Tuesday, October 26, 2021
HomeWorld DisastersAsia's looming Black Elephant events | Communications Earth & Environment - Nature.com

Asia’s looming Black Elephant events | Communications Earth & Environment – Nature.com

Devastating disasters that are predicted but ignored are known as Black Elephants—a cross between a Black Swan event and the proverbial elephant in the room. It’s time we acknowledged the looming natural hazard risks that no one wants to talk about.

Asia is the most disaster-prone region in the world: from 1970 to 2016, a person in the Asia-Pacific region was five times more likely to be affected by a natural hazard compared to someone outside of the region1. As such, acknowledgment of Black Elephants is fundamental to the future resilience of this rapidly developing region. Disastrous events are often proclaimed as a Black Swan—an unlikely and unexpected occurrence. However, at a closer look, for many of these disasters, the hazard was known and understood but not addressed, and they are therefore better described as a Black Elephant (Fig. 1)2. Individuals, and in particular scientists, can make a difference by defining and drawing attention to these hazards before they occur: we should not allow known risks to be ignored.

Fig. 1: One risk, two perspectives.

Black Swans and Black Elephants both describe hazard events with high impact, high exposure, and high vulnerability but are viewed from two different vantage points. With knowledge but without acknowledgment, a Black Swan becomes a Black Elephant. Both have the potential for catastrophic impacts.

Known risks

Black Elephant events have the potential to affect individuals and systems both locally and globally. One example is the COVID-19 pandemic, first identified in December 2019 in Wuhan, China that has had devastating health and economic impacts around the globe3. In 2019, the Global Health Security Index4 had already noted that international preparedness for epidemics and pandemics was very weak. Yet little was done to mitigate the risk. The threat is not limited to individual hazards: there is growing evidence that the number of countries affected by multi-hazard events is rising5. In these contexts, interactions between multiple hazards and multiple events strain resources and defy typical single-hazard protocols. For example, in 2020 during the COVID-19 pandemic, individuals affected by tropical cyclones had to choose between staying socially distanced at home, at risk of the cyclone, or evacuating to a shelter, where they would be unable to socially distance6,7.

The rising exposure from rapid urbanization and high levels of social and physical vulnerability are important drivers of natural hazard risk in Asia. Mitigation of these risks is crucial to the region’s resilience, but climate change, and other known but under-characterized hazards make addressing these risks complex. We highlight several—but by no means all—of the Black Elephants that threaten Asia (Box 1) and offer five practical recommendations (and associated challenges) for addressing the risks.

Five recommendations

Black Elephants are inherently complex and challenging: this is exactly why they became Black Elephants in the first place. The key first step towards mitigating a Black Elephant event is to define it, draw attention to it, and begin the conversation. There are contributors to future risks that are out of our control, such as the time and magnitude of an earthquake, and then there are contributors to risks that are within our control and influence. These latter contributors, such as exposure, vulnerability, and anthropogenic-driven hazards such as climate change, are where we can focus our efforts moving forward.

We offer five recommendations to move forward, starting with actions for individuals and then moving to recommendations that require coordination across organizations, agencies, and groups.

  1. 1.

    Call Black Elephants by their name: Not every catastrophic event is a Black Swan. Calling known events a Black Swan obfuscates the responsibility for its impacts. We call for scientists, journalists, and governments to refrain from using the term Black Swan for known but rare events. Unlike Black Swans, Black Elephants can be identified and plans can be put in place to address them.

    The challenge: A key challenge lies with governments. Overt acknowledgment of a Black Elephant can leave politicians open to criticism for being aware of a problem, but not having acted on it. As such, individuals in the media, science, civil society, and other non-government sectors have a vital role in changing perceptions.

  2. 2.

    Acknowledge the risks, but also averted disasters: Post-disaster discourse commonly focuses on negative outcomes, but it is critical to also highlight the policies, programs, and designs that worked. Acknowledging Black Elephant events is so difficult, not least because it is unpleasant and uncomfortable to discuss something that seems hopeless. Celebrating effective policy decisions against former Black Elephant events that overcame complex and challenging risks should be encouraged. An example is the 1999 Super Cyclone Odisha that claimed 10,000 lives in India. This event served as a wake-up call. Subsequently, disaster mitigation authorities at state and national levels were established to focus on preparedness, prevention, and mitigation. Though cyclone danger remains high in India, mortality has dropped significantly and we can count Cyclone Phailin (2013) and Cyclone Fani (2019), among others, as successful mitigation stories when considering lives lost8,9. Rather than accept risk as static and unchangeable, highlighting these successes reinforces the idea that we can collectively shape future risk10.

    The challenge: Even with mitigation measures that decrease impacts from a hazard, there is almost always still some impact. Celebrating the relative success of mitigations efforts must be balanced with considerations for those who were still affected by the event.

  3. 3.

    Just because we do not measure it does not mean it is not there: Under current metrics, a measured improvement in resilience or reduced risk may only reflect the fact that the hazard did not occur within the considered timeframe. For example, in the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction, United Nations member countries set global targets for reduced disaster mortality, affected persons, economic impact, and disaster damage over a 15-year period11. However, this measure depends directly on the occurrence of hazard events, and a decrease in global hazard occurrences (such as major earthquakes in highly populated regions) could be misconstrued as progress towards these global targets. What we measure must reflect how human efforts are changing the risk, rather than how random fluctuations in hazard occurrence change risk. With this change in metric, acknowledgment of Black Elephants can become institutionalized.

    The challenge: Adjusting metrics of risk is a significant departure from the status quo, and calculations based on risk can be more difficult to communicate than metrics based on realized impact. This is an aspect in which scientists, who are more familiar with uncertainty than people in other sectors, can have an important role to play.

  4. 4.

    Break disciplinary silos to acknowledge Black Elephants: Findings from scientific research must break out of disciplinary and academic silos to ensure that results find their way to the public sphere as real changes in policies, building codes, or public messaging. For example, the devastating 9.0 M Tohoku, Japan earthquake on 11 May 2011 and subsequent tsunami, resulted in 19,000 persons dead or missing, damaged or destroyed an estimated 800,000 buildings, and triggered a severe nuclear accident12. This event appeared to many as an unforeseen Black Swan. However, tsunami records, studied since 1990, showed deposits from the AD 869 Jogan earthquake and tsunami were identified kilometers farther inland than any other tsunamis known at the time13. In 2010, when the Japanese national seismic hazard map was updated, the affected area still showed hazard representative only of the past 400 years of tsunami records13; and did not include the hazard indicated by the 869 Jogan event. The Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant was built based upon the seismic and tsunami hazard identified by the national seismic hazard map, and the consequences of this disaster are now tragically etched in modern history. This Black Elephant shows the consequences of remaining in disciplinary silos.

    The challenge: Within academic institutions, transdisciplinary work is often misaligned with traditional metrics for academic scholarship such as publishing, a key factor for tenure and promotion14. Transdisciplinary work will only be possible with the support of major scientific funding agencies and the recognition of collaborative research by academic institutions.

  5. 5.

    Pre-disaster resilience: Disasters exacerbate existing inequalities and vulnerabilities. One way to mitigate disaster impacts is to reduce pre-disaster vulnerability. This action can be driven by political systems that wish to protect residents and their economy, international organizations (e.g., The World Bank15,16), financial instruments (e.g., reinsurance) that are vested in preventing the financial collapse of an entire region or industry, or collective grassroot desires to improve resilience for affected communities. Actions could include boosting scientific literacy, increasing risk awareness and education, and reducing physical vulnerability17,18.

    The challenge: These changes require political will and capital, which may be limited or in competition with other short-term issues. In addition, balancing short-term risks with long-term risks tends to be misaligned with political incentives.

Our recommendations are written with the Asia context in mind, but these strategies are applicable elsewhere. Raising the profile of Black Elephants builds more resilient and robust systems; tools put in place in preparation for these complex risks may actually help address a true unknown Black Swan in Asia or elsewhere. Ultimately, we cannot act on what we are unable to discuss. The Black Elephants of Asia will be uncovered in the coming decades; whether we decide to acknowledge them will shape their impact.


  1. 1.

    United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific. Asia Pacific Disaster Report 2017 – Leave no one behind. (United Nations, 2018). At https://www.unescap.org/publications/asia-pacific-disaster-report-2017-leave-no-one-behind.

  2. 2.

    Friedman, T. L. Stampeding Black Elephants. The New York Times (2014).

  3. 3.

    Ludovic, J., Bourdin, S., Nadou, F. & Noiret, G. Economic globalization and the COVID-19 pandemic: global spread and inequalities. Bull World Health Organ. 2–4 https://doi.org/10.2471/BLT.20.261099 (2020).

  4. 4.

    Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security. Global Health Security Index report. www.ghsindex.org (2019).

  5. 5.

    de Ruiter, M. C. et al. Why we can no longer ignore consecutive disasters. Earth’s Future 8, e2019EF001425 (2020).

  6. 6.

    Associated Press. Japan floods leave dozens dead, including nursing home residents. The Guardian (2020).

  7. 7.

    Gettleman, J. & Yasir, S. Cyclone Amphan’s Death Toll Rises to 80 in India and Bangladesh. The New York Times (2020).

  8. 8.

    Lallemant, D. et al. Shedding light on avoided disasters: Measuring the invisible benefits of disaster risk management using probabilistic counterfactual analysis. (Accepted to the United Nations Disaster Risk Reduction Global Assessment Report 2022).

  9. 9.

    Rabonza, M. L., Lin, Y. C. & Lallemant, D. Celebrating successful earthquake risk reduction through counterfactual probabilistic analysis. In 17th World Conference on Earthquake Engineering (2020).

  10. 10.

    Rabonza, M. L. & Lallemant, D. Accounting for time and state-dependent vulnerability of structural systems. In 13th International Conference on Applications of Statistics and Probability in Civil Engineering 2298–2305 (2019).

  11. 11.

    United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction. Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction 2015–2030. pp 37 (2015).

  12. 12.

    Kajitani, Y., Chang, S. E. & Tatano, H. Economic Impacts of the 2011 Tohoku-Oki Earthquake and Tsunami. Earthq. Spectra. 29, 457–478 (2013).


    Google Scholar

  13. 13.

    Sawai, Y., Namegaya, Y., Okamura, Y., Satake, K. & Shishikura, M. Challenges of anticipating the 2011 Tohoku earthquake and tsunami using coastal geology. Geophys. Res. Lett. 39, L21309 (2012).

  14. 14.

    Rhoten, D. & Parker, A. Risks and rewards of an interdisciplinary research path. Science 306, 2046 (2004).

  15. 15.

    The World Bank. Time to ACT: Realizing Indonesia’s Urban Potential. (The World Bank, 2019). https://doi.org/10.1596/978-1-4648-1389-4.

  16. 16.

    The World Bank. Istanbul Seismic Risk Mitigation and Emergency Preparedness Project. Project Performance Assessment Report 127522 (The World Bank, 2018).

  17. 17.

    Jena, R., Pradhan, B. & Beydoun, G. Earthquake vulnerability assessment in Northern Sumatra province by using a multi-criteria decision-making model. Int. J. Disaster Risk Reduct. 46, 101518 (2020).


    Google Scholar

  18. 18.

    Muttarak, R. & Pothisiri, W. The role of education on disaster preparedness: case study of 2012 indian ocean earthquakes on Thailand’s Andaman Coast. Ecol. Soc. 18, 51 (2013).

  19. 19.

    Steckler, M. S. et al. Locked and loading megathrust linked to active subduction beneath the Indo-Burman Ranges. Nat. Geosci. 9, 615–618 (2016).


    Google Scholar

  20. 20.

    Li, L. et al. How heterogeneous coseismic slip affects regional probabilistic tsunami hazard assessment: a case study in the South China Sea. J. Geophys. Res. Solid Earth 121, 6250–6272 (2016).


    Google Scholar

  21. 21.

    Mahmood, A. B. & Khan, M. H. Landslide Vulnerability of Bangladesh Hills and Sustainable Management Options: A Case Study of 2007 Landslide in Chittagong City. In SAARC Workshop on Landslide Risk Management in South Asia (2010).

  22. 22.

    Yamamoto, T. & Nakada, S. Extreme Volcanic Risks 2: Mount Fuji. In Volcanic Hazards, Risks and Disasters, 355–376 (eds. Shroder, J. F. & Papale, P.) Ch. 14 (2015).

  23. 23.

    Takagi, H., Thao, N. D. & Esteban, M. Tropical cyclones and storm surges in Southern Vietnam. In Coastal disasters and climate change in Vietnam: engineering and planning perspectives (eds. Thao, N. D., Takagi, H. & Esteban, M.) (Elsevier, 2014).

  24. 24.

    Thilakarathne, M. & Sridhar, V. Characterization of future drought conditions in the Lower Mekong River Basin. Weather Clim. Extrem. 17, 47–58 (2017).


    Google Scholar

  25. 25.

    Vadrevu, K. P. et al. Trends in Vegetation fires in South and Southeast Asian Countries. Sci. Rep. 9, 7422 (2019).

  26. 26.

    Biswas, S., Vadrevu, K. P., Lwin, Z. M., Lasko, K. & Justice, C. O. Factors controlling vegetation fires in protected and non-protected areas of Myanmar. PLOS ONE 10, e0124346 (2015).


    Google Scholar

  27. 27.

    Wang, H. et al. InSAR reveals coastal subsidence in the Pearl River Delta, China: Coastal subsidence in the PR. Geophys. J. Int. 191, 1119–1128 (2012).


    Google Scholar

  28. 28.

    The World Bank. East Asia’s Changing Urban Landscape: Measuring a Decade of Spatial Growth. Urban Development Series. (The World Bank, 2015). https://doi.org/10.1596/978-1-4648-0363-5.

  29. 29.

    Kjellstrom, T., Lemke, B. & Otto, M. Climate conditions, workplace heat and occupational health in South-East Asia in the context of climate change. WHO South-East Asia J. Public Health 6, 15 (2017).


    Google Scholar

  30. 30.

    Bahl, J. et al. Ecosystem interactions underlie the spread of avian influenza A viruses with pandemic potential. PLoS Pathog. 12, e1005620 (2016).

  31. 31.

    Johnson, P. T., Preston, D. L., Hoverman, J. T. & Richgels, K. L. Biodiversity decreases disease through predictable changes in host community competence. Nature 494, 230–233 (2013).


    Google Scholar

  32. 32.

    Morand, S., Jittapalapong, S., Suputtamongkol, Y., Abdullah, M. T. & Huan, T. B. Infectious diseases and their outbreaks in Asia-Pacific: biodiversity and its regulation loss matter. PLoS ONE 9, e90032 (2014).

  33. 33.

    Jha, A. K. & Stanton-Geddes, Z. Strong, safe, and resilient: a strategic policy guide for disaster risk management in East Asia and the Pacific. (The World Bank, 2013).

  34. 34.

    Zscheischler, J. et al. Future climate risk from compound events. Nat. Clim. Change 8, 469–477 (2018).


    Google Scholar

  35. 35.

    EM-DAT: The Emergency Events Database. (Université catholique de Louvain (UCL), CRED, D. Guha-Sapir). (Accessed 2021) https://www.emdat.be/.

Download references


Y.C.L., D.L., G.W., and S.F.J. received funding support from the National Research Foundation, Prime Minister’s Office, Singapore (NRF) under award number NRF2018-SR2001-007, and Y.C.L. and D.L. were additionally supported by NRF through award number NRF-NRFF2018-06. T.J.C. received support from Nanyang Technological University under the Undergraduate Research Experience on CAmpus (URECA) program. This work comprises Earth Observatory of Singapore contribution number 402.

Author information




Y.C.L., D.L., and A.D.S. contributed conception and design of the study; Y.C.L. wrote the first draft of the manuscript with contribution from G.M.S. with input from S.F.J., D.L., A.D.S., and G.W.; Y.C.L. and T.J.C. conducted research to compile Box 1. All authors contributed to manuscript revision, and all authors read and approved the submitted version.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to
Yolanda C. Lin.

Ethics declarations

Competing interests

Adam D. Switzer is an Editorial Board Member for Communications Earth & Environment, but was not involved in the editorial review of, nor the decision to publish this article. The authors declare no other competing interests.

Additional information

Publisher’s note Springer Nature remains neutral with regard to jurisdictional claims in published maps and institutional affiliations.

Rights and permissions

Open Access This article is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, which permits use, sharing, adaptation, distribution and reproduction in any medium or format, as long as you give appropriate credit to the original author(s) and the source, provide a link to the Creative Commons license, and indicate if changes were made. The images or other third party material in this article are included in the article’s Creative Commons license, unless indicated otherwise in a credit line to the material. If material is not included in the article’s Creative Commons license and your intended use is not permitted by statutory regulation or exceeds the permitted use, you will need to obtain permission directly from the copyright holder. To view a copy of this license, visit http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/.

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Verify currency and authenticity via CrossMark

Cite this article

Lin, Y.C., Mestav Sarica, G., Chua, T.J. et al. Asia’s looming Black Elephant events.
Commun Earth Environ 2, 214 (2021). https://doi.org/10.1038/s43247-021-00283-8

Download citation

Adblock test (Why?)



Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here

- Advertisment -

Most Popular

Recent Comments