Investigating communications after the Canterbury earthquakes – fieldwork

By Serena Tagliacozzo, on 10 September 2015

Serena Tagliacozzo is a PhD student in the IRDR who is investigating the requirements for a web-based platform to allow effective communication between authorities and citizens in the disaster recovery phase. The platform would allow citizens to effectively share their knowledge and experiences with planners and developers, and for authorities to communicate plans to interested parties. Serena has recently visited Christchurch, NZ, to discuss with citizens and authorities the effects of the 2010 and 2011 earthquakes that destroyed parts of the city. She shares her experiences in this post.


When I arrived in Christchurch, on the evening of the 8th August, it was dark and cold. The morning after, the city welcomed me with some snow, which fortunately stopped after few hours. Walking across the city centre, my impression was of a big construction site, with repair works in progress everywhere. The red cones dispersed throughout the city remains the symbol of the Christchurch’s struggle to recover from the devastating earthquakes that hit the Canterbury region in September 2010 and February 2011.


Following these two large events, the whole area experienced moderate to severe aftershocks for almost two years, making it more difficult for the repair companies to start the demolition/rebuilding of the damaged infrastructure and dwellings and for the population to return to normality. After almost five years from the earthquake of February 2011, Christchurch has now entered into the reconstruction phase. Many aspects of this reconstruction process remain controversial. For example the future of the Christchurch Cathedral (which dates back to the 19th century) is uncertain, with some people wanting to demolish it and rebuild a brand new one while others advocate preserving the historical building.

Christchurch Cathedral

The controversies do not exist solely on the rebuilding of the physical environment. The city is split socially, between those who experienced less damage and had their houses repaired in relatively short time, and those living in the most damaged areas whose property has not yet been repaired. For these people, most of who were living in the east part of the city where the liquefaction caused a drop in the ground level (which resulted in an increase of the flood risk), the recovery is far from being complete.


The scope of my fieldwork was to gather data on the communication practices that take place between government agencies and residents during the reconstruction phase from the Canterbury earthquakes. During the course of my fieldwork, I had the chance to interview and speak with many people from community based groups and associations born in the wake of the earthquake. All of them shared with me their stories of hope and the struggle to recover and to be listened to about their concerns for the future of their city. They also voiced a general distrust toward some of the authorities in charge with the management of the recovery process and concerns about the centralisation in the decision-making.

I also had the chance to interview and meet with government officers working in the main recovery agencies, including Christchurch City Council, Stronger Christchurch Infrastructure Rebuilding Team (SCIRT), Canterbury Earthquake Recovery Authority (CERA), Earthquake Commission (EQC), New Zealand Police, Red Cross, District Health Board. They told me about the challenges of leading a huge recovery effort and communicating effectively with increasingly frustrated residents. They also confirmed the importance of communicating timely and accurately recovery information through a multitude of channels so that to reach out to the different social groups. Within this communication landscape, social media platforms are being embraced by government agencies to reach a broader audience.

What I will take from this fieldwork is the incredible struggle of Christchurch and the Canterbury region to bounce back (or bounce forward). Whilst some choices made regarding the management of the recovery process are debatable, it should never be forgotten that recover from a disaster is a long-lasting, complex, challenging and sometimes nerve-wracking process. This is true for the residents that live through it, as well as for the government agencies that lead it. Good communication practices between recovery agencies and residents can make this process smoother and more participative.

Disaster Risk Reduction Communication: challenges and chances

By Jacopo Spatafora, on 18 August 2015

Audience5Disaster Risk Reduction (DRR) is a rising field, growing in scientific production and relevance. DRR aims to identify causes and trends of hazards impacting human lives, in order to reduce their intensity, reduce the possibility of occurrence and tackle the resulting effects.
A key action of DRR is to share knowledge, so that the people can take adequate measures to prevent the consequences. Part of this field involves communicating with the exposed communities at risk of damages and losses, to understand their expertise and requirements. Effectively communicating DRR research to affected communities is one of the biggest challenges faced by researchers. Ineffective or missing communication leads DRR to fail one of its goals, condemning a fundamental body of knowledge to be underutilised or simply ignored. It is necessary to improve communication and fill this critical gap, in order to reduce disaster risk.

This topic shaped the debates at the Third Academic Summit and the 5th IRDR conference, held at UCL on 24th and 25th June 2015. Institutions’ representatives, DRR researchers, lecturers and practitioners had the chance to share their experience and compare their points of view at the two events, discussing current examples and future developments of DRR.
Specifically, the debates tried to answer the following questions:
– What are the most effective methods of communication for DRR?
– Which are the current trends of disaster prevention, management and recovery?
– Is academic work becoming more relevant for practitioners?
– How can students contribute to apply and improve DRR?

Throughout the two days, sharing information about natural hazards, conflicts and epidemics was repeatedly marked as a priority, in order to make the exposed communities aware of the related impacts that disasters can cause.
At the Annual Conference, Ben Lishman’s session about the Arctic Risks and Michael von Bertele’s management of the Ebola Crisis widely proved the importance of good communication, arousing high interest and participation from the attendees.
The visual communication
of data is an emerging area of interest for DRR researcher. At the Annual Conference, Ben Stuart showed the visual impact given by the combination of assembled data and graphic design, while Vanessa Banks (BGS), Richard Wall (UCL Hazard Centre) and Richard Teeuw (University of Portsmouth) offered a wide range of GIS tools and relative applications to cope with natural disasters and improve financial and business services. Digital mapping and graphic design are paving the way for a stronger and deeper intervention in the field, where the exposure to risk occurs. The latest softwares can highlight the most dangerous areas and assemble data towards an effective visual impact.

However, the use of updated tools does not mean that DRR is always appropriately explained. The shared experience from the speakers showed that there is a great comprehension of the disaster cycle in all its phases. However, it remarked also a static approach, only able to produce results within the academic environment. This contrast between research and action emerged through the debate “Training, teaching and exercising challenges” at the Academic Summit led by Gordon Macdonald (ICPEM), Dr Fredrik Bynander (CRISMART) and David Jones (Rescue Global). Mr Macdonald spoke about the need of ‘translating’ the academic language into the practitioners’ one, Dr Bynander stressed the relevant applications of scientific production for the National Defence’s activities, while Mr Jones clearly stated the necessity of the scientific research to start considering real-life issues and the practitioners’ activities.
The main points that emerged from these conferences are:
– The complexity and fertility of the most different scenarios, threatened by hazards but also studied more and more in depth.
– A strong necessity to reconsider how DRR communicates itself, for a better and common goal pursued by all those involved.
– A persistent communication gap between academics and practitioners. Both groups need to work together to bridge this gap.

The conclusion of the IRDR Conference saw the presentation of research projects by the MSc and PhD students of IRDR and other attendees. The posters’ topics spanned from physical science and engineering to the social sciences, combining detailed explanations and comprehensible graphics. However, their common trait was a strong application to risk-related issues, improving the performance of the tools and the quality of future researches.
The students’ point of view and interventions are gaining more and more relevance within the contemporary debate around the theory and practice of DRR. Part of this successful trend is given by their ability to build cross-cutting competences, to take the scientific production in the ‘real world’, and to report their field-based experiences into the universities.
Overall, productive discussions and clashing views were appreciated by the attendees, which generated the sensation of an informal discussion environment. UCL Institute for Risk and Disaster Reduction has been able to collect expertise from different fields, offering an arena for a multifaceted comparison.

UCL IRDR at the World Conference on Disaster Risk Reduction – Human Rights and DRR Panel

By Zehra Zaidi, on 25 March 2015

On Monday 16th March 2015, UCL IRDR hosted a public forum panel discussion on “Human Rights and Disaster Risk Reduction” as a side event of the UN World Conference on Disaster Risk Reduction in Sendai. David Alexander, UCL IRDR Professor of Risk and Disaster Reduction, convened the panel to explore whether failure to mitigate disaster risk may be related to a failure to guarantee basic human rights, and if disaster situations can sometimes be used as an opportunity to deny rights. David proposed that whilst the articulation of human rights – as outlined by the UN, EU, and in national conventions and laws – are often ineffective in practice due to loopholes, exclusions and varying interpretations, and although externally imposed rights may clash with local cultures and traditions, there is a need to be more courageous about asserting human rights. Starting from the assumption that human rights are indeed universal, and that they have a direct bearing on disaster risk reduction, he requested that the panel consider (among others) the following questions:

  • Do disasters lead to particular violations of human rights?
  • Is denial or restriction of human rights diagnostic of marginalisation, and how does this make people and communities vulnerable to disasters?
  • To what extent is the freedom and development of women and girls a human rights issue, and how does this bear upon resilience against disaster?
  • Will an improved dialogue on human rights (a more explicit treatment of the question in open public discussion and official agreements) lead to reductions in disaster risk?
  • How universal is the concept of human rights, and does it have a cultural dimension?
  • How does the assertion of fundamental rights fit with the need to assume responsibility for disaster risk reduction?

On considering whether there is a human right to DRR, the first panelist, Richard Olson, Professor and Director of the Extreme Events Institute, Florida International University, posed the question ‘Is there a human right to life-safety?’. He stated that a major driver of loss of life from natural disasters derives from land use and building standards. These are planning issues with long-established solutions for which ignorance is no longer an acceptable excuse. Yet many decision makers continue in their behavior of ‘non-decision making’. That is to say, they keep issues that could address the human right to life safety off the agenda, such as improved building code enforcement and land use planning.

The second panelist, Terry Cannon, Senior Research Fellow at the Institute of Development Studies (IDS), questioned the universality of the concept of human rights, proposing that human rights can be perceived as a colonial imposition of the western world on other cultures. He explored the notion that some nations and cultures may not conform to the western interpretation of the ‘right’ way and questioned the relevance of legally backed rights in changing cultural behaviour. He suggested that human rights as viewed by western capitalist nations may not be appropriate for different political systems at different stages of development, and that the ‘push back’ against an external imposition of rights could in fact make the situation worse.

Virginie Le Masson, Research Officer at the Overseas Development Institute (ODI), also considered the culturally variability and universality of the concept of human rights, through the lens of gender rights. She advocated that although DRR workers do not have the right to impose their cultural values onto the communities where they are engaged, there is a moral obligation inherent to development assistance that compels one to oppose inequality, especially in the context of women’s rights. DRR is premised on the reduction of vulnerability, and this vulnerability frequently arises from inequality and disadvantage. If human rights are an imposition, claimed Le Masson, then so too is DRR.

Panelist Arif Rehman, Vulnerability and Resilience Coordinator at LEAD Pakistan, offered practitioner examples from experiences of DRR in Pakistan. He reported that although human rights are formally guaranteed by the state, the devolution of responsibility for these rights to local governments has resulted in strengthening existing power structures and local elites, rendering the notion of state-guaranteed rights redundant, especially given that many of the most vulnerable people are already beholden to local interest groups such as landowners.

The next panelist, Nanako Shimizu, Associate Professor in the Faculty of International Studies, considered the human rights issues that resulted from the Fukushima nuclear disaster. She claimed that the causes of nuclear health risk issues to the population surrounding the nuclear power plant were, (1) failure of prevention, (2) insufficient or misleading post-accident measures, and (3) lack of awareness within the population to realise their rights in a post-disaster context.

The final panellist, Cassidy Johnson, Senior Lecturer at the UCL Development Planning Unit, considered human rights in the aftermath of an earthquake in Turkey. Immediately after the earthquake, the disaster served as an economic leveler between the rich and poor, all of whom lost homes, family, and livelihoods. However, compensation measures implemented by the state in the recovery phase resulted in aggravating inequality by providing property to past owners and depriving tenants of the right to new housing. Cassidy’s case study highlighted how the continuation of pre-existing property regimes into a post-disaster context can amplify rights inequality.

Much of the discussion at the event centred around the question of whether human rights are an imposition or a necessity in the implementation of an effective and just DRR system. Whilst a few of the audience agreed with Cannon’s view, that human rights should not be externally imposed on other societies, many challenged it. Relating more closely to the issue of DRR within human rights, several audience members highlighted examples where the presence of pre-existing human rights violations left societies more vulnerable to disasters, so there is still much more to debate on this issue.

Educating Future Leaders in Understanding Risk

By Joanna P Faure Walker, on 1 July 2014


ur1As part of the 2014 Understanding Risk Forum, UCL IRDR and UCL STEaPP co-chaired a session on ‘Educating Future Leaders in Understanding Risk’.

The very need for having a conference titled “Understanding Risk” suggests the actual topic under discussion is misunderstanding risk.

Indeed, misunderstanding risk is increasingly being seen as a barrier to risk and disaster reduction. Examples that demonstrate this include: During the 2014 UK floods, particular residents expressed disbelief when their houses were flooded in the worst floods in 30 years, despite their properties being in “low risk zones”, confusing low risk and no risk; and following the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake, it became apparent that some residents did not understand the uncertainty associated with the tsunami warnings and therefore did not evacuate, despite living in a country which does have earthquake drills and hazard education in schools (see IRDR Special Report 2013-01). These are just two of many examples that could be drawn upon to demonstrate that a better understanding of risk is needed.  However, the question is not whether a better understanding is needed, but how to achieve this.

How do we educate residents, stakeholders and future leaders in risk and disaster reduction?

When should people be educated? Should this start at school, university or work?

If this education is part of a formal curriculum, should it be integrated in the curriculum of existing subjects, or should risk be a separate subject?

A panel was gathered including representatives from academia, industry and practitioners to discuss their thoughts on risk education, what specific knowledge and skills they think are needed and how this should be provided in order to carry out work in understanding and managing risk, with specific references to their field.

The session was chaired by Dr Joanna Faure Walker, UCL IRDR, and Dr Natasha McCarthy, UCL STEaPP, who coordinate UCL Post Graduate Programmes in Risk, Disaster and Resilience and Public Administration respectively.

The panelists were:

Professor David Alexander, Professor of Risk and Disaster Reduction, UCL IRDR and course coordinator of the MRes in Risk and Disaster Reduction

Dr Robert Muir-Wood, Chief Research Officer, RMS

Mr Hamish Cameron, London Resilience Manager

Mr Stephane Jacobzone, Counsellor, Public Governance and Territorial Development Directorate, OECD

During this session, panelists and members of the floor focused not on specific knowledge needed, but rather themes and ways of thinking; for careers in risk and disaster reduction, the following were suggested as being desirable:

(1)  Curiosity, skepticism of data, wanting to do research, “being a detective”

(2) A fundamental understanding  of evidence, risk and uncertainty

(3) Being stake-holder or end-product focused

(4) How to build a good risk-assessment


(5) Seeing connections and coherence between different subjects connected to risk, i.e. seeking a holistic approach

Within the UCL IRDR MRes in Risk and Disaster Reduction and MSc in Risk, Disaster and Resilience we run modules in Emergency and Crisis Planning and Management, modules in integrating science into risk and disaster reduction and risk and disaster reduction research tools, which cover basic probability, the quantification or risk and uncertainty and a module in natural and anthropogenic hazards and vulnerability that enable students to appreciate what is known and what is unknown about these and what questions they should be asking.  Through the IRDR post graduate programmes we hope to give students the five qualities mentioned above.

IRDR Panel Discussion on “Disability and Disasters”

By Rosanna Smith, on 13 March 2014

The IRDR’s Panel Discussion on “Disability and Disasters” on 12th March was billed as a discussion of human rights, addressing an issue that may be unpopular, but that must be addressed whenever we consider how we plan for, manage, and cope with disasters, since disabled people make up 15% of the world’s population.

In addressing this issue, panellist Dr Maria Kett from UCL’s Leonard Cheshire Disability and Inclusive Development Centre highlighted that disabled people are not asking for prioritisation, rather they are asking for equity. Panellist Silvio Sagramolo, Director of the Info-Handicap Association, Luxembourg, re-iterated that disaster risk management for people with disabilities is a matter of human rights, but raised the issue that it is very difficult to keep track of disabled people and their needs, since the types of disability, the people themselves and their needs are so diverse. We must, he claimed, accept that ‘human diversity is a reality’.

In looking at practical ways to improve the plight of disabled people during disasters, Mechtilde Fuhrer of the European and Mediterranean Major Hazards Agreement (EUR-OPA) section of the Council of Europe stated that EUR-OPA were compiling a catalogue of good practice and called upon all people involved in this area to contribute to the catalogue. Panellist Ilan Kelman, of UCL’s IRDR and Institute for Global Health, stated that we needed to follow the doctrine ‘nothing about us, without us’. That is, we should listen to the narratives of disabled people and those directly involved in their care and support when discussing and deciding what can be done for them in disaster planning and management.

IRDR Panel Discussing "Disability and Disasters"

Highlights of questions and points raised from the audience included:

David Jones, a commanding officer from Rescue Global (an NGO that supports first responders during emergencies), highlighted that the issues raised in this field of disability and disasters were common to disasters in general, but that the short-comings in disaster planning and management were exacerbated by the presence of disabilities. He also claimed that many emergency services do plan for dealing with people with disabilities, but often are too stretched to implement these plans during the emergency situation. Panel Chair Prof David Alexander (UCL IRDR) suggested that this discrepancy between plans and response might arise from disaster planning often being conducted by different bodies to those who manage the actual crisis. Panellist Maria Kett added that this is why local NGOs must be included in the disaster response.

A representative from Handicap International raised the issue that the Hyogo Framework for Action has very poor representation of disabled people.

A representative from the Organisation of Blind Afro-Caribbeans highlighted that we need to consider the diversity of people with disabilities, and suggested that disaster planners and managers should pro-actively seek people with disabilities to contribute to planning for disability and disasters. Whilst the panellists agreed that we needed to consider the diversity of disabled people, Silvio Sagramolo highlighted that those with disabilities did not always have the experience to contribute to discussions on disaster planning and management.

Joanna Faure Walker (UCL IRDR) followed up on earlier points raised about the difficulties in assisting disabled people during emergencies when more resources are needed to help disabled people, resources that are often limited during a crisis. She asked how we might better plan before disasters so that this cost gap between saving able bodied and disabled people during disasters is narrowed. David Jones (Rescue Global) suggested that it is a failure of planning when the cost gap is so wide. Panellist Maria Kett suggested that we should not consider being disabled or not in such an ‘either or’ way, but rather we should consider whole communities of people who must be helped during disasters, and that these communities are diverse and include people with a range of disabilities.

Panel Chair David Alexander then pondered, is it really a planning problem, or is this actually an attitude problem, or even a perception problem? Food for thought on a complicated and important issue in disaster risk reduction.

Chilean Volcano Field Work

By Amy L Chadderton, on 10 February 2014

In 2008 Chaitén Volcano in Chile reawakened spectacularly after what was thought to be over 5000 years of slumber. In early May 2008 the residents of nearby Chaitén town received just 24 hours warning of the imminent eruption in the form of earthquakes strong enough to knock objects from shelves. Residents of the small town, known as the Gateway to Patagonia, one of Chile’s most spectacular and remote regions, evacuated themselves from their vulnerable position at the mouth of the Chaitén River, directly downstream of the volcano.

Eruption at Chaitén Volcano, May 2008 (Carlos Gutierrez)

Eruption at Chaitén Volcano, May 2008 (Carlos Gutierrez)

The eruption began explosively after all residents had safely departed the town and continued effusively for the next 2 years. What made this eruption particularly significant and thrust this small forgotten corner of the world into the global limelight was its extremely sudden onset coupled with the fact that rhyolitic eruptions are so rare that this eruption was the first to be observed in over 100 years. This rarity meant that it was an extremely appealing case study to focus my PhD research on, and an even more appealing place from which to collect experimental samples. This fascination is what led to myself and 6 colleagues, including Professor Peter Sammonds (UCL) and Dr Hugh Tuffen (Lancaster University), to set out on New Years Eve 2013 on the mammoth journey to Southern Chile to visit this incredible volcano.

After four flights, the last of which was in a 9-seater aeroplane that landed on a landing strip that doubled as a main road when flights weren’t expected, and two days, we finally made it to the trailhead of the hike up to the crater rim of Chaitén Volcano.

Professor Peter Sammonds, Amy Chadderton, Dr Hugh Tuffen setting off to Chaiten dome

Setting off up the volcano

This relatively short yet steep hike up the flank of the volcano took us up through the blast zone, an area of once-dense forest that was destroyed by pyroclastic flows generated from the eruption. An encouraging sign of recovery on these slopes was the re-colonisation of vegetation where previously only sporadic trees stripped of all foliage and bark remained standing.

Vegetation regrowth in blast zone

Vegetation regrowth in blast zone

Reaching the crater rim and seeing Chaitén’s 400m lava dome come into view was an awe-inspiring sight. Its imposing size and impressive slopes made for some unforgettable first impressions from the rim. We set up camp on the crater rim as the sun was setting and took in the spectacular scenery.



Despite my enthusiasm for the field trip, I must admit that the descent into the crater the following day was not my favourite activity. The 50m scramble down the perilous near-vertical unconsolidated slope was a challenge, but the end location definitely made the journey worth it. Gazing up at the dome from the crater floor allowed us to fully appreciate its true magnitude.


Most of the dome’s lower slopes are covered in scree, but small intact outcrops offered us tantalizing glimpses into the make-up of the dome itself. It was from one of these outcrops on the earliest lobe of the eruption that I collected my largest sample of rhyolite. Weighing in at 26kg it proved a challenge to transport but hopefully will provide an excellent insight into how this rhyolitic dome formed. Littering the crater floor we also found a plethora of incredibly interesting samples. I collected 3 more large blocks of sample material from the crater floor, including a 7kg piece of an obsidian volcanic bomb. As we could only collect what we could carry we had to be selective, however, and several large volcanic bombs had to be admired and recorded but alas left where we found them. With the help of Hugh and Peter and two trips down the volcano I managed to collect 55kg of sample material from Chaitén Volcano, making it a very successful field trip indeed!

Chaitén Lava Dome

Chaitén Lava Dome

The samples collected from Chaitén will enable me to better understand the dynamics of the 2008 eruption via laboratory analogue experiments. I will measure the permeability of cored samples under volcanic conditions simulated in the lab in order to help determine how gas escapes from the volcano during eruptions. Gas escape greatly influences the dynamics of the eruption and ultimately how dangerous a volcano can be.

EEFIT Report published about the Recovery Two Years after the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake

By Joanna P Faure Walker, on 22 January 2014

Screen Shot 2014-01-22 at 20.44.47A report has been published (December 2013) by the Earthquake Engineering Field Investigation Team (EEFIT) outlining key lessons following 2 years of recovery after the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake and subsequent tsunami and nuclear incident, based on the mission to Japan findings in June 2013. The consequences of the 2011 Japan earthquake and tsunami made this event the most expensive natural disaster recorded in the world to date. The observations of the report are relevant to the engineering community as well as those involved in coastal protection structures, tsunami hazard and risk assessment, the nuclear industry, post-disaster housing, urban planning, disaster mitigation, response and recovery, the insurance industry and catastrophe modelling. EEFIT is a team of practicing and academic built environment professionals, who visit the sites of major disasters to bring back prevalent lessons for the engineering and disaster management community worldwide.

The team visiting Japan included Prof David Alexander and Dr Joanna Faure Walker from the UCL Institute for Risk and Disaster Reduction.

The report is freely downloadable from the EEFIT website:

Disasters: No Quick Fix, No Money

By Rosanna Smith, on 16 December 2013

One can’t help feeling a little bewildered by the news of yet another global catastrophe, another ‘biggest’, ‘worst’, ‘deadliest’. The Philippines is struggling through the immediate aftermath of the worst storm since records began, and getting the attention it deserves. Here’s hoping that attention brings with it the sense to think ahead.

My bewilderment lingers, however, because another ‘worst’, ‘deadliest’ that’s nearly 4 years past is still a disaster zone. Haiti’s monstrous earthquake wasn’t the strongest in recorded history, but by far the deadliest natural disaster in such a concentrated area. What went wrong and can the Philippines do it better?

Sr. Yannick in Fort National local slum small

Sister Yannick in Fort National local slum

There have been some notable examples of good reconstruction since the earthquake. But these are the exception rather than the rule. Of the 9.3 billion USD promised to Haiti, most never made it there, and less still has been invested in permanent reconstruction project.

More common uses of aid money include temporary structures and emergency shelters that have, in many cases, redefined the infrastructure of a poorly planned city for the worse.  The over-arching focus of response has been on meeting basic human needs within the remit of donor budgets, project management capabilities and time frames. Permanent, sustainable reconstruction can rarely happen within these constraints. So, those going about reconstruction planning the right way frequently find themselves without the funds to continue. And Haiti remains, like so many other places, stuck in a cycle of vulnerability to disasters – economic, social and environmental.

Sisters working on reconstruction plan with Thinking Development designers and local teachers

Sisters working on reconstruction plan with Thinking Development designers and local teachers

Our site is a fine case study for this phenomenon – despite the best efforts of its exceptionally resourceful and dedicated managers, the Sisters of St. Joseph of Cluny. While tents and temporary toilets came in time for ‘back to school’ after the disaster, the only longer-term support offering was demolition works here, and hangers (strong shelters with open walls) there. Thinking Development was borne out of this vacuum of sustainable development planning support.

When we started the project, it seemed obvious that ours was a project that would qualify for some of the billions destined for permanent reconstruction. It was, after all, an essential disaster recovery service: a school. It was one of the biggest school sites in Port-au-Prince; and it served some of the city’s most disadvantaged children. It had experienced, honest managers, and it had uncontested land tenure – a rare commodity in post-disaster Haiti.

Girls Studying in UNICEF hangers small

Girls studying in UNICEF hangers

Yet, even 6 months after the disaster, the only discussion that could be had with aid agencies was about ‘how many hangers you need?’ or ‘I’ve got this 1-storey shelter or nothing’. As a Haitian service provider, you couldn’t help but be tempted by temporary solutions when your alternative is tents. But this cannot be the position that we’re putting disaster sufferers in. After a few months of trying to figure out how to get this school connected to the resources it needed and failing, we decided to do it ourselves.

We’re now crowd-funding for the funding base we need to get this project rolling. If you’re a kindred believer in sustainable development and disaster response, please watch it, think about it, share it and donate. It’s a project that has to happen.

Linda & Sr. Yannick discuss masterplan Small

Linda and Sister Yannick discuss the school masterplan

You can find more information at Hashtag: #ThinkingGirls

Author: Linda O’Halloran, Managing Director of Thinking Development and Executive Board Member of the UCL IRDR.




Roots of earthquake-prone faults brought to light

By Joanna P Faure Walker, on 25 November 2013

Earthquakes affect many highly populated areas around the world so understanding what controls the distribution and frequency of them is a top priority for the earth science and disaster risk reduction communities. Often, however, the controlling factors remain elusive because scientists have limited information about what happens deep down in the Earth’s crust where earthquakes initiate. A recent Nature Geoscience article (Cowie et al. (2013) published online on 3rd November, 2013) has shed light on the problem, and has shown how phenomena on the surface can be linked to the movement of rocks in the deep crust.

Read the rest of this entry »

Fieldtrip on Organising Post Disaster Reconstruction

By Fatemeh Arefian, on 28 June 2013

Even though it is important to understand how reconstruction programmes are organised in order to reduce future disaster risks, there is a gap in theory in that it lacks a conceptual model or analytical framework for understanding and analysing the reality of organising post-disaster reconstruction programmes. I am addressing this gap in theory my PhD research by employing organisation theory in parallel with disaster studies in order to understand organisation design and implementation of the multi-organisational reconstruction programmes, which are participatory, and also aim to contribute to future disaster risk reduction.

In May 2013 I conducted some fieldwork to research the case study of the housing reconstruction programme in Bam (Iran) after the destructive earthquake on 26th December 2003, which killed more than 30,000 people (one third of the population), and destroyed 85% of the buildings. Case study research is an important part of my PhD research. The housing programme in Bam was participatory and gathered many different organisations together from all around the country in order to rebuild 32,000 houses. Having already undertaken pilot interviews, this fieldtrip was mainly aimed at undertaking in-depth interviews with knowledgeable and key people in the organisations involved, at both national and local levels, as well as other organisations related to the programme. During the course of this 34-day fieldtrip I undertook 51 in-depth qualitative interviews, which took a total of around 92 hours.

The challenge of interviewing key people from many different organisations was to track down and access them. As a participant observer at the time of the programme, I personally knew some of the interviewees, but not many of them. Also, the official reconstruction period was a long time ago (3 years, from 2004 to 2006). Some of the interviewees had since moved to other organisations, some had retired since then and some are now high-level managers, making it difficult to arrange interviews. Fortunately my still existing professional/academic network in the country was very supportive and made many more interviews possible that would have been difficult without them.

Local people also were among my interviewees’ list. I wanted to know the life history of the reconstruction of their homes and their experiences. I also wanted to know how the programme was working for different groups of people. The challenge here was to avoid the use of any jargon. The hospitality of the local people of Bam is unforgettable.








Interview with local people in Bam

During the fieldtrip I heard about the practical questions, which must be answered quickly in such chaotic situation of aftermath, and I observed how different answers create different results and experiences.

It was interesting to understand the importance of the accumulated practice-based knowledge, from post-war (Iran-Iraq war, 1980-1988) reconstruction and beyond, in the country. There is a continuum of the experiences of using a range of approaches, and the Bam experience should be positioned within this continuum.

The fieldwork also shed light on the importance of the urban development context, and the influence of existing practices, trends and issues on the formation and implementation of the reconstruction programme. The reconstruction programme in Bam was seen as an opportunity by many organisations to address the existing urban development issues.

This fieldtrip was a milestone in the process of my research. I learned about the formation, and how it worked and evolved from different participant organisations’ perspectives and experiences. It was exciting to understand the emerging themes, overlapping/verifying themes and making sense of the big picture.

I would like to thank the UCL IRDR for financially supporting this fieldtrip.


Blog post by Fatemah Arefian, who is a PhD student in the UCL Development Planning Unit and a member of the UCL IRDR