisory Group, academia and the more than 15 national and 2 subregional members or the UNDRR-led Private Sector Network for Resilience Societies (ARISE).


By Roger Pulwarty, US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), Loretta Hiebert-Girar-det and Ricardo Mena Speck, United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction (UNDRR), and Erica Allis, Cyrille Honoré and Johan Stander, WMO Secretariat


The authors would like to thank Nahuel Arenas and Rodney Martinez for their assistance in developing the Central America case study, and to Robert S. Webb and Sylvie Castonguay for valuable comments which significantly improved the manuscript.


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