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UCL Institute for Risk and Disaster Reduction


Beirut Explosion: What History Tells Us About Accountability

By Jessica Field, on 6 August 2020

The port explosion in Beirut on Tuesday is shocking for both the scale of the disaster and the level of mismanagement that led to the catastrophe. At least 137 people are so far known to have died, more than 5,000 are injured and countless more homes and businesses have been completely destroyed. For the people of Beirut, this disaster has come at a time of deep economic crisis as well as the coronavirus pandemic.

Chemically, the port explosion was caused by the detonation of 2,750 tonnes of ammonium nitrate which had been unsafely stored at a warehouse in the port for 6 years. The real cause, however, was chronic mismanagement and negligence. News reports call the Port of Beirut ‘one of the most corrupt and lucrative institutions in Lebanon’. Repeated warnings about the potential consequences of unsafe storage went unheeded.

Immediate attention in Lebanon is necessarily focused on humanitarian needs. Hospitals have been overwhelmed with patients and the Lebanese Red Cross has set up a number of first aid stations in order to triage the wounded. In the longer term, questions of responsibility, accountability and compensation will accompany moves towards recovery and rehabilitation. What might this look like for the people of Beirut?

Looking back at similar disasters in history, holding governments accountable for mismanagement and negligence has proven patchy – even when compensation has been forthcoming.

Comparisons have already been drawn between this crisis and the 1947 industrial disaster in the Port of Texas City in the United States, where a fire detonated ammonium nitrate cargo on a French-registered ship and set off multiple other fires and explosions, killing over 500 people. In the aftermath, the District Court in Texas ruled federal government negligence was evident in manufacturing, handling and export procedures. While this decision was overturned and the US Government did not take full governance responsibility, Congress passed an Act in 1955 that assumed ‘compassionate responsibility’ and provided the means for compensation to victims totalling around $17million USD. Perhaps a more relevant comparison, though, would be an earlier explosion in India.

On 14 April 1944 a British Fort ship containing cotton and ammunitions caught fire in the Victoria Dock of Bombay (now Mumbai) causing two explosions, fires and a water surge which killed 731 people. Similar to Beirut, onlookers initially feared the explosions were caused by enemy shelling, as the country was embroiled in World War II.1 Rescue and relief operations concentrated on putting out fires, pulling people (alive and dead) out of debris and aiding the injured and homeless.

Photo: Smoke following the explosions at the Bombay Docks, India, 14 April 1944

The explosions in Victoria Dock were caused by a series of intersecting errors and negligence: poor management of materials, absent watchmen, multiple failures to raise the alarm, and insufficient response capacity. The then-Viceroy of India Lord Wavell noted that ‘there is no doubt that safety precautions were broken for war reasons, and that explosives ought not to have been unloaded where they were’.2 In the aftermath, urgent questions emerged over accountability and compensation to those affected, but responsibility from relevant authorities was not forthcoming.

In these final years of British rule over India (which ended in 1947 with Indian independence), the two countries were feeling the strain of war. In the East, Bengal was reeling from a catastrophic famine caused by Churchill’s diversion of resources away from the region to maintain the war effort. Challenges across India to British authority and legitimacy had been growing for some time—often centring on the Raj’s inability to feed and protect the nation.3 It is against this backdrop that the Indian government went on reputation control and damage limitation around the Bombay port disaster, forcing a media blackout in the days afterwards and whitewashing a “Commission of Inquiry” months later.4 Responding to this censorship, the Bombay Sentinel presented a blank column on its front page stating that the space should have been occupied by news of yesterday’s ‘disastrous explosions’ in the docks. As Yasmin Khan documents in her book The Raj at War, the newspaper was suspended for this subversion.5

The Commission’s first report in September 1944 was not without its flaws but it did record that ‘a state of lamentable disorganisation and neglect’ contributed to the scale of the port explosion.6 However, the Ministry of War and Transport was reportedly furious at this evaluation and a second committee was established to revise the findings, drawing global condemnation.7 Compensation was paid to many of those affected, but the government avoided taking ultimate responsibility for the tragedy.

Looking at Beirut nearly eight decades later, mismanagement in the context of economic crisis and conflict suggests there are more echoes of the Bombay port disaster than that of Texas. Lebanon’s weak government and general corruption undoubtedly contributed to negligence around the storage and handling of these highly explosive materials in Beirut. We’ve yet to understand how neighbouring conflicts may have affected decision-making around what to do with this confiscated material, though lessons from Bombay suggest this may be critical. While Lebanon’s Prime Minister Hassan Diab has promised a full investigation, the country’s historically unaccountable government is unlikely to opt for an independent and transparent review.

What is certain is that this human-made disaster will only serve to exacerbate Lebanon’s deep economic and food crisis. And it may prove to be the breaking point for a country where many are calling for revolution.


  1. Yasmin Khan, The Raj at War: A People’s History of the Second World War, Vintage (2015), p.287.
  2. Lord Wavell, The Viceroy’s Journal, edited by Penderel Moon, Oxford University Press (1973), p.68
  3. Benjamin Robert Siegal, Hungry Nation: Food, famine and the making of modern India, Cambridge University Press (2018).
  4. Khan, p.288.
  5. Khan, p.288.
  6. Excerpt fromThe Hindustan Times, 12 September 1944. Round-Up Bi-weekly, Vol. II-44, no. 21. September 12 1944. P. 51. National Archives of India, Home Political/I/1944/NA/F-51-8/KW/Part-1.
  7. Wavell, p.88; Khan, p.288.


Multiple faults across strike versus isolated faults, is there a difference in stress loading?

By Claudia Sgambato, on 30 July 2020

A new study by IRDR PhD student Claudia Sgambato, Dr Joanna Faure Walker, Dr Zoe Mildon and Prof Gerald Roberts, has identified a novel aspect of fault interaction that links the stress loading to the geometry of the fault system, which has important implications for fault-based earthquake hazard modelling.

By analysing the earthquake sequence of the Southern Apennines (Italy) in the last 600 years, the study presents a comparison of the stress loading history of “isolated” faults and multiple faults across strike, and shows that the stress evolution is not the same for all faults, but is influenced by the way faults are arranged in the system.

In the Southern Apennines the fault system geometry is relatively simple, with most of the structures aligned along strike. This area was the location of some of the strongest earthquakes ever recorded in Italy, such as the Mw 7.1 1857 event on the Val di Diano and Val d’Agri faults, that caused ~10,000 deaths and the more recent Mw 6.8 1980 earthquake on the Irpinia fault, that caused 3,000 deaths. For these reasons, this area provides an ideal place to investigate the role of fault geometry and fault interaction in the historical earthquake sequence.

Detail of the Vallo di Diano fault scarp (photo by Claudia Sgambato).

Fault interaction during earthquakes is usually calculated through Coulomb stress transfer. Using data from historical earthquakes, the authors have calculated the coseismic stress changes on the active faults. Deformation rates measured in the field have been used to derive the annual rate of stress loading. The combined coseismic and interseismic stress components allow calculation of the stress present on the fault prior to an earthquake, or pre-stress.

The analysis of pre-stress on all the faults before each historical earthquake has shown that 94% of the earthquakes occurred on faults that were positively stressed, and that where earthquakes occurred on an isolated fault, this had the highest pre-stress of all the faults at the time of the event. This is due to the fact that when a fault is isolated, the build-up of stress is not influenced by earthquakes occurring on other faults across strike, and the stress is distributed homogeneously across their surface, compared to faults that are across strike.

Coseismic rupture of the Mw 6.8 1980 earthquake (Irpinia fault) (photo taken during fieldwork in 2019 by Claudia Sgambato).

This suggests that isolated faults have fewer areas of negative stress, which can promote the propagation of the rupture, generating earthquakes with similar magnitude. An example of this can be seen for the Irpinia fault, with the earthquakes in 1694 and 1980, which share similar magnitude and damage distribution, and a similar value of pre-stress.

This means that for studies of seismic hazard it is important to consider the pre-stress on the faults in order to understand which fault is likely to rupture, and to take into account that the fault system geometry influences the way the stress is accumulated on faults.


The article is open access and available here: Sgambato et al. (2020)

Study of Icelandic active faults shows fault bends must be considered throughout fault development and maturity

By Joanna P Faure Walker, on 9 July 2020

Iezzi, Roberts & Faure Walker (2020) Throw-rate variations within linkage zones during the growth of normal faults: Case studies from the Western Volcanic Zone, Iceland, J. Struct. Geol., 133, 103977

Fault throw-rates and slip-rates are a fundamental input into fault-based seismic hazard assessments (SHA) i.e. how likely are earthquakes to occur….

Francesco Iezzi, Gerald Roberts and Joanna Faure Walker studied active faults in the Western Volcanic Zone, Iceland, to determine whether changes in fault throw-rates across fault bends, as identified in previous works in central Italy, are present in other tectonic settings.

This study shows that fault throw-rate increases within fault bends in response to non-planar fault geometry are present at a range of stages of maturity of the bend and extends examples of this phenomenon to mid-ocean ridge settings. This suggests that extrapolating fault slip-rates and slip during past earthquakes from individual sites along a fault must consider the location of data collection in relation to the geometry of the fault.

Why is this so important? Because if we use individual measurements of how fast a fault is moving, we need to understand whether this measurement is representative of the fault as a whole or whether it is underestimating or overestimating the slip. If we do not do this, we will overestimate or underestimate earthquake hazard.

The challenges that Covid-19 has brought to the newly elected women leaders in Nepal

By Punam K Yadav, on 22 June 2020

Co-authors: Pallavi Payal, Independent Researcher, Nepal and Punam Yadav, IRDR Centre for Gender and Disaster, UCL

Amidst this global pandemic and the initial chaos, there is an increasing attention to examine the different impacts of Covid-19, including the gendered impacts. On June 5th, 2020, the IRDR Centre for Gender and Disaster co-hosted a webinar with Pallavi Payal, an independent researcher from Nepal, which aimed to explore the lived experiences of women political leaders in Nepal in the time of Covid-19. It is becoming more evident that countries with women in leadership are doing much better, compared to those with men as heads of the state, especially in terms of managing the global pandemic and minimising the risks to people. The aim here is not to compare Nepal with New Zealand or Finland but to explore the contributions of women leaders at the local level during this pandemic.

Nepal has progressed significantly in recent years in terms of increasing women’s participation in politics. Currently numbers of women at the local government have been instrumental in managing the current crisis, despite many constraints, from quarantine management to the management of migrant returnees from India and abroad. Province 2 in particular is one of the hardest hits due to its open border with India, which has added additional challenges and responsibilities to the local and the provincial governments.

In situations like this, leaders and service providers are often labelled as ‘heroes’, if they are managing well or demonised, if they aren’t. However, what gets missed in this binary between the good and the bad leadership is the challenges that these political leaders face, both at home and at work in the times of crisis, such as Covid-19. Therefore, we wanted to have this conversation with women leaders from the local and the provincial governments. Therefore, we invited seven speakers to share their experiences. However, one could not join due to internet issues in her rural municipality. Out of the six speakers, who included Deputy Mayors and Provincial Assembly members, five of them were women and one was a male Provincial Assembly member. The aim of inviting a male politician was to understand how women’s challenges were perceived by their male colleagues as well as to help build support for them. The number of views on Facebook has reached over 2.9K, which suggests a lot of interest on the topic.

Due to the constitutional provision of a mandatory quota for women in Nepal, their participation in politics has increased to 41% in the local government. The majority of them, however, had no previous training in politics. Therefore, it has been a steep learning curve for many of them. It was only a little more than two years since their time in the office, when they were still trying to understand their roles and responsibilities, the country was struck by the current pandemic.

Nepal went into lockdown on the 24th of March 2020 with immediate effect, which created a lot of chaos and fear among people. Its capital city, Kathmandu, has a huge migrant population. As many of them thought that rural areas are safer than staying in the city, due to the lack of knowledge when the pandemic started, they made their journey back home, mostly on foot. Stories of people, including pregnant women and children, making their journey on foot for hundreds of miles were heart-breaking. Amidst this, migrant workers from various parts of the world, including India were coming home. Province 2 was also receiving a large number of returnees. The lack of planning from the government across all levels meant chaos for the local leaders without the means to support. Therefore, they started doing what they could in their own capacity. Although the local leaders are dealing with a number of challenges, women representatives had to face additional challenges due to their gender roles, some of which we aim to outline in this blog.

Dual Responsibilities

Women changed subject position from their previous roles to now as leaders. However, people’s perception about their gender roles has not changed. Women leaders at the webinar said that having to manage both home and work has been a challenge. They said, since the local government is the closest authority to the people, it is bound to have more responsibilities and challenges. Women leaders have suffered the burden of dual responsibilities. Their responsibilities at home have increased because of everyone staying at home, which meant more cooking, cleaning and caretaking. Likewise, workload has increased at work due to the pandemic. Ms Salma Khatoon, the Deputy Mayor of Pokhariya Municipality, shared her fear of contracting the virus and giving it to her family due to the nature of her work. She said she has a young child. However, she has been going out to monitor the quarantine facilities. All the migrant returnees and those who have tested positive are put into government-run quarantine facilities that have been poorly managed and overcrowded. Going to these places without any PPE means high risk of contracting the virus. She said she is scared of contracting the virus from the quarantine facilities and brining it home. Another speaker, Ms. Sadhana Jha, the Deputy Mayor of Rajbiraj Municipality also shared similar experiences.

Provincial Assembly member, Manish Suman said that while the male representatives have challenges too, one cannot ignore that women have additional challenges due to their responsibilities at home. They don’t get concession in their household responsibilities even though they have the same responsibilities as male representatives.

Work of Judicial Committee affected

One of the main responsibilities of the deputy mayor is leading the Judicial Committee, which involves dealing with social issues in their constituencies. However, the Judicial Committee has been badly affected by Covid-19. Evidence suggests increase in domestic violence. However, the Deputy mayor can’t meet the victims. They are still trying to support people. Salma Khatoon said she has been handling cases over the phone. Sometimes she has to meet in person. Even though she advises people to come in a small group, sometimes 20 people turn up, which increases the risks.

In addition to similar challenges faced by local representatives, Sadhana Jha added that not everything is possible via phone or internet because access to internet is difficult in rural areas. The increased responsibilities, due to this global pandemic, have exposed the local representatives to a higher risk. Provincial Assembly member, Manju Yadav, said that people in the villages are still not aware about physical distancing or even Covid-19. Manish Suman added that the idea of physical distancing or even washing hands so regularly is usually taken negatively in the villages and there is a chance of offending people if you tell them to do so.

Men in quarantine, women suffer at home

The local representatives pointed out that there are more men in quarantine but there are also women with their breastfeeding babies. Women representatives have been very active in supporting these women. In a male dominated society like Nepal where men are the breadwinners and women are the caretakers, when men are quarantined, all responsibilities fall on women’s shoulders. Deputy Mayor of Gaur, Kiran Thakur, said women come with their concerns to the women representatives. Women who have their relatives stuck at the border request the women representatives to help. As women representatives, Thakur feels that she should listen to their concerns and help them. However, the lack of resources means a lot of stress for her. Despite the challenges, women representatives said they are doing what they can to support women and advocating with their colleagues, Provincial and Federal governments for more support for women.

Relief Distribution and Women’s need

The women leaders also pointed out that the relief packages are handled by the Mayors and the Ward Chairpersons, who are mostly men, but the needs of women are not considered. Therefore, women come to them asking for help. They also said that women representatives are not consulted or informed before making any decisions on relief distribution. Nonetheless, they have to support people in their constituencies. Salma Khatoon said long before the directives from the Federal government, she suggested that the local government should provide nutritious food packages to pregnant women. However, her municipality ignored her proposal. She said the culture of ignoring and excluding women representatives has continued but they are navigating their own ways to fight against the exclusion.

All the panellists said that one of the main challenges to manage the current crisis is the lack of data. They said they don’t know how many people have entered Nepal via open border, which makes it difficult to manage the spread of the virus.  The panellists also raised other challenges, such as the lack of enough financial support from the federal government and the lack of coordination between the governments. They also said NGOs working in the region should divert their funding to support the people impacted by Covid-19.

Although Covid-19 has brought a lot of challenges to the women leaders at the local level, they think that this pandemic has also been an opportunity to work closely with the people in their constituencies. They have had the opportunity to prove themselves through their work, which has helped build trust with the local people. They have also learned to use Zoom. They have access to the outside world through Zoom and the outside world also has to them.

This webinar was livestreamed via Facebook. Please click here.

What Could Delay the Activation of an Early Warning System?

By Saqar ' M Al Zaabi, on 15 June 2020

This blog has been jointly written by Saqar Alzaabi and Salma Alzadjali, PhD students at the IRDR, UCL.

The recipe for effectively responding to extreme weather emergencies is based on the triangle of forecasting, warning and evacuation. Kelman and Ahmed, in their recent article in the Conversation, have illustrated how these three were utilized to save millions of lives in Bangladesh’s response to cyclone Amphan. Despite the apparent rationality of such a thoughtful process, making decisions on reality does not necessarily follow along as activating emergency plans and warning the public of a possible threat might be constrained by a number of factors. While it is difficult to pinpoint a specific cause behind a delayed warning, this blog argues the implication of relying on the intensity of the hazard when establishing situational awareness of a possible emergency, and the embedded problem of excluding the vulnerability of the place in the warning system.

Tropical Depression over the South Coast of Oman, Copyright Oman Meteorology.

While being busy responding to the COVID-19 pandemic, Oman had also been affected by a tropical depression between May 29 and June 1, 2020, that formed over its southern coast. According to the Indian Met Department (IMD), the sustained surface wind speed did not exceed 25knots. Similar to many countries, Oman relies on the Saffir-Simpson hurricane classification scale that is purely based on wind intensity. The higher the wind speed, the higher the tropical system is classified. And, the higher the classification, the higher degree of response is triggered.

Despite the fact that it was forecasted in advance, the first bulletin was issued on May 27 by the national early warning centre, when, in fact, heavy rainfall had already taken place. The delay in initiating the warning process, i.e., communicating the risk to the public, had not only led to the underestimation of its impacts but also delayed the activation of the response and mobilization of resources.  The depression was not forecasted to intensify, based on its wind of course, into a tropical storm or a cyclone. Therefore, it was not anticipated to cause significant impacts, again based on the intensity of the wind, neither the strength of the rainfall nor the vulnerability of the place as these are not integrated into the warning system.

Flood in recent Dhofar depression

However, the stationary movement of the depression caused hefty downpours in different areas of the southern region. The highest accumulated rainfall according to the Ministry of Regional Municipalities and Water Resources was 1055 mm between May 27 and June 1, and the maximum daily rainfall was 552 mm on May 30, according to government sources. Recent cyclones that struck the same region such as Mekunu and Luban in 2018 brought a maximum daily rainfall of about 492 mm and 176.6 mm, respectively. Despite that, they triggered a national early warning response that was widely broadcasted in advance through several multimedia channels and in eight different languages.

The depression had caused wide-scale flooding. Four people died due to flash flooding and a building collapse. Several others were injured. Many houses and businesses were flooded. Main roads became inaccessible. Disruption of power and water lasted for several hours to a couple of days in some areas. Despite being a depression, significant damages as a consequence had occurred. The place, due to its physical built environment conditions, is already vulnerable to heavy rainfall. Poorly-constructed infrastructure and inefficient drainage systems are already existing and providing the right conditions for an emergency to take place. Classifying the emergency based on the intensity of the hazard instead of the vulnerability of the area did not only delay warnings but also result in a large demand for urgent emergency services.

Flood due to a poor urban drainage system, obtained from Muscat daily.

While it remains essential to understand the intensities of weather phenomena, the vulnerability of the place is the crucial element in understanding the possibility of an emergency taking place. Therefore, an early warning system should integrate the vulnerability of the place rather than solely relying on the hazard’s intensity, especially if it is only based on one element. The intensity of the wind is one piece of information, and it could, in many cases, provides a less accurate and partial projection of a possible scenario.  A GIS-based decision support system that integrates the vulnerability of the place, the possible hazards and exposure is one practical solution that could assist in establishing a better awareness and more accurate assessment of possible emergencies.

Governance ‘of’ and ‘by’ COVID-19: the Spotlight on Private and Non-State Actors

By Saqar ' M Al Zaabi, on 25 May 2020

Written by Eija Meriläinen, Postdoc at the Institute for Risk and Disaster Reduction (IRDR) and the Institute for Global Health (IGH)

In the response to COVID-19 pandemic, the doings and undoings of nation-states and public authorities have captured the spotlight, if Finnish and Anglophone media coverage is anything to go by. In this blog, I argue that fixing the attention on governments alone can obscure the extent to which private and non-state actors influence how disaster governance unfolds.

While SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus can be viewed as a hazard, according to UNISDR’s definition, the actual disruptive impacts can be referred to as a disaster. How a disaster is viewed is an important element in identifying what actually needs governance.

Various disaster researchers have strived to bust the myth of ‘natural disasters’, drawing attention to the social and political root causes of disasters. Related to the ‘unnaturalness of disasters’, it cannot be emphasised enough that the impacts are not equally faced and suffered. Quite the contrary, people who are in the status quo marginalised in society, are likely to face the heaviest toll from disasters. Those who are most vulnerable to disasters are also disproportionately likely to be those facing the dire effects of urbanization, economic globalization and global environmental change. As vulnerability does not exist in a social vacuum, it is a product of unequal social processes. Therefore, addressing it means addressing the socio-economic conditions underlying its existence.

Graffiti expressing unequal socio-economic conditions, Beirut 2016. Copyright Eija Meriläinen

When looking at the unequal impacts of disasters, we should not only be looking at the marginalized and vulnerable but also at those who are not deemed vulnerable. Facilitation is an important phenomenon that refers to how individuals and actors with power and resources can insulate themselves from hazards’ impacts, and even reap benefits from disasters. With respect to COVID-19, as one level of generalization, while it initially may have been the more affluent people travelling across the globe and catching the disease, as a social group they are unlikely to be the ones whose lives suffer most as a result of the pandemic. Within and across the countries, people with precarious livelihoods and poor living situations are the ones who are repeatedly exposed to the disease, without appropriate access to healthcare – whether we are talking about the homeless or the low-paid essential workers.

Disaster governance can be split between two strands: governance of exception and governance by exception. The first refers to how a hazard is mitigated against, prepared for, responded to and recovered from by various actors. This definition comes close to typical DRR activities though the focus on governance highlights the diffused nature of the undertaking. For instance, response to COVID-19 involves practices of quarantining and social distancing as well as developing a vaccination. Meanwhile, governance by exception refers to the ways in which exceptional circumstances are leveraged to drive political measures, that may do very little to address the impacts of the disaster on those affected, let alone the patterns of marginalization and facilitation. For instance, the emergency powers granted to Hungary’s Orban and Fidesz-led government with no end date in sight have been criticized for being a way to extend their power and crackdown on the opposition, rather than per se address COVID-19.

Antofagasta, 2015. Copyright Eija Meriläinen

Governments, national or local, continue to be central actors in both stands of disaster governance, having, for example, the power to declare a state of emergency. In the case of COVID-19, we have seen that while states have been hollowed out, they still have a tremendous power to restrict the rights of citizens. However, their resources and influence in relation to other actors have been on the decline in many contexts. Furthermore, while intergovernmental agencies, like the WHO, are central actors in facing transnational disasters such as the pandemic, the precarity of their existence has been recently exposed, as the president of the U.S. has halted the funding to the organization. This is worrying in a situation where, according to Society for International Development, only 20% the WHO’s budget is for its core mandate, while the remaining 80% is earmarked by donor countries for specific projects.

As a whole, non-state actors, such as businesses, NGOs and think-tanks, increasingly influence how disaster governance unfolds. They may directly assume the responsibilities previously associated with the role of the state, or shape the context as a whole, for instance, through deploying certain discourses. They could also act as suppliers to governments. We have seen this in COVID-19. For instance, the nationally widely publicized face mask escapade led to some reshuffling at the Finnish National Emergency Supply Agency. A major issue with this increasing power of private and non-state actors is that disaster governance efforts might become increasingly diffused and fragmented. Despite this fragmentation, some powerful actors can also gain disproportionate influence over disaster governance within and across national borders.

In the case of COVID-19, it would be important for the media and researchers to shine the spotlight not only on governmental actions but also in the ways in which private and non-state actors are entangled into the governance of and by disaster.

2020 Virtual IRDR Spring Academy

By Lucy K Buck, on 21 May 2020

The annual IRDR Spring Academy is usually held at a beautiful country house. Here all the members of the IRDR gather to catch up with each other, find out what others are working on, brainstorm future work, discuss possible collaborations and attempt Ilan’s infamous pub quiz.

This year was a little different. With members of staff and PhD students signing in online from their living rooms the Spring Academy was off to a slightly different start than usual.

This years theme was ‘trending’ with trends in disasters, communication, experimental work and field work being discussed.

Five main trends identified were:

  1. Are there more or worse disasters? This depends on how disasters are recorded, measured and communicated. There was a reported decrease in volcanic eruptions between 1939 and 1944 – was this due to less eruptions or a distracted media?
  2. People’s behaviour. Panic, fatigue due to false alarms, looting, rioting etc are reported to be rare at a local level but disaster capitalism by corporations and individuals not directly effected tends to be more common.
  3. Observations and reporting can create perceived trends which do not exist in actuality.
  4. How disasters are communicated and how this influences decision makers. The rise of populism and reactionary policies based on public opinion rather than science is happening globally.
  5. How can this be corrected? In particular when the misinformation comes from someone in a position of authority and trust. This is crucial and we, as researchers, must be careful. Especially ensuring we get the basics right; there is no such thing as a natural disaster, people may not agree that they are victims and may not want to be described that way or an accident may not be entirely unintentional.

At the IRDR we aim to create the trends, not follow them.

Why No Coronavirus Diplomacy?

By Saqar ' M Al Zaabi, on 7 May 2020

Written by Ilan Kelman

Hands together, Salamanca, Spain. Copyright Ilan Kelman

Could the global disaster of the Covid-19 pandemic bring warring parties together to improve diplomacy? Based on events so far, the wider conclusions from disaster diplomacy work conducted at IRDR are holding: No new and lasting peace is emerging from coronavirus.

This analysis provides two levels. First, the cooperation and offers of international aid are either part of already existing diplomatic initiatives or else are being conducted for political rather than humanitarian purposes. Second, typical diplomatic spats and violent conflicts are continuing, sometimes using the disease as an excuse to continue them.

A sampling of reported coronavirus-induced cooperation and assistance is:

– China and Russia sent aid around the world, including to the US. China is in a drive to overcome the blame it receives for being the origin of, and for its initially lackadaisical response to, the new virus. Russia is trying to position itself as a friendly giant given the current sanctions against the country.

– Cuba provided medical aid and personnel to numerous countries, a continuation of Cuba’s long-standing medical diplomacy efforts.

– Taiwan donated medical equipment and supplies to several countries, including some which have been more aligned to China.

– Turkey sent aid to Israel, although the two countries have a long history of disaster-related collaboration.

– Ceasefires were offered in Yemen and Afghanistan to support addressing coronavirus, following similar patterns of temporary peace for combatting disease such as through polio vaccinations.

Mexican truck and workers helping clean up tornado damage in Rosita Valley, Texas. Copyright Ilan Kelman

None of the descriptions above precludes altruism. They indicate that any selflessness fortuitously coincides with desired political gain, a typical trait of public diplomacy including for disaster-related activities.

A sampling of reported political and violent conflicts related to the Covid-19 pandemic is:

– Boko Haram ramped up violence in the area around Niger, Cameroon, and Chad.

– The US President criticised and pulled funding from the UN’s World Health Organization, although he has never been a UN supporter.

– Italy lambasted the EU for the lack of support, which is not unfamiliar territory given other member states expressing similar concerns during disasters, such as the economic crises in Greece and Cyprus.

– The governments of China and the US ripped into each other over the pandemic, continuing the usual diplomatic spats between them.

– Iran declined aid from the US, a continuation of the two countries’ hostilities.

Fundamentally, as is typical for activities preventing and dealing with disasters, political entities have their pre-set political pathways and they will not use disaster-related work to deviate from their already established decision. Where they had reasons for supporting others and pursuing diplomacy, the pandemic disaster gave them one excuse among many to do so. Where war, conflict, or enmity were preferred, the pandemic disaster gave them one excuse among many to do so.

Two principal research questions for disaster diplomacy emerge, extending to wider discussions of health diplomacy, medical diplomacy, and pandemic diplomacy:

  1. Are there counterexamples to the observed pattern, showing that coronavirus diplomacy does create new and lasting cooperation?
  2. Do options exist for parties, within governments or not, to insist that disasters should create cooperation?

Corona Wars: The Cost of Calling Disasters ‘Wars’

By Patrizia Isabelle Duda, on 4 May 2020

Written by Patrizia Isabelle Duda and Navonel Glick

War on Coronavirus poster

On March 17th, U.S. President Trump began calling the Covid-19 pandemic a “war”, to wide acclaim by supporters and scathing condemnation by critics.

The reasons for using the war metaphor are straightforward. By calling the pandemic a war, Trump is appealing to a familiar scenario that we feel we ‘know’ how to relate to. It ostensibly simplifies the crisis, mobilises the public, and calls for unity.

The war metaphor is a powerful and effective tool that is often used in politics, but it is also pervasive in the world of disaster risk reduction and response. The historical links between disaster management and the military are well-documented. Today, from operational frameworks like the Incident Command System (ICS) that were inspired by military management structures, to the extensive use of military terminology like ‘deploy’, ‘mission’, or ‘surge’ by even the most ‘military-averse’ NGOs (e.g. IRC, Plan International), the connection remains.  Even the widely revered (and much maligned) ‘logical framework’, meant to improve transparency and accountability in the aid sector, originated in planning approaches for the U.S. military.

At first glance, the war metaphor makes sense. The chaotic images from disaster areas that make the headlines are reminiscent of war zones, and the associated urgent, high-stress, life-and-death decisions demand composure, bravery, and decision-making attributes that we have learned to equate with our armed forces.

Yet, the analogy quickly crumbles. For one, as most disaster practitioners would confirm, the period immediately following a disaster which might require such an approach, at best, represents only a fraction of any disaster response effort, let alone long-term recovery or disaster risk reduction (through sustainable development).

In addition, as our experience in the field shows, armed forces are notoriously poor at interacting with vulnerable civilian populations, particularly in complex situations of unrest. More importantly, the war analogy is plagued by a core contradiction. While it can be argued that armies engage in war to ‘defend’ or ‘protect’ a population, destruction is often their main tool for doing so. This is not what disaster response or humanitarian aid are about, much less how one reduces disaster risks and builds disaster-resilient communities.

So why does the war metaphor continue to dominate the field? The simple answer may be because it works. It appeals to the pleasure-pain principle, triggers our basic fight-or-flight instincts, and provokes a reaction.

Yet, this strategy may be poorly suited to pandemics. We rightfully celebrate our health-care workers and other front-line personnel as ‘heroes’—yet another war term—and many of them may be faced with ‘war-like’ situations of urgency and life-and-death situations. But for the rest of us, “wash your hands” and “stay at home” are woefully anti-climatic ‘weapons’ to ‘fight’ the ongoing coronavirus ‘enemy’.

Photo credit: hairul_nizam / Shutterstock.com

Furthermore, the ‘war metaphor’ may succeed in the short-term during a crisis, but such bursts of energy (or adrenaline) cannot be maintained over time. Pandemics are not addressed by acute, short-term measures or bursts of adrenaline, but instead, by a complex web of systematic health and public health initiatives, drawn out over a long period of time.

The most damning trait of the war metaphor is, therefore, the focus on the disease itself, instead of the systemic issues that allowed it to become a pandemic. Diseases, much like earthquakes or hurricanes, are natural hazards. They only become disasters when we are left exposed and vulnerable to them by insufficient preparedness and poor risk reduction measures. Thus, tackling the underlying social, economic, and political systemic issues that drive disaster vulnerability should be our priority.

The analogy of a marathon instead of a sprint comes to mind, except that in this case the race has no end. In fact, it never was a race to begin with. This may be the biggest fallacy with using the war metaphor for disasters: wars are arguably won or lost; at least they (should) end. Disaster preparedness and reducing risks do not—they are an ongoing process of achieving and maintaining sustainable practices.

The war metaphor, therefore, from the very beginning, begs to disappoint, because there will not be the closure it promises. Calling our health workers and other frontline workers ‘life-saving heroes’ is an admirable title they deserve, but were they any less worthy of it before the pandemic? And will they not continue to perform the same essential role once the coronavirus pandemic has passed?

In this time of acute crisis, when the lack of preparedness and risk reduction is painfully exposed, we may be glad to have the war metaphor for the action that it catalyses. But by continuing to prioritise response over prevention, and perpetuating the myth of the ‘race’, what social habits will we continue to reinforce, and at what cost?

What would an alternative look like?

New paper published on tropical cyclones and warning systems: the extraordinary among the commonplace

By Rebekah Yore, on 30 April 2020

Many of you may know well what it means to live through recurring hazards, such as annual seasons of tropical cyclones. Some of you will know how to protect yourselves and your families against the frightening but smaller storms. Some will know the catastrophic danger and absolute fear created by the larger ones (all in relative terms of course). Some will know what it means to live in evacuation centres and to be displaced in emergency shelters for weeks or even months at a time.

Whatever your experiences, imagine for a moment that you’ve never experienced a Category 5 hurricane before, unaware of what it could do to your family, friends and home; a person living in a wooden home on stilts over the ocean and unsure of what “storm surge” means; a farmer whose life depends on the pigs he keeps on his land around his home; an elderly woman having experienced a deadly disaster years ago but who is now completely dependent on her family to ensure her safety. Does experience or naivety help you make safer decisions? What happens if you want to leave for a shelter but the rest of your family doesn’t? What do you do if you keep animals on your homeland and can’t leave them behind? Or what if you hear a message on the radio that conflicts with advice you hear on the TV?

Conversation partners in Tanauan, Leyte, Philippines 

In our latest paper published in Disasters journal, Joanna Faure Walker and I have drawn on our fieldwork studies in the Philippines and Dominica to investigate what warnings people heard, when and where from in relation to how they then reacted before major tropical cyclones. In the Philippines, we took Super Typhoon Yolanda in 2013 (internationally known as Haiyan) as a case study, and in Dominica, we studied Major Hurricane Maria in 2017. The Philippines and the Caribbean experience annual tropical cyclone seasons, and so are accustomed to events that usually range between tropical depressions and Category 1-2 storms. However, we are particularly interested in examining what happens on rarer occasions, when these locations experience large Category 4 and giant Category 5 storms.

We found that among the people we surveyed in the two locations, a warning that both Yolanda and Maria were approaching was heard by all but one person before both storms arrived. These were often received with more than a day’s notice, however, over three quarters of our populations chose to either remain at home throughout the storms, leave for shelter during them, or leave for shelter once they had passed, not complying with direct instructions from the authorities to evacuate. Not the intention of those issuing the warnings, and not the safety seeking behaviours we would associate with a successful warning system.

Conversation partners in Soufriere, Dominica

Single sources of warning, such as a message through a radio only, failed to reach everyone in both locations, and so warnings issued across several media platforms were often the best way of ensuring as far as possible that the most people received a warning advisory. This is intuitively sensible, especially as some may fail at critical stages. However, in the Philippines, this had practical implications. Even though only around half of respondents heard a warning from two or more sources, slightly more people evacuated before Yolanda arrived when they heard two sources, rather than only one.

So if the warning system technology works, why did the desired human response not follow? We know from other studies that evacuation is tricky because of the complexities of people’s lives, and that people stay at home to protect their possessions, their livestock, to adhere to social pressures etc. But revealed in our surveys were a number of key elements that also deprived our respondents of a full appreciation of the heightened danger in these two cases. These tropical cyclones were more deadly than the average storm, but not realising the implications of “storm surge” because the term was widely unknown among respondents in the Philippines, signalled a failure in the messaging that almost certainly resulted in a higher death toll. Similarly, radio network breakdown during Maria’s very late and rapid intensification near Dominica meant that warning messages were confusing and Category 5 impacts were not expected. In such situations, people defaulted to their usual behaviour: stay at home and ride it out, it’s what normally works. And because both information pictures were incomplete, people were caught unaware.

Tacloban, Leyte, Philippines (2016)

In both locations, messages were reported to have been inconsistent and unclear, for example to evacuate if you live close to the water or in “vulnerable housing” (what does this even mean?) in the Philippines. Often these required people to exercise considerable levels of subjective judgement over several risk profiles, most notably their own and that of their locale. This necessitates, at the very least, a full hazard information picture. Additionally, evacuation and shelter infrastructure that should support warning messages and promote safety seeking behaviour was often so substandard that it was a deterrent. The inadequacy of many emergency shelters discouraged people from their use, being overcrowded, lacking in resources, offering little personal safety, and incurred physical damage themselves by the storms.

Our paper demonstrates that within the social processes of warning mechanisms, a failure at any stage can render them decidedly less effective in saving lives. It shows that warning systems require the support of accurate forecasting and message dissemination technology (improved hazard modelling, the acknowledgement of scientific risk uncertainty, robust and consistent communications networks, and context appropriate language), solid infrastructure (e.g. fit-for-purpose evacuation shelters) and an inherent consideration for the idiosyncrasies of populations at risk, taking into account “foreground” and “background” constraints and assumptions (these are explained in the paper, so go read it). It also suggests that experiencing more regular, lower intensity tropical cyclones may in itself not help reduce vulnerability to the more deadly effects of rare, higher-intensity storms.

Our full study and findings in more detail can be found here:

Yore, R., Walker, J.F. (2020). Early Warning Systems and Evacuation: Rare and Extreme vs Frequent and Small-Scale Tropical Cyclones in the Philippines and Dominica. Disasters, doi:10.1111/disa.12434