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Why the Gender and Climate Day at COP 28 is Important

By Peter Sammonds, on 7 December 2023

The first ever Gender and Climate Day was held at COP28 on Monday 4/12/23 and joined by a UCL IRDR GRRIPP team. But why is this important?


Photo of four members of the GRRIPP team stood in an auditorium
GRRIPP team at COP28: Dr Zahra Khan (GRRIPP Research and Outreach), Ella Bedford (BSc Theoretical Physics), Miriam Zallocco (BSc Global Humanitarian Studies), Peter Sammonds. We were part of the WOMENVAI delegation as Observers to COP28.

Women and men experience disasters differently. Women will disproportionately be impacted by climate change for instance from extreme heat. That is women working in the fields, factories and the informal economy. Pregnant women will be particularly affected. These were points made by Secretary Hillary Rodham Clinton who was moderating an event on “Women Building a Climate-Resilient World”. This was a centre-piece panel discussion covering the transition to the blue/green economy, climate finance, women in STEM and gender-based violence (GBV). As she commented, it was remarkable to have an audience of hundreds discussing gender—and not just women!

In the transition to a green economy 50% of the population are being left behind and so it is essential to keep a gender lens. Food production and preparation is disproportionately done by women but they have little impact on food decisions and only own 15% of the land. 70% of jobs in the emerging green energy sectors are taken by men. Only 10% of women the skills for the future green economy. There is a massive digital skills gap and unequal access to technology. Only 0.01% of climate finance funding goes to women, but investing in women is investing in our common future. The starting point for action has to be understanding where we are and what are the issues. As the Head of UN Women argued: as a start that means sex and gender responsive data needs to be collected, but this needs to influence gender finance policies—that is not happening. Representatives from Amazon and Microsoft argued for removing barriers in STEM, and building enterprise incubators and accelerators for women who are more likely to innovate climate solutions.

Financing

The Gender and Climate Day started with a “Technical Dialogue on Financing for gender-responsive just transitions and climate action”. A key point of discussion was that women (and some men) in the Care Economy will be left out as industrial sectors transition because only the Production Economy is considered. This was a line of argument which was new to me and I found revealing. We can see this for ourselves in the UK with oil workers in Aberdeen being offered investment and training – but the Care Economy is excluded. And without gender justice there will be no social justice or climate justice.

The intersections with Indigenous women, women of African descent and women with disabilities were discussed. There needs to be a framework to support integration of gender and poverty issues in climate finance. There needs to be capacity building and integrated investment plans. Colombia argued for generating baseline data and prioritisation for women impacted in the transition to the green economy (e.g., re-qualification) and backed by specific actions of government, including changing the law, action on participation in management and action on GBV in employment. Zimbabwe argued that for a gender-responsive just transition it is necessary to look beyond just mitigation and the COP negotiations had to move on to become broader. There needs to be funding for implementation of the UNFCCC Gender Action Plan (GAP) initiated at the Lima COP. Some countries are not even able to develop their own national GAPs because of lack of financing. But as Colombia pointed out legal frameworks can be changed if there is a will so I agree that action cannot hold back just because of a lack of resources.

The UK Approach

The Gender and Climate Day concluded with a ministerial panel discussion session on “High Level Dialogue on Gender-Responsive Just Transitions and Climate Action Partnership”. This was attended by Rt Hon Andrew Mitchell MP, International Development Minister in the UK Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO). He committed to investment to advance gender equality as we are at a critical juncture and that no one should be left behind. He said that the UK is endorsing a gender-responsive just transition and there will be £40 million to support a just transition. The new UK government white paper sets out its approach to tackling world hunger, making the international system fairer and progress towards the UN sustainable global goals. The UK has also announced £1.5 billion for climate finance. There will be focussed efforts on women and girls and there will be direct support to women’s rights organisations. There were similar supportive comments from the Rwandan Environment Minister and Dutch Finance Minster for instance, with all ministers agreeing with the Partnership. But all agreed that implementation is the big issue with climate finance just not getting to women. Actually, I was surprised there was such an explicit commitment to gender equality from the UK government. So COP is more than just a talking shop.

Finally, the COP Parties are negotiating an updated Gender and Climate Change decision requiring a strengthening of national commitments. The UNFCCC Gender Action Plan is under review with final agreement due in July 2024. So there is still an opportunity to make inputs. And yes, in my mind there can be no climate justice without gender justice so it is not an issue that can be separated out. Having a Gender and Climate Change Day at COP is a recognition of this.

Members of the UCL GRRIPP team presented at the Cop 28 event: Opportunity over urgency.

Peter Sammonds is Professor of Geophysics, UCL Institute for Risk and Disaster Reduction, and GRRIP Gender and Intersectionality Ambassador.

The UKRI Collective Fund award ‘Gender Responsive Resilience and Intersectionality in Policy and Practice (GRRIPP) – Networking Plus Partnering for Resilience’ is funded by the Global Challenges Research Fund. It is a 4-year global collaboration and knowledge-exchange project, implemented by a collective of universities. It aims to bring together theory, policy and practice to promote a gender-responsive approach to disaster management and development.

4 Ways to Improve Early Warning Systems

By Pauliina Vesaluoma, on 28 September 2023

This month, the UCL Warning Research Centre held its first-ever 3-day conference ‘Creating Effective Warnings for All’. In the face of extreme geophysical and meteorological hazards, and the complex interactions of multiple forms of risk, early warning systems (EWS) are crucial for boosting preparedness and emergency response to mitigate disasters rooted in everyday social conditions. Here are four key takeaways from the conference.

Panel discussion at the WRC conference. Photo by Ilan Kelman.

Integration

EWS extend beyond the technical mechanisms for alerting people about emergencies, such as sirens and instant notifications. Early warnings need to form part of an integrated process that strengthens multi-hazard education, risk perception, risk communication, and preparedness measures. This can help shift disaster management from being reactive to increasingly proactive.

Inclusivity

For EWS to be effective, they must be inclusive, incorporating local stakeholder knowledge. This type of approach recognises specific vulnerabilities and capacities for disaster risk reduction among communities. Solutions must be context-sensitive, resources need to align with needs, and projects need to be structured around participatory processes to determine what works, where, and for whom.

Timing

Timeframes are key, whether we are in a moment of disaster or in ‘peace time’. Norms can become entrenched in times of intensified uncertainty; however, disasters can also provide a transformative moment to reassess existing structures and emergency protocols. Equally, we should harness the time in between crises to strengthen preparedness frameworks and collaborative networks for future resilience.

Creativity

Creativity is a powerful tool for rethinking existing solutions or imagining new ones. Cartoons, graphic recording, cardboard theatre, acrobatics, and interactive workshops were among the creative approaches used in the conference sessions, encouraging exploration of interconnected themes, such as climate change and mental health.


Learn more about the UCL Warning Research Centre | Twitter | Linkedin | Facebook | Youtube


Pauliina Vesaluoma recently completed the MSc in Risk, Disaster and Resilience at IRDR (2022/23). Natural hazard preparedness, volcanic risk reduction, and future resilience are among some of her main interests. Pauliina is currently undertaking a Business Resilience internship at Holcim.

Connect with her on Linkedin.


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Is the Humanitarian Sector Outdated?

By Evie Lunn, on 31 August 2023

Amidst historical levels of displacement and urgent need, the humanitarian sector is struggling to remain afloat. Despite reaching an increasing number of people, the fragmented global aid architecture cannot keep pace with the growing frequency and intensity of suffering globally. Attempts to reform the system have only addressed surface-level issues while leaving fundamental problems unaddressed. Power imbalances, rivalries between organisations, and distorted institutional incentives have remained largely untouched. Is the sector outdated?

In order to survive, humanitarians must find a way to get ahead of the crisis curve and break the cycle. The sector’s challenges and its shortcomings were at the heart of a recent panel discussion at the Institute for Risk and Disaster Reduction (IRDR) Humanitarian Summit. There is an urgent need for innovative approaches to realign the humanitarian sector with the requirements of the twenty-first century.

Photo image of three people sat behind a table with the UCL banner on. Behind them is a video screen showing an image of themselves next to a livestream image of a fourth person.

In conversation with Professor David Alexander (left), Dr Maria Kett, (middle), Dr James Smith (right), and Stuart Kefford (joining online). Photo by Ilan Kelman

 

Funding and Power

This is a well-recognised issue, with themes of funding and power dynamics underlying much of the discourse. For example, the panellists raised concerns about donor practices, such as hiring supposed ‘third-party’ consultants that lack the impartiality needed to evaluate programs. It is a failure in accountability with no unified system for tracking and evaluating outcomes, with a significant portion of funding absorbed by administrative costs and bureaucracy.

There is a clear discrepancy between investment and impact. One of the reasons for this is that organisations have been known to inflate funding needs to secure resources, aware that they will receive only a fraction of their requests. A vicious cycle is created, where funding needs skyrocket and cash does not flow where it is needed, leading to donor fatigue and a lack of inclination to provide further support. At least 20% of funding for education for Syrian refugees in Lebanon is believed to have been lost due to donors’ preference for funding UN agencies and INGOs over giving directly to local NGOs. Calls have been made for the sector to “let go”: of power and control, of perverse incentives; to let go of divisions and embrace differences.

A Forced Hand

Could modern challenges fast-track the much-needed change? The New Humanitarian recently identified seven policy issues that could help the sector evolve. “The Ukraine Effect” has exposed deep inequalities in the system. A huge amount of money has been injected into the Ukraine response in a very short period of time, overwhelming international agencies. In comparison, other equally pressing remain woefully underfunded. This imbalance is a symptom of a sector that does not know how to communicate or manage its resources effectively. In response to the climate-crisis, eco-friendly shelter materials are now being implemented in refugee camps, climate data is being used to predict humanitarian crises, and drought-resistant seeds are being introduced to help combat famine. Humanitarians are certainly moving in the right direction, but not quite fast enough.

Beyond Funding

Are there other ways to address the issues that do not always come back to finances? An interesting proposal at the Humanitarian Summit advocated for integrating youthful voices into leadership, fostering flexibility and creativity in thinking, and dismantling hierarchical structures that hinder progress. A lack of fresh perspectives and innovative ideas from younger individuals is perpetuating outdated approaches in the humanitarian world. It seems obvious that a new, creative way of thinking is needed to overcome challenges, but the sector remains bent on trying to solve new problems with old solutions. Addressing ingrained thinking patterns within the system is essential for an innovative way forward.

Failure is an essential component of learning. But many decision-makers are understandably reluctant to commit to doing anything differently because of the high-stakes associated with failure in the humanitarian sector. Failure doesn’t just mean pay-cuts and a publicity disaster, but increased death and suffering. Any humanitarian who introduces a novel or untested idea runs the risk of living with real blood on their hands.

The Upshot

Change is possible in the humanitarian sector, but it requires an honest and comprehensive evaluation of the system. In our current climate, the gap between humanitarian needs and available resources demands collective action and commitment. Outdated approaches no longer suffice; innovative and collaborative solutions, combined with long-term planning and community empowerment, are what we need to prioritise if the humanitarian sector is to redeem itself. Aid dependency cycles need to be broken, and the spotlight needs to rest on the root causes perpetuating suffering. This shift will usher in a new era of agile, creative, and unyielding humanitarian action, dedicated to meaningful change in practice, rather than just unfulfilled promises.

It is imperative that we tackle the core issues of power imbalances, institutional incentives, and structural dynamics. The consequence of the humanitarian sector’s outdated infrastructure is a fundamental crisis of legitimacy. Only by addressing these challenges can the sector hope to achieve real change and meet the ever-evolving demands of the modern world.


Watch the full Humanitarian Summit.


Evie Lunn is an Undergraduate student on the Global Humanitarian Studies program at IRDR.

Contact Evie by email here.


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How not to prepare for earthquakes: lessons from history

By Dan Haines, on 16 August 2023

Two devastating earthquakes hit India, Pakistan and Nepal in the 1930s. Can we learn anything from history which will help reduce disaster risk today?

The takeaway: colonial officials kept improvising their response to major earthquakes instead of preparing for future events or building resilience. After independence India, like many other countries, remained focused on response and rehabilitation. Despite legislative and policy changes since the 2000s, more can be done to mainstream disaster risk reduction. Several South Asian organisations are leading the way on this including AIDMI and SEEDS in India; NSET in Nepal; Duryog Nivaran in Sri Lanka. We should support their work.


Map of the Bihar and Quetta earthquakes, indicating approximate locations of most intense damage in British India. Reproduced under a CC-BY license from Haines, D. (2023), Recovering the status quo: tipping points and earthquake aftermaths in colonial India. Disasters. 

The earthquakes struck in 1934 and 1935, when India and today’s Pakistan were still colonised by the UK. The colonial state reacted by organising search and rescue and calling for public donations to relief funds for survivors. It rebuilt roads, railways and telegraph lines.

South Asians mounted their own responses, which both supported and challenged the state’s. By the 1930s the Indian National Congress and a host of other organisations had generated a well-organised mass movement that opposed British rule.

Nationalists started their own relief fund after the 1934 earthquake in Bihar, North India. Colonial officials cooperated with them despite political differences and the worry that nationalists would gain greater public support by doing highly visible relief work. Many other civil society organisations which had less antagonistic relationships with the state also helped survivors.

After the 1935 earthquake at Quetta, Balochistan (now in Pakistan) the colonial government banned nationalists and other volunteers from even travelling to the ruined city. Instead they evacuated 30,000 people – almost the entire civilian population – by rail. Survivors were sent to refugee camps or their ‘home districts’ in Punjab and Sindh.

Nationalists protested against the travel ban and criticised the colonial army’s search and rescue operations. In response the state used repressive legislation to fine newspapers for ‘sowing dissent’.

Nervous of the challenge that nationalists posed to their legitimacy as rulers, British officials kept politics at the forefront of their response to earthquakes. The army worried that ‘the desire to make political capital’ motivated Indians who applied for permission to go to Quetta after the earthquake there. Even in Bihar officials focused on maintaining law and order, making a show of protecting state assets and private property against suspected ‘looters’.

Let’s look beyond politics. The colonial state lacked coherent policies on earthquake management. Search and rescue, relief, and reconstruction efforts were all ad hoc.

The government improvised every time it faced a big earthquake, even though it had had policy frameworks for managing frequent famines and recurrent floods since the nineteenth century: not just in the 1930s, but also after earlier quakes in the 1890s-1900s.

Sound familiar? After independence, India inherited colonial bureaucratic structures. For decades it continued focusing on emergency response and rehabilitation for survivors. That came at the cost of preparing and funding people, institutions and physical infrastructure for future crises.

The Government of India’s own Task Force reported in 2013 that response capacity was good. But major legislative and policy changes of the early 2000s needed better on-the-ground enactment to make holistic risk reduction really effective. State and district level disaster management authorities needed professionalisation and more resources.

The National Disaster Management Plan (2016, revised 2019) still speaks of the need to mainstream disaster risk reduction across sectors and departments.

So – the colonial state’s strengths in response have carried forwards through time, but so has its tendency to improvise during emergencies rather than prepare effectively for the future.

A recent assessment by Indian and UK researchers found that district-level disaster management is still stuck in responsive mode, though with improvements in efficiency.

Many NGOs in South Asia are proactively building resilience and rightly advocating for preparedness. Including AIDMI and SEEDS in India; NSET in Nepal; Duryog Nivaran in Sri Lanka. These organisations are helping regional governments to improve existing approaches and correct colonial missteps.

My lesson from history? We should continue to support their work.

Read my article, just published in Disasters, to learn more about the history and politics of earthquake response in colonial South Asia. No paywall!


Daniel Haines is lecturer in disaster and crisis response at UCL IRDR. He researches historical hazards, dam-building and international river water disputes in South Asia. He tweets at @DanielHaines1.


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Beirut Blast: from trauma to purpose

By Racha Doumit, on 4 August 2023

Three years ago, day for day, my city blew up before my eyes. I have been thinking of a softer way to start this piece, but I figured why bother. Nothing about August 4 or the days that followed was soft. One moment I had a clear view of the Port of Beirut; the next all I could see was a thick coat of toxic ashes. I could not fathom what the city would look like once the ashes set. Hands shaking, I tried to get a hold of beloved ones who I suspected were in the blast-affected region. Thoughts racing, I visualised weeks of mourning. Little did I know that long after the ashes were swept, I would still be mourning.

At times, I feel like I am mourning a country I never knew, one where the government actively seeks to protect its citizens; one where reports of inappropriate storage of hazardous substances do not go unaddressed for seven years; one where residual risks do not result in one of the largest non-nuclear blasts in the history of humanity. I am mourning a time when August 4 was just another day, when the sound of sweeping broken glass did not trigger my trauma, when the only pictures I had of Beirut were those of a vibrant city. I am mourning not only the dead, but also the unlucky who survived, those who deal with the aftermath, those who wake up every day to face injustice, those who tirelessly lobby for change, those who were pushed to escape the place they call home.

August 4 became just another reminder of the struggles of being Lebanese, of embodying the myth of the Phoenix, of piloting life in survival mode. It was a decisive date that pushed me to pursue a master’s degree in Risk, Disaster, and Resilience. That’s when August 4 became just another event on a long list of tragedies. Class after class, it was considered as a case study. I had a hard time coming to terms with the fact that the blast was reduced to a dissected disaster, a prime example of mismanagement of risks, state neglect, and ill-preparedness. I struggled to dissociate from my emotional attachment to the event. It was tough to take an academic stance on a disaster I experienced: victims were now numbers, destruction was quantified, and years of struggle were just the recovery phase. At times, when caught off guard, I teared up when the picture of the silos was displayed on the board or when the professor referred to “the catastrophic blast that happened a couple years ago in Beirut”. As the year progressed, I delved deeper into identifying hazards, understanding vulnerability, and reducing exposure to risks. Progressively, the blast became less about mourning the country I never knew and more about creating an alternative reality through advocacy and policy. Ironically, it became less about August 4 and more about all other days in the year. It became less about me, my people, or my country and more about the intrinsic need to promote a safer world for all.

Understanding that the blast is bigger than my country was a hard pill to swallow. It does not signify that I came to terms with it. I am still mourning, I probably always will. Only now, I appreciate that advocating for disaster risk reduction extends beyond the borders of my tiny Mediterranean nation. Yearning for Disaster Risk Governance in Lebanon concurs with expecting all governments to uphold higher standards of safety. Seeking justice for Beirut, its victims, and its survivors equates to calling for accountability for all disasters. No matter how hard we try, we cannot alter the past: many died, many were injured, all were traumatised. No matter how disillusioned we feel, we cannot repeat the past: lives and livelihoods must be protected. Beirut was a victim of its own dysfunction—other cities should not endure that same fate.


Racha Doumit is pursuing her master’s degree in Risk, Disaster, and Resilience at IRDR. Prior to joining UCL, Racha worked as a WASH Engineer with the Red Cross in Lebanon.

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Ahead of the 13th IRDR Annual Conference: Drawing Links Across Conferences

By Joshua Anthony, on 19 June 2023

This week marks the 13th year of the Institute for Risk and Disaster’s annual conference series, continuing a tradition that yearly tackles cutting-edge ideas in risk and disaster science. Covid-19, drones for health emergencies, why warnings matter—no stone is left unturned. Conquering risk demands a look at its wide-ranging constituent parts, from the global scale down to the minutiae of everyday life. But these challenges are often not isolated, spanning geographical, social, and political boundaries. What impact do borders, physical and metaphorical, have on efforts to tackle these issues? A day of discussion at IRDR will examine this, endeavouring to look beyond them, towards Risk Without Borders. In the same spirit, we traverse the temporal border, looking back at the 12th Annual Conference to draw links across conference themes. How do borders affect Climate change – Disaster Risk, Loss and Damage, or Action?

It’s hard to ignore the relevance of borders today when divisions of vulnerability and governance can often have more of an impact than physical geography alone on risk outcomes. A major challenge to tackling this is defining loss and damage, which as Lisa Vanh pointed out last year, could significantly differ across cultural and social boundaries. Timmons Roberts, who has done extensive research on climate negotiations between global north and south countries, raised the issue of equity, how developing countries need the assistance of wealthier countries to overcome the challenges of climate change. Though early attempts at this had failed with proposals in 1991 from Pacific Island nation Vanuatu, there have been promising developments since then. It highlights the barriers that exist between divisions of wealth and power that ultimately come down to borders, be that the invisible lines with which we delineate them, or the diminishing shoreline of a small island developing state.

As important as economics are voices. During her passionate keynote speech, Vanessa Nakate, a climate justice activist, described the risks of climate change that Uganda is already experiencing, and the challenges that activists from the most affected countries face in having their voices heard on the international platform. Perhaps nothing is more symbolic of the arbitrary constraints of borders than the visa application system and how this has prevented young climate leaders from attending UN conferences. As Nakate puts it: every activist has a story to tell, every story has a solution to give, and every solution as a life to change. Not only unique stories, but shared ones across borders are just as noteworthy, as Lucy Easthope, author of When the Dust Settles, explains when reflecting on the similar challenges experienced by both her, a UK expert in emergency planning and disaster recovery, and a midwife working in Myanmar, Sudan, and Bangladesh.

Examining discussions from the previous conference demonstrates that their individual themes should not be viewed as distinct boundaries. Even where there was no explicit mention of borders built within the itinerary and theme, experts could not avoid the limitations that they place on risk research and experience. No doubt, themes from last year will spill over to this one. See it for yourself this Thursday 22 June!


Watch last year’s annual conference on the IRDR youtube channel.


Thank you to Heghine Ghukasyan whose rapporteur notes helped immensely in writing this blog.

Lessons Learned from The 6th Global Summit of Research Institutes for Disaster Risk Reduction

By Khonsa Zulfa, on 24 April 2023

Achieving a Sustainable Disaster-Resilient World: at the 6th Global Summit of Research Institutes for Disaster Risk Reduction (GADRI) this March, 189 Disaster Risk Reduction (DRR) academics and professionals from all over the world gathered at Kyoto University to establish global research networks, develop research roadmaps and plans, build the capacities of research institutes, share information, and engage in collaborative research.

DRR academics and professionals at the summit

The Role of Youth and Young Professionals in Disaster Risk Reduction

One of the most interesting sessions in the conference is to discuss the role of Youth and Young Professional (YYPs) in DRR. The prolonged worldwide pandemic, intensifying climate change impacts, and cascading risks have taught us that disaster risks should not be treated in silo. Thus, inter-generational collaboration involvement is needed to make substantial change for a more sustainable and resilient society. According to Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction 2015-2030, Youth are the agent of change and should be given the space and modalities to contribute to Disaster Risk Reduction for Legislation, National Practice, and Educational Curricula.

Participants in the Role of YYPs in DRR discussion

The panellists and participants discussed that YYPs have roles as data and knowledge producer, broker and synthesizer. First, data and knowledge producers devote themselves solely to capturing natural and social phenomena essential for understanding the landscape of disaster risk. Second, brokers provide challenging services to ensure stakeholders can access the most relevant disaster-related data and knowledge based on their needs. Third, synthesizers access and craft the available disaster-related data and knowledge by consolidating, combining, and providing meaning-making that could inspire or trigger societal changes, such as policy-making or implementation, program ideation, and capacity-building. The session showcases examples from Indonesia, Japan, India, and Colombia that exhibit each of the roles and explore challenges from diverse background including, but not limited to, earth scientists, social scientists, engineers, policy-makers, and emergency management professionals.

Lessons Learned from the Conference

In this conference, I was selected to present my master’s research in the poster session. My research was awarded a GADRI scholarship, which entitled for 15 best abstracts from young scientists and researchers. My research aims to build an Evacuation Decision Model of Flood-Affected People in South Kalimantan Indonesia, which investigates the significant variables behind why people evacuated in the 2021 South Kalimantan floods event. Some suggestions for improvement from the peers are (1) to conduct the same study in different characteristic areas in order to compare the outcomes and (2) to continue studying each significant variable and finding from the results.

Explaining my research to another participant

Upon the keynote speech on the conference, Mami Mizutori, the Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Disaster Risk Reduction UNDRR, said that DRR policies at the local level are still not doing a good job. Many efforts are needed to strengthen disaster knowledge and awareness at the local level; thus, it can be a driving force for improving DRR policy and community resilience. As a young scientist, I plan to contribute to improving local DRR policies by handing in my master’s dissertation result to South Kalimantan government as it could be a beneficial input for them to enhance flood evacuation strategy.


I would like to acknowledge UCL Institute for Risk and Disaster Reduction for funding my expenses to attend the 6th Global Summit of GADRI, 15-17 March 2023 in Japan. I would like also to appreciate my supervisors Prof Joanna Faure Walker and my personal tutor Prof Patty Kostkova for their guidance on my master’s study.

_________________________________________________________________________________

Khonsa was a Master’s student in UCL IRDR Year 2021/2022. She is now working as Research Assistant at UCL IRDR. Her research is mainly focus on Indonesia disaster, flood, tsunami, evacuation, early warning, and community development.

Get in touch: khonsa.zulfa.21@ucl.ac.uk or Linkedin

Reflections on the Turkish-Syrian Earthquakes of 6th February 2023: Building Collapse and its Consequences

By David Alexander, on 9 February 2023

An interesting map was published by the US Geological Survey shortly after the Turkish-Syrian earthquakes.1 It showed (perhaps somewhat predictively) that there was only one tiny square of the vast affected area in which Modified Mercalli intensity (which is largely a measure of damage) reached 9.0, the ‘violent’ level.2 This is–just about–enough to damage very significantly a well-engineered structure (but not necessarily enough to bring it crashing down). Although the disaster of 6th February 2023 produced, in fact, stronger shaking than this, it should not have caused 5,500 large buildings to collapse. The disaster in Turkey and Syria is very obviously the result of poor construction. This is painfully visible in the video images of buildings collapsing. The patterns of collapse are also the same as those in the last 20 Turkish earthquakes, although they are doubtless more extensive this time around. 

Building codes in Turkey have been upgraded five times in the last 55 years and are now perfectly good enough. The tragedy lies in their non-observance and the paucity of retrofitting. It is a mixture of simple errors, lax procedures, ignorance, deliberate evasion, indifference to public safety, untenable architectural fashions, corruption and failure to enforce the codes. Many, perhaps most, people in Turkey live in multi-storey, multiple occupancy reinforced concrete frame buildings. It is these that collapse. Most of them are highly vulnerable to seismic forces. There is plenty of engineering literature on the typical seismic performance defects of such buildings in Turkey. Perhaps we can grant a small exception for Syria, although before the civil war it did have building codes and earthquake research. However, the comment by a leader of the Syrian Catholic Church that buildings had been weakened by bombardment was something of a red herring. This probably affected about 2-3% of those that collapsed. 

 To know whether a reinforced concrete building is safe to live in would require knowledge of:

  • the shear resistance (i.e., quality) of the concrete 
  • the presence or absence and connectivity of shear walls 
  • whether there are overhangs or other irregularities of plan that distribute the weight of the building unevenly or concentrate load on particular parts of it 
  • the presence or absence of a ‘soft-storey’ open ground floor which concentrates the load above columns that cannot support it during seismic deformation 
  • the connections between beams and columns, especially how the steel reinforcing bars are bent in 
  • whether there are proper hooks at the end of rebars on concrete joints 
  • whether the rebars were ribbed or smooth 
  • the quality of the foundations and the liquefaction, landslide or subsidence potential of the underlying ground 
  • the state of maintenance of the structural elements of the building 
  • any subsequent modifications to the original construction. 

 An experienced civil engineer could evaluate some of that by eye, but much of the rest is hidden and only exposed once the building collapses. A short bibliography of sources is appended at the end of this article. 

Many of the news media that have reported the disaster have presented it as the result of inescapable terrestrial forces. While that cannot be negated, it is less than half of the story. The tragedy was largely the result of highly preventable construction errors. Vox clamantis in deserto: to examine this aspect of the disaster one would have to face up to difficult issues, such as corruption, political decision making, people’s expectations of public safety, fatalism versus activism, and more. How much simpler to attribute it all to anonymous forces within the ground! 

A well-engineered tall building that collapses will leave up to 15% void spaces in which there may be living trapped victims. It was notable that, in many buildings that pancaked in Turkey and Syria, the collapses left almost no voids at all, thanks to the complete fragmentation of the entire structure. This poses some serious challenges to search and rescue. In some cases the collapse was compounded by foundation failure, leading to sliding or rotation of the debris. 

There was also an interesting dichotomy in the images on television between the “anthill” type of urban search and rescue, carried out by people with no training, no equipment and no idea what to do, and professional urban search and rescue (USAR), which sadly was in the minority of cases. Nevertheless, it remains true that the influx of foreign USAR teams is, sadly, both riotously expensive and highly inefficient, as they tend to arrive after the ‘golden period’ of about 12 hours in which people could be rescued in significant numbers. 

Among the damage there is at least one classic example of the fall of a mosque and its minaret, the same as that which happened in the Düzce earthquake of 1999. Mosques are inherently susceptible to collapse in earthquakes: shallow arches, barrel vaults, rigid domes and slender minarets. The irony is that the great Turkish architect of the 16th century, Mimar Sinan (after whom a university in Istanbul is named) had the problem solved. He threaded iron bars through the well-cut stones of his minarets, endowing them with strength and flexibility. It is also singular that one of the first short, stubby minarets in Turkey (located in Izmir) was built 300 years after Sinan died in 1588. 


Select Bibliography of Sources on Turkish R/C Construction Practices 

Cogurcu, M.T. 2015.Construction and design defects in the residential buildings and observed earthquake damage types in Turkey. Natural Hazards and Earth System Sciences 15: 931-945. 

Dogan, G., A.S. Ecemis, S.Z. Korkmaz, M.H. Arslan and H.H. Korkmaz 2021. Buildings damages after Elazığ, Turkey earthquake on January 24, 2020. Natural Hazards 109: 161-200. 

Dönmez, C. 2015. Seismic performance of wide-beam infill-joist block RC frames in Turkey. Journal of Performance of Constructed Facilities 29(1): 1-9. 

Erdil, B. 2017. Why RC buildings failed in the 2011 Van, Turkey, earthquakes: construction versus design practices. Journal of Performance of Constructed Facilities 31(3):  

Korkmaz, K.A. 2009. Earthquake disaster risk assessment and evaluation for Turkey. Environmental Geology 57: 307-320. 

Ozmen, H.B. 2021. A view on how to mitigate earthquake damages in Turkey from a civil engineering perspective. Research on Engineering Structures and Materials 7(1): 1-11. 

Sezen, H., A.S. Whittaker, K.J. Elwood and K.M. Mosalam 2003. Performance of reinforced concrete buildings during the August 17, 1999 Kocaeli, Turkey earthquake, and seismic design and construction practise in Turkey. Engineering Structures 25(1): 103-114.


David Alexander is Professor of Risk and Disaster Reduction. He has conducted research on disasters since 1980. His main foci of interest are emergency management and planning, earthquake science, disaster epidemiology, and theoretical issues in disaster risk reduction.

Note from editor: We offer our commiserations to all those affected by the tragic events of this week. UCL staff and students can find support here. Find out where and how to donate to the earthquake appeal here.

Vulnerability is the root cause of Pakistan’s susceptibility to disasters

By Joshua Anthony, on 21 November 2022

Author: Dr. Laila Shahzad*


According to the IPCC AR5, the human influence on the planetary climate system is undeniable and emissions from greenhouse gases (GHGs) are at the highest levels ever seen in the history of mankind. These climatic changes have had widespread impacts on human and natural systems. The most visible effects of changing climate are variation in rainfall pattern, increasing average temperature, glacier melting, rising sea levels, crop diseases, species invasions, weather related disasters and many more. Human activities involved in bringing these changes are industrial processes, fossil fuel burning, vehicular emission, and agriculture. The unpredictable rainfall patterns and variable seasonal precipitation badly influence the soil water availability for crop, loss from floods or drought, and become a serious issue for the farmers of South Asia and policy makers as a greater threat to food security.

South Asia, a region chiefly described as having agricultural-based economies, is considered as the most vulnerable region in the world. As the change in food growth and production will directly affect the food needs of burgeoning population due to disturbance in financial, ecological, and social systems on this part of planet earth. The situation in the region is worsened by locality, topography, socio-political influences, literacy rate, unskilled labourers, economic instability, poverty, and livelihood dependency on natural resources.

Pakistan, a country with 225 million (approx.) inhabitants suffered by the unprecedented floods in June 2022 which lasted for months. Torrential monsoon rains triggered the severe flooding which washed away thousands of houses and crop land leaving people homeless and food insecure.

A little background

Pakistan is the second largest country by its area in South Asia after India, and is highly vulnerable to climatic changes, ranked among the top ten countries by the Global climate risk index of the world in past many years. The country is recurrently affected by the disasters in both the long term index and in the index of a respective year, alluding to the persistent nature of underlying vulnerabilities. The climate of the country ranges from subtropical arid to semi-arid and temperate to alpine. Precipitation varies from 100 to 2000 mm mainly from June to September across the countryside. It is broadly an agrarian country with a contribution of 21% to GDP from agriculture which provides employment to 62% of the population. The main crops are wheat, cotton, and rice grown at different agro-ecological zones of the country with diversified hydrological, soil, and climatic conditions. Temperature and rainfall show constantly increasing and decreasing trends, respectively. Since the start of the 20th century, the rising temperature has caused an increase in demand of evapotranspiration for crops by up to 10-30%. The agricultural system in Pakistan is already worsened by the urbanisation as it has decreased the production due to conversion of fertile land into housing societies. On the other side, recurring floods end up losing the soil fertility and disturbing the crop cycle.

Floods of 2022: a compound disaster

The 2022 Pakistan floods caused unprecedented damage to agriculture crops, livestock, and infrastructure, including damages to storage facilities with tons of grain, posing unmeasurable risk. Badly affected crops include—but are not limited to—rice, sugarcane, cotton, wheat, and small-scale farmers totally lost their livelihood. Pakistan is the world’s fifth-largest producer of cotton and produces about 5% of world’s demand which will affect the supply due to flood damages.

According to the World Bank, the worst hit sectors are housing, agriculture, livestock, and, lately, transport and communications with significant damages of USD 5.6 billion, USD 3.7 billion, and USD 3.3 billion, respectively (Pakistan Floods 2022 Post-Disaster Needs Assessment). This actually calls for cascading effects as such massive disasters have tangible and intangible losses; in terms of water borne diseases, shortage of food, price hike, loss of machinery, post disaster trauma, losing mental health and wellbeing, and disturbing the crop cycle due to water logging.

So now the question arises: could this event be controlled or at least better managed? What Strategies did Pakistan have to minimise flood losses? The government of Pakistan is currently in the phase of recovery, where bringing people back to normal life is not easy. Though time has proved that this tragic event has to be a turning point when it comes to making disaster risk reduction policy for the vulnerable. The policy should have focused on the most vulnerable in enhancing climate resilience and adaptations by developing community-based disaster management at district and tehsil levels. Focus should be on nonstructural risk reduction measures by giving disaster education to the masses. In the shortest way, the emergency health system, training local farmers, introducing livelihood diversification, and emergency cash transfer system can be prioritized. This calls for interactive and integrated polices where communities need to be prepared for future disasters and be a part of policy making. The government tiers have to be more connected than working in isolation as managing the compound impacts will not be an easy job.

With the theme of building back better, Pakistan should not only manage the losses and provide immediate support to families; rather, a long way to go is “to plan” as climatic emergencies will keep coming with more magnitude and frequency, and to the more vulnerable.


*Dr. Laila Shahzad is a post-doctoral fellow in the Institute for Risk and Disaster Reduction, UCL London and Assistant professor at Sustainable Development Study Centre, GC University, Lahore, Pakistan. | lailashahzad@gcu.edu.pk

Building Resilience of Women for Food Security  

By Joshua Anthony, on 26 October 2022

Written by Bhawana Upadhyay


A growing body of literature suggests that climate disasters such as heatwaves and flash floods disproportionately affect the most vulnerable inhabitants of rural communities.  An analysis of 130 peer-reviewed studies published in Nature Communications suggests that women and children often face disproportionately higher health risks posed by climate change impacts than others.  For example, pregnant women often experience more risks and limited access to reproductive and maternal care services during and post disasters.

UNICEF reported that due to the recent flooding in Pakistan, about 3.4 million children needed urgent humanitarian assistance and faced an increased risk of waterborne diseases, drowning, and malnutrition and more than 22.8 million children between the ages of 5-16 were out of school nationwide. The hardest-hit province, Sindh, has had nearly 16,000 schools destroyed alone. Thousands of schools were used to house displaced families. More than 400 children were killed in the floods, and many more got injured.

Likewise, the flash floods of June 2022 in Bangladesh affected 3.7 million people in 11 districts in the northern region, of which 1.9 million were women and girls.  A key finding of a rapid gender analysis undertaken by the Gender in Humanitarian Action Working Group states that 60 percent of women surviving on daily wage and rearing livestock lost their incomes.  Most affected households had no food stock and had to survive on food relief. The dry food supplied as relief was not sufficient to cover all affected households’ needs. The flooding caused a serious reduction in the food intake of those families. It was estimated that 60,000 women were pregnant in the affected area, and more than 20,000 births were expected to occur in September 2022.

In the risk framework of the Fifth Assessment Report of IPCC, vulnerability to climate change impacts is inseparably linked to adaptive capacity. The relationships between gender inequality and adaptation capacity span from unequal access to resources and opportunities to stereotypical socio-cultural norms. It is clear from numerous empirical research that social and gender inequalities are present in all spheres of human development, which is essentially why women and girls are disproportionally impacted.

The IPCC’s Sixth Assessment Report has identified South Asia as particularly vulnerable to the impacts of climate change in the coming years, with critical implications for marginalized and disadvantaged communities including women and children. Unfortunately, climate disasters further reinforce the existing gender inequalities, thereby pushing rural communities into the peril of food insecurity. As a result, they become more vulnerable and incapable of bracing for future hazards and risks.

So, what could be the long-term strategy to empower women to build climate resilience for food security?

In South Asia, food security and nutrition have not improved significantly despite the region’s satisfactory economic growth. We are now barely seven years away from 2030, the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) target year.

The irony is that the leap toward the SDG is growing wider each year, while the clock is ticking. Working for SDG 2, 5 and 13 (Zero Hunger, Gender Equality and Climate Action) requires a holistic approach towards empowering rural women in climate-smart agriculture by supporting them through inclusive policies and practices.

The State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World Report 2022  explains a growing gender gap in food insecurity reflecting that world hunger rose further in 2021 (worsening inequalities across and within countries.

Asian Disaster Preparedness Center (ADPC) through its Climate Adaptation and Resilience for South Asia (CARE for SA) project recently completed mapping and assessing of gender landscape in climate-resilient agricultural policies and practices in three South Asian countries (Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Nepal). Key findings highlight untapped opportunities for governments and other relevant stakeholders to take forward toward not just achieving SDG 5, but also building resilience in the face of food insecurity.

Immediate attention is required towards building and strengthening rural women’s and youth networks and enhancing their linkages with extension services; Engaging private sectors in investing in climate-smart tools and machines that are sustainable and women-friendly; These tools need to be marketed with government subsidies and/or insurance coverage; Harmonizing and strengthening capacity at provincial and local levels on the concept and process of empowerment of women and youth engaged in climate-smart agriculture; Enhancing close coordination among respective National Disaster Management Authorities, concerned sectoral ministries, and province and district level Women Development Departments in the three countries.


Bhawana Upadhyay is Senior Specialist (Gender and Inclusion) at the Asian Disaster Preparedness Centre (ADPC).