Learning From Success, Not Catastrophe: Using Counterfactual Analysis to Highlight Successful Disaster Risk Reduction Interventions

Publication type

Journal Article

Research Area

Risk and Society


In the aftermath of a disaster, news and research attention is focused almost entirely on catastrophic narratives and the various drivers that may have led to the disaster. Learning from failure is essential to preventing future disasters. However, hyperfixation on the catastrophe obscures potential successes at the local scale, which could serve as important examples and learning resources in effective risk mitigation. To highlight effective risk mitigation actions that would otherwise remain unnoticed, we propose the use of probabilistic downward counterfactual analysis. This approach uses counterfactual modelling of a past hazard event with consequences made worse (i.e. downward counterfactual) by the absence of the mitigation intervention. The approach follows probabilistic risk analysis procedures where uncertainties in the simulated events and outcomes are accounted for and propagated. We demonstrate the method using a case study of Nepal’s School Earthquake Safety Program, implemented before the 2015 Mw 7.8 Gorkha earthquake. Using a school building database for Kathmandu Valley, Nepal, we present two applications: 1) the quantification of lives saved during the Gorkha earthquake as a result of the retrofitting of schools in Kathmandu Valley since 1997, 2) the quantification of the annual expected lives saved if the pilot retrofitting program was extended to all school buildings in Kathmandu Valley based on a probabilistic seismic hazard model. The shift in focus from realised outcome to counterfactual alternative enables the quantification of the benefits of risk reduction programs amidst disaster, or for a hazard that has yet to unfold. Such quantified counterfactual analysis can be used to celebrate successful risk reduction interventions, providing important positive reinforcement to decision-makers with political bravery to commit to the implementation of effective measures.

Publication Details


Frontiers in Earth Science

Date Published


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