Archive for July, 2016

Interview with Gianluca Pescaroli, founder of the Cascading Disasters Research Group at IRDR

By Serena Tagliacozzo, on 29 July 2016

Gianluca Pescaroli is a third year PhD student in the IRDR and one of the founders of the CascGianlucaading Disasters Research Group ( The group aims to understand, assess, and mitigate the escalation of crises in the global interconnected system.

– Gianluca, how did you come up with the idea of creating a research groups on cascading disasters?

The idea was the natural consequence of a cross-disciplinary dialogue started with Dr. Robert Wicks and Prof. David Alexander (both based in the IRDR) on extreme space weather events. We recognised the potential to do something different, challenging our approaches and evolving them together into something new. This was supported by other discussions with Dr. Ilan Kelman on climate change and disaster diplomacy, as well as by the interest of engineering colleagues working on floods and earthquake early warning systems. The Knowledge Exchange Grant Award was the perfect chance to translate a vision into reality, and make it happen.

 -What is the Knowledge Exchange Grant? How did you win it?

The Knowledge Exchange Grant is a UCL-based grant to promote knowledge transfer between UCL and small and medium-sized enterprises. In other words, it helps to create a bridge between academia and the end users, and turning theoretical knowledge into practical solutions. The KE Grant is supporting us in the development of activities related to cascading disasters, including a website ( and various workshops.

– You recently organised a closed-door workshop on cascading disasters and extreme space weather. Can you tell us more about the outcomes of this workshop?

We are producing two guideline documents on cascading disasters and extreme space weather events, which we are going to release by early August. We will explain the key issues for a non-academic audience in the form of bullet points and graphics. I hope there will be the chance to disseminate them through websites such as PreventionWeb ( or with a self-standing event.

– What goals would you like to achieve in the near and far future?

In the short term, I wish to publish my work on cascading disasters, extreme space weather
20160523_104642 copyand cybersecurity that applies our general theory to scenario building. The second step would be to have a special issue on cascading disasters for a peer-reviewed journal, which will be not easy!  In the medium term, after finishing my doctorate, my goal is to have the resources for developing the idea of vulnerability paths and scaling up of emergencies, producing some practical outputs that could make the difference in crises.

– Which stakeholders do you plan to involve in the projects that will be developed by this research group?

We are already working a project with major stakeholders from the public and private sector, but this is just one of the early steps. It will be very interesting to work more on the intersection between physical and social vulnerabilities that is in the interest of governments, service providers and society. The evolution of the research group needs be driven by dialogue, and I think that many of the possible ways to cooperate haven’t been considered yet… I am sure they will become natural when it is the right moment.

– Will be room for other academic partners to join the research group?

Definitively, this will be vital for the future. The more we discuss and the more we cooperate, then the more we will be able to understand cascading events. The complexity of this world is too great to solve it on our own so we need the efforts and ideas of other practitioners. From my experience, some interesting collaborations can come from the most unexpected areas and in the most unexpected circumstances, such as a walk at the Flood Barriers or a beer after work. The important thing is keeping an open mind and following our intuition.

Resilient to Landslides: The Indigenous Tribal Communities of Bangladesh

By Bayes Ahmed, on 4 July 2016

Landslides are common socio-natural hazards in the Chittagong Hill Districts (CHD) of Bangladesh. Communities living in the hills of CHD can be categorized as urbanized and tribal, each community experiences a different level of risk to landslides. With this knowledge, I conducted fieldwork in the three tribal hill tracts districts (Bandarban, Khagrachari and Rangamati) in Bangladesh from November 2015 – January 2016. The primary objective of this fieldwork was to understand what makes the tribal communities resilient to landslides. The IRDR and Commonwealth Scholarship Commission funded the fieldwork. I conducted household level questionnaire surveying and community based focus-group discussions in four tribal communities in CHD. This blog is all about sharing my experience working with a remote tribal community named Sandak Para in Thanchi sub-district, Bandarban, Bangladesh.

Landslides causing human casualties and massive property destruction are mainly visible within the urbanized communities in Chittagong and Cox’s Bazar. Indiscriminate hill cutting and development of unplanned settlements in the hills during the monsoon mainly cause the landslides. In contrast, the tribal people living in the remote and rural hill areas experience few or no similar landslide disasters.

Thanchi_BayesSandak Para Community in Bandarban.

The typical tribal houses are made of locally available materials – bamboo, wood, mud and corrugated iron sheets. The foundation is laid on bamboo/tree trunks on a raised plinth from the ground and the roof is typically thatched.

Thanchi_Bayes_2Typical tribal housing – Sandak Para, Bandarban.

Tribal people have lived here permanently for few generations and no Bengali (people not living in the hills are called as Bengali/ settlers by the tribes) were found in the community. The traditional shifting cultivation (or slash and burn agriculture) is the primary occupation. There is no formal electricity supply, but people use solar power for household activities. There is no drainage network. Water supply is a major problem as people are mostly dependent on water from the Sangu River or from the nearby falls. The average monthly income of a household ranges from US$12-20 that is low earning in Bangladesh.

The architecture of the houses is helping to make the community physically less vulnerable to landslides. The raised plinth allows the rainwater to flow naturally and freely below the houses. The construction materials of the houses are lightweight and therefore not life threatening, even if the houses collapse in earthquakes or landslides. The tribal people do not cut the hills like in the urbanized areas, instead they try to build houses horizontally in the same line of hill-slopes using bamboo or tree trunks in layers. This is the indigenous knowledge applied by the tribal people to protect themselves from landslides or slope collapses.

Vulnerable Houses in CHDHouses built by cutting hills vertically in urbanized hill communities.

From initial observation, I found that the tribal communities are also addressing the different thematic dimensions of vulnerability in relation to landslides:

Economic dimension: alternative livelihood options, less damage to physical assets, and not using the hills for commercial activities.

Social dimension: no massive damage to social systems ranging from individual to collective, accessibility to necessary infrastructure and services, and social cohesion.

Cultural dimension: by treating the hills as sacred place and using centuries-old rich indigenous and local knowledge to deal with the hill environment.

Environmental dimension: protecting the hills by not destroying the hill-forests and cutting the hills in an unstable manner.

Institutional dimension: there are no power politics and few external influences; instead there is a strong local and regional network with autonomous administration.

From my fieldwork, it is evident that the indigenous tribal communities in CHD are more resilient to landslides than the urbanized settlers. It would be highly recommended to address community vulnerability by incorporating indigenous knowledge in local planning to reduce the risks of landslide disasters in the highly urbanized hill areas of Bangladesh.

After several days of long and tiring work in the field, I took a boat ride with my field assistants; who are from the Marma tribe, in the Sangu River towards Remakri. The mesmerizing beauty of Sangu River, the surrounding green and untouched hills, the helpful tribal people, freedom from the chaotic and polluted city life and finally clean air and fresh food, all made me feel like I was in the most beautiful place on earth. I want to go back to this place again, just to enjoy the natural beauty and share some more moments with the indigenous tribal people of Bangladesh!

Bayes_4 Bayes_5Scenic beauty of Sangu River, Bandarban.

© Bayes Ahmed