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Resilience, semantic satiation, conflation, and Maslow’s hierarchy: I can only take so much!

Joshua Anthony24 August 2022

Author: Dr Chris Needham-Bennett


I am getting worried with hearing ‘resilience’ used incautiously. The word (a general noun) which, once a welcome umbrella term to describe the results of the contributory disciplines of business continuity, disaster recovery, crisis management, emergency response, etc., has become a hackneyed media mantra. The England middle order cricket team batsmen, the Lioness’s England football team are ‘resilient’, a company or local council has ‘built in resiliency’ (whatever that is). The Ukrainians are resilient. My local community needs to achieve resilience. I need to achieve personal resilience for my mental well-being; I am not sure to what?

This blog makes two fundamental points, the first is a conflation of resilience with mental well-being, stress management and associated issues, the second is the overuse of the term and a consequent diminution of its genuine meaning.

Alexander (2013)[1] (noting several other authorities), cautioned that resilience might not have the ‘power’ to be a paradigm, yet almost a decade later—whilst it arguably is far from a paradigm—there is little doubt of a fascination with the phrase and burgeoning academic research[2] (some of which is attributable to climate change research). Moser et al. (2019)[3] note in their abstract that, ‘Resilience has experienced exponential growth in scholarship and practice over the past several decades.…it is an increasingly contested concept.’

The question to my mind is why is there such a fascination with the word? First let us discount hitherto traditional uses of the word which could include its proper application to botany, pharmacology, risk in some instances, material sciences, and metallurgy.

My increasing suspicion is that it is to do with a burgeoning societal self-obsession and narcissism combined with a notion of zero risk. Society appears to have latched onto a phrase which has been hijacked by a quasi-utopian vision which is manifested as follows.

The conflation with ‘well-being’

At the macro level, the OECD measures resilient cities using the criteria outlined below[4]. Some of these seem an expression of good economic common sense. Others such as ‘% of citizens near open space’ seem a little tentative and debatable as to their links to resilience.

 

Four areas that drive resilience. Source: OECD Regional Development[4].

Perhaps as importantly, their definition as to what is resilience is, is tinged with slightly trendy overtones of a ‘brave new world’.

‘Resilient cities are cities that have the ability to absorb, recover and prepare for future shocks (economic, environmental, social & institutional). Resilient cities promote sustainable development, well-being and inclusive growth.’

Sadly, the definition does not really define precisely what the city will be resilient to, rather it is left in vague terms of ‘shock’. It does not mention some of the more critical resilience issues lower down on Maslow’s hierarchy (1943 version; cited by McLeod 2022)[5] such as power, housing, water, sewage, defence, health, and food, without which the ability to live ‘500 metres from services or near an open space or well-being and inclusive growth’ might appear somewhat academic.

At the opposite end of the resilience spectrum, at the individual level, a simple google search of ‘personal resilience course’, offers a spectacular array of over 82 million results. A brief survey of the top five of them indicates that their duration is one day or in some cases half a day. The general view is that personal resilience is a skill or attribute that can be acquired in about 8 hours (the extreme min/max range for the duration of such courses appears to be 90 minutes to a 12-week period).

Robertson et al. (2015) expressed some reservations as to the evidence of the efficacy of such courses. Naturally since 2015 more evidence might be apparent but truly longitudinal studies of the ongoing effect of course completed a decade ago are yet to be available. Their practitioner notes state that,

‘Despite conceptual and theoretical support for resilience training, the empirical evidence is tentative, with the exception of a large effect for mental health and subjective well-being outcomes.’[6]

One BBC report cites Dr Michael Pluess from Queen Mary University of London who is testing for the resilience gene, in which case if discovered it would potentially invalidate the courses cited above.

There is a real danger that resilience, which is a fundamentally practical issue at both the macro and micro level is suborned by the burgeoning but evidentially limited literature on resilience’s relationship to well-being, inclusivity, and mental health. Such links also veneer the unpalatable hard choices that real resilience demands. Put as simply as possible we all might live near open spaces and be very inclusive, but if London’s water supply remains dependent solely on abstraction from the rivers Thames and Lee[7] then it does not matter how ‘positive’ you might feel about the City in about 20 years you will not have enough to drink (perhaps counterintuitively based on a multi-year average, London has only 100mm more rainfall than Jerusalem)[8].

Semantic Satiation

But is there any evidence that the overuse of a word diminishes somehow its value. Broadly speaking yes there is, and it is technically called ‘semantic satiation’. Smith and Klein (1990) noted that ‘Prolonged repetition of a word results in the subjective experience of loss of meaning, or semantic satiation’[9]. At risk of oversimplifying their diligent study, it works something like this; on a relatively infrequent basis I inform my partner that I love her. It seems to cheer her up. If I informed her of my love on a daily basis she would be delighted for a while, then she would suspect that I am having an affair, then she would get bored with it and then perhaps later even angry. The phrase would become increasingly less meaningful and impactful.

At a more serious level it does seem to me to do some harm. In reality a lot of ‘building resilience’ is really risk mitigation or some type or diversification in the case of supply chains. If for instance, we take Markovic’s 1952 diversification theory[10] (disputed by later critics) it does supposedly make an investment portfolio more resilient to market volatility, but the critical issue or activity is diversification which is a ‘thing’ in its own right with a word all of its own to describe it. Now one can make the argument that the end result is a more resilient portfolio, but one should not be tempted to change resilience to an activity which requires it to be a verb. Diversify is the verb or ‘doing word’; resilience is the result. Similarly, if we claim that all activities are resilience measures it somehow diminishes the utility or worth of risk assessments, risk mitigation, plans and responses all of which combine to achieve resilience.

Conclusion

It might be easy to dismiss these concerns as semantic academic posturing yet the power of words, their definitions, associations, and nuances are what will shape the future of resilience. I would wish resilience to remain practical, efficacious, and most importantly simple. Let us leave resilience as an ambition or end state that is achieved through an array of distinct professional activities. Let us also ensure that the fundamental hard and often costly problems associated with resilience are not whitewashed with an ephemera of pleasantries normally found at the higher altitudes of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. There may well be benefits to stress or coping management courses but let us call them just that, not personal resilience.


Dr Chris Needham-Bennett is Managing Director at Needhams1834 Ltd and Visiting Professor at University College London.

Email Chris at: chris@needhams1834.com


References

[1] Alexander, D. E.: Resilience and disaster risk reduction: an etymological journey, Nat. Hazards Earth Syst. Sci., 13, 2707–2716, https://doi.org/10.5194/nhess-13-2707-2013, 2013.

[2] https://ensia.com/articles/what-is-resilience/

[3] Moser, S., Meerow, S., Arnott, J. et al. The turbulent world of resilience: interpretations and themes for transdisciplinary dialogue. Climatic Change 153, 21–40 (2019). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10584-018-2358-0

[4] https://www.oecd.org/cfe/regionaldevelopment/resilient-cities.htm

[5] McLeod, S. A. (2022, April 04). Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Simply Psychology. www.simplypsychology.org/maslow.html

[6] Robertson, I.T., Cooper, C.L., Sarkar, M. and Curran, T. (2015), Resilience training in the workplace from 2003 to 2014: A systematic review. J Occup Organ Psychol, 88: 533-562. https://doi.org/10.1111/joop.12120

[7] https://web.archive.org/web/20150325074128/http://www.london.gov.uk/sites/default/files/water-strategy-oct11.pdf

[8] https://www.sdjewishworld.com/2011/11/20/rain-in-jerusalem-almost-as-much-as-london/

[9] Smith, Lee, Klein, Raymond Evidence for semantic satiation: Repeating a category slows subsequent semantic processing. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition, Vol 16(5), Sep 1990, 852-861

[10]  Portfolio Selection, Harry Markowitz – The Journal of Finance, Vol. 7, No. 1. (Mar., 1952), pp. 77-91

 

 

Humanitarian shelter and home-based work

Victoria Maynard7 July 2022

The future of humanitarian response is urban.  More specifically, the future of humanitarian response is in informal settlements in urban areas in the Global South.  In these contexts 20-50% of households run small home-based enterprises from within or around their home.  It is also estimated that home-based enterprises generate 50-75% of household incomes.  Home-based enterprises can take many forms.  They can be as simple as a table or chair—from which to cook, sew or provide haircuts; or the use of a room or window to make or sell goods and services. They include kiosks and extensions, to the use of a whole floor of a home for a shop, café, or workshop.

Despite the prevalence and importance of home-based enterprises to households living in informal settlements, they remain largely overlooked within the humanitarian shelter and settlements sector. The latest edition of the Sphere Handbook (2018) states that shelters must be “located to provide access to livelihoods opportunities” which should be “close to the shelter”. Similarly, Shelter Projects Essentials (2021) includes a diagram which states that shelter should be “near my work”.  However, for many families their home is itself the place where they earn a living—so shelter recovery plays a critical role in their ability to restart their livelihoods.

In addition, if we ignore home-based enterprises then we are ignoring women. Most home-based enterprises are run by women and at least 50% more women work in households with home-based enterprises than those without.  We are also missing a massive opportunity to help women restart their livelihoods. In 2005 Sheppard and Hill argued that home-based enterprises are “the single most important income source for the populations most affected by disaster”.  While the contribution of shelter to home-based enterprises is “the most important way that shelter can support economic development in post-disaster societies”.

5 years after the Indian Earthquake Ocean and Tsunami in Aceh, Indonesia, a woman uses the porch of her reconstructed home as a shop. Source: Maynard et al 2014.

Recognising the importance of this topic, in 2021 Beth Simons, Elizabeth Wagemann, and I published a chapter on ‘Supporting the Recovery of Home-Based Enterprises’ in the Roadmap for Research for Humanitarian Shelter and Settlements Assistance.  In April 2021 we hosted a breakout group at UK Shelter Forum 27, during which participants shared lots of examples from practice. These included: using porches as small shops or places of work; using the space around shelters for growing crops for sale; using the space inside the shelter for making crafts; and using the roof for food storage. One participant commented that “every single woman” in a project in Burkina Faso was engaged in home-based enterprise and “most of the requests for housing improvements are linked to those activities”.

We have since completed a scoping study to examine the relationship between housing and home-based work (HBW) in development contexts.  The study considered (1) The effects of housing on HBW and (2) The effects of HBW on housing. 1837 potentially relevant studies were identified in academic and grey literature and 12 studies from Latin America and the Caribbean (LAC) were then selected for further study.  Each of the LAC studies were read and coded, using a combination of inductive and conductive approaches. Results were then presented in terms of: effects identified at household or settlement scale; and those identified in multiple studies with consistent findings, multiple studies with inconsistent findings, and single studies.

Our results reaffirmed the “symbiotic relationship” between housing and HBW—with livelihood and household activities taking place at different times of the day in the same space.  We also found that households are more likely to engage in HBW if they:

  • Live in advantageous locations within the city, neighbourhood, or building;
  • Are subject to favourable regulation (or lack of regulation);
  • Do not feel at risk from natural hazards or security threats;
  • Live in larger houses on larger plots, with adequate appliances and services;
  • Have greater tenure security.

We suggest that these can be called the characteristics of ‘supportive housing and settlements’.  In settlements where these characteristics are present more households are likely to engage in HBW. Households which engage in HBW develop more sustainable and resilient livelihoods—as a result of increased financial assets and greater diversity of income sources. Income from HBW is often invested in housing improvements such as purchasing appliances, installing services, or improving the quality or quantity of space in or around the home. Improvements like these in turn generate more supportive housing conditions, enabling the household to sustain, expand or diversify their HBW.

Figure: The symbiotic relationship between housing, settlements and HBW. Source: Authors

While these results are based on literature from development contexts, they are relevant to humanitarian shelter and settlement programming. For example, is the type and prevalence of HBW included in vulnerability and capacity assessments?  Do humanitarian shelter programmes allow enough space within and around shelters to allow households to engage in HBW? Do they enable households to take on HBW to finance shelter self-recovery or build their long-term resilience? Do they consider the positive contribution of HBW to meeting the day-to-day needs of their communities?  Or do restrictive policies, regulations, and lack of tenure security limit the ability of households to engage in HBW?

Our next steps are to: gather empirical evidence from humanitarian contexts in LAC; compare the results of the LAC scoping study with the documents we found from other continents; and undertake a broader literature review to investigate the relationship between HBW and shelter recovery and/or resilience in humanitarian contexts. Join us at the Shelter Meeting in Geneva (or online) on Friday 8th July for an update on our ongoing research in LAC or join our mailing list for future updates.


Victoria Maynard is a PhD Student in the UCL Department of Civil, Environmental and Geomatic Engineering (UCL CEGE).

Inclusion, Intersectionality, and the Humanitarian Shelter Sector

Mhari Gordon4 July 2022

Mhari Gordon is an IRDR PhD Student.


The 28th UK Shelter Forum (UKSF) in May 2022 included thought-provoking talks by practitioners and academics on whether the humanitarian shelter sector is ready to respond to the effects of climate change. The ‘Climate Charter’ emphasises the need to “support those who are the most at risk, taking into account the influence that individual characteristics… have on people’s capacities and vulnerabilities.” The importance of inclusive approaches is widely recognised by humanitarian organisations, but how should they put this commitment into practice? At the UKSF Phil Duloy from FCDO chaired a breakout group exploring opportunities for the shelter sector to be more inclusive and intersectional in its approach to the climate crisis. The panel included Hayley Capp from CARE International UK, Kevin Blanchard from DRR Dynamics and Maria Kett from UCL Population Health Sciences.

Photo of Panel including, from left to right, Phil Duloy, Hayley Capp, Kevin Blanchard and Maria Kett. Photo by Ilan Kelman.

Unequal Realities

It has become well-established that individuals are affected by crises and disasters to different extents and that, simply put, the marginalised and minority populations are ‘hit the hardest’. There are numerous examples of double injustices whereby certain individuals are marginalised and experience higher levels of poverty due to social, gender, sexuality, or cultural norms and are therefore more susceptible to the effects of climate change. Capp shared specific examples in the case of women and girls. Women tend to have limited access to and control of resources such as mobile phones, cash transfers, and insurance mechanisms. These resources are important during crises as they foster disaster resilience and recovery. Additionally, women and girls can be faced with lose-lose situations. For example, on one hand, there may be barriers to mobility for leaving their home and on the other, they may face gender-based violence risks in shelters if there are inadequate divisions or security considerations. These limitations are reflected in disaster statistics, such as the 2014 earthquake and tsunami in Indonesia whereby females accounted for two-thirds of the deaths. So, this leads to bigger questions such as how does the shelter sector deal with the underlying reasons and situations which have created such vulnerabilities within its humanitarian response?

Intersectionality and Labels

The use of the ‘intersectionality’ concept, which can recognize personal identities and characteristics, is offered as a framework to understand how different groups experience vulnerability, exposure, and resilience. However, this is not an easy task. Kett observed that even when the intersectionality framework is used within humanitarianism, there is still the presence of ‘silo-ing’ and that the sector does not “necessarily have the tools yet to really operationalise this on the ground.”. The categorisations of gender, sexuality, age, disability, etc., disenable an individual from being truly reflected. It can lose nuances such as a woman who is queer, elderly, and has hearing difficulties. Moreover, it does not necessarily measure vulnerabilities comparatively. For example, a man with a disability can be less marginalised than a woman without in some social contexts. The context of where the humanitarian assistance is being delivered is crucial to understand.

There needs to be careful consideration of how these individual characteristics are being termed, framed, and assessed; that the labelling does not further emphasise the marginalisation or difference from what is considered ‘mainstream’ or ‘acceptable’ within certain norms. Kate Crawford, a panellist from the preceding Humanitarian Institute Evening Conference, noted that labelling can place the vulnerability onto the individual, instead of recognising that it is the societal system that has created vulnerabilities for them. Additionally, there is a danger that labels may create further risks for individuals; for example, if the national state does not recognise an ethnicity. This leads to several ethical questions. How willing are people to be (self-) enumerated? What if an individual has a ‘characteristic’ they are able or want to hide, but it is a determinant of being more vulnerable?

Next Steps

These discussions raise questions about how to put into practice the first commitment of the Climate Charter on supporting those most at risk whilst accounting for individual characteristics and situations, as well as the third commitment on inclusive participation of people in humanitarian programmes. From the opinions shared by the panellists, there are currently few success stories of vulnerable people or minority groups being meaningfully included in wider humanitarian responses, expect where the specific aim of the project had a particular focus on inclusion. However, there remains only limited inclusion mainstreaming in humanitarian projects. Moreover, inclusion frameworks are largely missing in disaster policies. Blanchard identified that there are presently six countries that actively include LGBTQIA+ people in disaster risk reduction (DRR) policies. Additionally, the concept of inclusion is largely missing from the UNDRR Sendai Framework thus leaving a desert in disaster policies. So, what does this mean in terms of the humanitarian response to present and future disasters? How can we better represent inclusion frameworks within wider policies and, most importantly, ensure their application on the ground?

The panellists shared that there is still an opportunity for using the intersectionality framework when well applied, as it can collect representative data of the diversity in our communities. Moreover, intersectionality can also identify tools and knowledge that communities need to respond to vulnerabilities and foster resilience. This would help to design appropriate humanitarian shelter responses for people in need. However, the intersectionality framework may face barriers. Some characteristics, such as ethnicity or sexual orientation, can be protected in one country and legal cause for persecution in another. Therefore, not all data sets represent the most marginalised or at-risk people. Social protection schemes, also known as public safety net programmes, have previously been used in humanitarian responses in the form of increased cash transfers or disability allowances to support more vulnerable individuals during disasters. However, if certain individuals are excluded from beneficiary lists (data sets), there is the danger that they are further marginalised during the humanitarian and disaster response. This example highlights how certain data presentations can lead to pitfalls of not reaching individuals most in need during disasters. Furthermore, it demonstrates the difficult task at hand for humanitarian assistance to reach those most at risk, whilst working with and respecting the sovereignty of the host nation. Therefore, it is paramount that attention is paid to how the data is collected and stored – especially for hyper-marginalised groups – as well as how data is analysed and used.

The key suggestion made by the panellists was to work with existing support groups that are either in the country or the region. Networks such as women’s rights groups, disabled people’s organisations, or LGBTQIA+ groups already contain a wealth of knowledge and strong social networks that can identify those most in need whilst doing it in a safe manner. The caveat is that these groups are typically underfunded and work with limited resources. However, this avenue presents an opportunity for the shelter sector to work with and support local-level actors whilst driving a more inclusive humanitarian response to ensure that no one gets left behind.


More details on the 28th UK Shelter Forum (including videos of several sessions) can be found here: https://www.shelterforum.info/uk-shelter-forum-28-climate-change/

Cholera in Ukraine: propagating disaster-disease myths

Joshua Anthony30 June 2022

Author: Gina Charnley


Since the beginning of the Russian invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, there has been widespread suffering felt by the Ukrainian people. Media reports have rightly presented the truly tragic situation in Ukraine, along with several accounts of the strength of the Ukrainian people to support each other and their country.

On 17th May, WHO Europe held a news briefing on the health situation in Ukraine, which was posted on Twitter. The 20-minute briefing covered a number of health topics, with a brief mention that the deteriorating sanitary conditions in Ukraine poses a risk of cholera and that provisions of oral cholera vaccines had been stockpiled. In early June 2022, several large newspapers and media outlets wrote articles in relation to this including NBC News, the Washington Post, and CNN, to name a few.

The articles all follow a similar narrative that an increasing number of corpses and sewage are contaminating drinking water in Ukraine which could lead to cholera outbreaks. These reports are problematic and, in some instances, scientifically flawed. The WHO briefing gives no mention to dead bodies causing disease and this disaster myth has been dispelled time and time again by those working in disaster research and medicine1-3.

Diseases do not appear from nowhere and unless the deceased had an infectious disease at the time of death, the body will not contaminate the environment or cause a disease outbreak. Similarly, if sanitary conditions break down, disease will only spread if the sewage was from people who were infected or carrying a water-borne disease.

Cholera is not endemic in any European nation, due to the general widespread access to sanitation and hygiene and of the few cases that are reported, these are from travellers returning from endemic countries. For example, in 2016-18 there were 66 cases of cholera in EU/EEA countries, all of which had travel history to cholera-affected countries.

In 2011, Ukraine experienced a small cholera outbreak in Mariupol, which resulted in 33 reported cases and 26 carriers being identified. Despite this, the strain which caused the outbreak was most closely related to Haiti, Nepal, and India, with strong evidence suggesting the cause as an introduction from South Asia through associated travel. International travel to and from Ukraine is not something that Ukrainians are likely to do at the present time, therefore removing this risk.

Dissimilar to many other diseases, cholera predominantly infects humans. It does not have large animal reservoirs which can cause spill-over, and despite environmental reservoirs being possible (especially with brackish water and the presence of crustaceans), there is little evidence of a long-term environmental reservoir for cholera. Due to the characteristics of cholera, for an outbreak to occur, sustained environmental contamination is needed.

Major outbreaks have been reported in several conflict-affected countries in 2021 and 2022, including Afghanistan, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Ethiopia, and Nigeria. The difference though between these countries and Ukraine is that cholera was already endemic, and risk factors and vulnerabilities were worsened by the conflict, allowing the pathogen to spread. If cholera was to arise in Ukraine, an introduction would have to occur, which from previous outbreaks is most likely to come from international troops or humanitarians, not from Ukrainian fatalities of the war.

The most prominent example of this danger is arguably Haiti. In February 2010, a 7.0 magnitude earthquake hit Haiti and a cholera outbreak followed, which lasted nearly a decade. Haiti was a non-endemic country and many people were naive to the disease. Without any immunity, mortality was very high, and created one of the most deadly cholera outbreaks ever recorded, which could be the case if a Ukrainian outbreak was to happen. Despite the common narrative, the Haitian outbreak was not caused by the earthquake or dead bodies, but instead an introduction from UN peacekeepers which contaminated the local water sources. The truth took far too long to surface and compensation for this is still being sought by the Haitian people.

The hope, regardless of any report, is that the Ukrainian people do not suffer any more than they have already. The greatest tragedy in terms of corpses is the deprivation of the Ukrainian people to body identification and dignified burial of their loved-ones, and the importance of providing them with the basic human right of water, sanitation, and hygiene.

Propagating the dead body-disease disaster myth is dangerous, it shifts the responsibility of action and in some cases blame, naming it as an act of fate outside anyone’s control, instead of a risk that can be managed. Disease mitigation is important, including learning from previous mistakes (like those seen in Haiti) and planning for outbreaks (vaccine stockpiling). Writing reports on simple speculation though is not helpful and the focus should instead be on the current health threats affecting Ukrainians. Presently, sexual violence and mental health are serious threats in Ukraine and more needs to be done as the repercussions of these health crises will likely be felt for decades to come, increasing morbidity and straining the healthcare system as it tries to recover.


Gina is a Research Postgraduate at Imperial College London and is funded by the Natural Environmental Research Council | g.charnley19@imperial.ac.uk


  1. Morgan O. Infectious disease risks from dead bodies following natural disasters. Revista panamericana de salud pública. 2004;15:307-12.
  2. De Goyet CD. Stop propagating disaster myths. Disaster Prevention and Management: An International Journal. 2000.
  3. Morgan O, Ville de Goyet CD. Dispelling disaster myths about dead bodies and disease: the role of scientific evidence and the media. Revista Panamericana de Salud Pú 2005;18:33-6.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Humanitarian shelter and climate change: Is the shelter sector ready?

Mhari Gordon23 June 2022

Mhari Gordon is an IRDR PhD Student.


The ‘Climate Charter’ (launched in May 2021) was clear that the humanitarian sector needed to help people whilst being a part of the climate solution and increase its environmental sustainability. One year on, more than 200 organisations have signed the Charter, including several members of the Strategic Advisory Group of the Global Shelter Cluster. But is the humanitarian shelter sector ready? Welcome to the big question discussed at the 28th UK Shelter Forum (UKSF), co-hosted by Amelia Rule from the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC) and Victoria Maynard from University College London’s Institute for Risk and Disaster Reduction (UCL IRDR) in May 2022.

The talk of climate change and response has been ongoing for decades, as noted by UKSF speakers and attendees. However, the scope and way climate change is spoken about has evolved. As observed by Lizzie Babisterit is no longer one person in the corner talking about climate change – it is everyone”. Climate change is taking centre stage in all discourses within the humanitarian sector – as it should do – and appears to have become a driving force in breaking down the silos which have long existed between organisations and clusters (i.e., shelter, WASH, health). But what has become evident is that the shelter sector, like others, is not yet ready to be a part of the climate solution. So, what needs to be done?

Why must the Shelter Sector get ‘ready’?

Photo: Tilly Alcayna from RCRC Climate Centre. Photo by Ilan Kelman.

The 28th UKSF kicked off with two Keynote Presentations by Tilly Alcayna from RCRC Climate Centre and Paul Knox Clark from ADAPT Initiative.  Alcayna spoke of historical carbon emissions and responsibility for the climate crisis – how the vast majority lies with the US, Europe and the Global North. Even today, one American on average consumes as much as fifty Ethiopians. Therefore, reducing emissions needs to be targeted at those with excessive consumption, not the types of shelters provided to people in need. Alcayna emphasised that shelter and settlement types need to be chosen based on their suitability for the living conditions, including weather events and extreme temperature variations (the likes of up to 50’C surface temperatures), as well as health, wellbeing, and access to livelihood. Moving forwards more should be learnt from nature-based solutions, such as biomimicry and regenerative-by-design building. Also, research needs to identify current practices which are flexible, local, and adaptable that could be applied more widely. Alcayna urged for acting now with speed, scale, and scope, as ultimately, “the health of humans relies on the health of the planet”.

Photo: Paul Knox Clark from ADAPT Initiative. Photo by Ilan Kelman.

Knox Clark followed by painting the dreary picture of the climate breakdown, those who are and will be affected, and the subsequent challenges to the humanitarian system. Knox Clark stated, “We are now in an environment no human being has ever experienced before… For humanitarians, the consequences will be particularly stark”. He explained that humanitarians are responding to events which now have faster onsets, such as tropical storms that have developed in 24 hours instead of 72, as well as ‘new’ disasters such as extreme heat, wildfires, and glacial melting events. So, what does this mean for shelter? Knox Clark called for a fundamental shift in response. The humanitarian challenge is on the scale of disasters and migration, nature being less predictable with new types of crises and complexity, and contexts with higher levels of vulnerability, degraded environments, and increased securitization and domestic focus. Knox Clark advocated that the way forward for shelter is transformation via anticipatory actions, partnerships and collaborations, and supplies (materials, logistics, and skills) being much closer to the site of events. He argued that the sector has had a poor record of change, but to get ‘ready’ it needs to become more adept at responding to the changing conditions.

How can the Shelter Sector get ‘ready’? Which practices and policies?

In the final session, chaired by Charles Parrack, participants reflected on what the shelter sector needs to do to get ready. There were discussions on whether it is fair and acceptable to focus on carbon in the responses that support people who have made relatively insignificant contributions to causing the climate breakdown. Amelia Rule argued that the whole process from humanitarian organisations and their response should be looked at, not just the carbon emissions of the end-product provided to people in need. Especially as many countries who currently, and are most likely to, require humanitarian assistance have already met their carbon emissions and climate change targets. Magnus Wolfe Murray remarked that there are opportunities in well thought out, low carbon approaches for shelter and settlement responses. Such as solar panels that provide renewable energy and can unlock carbon credits and funding. This type of win-win scenario is the way forwards. However, the rationale must be rooted in meeting humanitarian needs while minimising local environmental impacts, rather than reducing carbon emissions of people in need. A current challenge for the sector is how these strategies can be scaled up and made more accessible, as well as sharing lessons learnt and good practices.

Discussions also centred around the need for greater emphasis on taking people’s needs and wants into account throughout shelter responses. Lizzie Babister shared that “the answers are with the communities that we work with.”. Humanitarians should focus on being facilitators and “need to get used to being a minor partner – be humble” as reflected by Jim Robinson. Many panellists and attendees were of the opinion that the phrases “Greening the Response” and ‘Shelter and Climate Change’ should be dropped and that the new focus be on ‘Climate and Shelter Justice’. A climate justice and people-centred approach can present opportunities for the shelter sector to improve collaborations; it can breakdown the silos across clusters, create partnerships, and potentially pull larger funds for both climate change and humanitarian work.

Phil Duloy concluded the day by giving credit to the hosts, presenters, and participants at the UKSF, as he highlighted that the discussions that take place here drive and improve the policies seen in the succeeding years. The shelter sector may not yet be ‘ready’ to be a part of the climate solution. However, it is evident from the 28th UKSF that there is neither lack of motivation and drive from the individuals who work in the sector, nor lack of thoughtful, brilliant strategies and roadmaps to get ready.


More details on the 28th UKSF (including videos of several sessions) can be found here: https://www.shelterforum.info/uk-shelter-forum-28-climate-change/

Photo: UK Shelter Forum. Photo by Ilan Kelman

 

Ahead of the IRDR 2022 Annual Conference: A Recap from Last Year

Joshua Anthony14 June 2022

The IRDR Annual Conference 2022 is nearly upon us, in which experts will tackle the issue of how global climate change is acting as a threat multiplier, accelerating and intensifying hazard risks, and how we can navigate the future following on from the 26th UN Climate Change Conference of the Parties (COP26) meeting in Glasgow this year.

As we move forward it’s important to maintain the lessons of the past. Lest we forget them; here, we take a look back at the final item from last year’s annual conference, which saw the launch of the UCL Warning Research Centre among expert discussion of Why Warnings Matter.

The rapporteurs whose notes form this material are Calum MacKay and Simone Phillips, who are both from the University of Glasgow on the MSc Earth Futures Programme. Any mistakes or misrepresentation of the participants’ words are the author’s own.


Part 4

Panel Discussion: Warnings for Organizations

Presenters

Catia Guimares, InterContinental Hotels Group

Emily Hough, Crisis Response Journal

Andy Marshall, AstraZeneca

Jeremy Reynolds, London Fire Brigade

Moderator: Dr Gianluca Pescaroli, UCL


What are warnings for you? Based on your experience, are they linked with sustainability?

Andy Marshall

Warnings are split into three levels: strategic, enterprise, and individual. For this question, one can look at the strategic level. COVID-19 showed us that there exists some break in the communication link between those providing warnings and those on the receiving end, which should be the focus of upcoming research. Bad things will happen, and warnings for them will come quickly, so it is important that communication and action are both effective.

Catia Guimares

Realistically thinking, companies need to prioritize their attention, and it can be difficult to determine what a warning is and when it requires attention. However, the indicators of risk are usually visible to those involved, and it is not often that an emerging issue is brought to the table. There is the question of sustainability and viability, or long-term viability of a company, with climate change impacts for example. A warning is essentially a heads up, but warnings are often disregarded as unimportant. Therefore, it is important to know as much as possible about the risks involved and what can be done about them.

Emily Hough

Warnings are indicators of an issue, which if one acts early enough can lead to a crisis being averted or mitigated. They start small, usually as instinctual signs that everything is not quite right, which is why people are at the center of warnings. Any community or organisation’s risk comes down to people and how aware they are of risks. It is unfortunate that good warnings, ones that lead to averting a crisis, are not given the attention they deserve, and people should talk more about the positives. Things like misinformation, trust issues, and the human psyche of clinging to the safe and familiar or wanting to make the world fit their expectations can all play a part in warnings being ignored. Sustainability is enmeshed within this and resilience. People want to thrive and live-in security and peace, and organisations want to continue working as they have been. Everything is interconnected, warnings, people, sustainability, etc.

Jeremy Reynolds

Warnings are formally driven by risk, and we see that by organisations being responsible for specific risks. However, warnings are complicated, and everyone has responsibility in protecting the public, with individual organisations sharing information and helping with communication. It is important that we make sure the public are aware of risks, what their options are and what responders are doing in terms of formal work around EWS and paying attention to informal indicators. Processes are only as good as the people using them, so there is a large human element with responders, as well as public judgement, paying attention and responding by everyone involved. Sustainability is certainly linked to resilience, and they may even be interchangeable in this field. A big challenge now is how to integrate longer-term warnings and response vs. resilience is where a lot of work is being focused now.

Do global warnings exist? What are their limitations and strengths?

Andy

COVID-19 and the WHO are classic global warnings. The issues here were around the flow of information and the efficacy of response to these warnings. Gathering information and being better at collating that on a global level requires more attention. Even at a low level, community-based incidents can overwhelm information systems, meaning this is quite a significant undertaking on a global scale, and turning that information into intelligence as quickly as possible takes a lot of intervention. Responders and crisis managers receiving such information should ask themselves “So what?”, as in what does this mean and what do I need to do about it? Furthermore, experience has a great impact on how individuals and organisations respond to a warning.

Catia

Not sure if global warnings do exist. There are warnings for different parts of the world and global events, but there does not seem to ever be a single warning that goes out to the entire world at the same time for the same level of impact. Even the pandemic snowballed then moved. It was not entirely global to begin with and the exact impact for each region could not be predicted. There is so much information involved in these types of events that intelligence is very important for making decisions based on what is happening at the time. It is human nature to ignore anything that is too complex, and we tend to focus on what is in front of us and of immediate concern. This pandemic was not the big one that had been predicted, so are we better or worse off now that we have this experience? As everything is interconnected, the big risks involve multiple crises, like the social and economic impacts of the pandemic.

Emily

Going back to the definition of warnings, there are lots of signs of impending doom, certainly in the case of COVID-19there were lots of warnings. But maybe we have too many warnings which results in warning fatigue, or them not being listened to or listened to in the right way. Over time, people become comfortable with the situation, even when a warning has been issued. It may initially cause people, responders as well as individuals in the public, to prepare but when nothing happens their alertness decreases, and they become complacent. Each person has their own unique risk fingerprint, made up from their experiences, perception, culture, and understanding which help them to process warnings and filter them into their own intelligence. But trust is difficult to secure when it comes to warnings. Both people and organisations often do not want to be given a warning about something that has not yet happened, so one problem is convincing people that there will be issues and that warnings can help them to become more aware of the risk.

Jeremy

Yes, global warnings do exist but with limited efficacy. Things like climate change or financial disruption to the system and Covid can have massive impacts and need global responses; however, individuals can be overwhelmed by information so they often look to more local/national leaders for guidance on how much attention they should give to these risks. There is a need to assess what the scale of the risk is, its potential impact and how to prioritise it, and perspective as well as context are important to keep in mind. For warnings and alerts, there is a spectrum of recency, or prioritising immediate response instead of big issues and longer term thinking and there is a need to deal with information, and misinformation, to bring out the truth while creating reassurance for the public. And it is difficult to marry immediate action for longer term warnings, like those around climate change for instance.

Are organisations effectively integrating warnings into operational practices?

Andy

No. There is a lot of work for organisations to do with warnings, including learning to get the right information to the right people at the right time with the right understanding. There needs to be more conversation around what they should do with warnings and why they should be a priority among everything else that could impact them. Furthermore, research should be done around organisational behaviour and why individuals do or do not share information that could be perceived as bad news either to their immediate boss or to management above and around them. It seems warnings often get distorted because the message is overly managed. Furthermore, the private sector has a role to play in response to significant risk and their role in collective response to warnings should be recognised.

Catia

Hindsight is 2020. When something happens, companies tend to learn from that pain point. Many companies have restructured due to the pandemic to become more flexible for future proofing, but people also play a huge part in this and the culture of companies needs to change in general. Many look at short and long term issues separately, wanting to know what needs to be handled now and told when future ones require immediate attention. Big issues like climate change and cyber issues cannot be ignored and companies need to start dealing with them now before they become even bigger. Integrating warnings as a way of ‘bouncing back’ is problematic because it implies they have learned nothing, and this experience and warnings should instead be integrated into daily work and culture as a way of improving resilience.

Emily

The topic of not wanting to deliver bad news is an important one, especially since one department’s warning or threat could be an opportunity for another. But you need to recognise them first, identify indicators with seriousness in order to look at both sides of the coin. Some organisations do and some do not. The blackouts in Texas were an example of many obvious warnings about the need to winterise energy production and distribution being ignored. It is about pragmatism and leadership and creating systems in which it is second nature for everyone to look out for the little things that are not quite right, report them and feel confident that those reports will be taken seriously.

Jeremy

Being more willing to report bad news can lead to assessments of what the potential and scale of the risk are and where it sits in terms of priorities. Organisations and societies are complex, so when emergencies and crises happen we should look into if it was due to a failure of warnings or responsiveness to them but while bearing in mind the human aspect of it all. We should identify how we can make sure to respond early enough to contain an issue, or even turn the warning into opportunities to come into a new normal. Public and private sectors should be responding collectively and openly communicating since everyone has a part to play in response to warnings, making it a whole of society approach.

How do we build societal trust in warning systems and how can we be sure that we also reach small and medium enterprises or the humanitarian sector?

Jeremy

Keeping a single point of truth and being clear about what we do not know are important. Responders in the public and private sectors need to work together and ensure that they are not contradicting each other. More work can be done in this arena but locally, regionally, and in central governments, having dialogue with businesses is important because they are part of the community.

Emily

SMEs and microbusinesses tend to be overlooked in response to crises and government planning. However, they also tend to be extremely resilient because they are operating at peak stress all the time and thus require adaptability. They often have to think about the “What if?” question at the center of operations to go along with Andy’s “So what?” question. One size does not fit all for businesses so more creative engagement is needed to make sure everyone’s involved in warnings.

Catia

It is all a learning experience. Instead of putting all responsibility on the public sector, we could lean toward private sector businesses of all sizes sharing resources and working together to make the industry more resilient. One example is how the tourism industry pulled together during the pandemic. People have a lot to share and learn from each other so it would be helpful to focus on that.


Andy Marshall brings around 20 years experience of work in business continuity and wider crisis management and resilience activity in all different forms, military, public and private sector resilience, including five years in business continuity and crisis management with Rolls Royce prior to joining AstraZeneca’s team.

Catia Guimares is the director for global resilience for IHG hotels and resorts and has been with IHG for 10 years. Catia is responsible for crisis management, business continuity, ERM, and strategic resilience, including long term risk management or future proofing future issues from an enterprise perspective.

Emily Hough is the founder and editor of Crisis Response Journal, a publication that looks at all aspects of the disaster and crisis cycle from a multidisciplinary perspective with the goal of bringing forward perspectives that would not traditionally be considered disaster related so that disciplines can learn from one another. There are many areas around disaster and warning mentioned in this conference that need to be explored more. For CRJ, the goal is to stand back and get an overall impression of the whole picture and try to extrapolate possible connections between events, risks, major crises and thereby hope to predict trends and future hazards, through the expertise of an advisory panel.

Jeremy Reynolds works for the London Resilience Group, which is hosted by the London Fire Brigade, which has the role of supporting the work of London Resilience Partnership in preparing and responding to emergencies. That partnership is made up of around 200 organisations and includes category 1 and 2 responders. Jeremy is one of the deputy heads in that team and is responsible for work relating to risk, including being chair to the risk advisory group. Jeremy is also a part-time PhD student at UCL working on organisational resilience and adaptation.


Don’t forget, last time we presented Dr Oliver Morgan and Dr Gail Carson in conversation with Andrew Revkin, discussing global public health in the COVID-19 pandemic.

Watch the full conference on youtube here!

Conference URL:

https://www.ucl.ac.uk/risk-disaster-reduction/events/2021/jun/ucl-irdr-11th-annual-conference-why-warnings-matter-and-ucl-warning-research-centre

Conference Rapporteurs: Simone Phillips and Calum Mackay

Conference Convener: Dr. Carina Fearnley


Please email us for any further information at IRDR-comms@ucl.ac.uk

Or check out our website: https://www.ucl.ac.uk/risk-disaster-reduction/

Institute for Risk and Disaster Reduction (IRDR), University College London (UCL)

Gower Street, London WC1E 6BT, United Kingdom (UK)

Shelter and Climate Change: The Humanitarian Institute Evening Conference

Evie Lunn8 June 2022

Evie Lunn is a BSc student at IRDR.


This event, chaired by Lisa Guppy, explored whether humanitarian organisations are ready to be part of the solution to the climate crisis. The key debate was how to provide timely and principled assistance with minimal environmental impact. By bringing together panellists from a diverse range of humanitarian backgrounds, this event provided a forum where two crucial questions could be answered – does the shelter sector have the will and capacity to be part of the solution? And, more importantly, is the sector even prepared to respond to the impending shifts in climate?

Aditya Bahadur opened the discussion by identifying the key shifts that the shelter sector will have to contend with. Although it is no secret that extreme climate-related events are on the rise, it is also important to acknowledge that these events are increasingly occurring both simultaneously and across boundaries. Due to urbanisation and the hyper-densification of our social and economic networks, disturbance in one place can lead to disaster in another – creating a ripple effect of crises. One way Bahadur suggested that the sector should address these shifts was by reforming data collection and planning approaches. Existing methods of data collection have severe issues with certainty and specificity, and a fresh perspective on big data could form the basis for a more effective approach. Bahadur also suggested bridging the disconnect between local and national response and focusing more on adaptive management rather than hard infrastructure. Local, regional and national approaches need to be scaled-up and brought together, particularly regarding municipal planning which needs to be much more informed by residents in informal settlements. Streamlining humanitarian finance is essential if these novel approaches are to be tested and implemented successfully.

The next speaker was Amelia Rule, who emphasised the need to unravel the narrative that high-tech innovation is the solution to shelter challenges. Instead, we should look to what already works in the shelter sector – such as hosting, which has already played an immensely important part in the ongoing Ukrainian crisis. Focus on high-tech innovation often overlooks scale, suitability and adaptability in local contexts. While Rule acknowledged that innovation is important, she emphasised that the solution is to build on pre-existing expertise. Problems with shelter must be looked at contextually; there is no clear-cut, ‘one-size-fits-all’ solution that can be applied in all contexts across the globe. Rule also dismissed the prevailing sentiment that migration is inherently negative; the benefits of migration and hosting need to be promoted. Hence, migration must be reframed as a sustainable and even desirable method of coping with climate change rather than a last resort.

Magnus Wolfe Murray (left) and Kate Crawford (right) at the HI Evening Conference. Photo by Ilan Kelman.

Magnus Wolfe Murray was incredibly strong in his conviction that the shelter sector is woefully underprepared to cope with the changing climate. Some of the complications he discussed included the difficulty in determining when a person has migrated for climate-related reasons, given there are often multiple intersecting factors involved. For instance, a person may claim that they migrated for economic reasons because they could not find work where they lived. But upon closer inspection, it may become clear that they migrated for climate-related reasons because drought prevented them from earning an income via their agricultural work. Wolfe Murray also argued that while there is increasing talk about adapting the shelter sector for climate change, there is not enough preparation being undertaken in the field. Material supply chains, particularly regarding bamboo, are currently very weak and resources are being used in a way that is not sustainable, even in communities where humanitarian support is present. It has become undeniable that environment and landscape management are intrinsically intertwined with individuals’ homes and the shelter sector. Thereby, these two cannot be separated or viewed as a dichotomy.

The final speaker, Kate Crawford, built on arguments from the panellists and described how built infrastructures embed systems of privilege and bypass. She primarily discussed difficulties with investment in the shelter sector, including finding ways to get money to flow to risky projects. There is almost always a web of invisible confidence-inducing assurances that are at play when investors decide to spend money on shelter. The important distinction is that it is not risk that investors have a problem with, but rather unquantified risk. If we could measure how effective different shelter solutions are in an objective and quantifiable way, then investors would be more willing to commit funds to the cause. Crawford also suggested looking internally for solutions rather than always focussing our attention overseas. Measuring and retrofitting housing in the UK, for example, can be very beneficial for improving shelter policy and infrastructure.

The event concluded with a Q&A. Several questions from the audience asked whether there are any positive shifts in thinking when it comes to shelter-related solutions to climate change, and if humanitarian actors are ready to make this a priority. Panellists suggested that half the battle is for humanitarian actors to be reflective of their impact on the environment and hold themselves accountable, and we are already beginning to see this. However, there is not much evidence of sustainable solutions currently being employed at scale. Rule suggested there is also a risk that ‘greening’ the response is a tick-box, performative exercise that does not actually translate into real change. The humanitarian community needs to work together to have a collective front, rather than applying for different funding opportunities and experimenting with solutions in a competitive manner. The will for change is there, even if we are not seeing this change being enacted on a large scale. Despite Wolfe Murray’s concern about the scale of seismic change that is approaching, and the unprecedented migrant crisis that will most likely follow, he still believes there is reason for hope. An example he gave was the great success in restoring fertility to the Loess Plateau in China. This shows that the tragedies which arise from climate change are not inevitable and there are models that already exist which can rehabilitate damaged eco-systems. Overall, the shelter sector is not yet ready for the challenges ahead, but if the humanitarian community works together to overcome these issues, then perhaps the future will not be as bleak as our panellists have predicted. It was evident from discussions amongst the panellists and attendees that systematic change and transformation is possible if we act together, and we act now.

The event was live-streamed and you can watch the video here on the Institute for Risk and Disaster Reduction YouTube channel.


Evie Lunn is a BSc student at IRDR. Contact at: evie.lunn.21@ucl.ac.uk

Refuge and Asylum: An obligation rather than beneficence!

Savin Bansal17 May 2022

Refuge and Asylum: An obligation rather than beneficence!

Time to shed insouciance and prevarication

Globally, over 80 million people are displaced forcibly to escape violence, conflict, persecution, deprivation and human-rights abuse as of 2020 end. They are now refugees, asylum-seekers, or internally-displaced who yearn for protection, safety and dignified existence.

Owing to dramatic spikes in inequities, disruptive-technologies, political-disorder and vulnerabilities, the risk landscape is becoming complex and protracted leading to the displaced’ figures getting doubled since 2012.

Besides, the policy inaction towards carbon-emissions reduction is poised to set-off distress migration of climate-refugees from SIDS (Small-Island-Developing-States) and mainland-coasts.

Essentially a developing world crisis, every four-in-five of displaced are hosted in low-and-middle-income-countries and every two of three refugees hail from just five countries (Syria, Venezuela, Afghanistan, South Sudan and Myanmar).

While the 1951 Refugee Convention and its 1967 Protocol guarantees asylum as a right, the reprehensible pushbacks at the borders, forced-expulsions, tactical obfuscations in resettlement and local-integration, persistently subvert asylum obligations, endanger lives and ethical integrity.

The 2015 Europe-migrant crisis across Aegean-Mediterranean seas, continuing 2017 US-Latin America border standoff and 2021 Belarus-EU disgrace serve as blatant violations of the ‘non-Refoulement’ principle and ‘Global Compact on Refugees’. This fuels makeshift squalid-settlements, health-disasters, regional disharmony, lawlessness, social injustice and savagery across the borders.

Rather than only a humanitarian crisis, this is fundamentally a socio-economic-political disaster. By 2030, up to two-thirds of the global extreme poor will be living in FCV (Fragility-Conflict-Violence) settings, driving 80% of humanitarian needs. Without intensified action, global poverty goals will not be met. The intergenerational human- capital losses shall dent victim’s lifetime productivity and socioeconomic mobility.

Framing refugees into national development planning rather than relegating as separate populations would aid shedding statistical darkness. Early detection of fragility in FCV economies, and reinforced engagements among humanitarian- development-peace partners are critical to stimulate stability, conflict de- escalation and support social safety nets.

Overall, reconciling to the right to refuge-asylum cannot be shunted or prevaricated. It’s high time to institute adequate reception conditions, expeditious asylum rights determination, integrative assimilation and dignified voluntary returns, in particular by the Global North. The bottom line is that the victims risked by life-threatening environs don’t deserve the gratuitous procrastination and shrewd craft.


Savin Bansal is an Indian civil servant (Indian Administrative Service), Uttarakhand Cadre and presently pursuing Masters in Risk, Disaster and Resilience at Institute of Risk and Disaster Reduction, University College London on Commonwealth Scholarship (FCDO, Govt. of United Kingdom)

He has served the Government as a field administrator, public policy practitioner and Disaster-Climate Risk Manager.

The Kedarnath Tragedy: Breakdown or Breakthrough?

Joshua Anthony1 April 2022

Author: Savin Bansal


The cataclysmic ‘Kedarnath tragedy’ of June 2013, triggered by overwhelming flash-floods and landslides in Uttarakhand, the Greater Himalayan State of India, instigated losses worth US$ 1billion, mortality at a gory high of 5000 and led to an equal number still being reported as missing. The destruction of critical infrastructure left several lakhs of pilgrims and tourists stranded for several weeks together.

The region has been long fraught with frequent, severe and uncertain onslaught of geophysical and hydrometeorological hazards, is seismically dynamic, afflicted with climatic extremes and is witness to the growing human-environment interactions. Though the moderate magnitude events probably have become a reality in the region, the 2013 hydrometeorological extreme remains unique in terms of the historic trends and exceedance probability.

The monsoon in June 2013 arrived almost two weeks earlier than expected. The torrential cloudbursts and massive Glacial Lake Outburst Floods (GLOF) resulted in a sudden swelling of the Mandakini, Alakananda, Bhagirathi and Kali river basins. Being a renowned pilgrimage and eco-tourism circuit in India, the region saw the disaster coinciding with the peak congregation, affecting more than 900,000 lives and precipitating grave infrastructure failure in just over three days. The towns of Kedarnath, Rambara and Gaurikund dotted along the Mandakini valley bore the maximum brunt.

The aftermath rendered the key public assets and critical infrastructure dysfunctional, and the exigent business processes compromised. The ravaged quintessential schools-hospitals, buckled highways and bridges, wrecked civic service delivery systems, snapped telecommunication networks, and incapacitated fire and emergency operation services only amplified the atrocious impacts. This not only compromised the relief-rescue operations but severely subdued the coping capacity of the community.

Chinks in the Armour

Many victims had misled themselves to cascading floods and landslips, several children and elderly to trauma and injuries, with others succumbing to lost will and hope. The disquieting spectacle of vanished settlements, frenzied victims and bewildered response put up a horrendous spectacle to behold. In retrospect, the delayed response and resource sub-optimization are attributed to the iniquitously deficient Risk Management framework detailed as:

Imperception of the significance the resilience holds for critical infrastructural systems:

The colossal impact was strikingly disproportionate to the infrastructure resilience levels, adaptation and coping capacities of the communities. Ironically, it took a catastrophe of such a stupendous magnitude to realise the growing reliance of society upon interconnected functional nodes and closely coupled systems. The setbacks on such systems empowered vulnerabilities to generate escalation points that spawned devastating cascades further to propagate through socio-economic systems.

Information asymmetry and risk communication deficit:

The small-scale pre-disaster (preparedness phase) knowledge sharing and generalized oblivion about risk perception and assessment among the emergency response agencies, media, volunteers, and local inhabitants denied the potential victims an opportunity to take informed decisions to protect themselves.

Inconsiderate of known-knowns:

Lack of preparedness, scenario planning, functional disaster management and resilience plans, decentralized resource inventories and inept Emergency Operation Centres accentuated the vulnerability and limited the Hazard risk-vulnerability-analysis (HRVA) capability. The underdeveloped forecasting and early warning systems subdued the evacuation mechanisms and alert protocols further.

Benighted and at odds with the idea of inter-agency coordination and collaboration:

The existence of multiple information flowlines and command structures only rendered the response entities confounded and aid agencies disoriented. It proliferated the unverifiable inputs and compromised priority sequencing. The squandering of initial golden hours of search-rescue owed itself substantially to this fallacy.

Joint Rapid Damage and Needs Assessment

The multi-sectoral damage and needs assessment carried out by the Government in collaboration with the multilateral development institutions (the World Bank and Asian Development Bank) laid the framework for stimulating major policy shift to proactive risk management besides sustainable recovery and reconstruction.

Massive investment mix in the form of IDA (International Development Assistance) and federal assistance were deployed for Risk Reduction Investments in (i) multi-hazard resilient assets such as strategic roads and bridges, public schools, and hospitals, (ii) augmenting emergency response capacities through provisioning of modern search-rescue equipment and training, (iii) bolstering hydro-meteorological network and Early Warning Systems (EWS), (iv) establishment of a risk assessment-modelling framework and a geospatial decision support system, (v) and institutionalising the Uttarakhand State Disaster Management Authority (USDMA) to operate and function in conformance with the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction (2015-30). 

Lessons Learned

Eventually, taking the event in its stride, the State has literally risen from the ashes by drawing on the lessons learned in its wake. The pace of recovery and policy instruments deployed have been exemplary. The Risk Management framework developed is espoused as a best-practice model and now serves as a blueprint for other state entities and the neighbouring Himalayan nations.

Being at the core of economy, critical infrastructure was duly recognised as the central factor in enabling labour productivity, redistributive justice and serving our most basic needs to assuring a decent quality of life. Any disruptions therein are a drag on economies that disconcert communities through denting households’ consumption, well-being, and the productivity.

Hence, the formal mechanisms to appraise the cost-benefit ratio of ex-ante policy measures do exist now insomuch as critical asset resilience is concerned. This assumes substance in the context of minimizing the recurrent disruptive shocks on infrastructure and livelihoods, and averting the prohibitively high ex-post reconstruction cost. A pre-emptive investment in more resilient infrastructure is clearly a cost-effective and robust choice, the net result of which is a $4 in benefit for each dollar invested in resilience.

Furthermore, the policy commitments for increased resource allocation towards disaster-climate risk mitigation, reinforced multi-hazard Early Warning Systems, fully equipped District Emergency Operation centres and risk informed development planning are a reality of the day.

In addition, Incident Response System (IRS), a structured framework that enhances interoperability and behaviour coordination under multi-layered team settings is integrated well into the Emergency Response model of the State. It has proved to be critical in stimulating calibrated response to critical events all this while by bringing the disparate units together to share resources, authority and knowledge.

Conclusion

Overall, every time such low probability tail events fleet past us, they never fail to encourage adopting a paradigm shift in the ways we perceive, respond and live through the hazards. Parting ways with the reactive emergency response regime shall require mainstreaming the Disaster-Risk Reduction into development plans, policy and investments. The bottom line is that the victims endangered by life threatening exigencies don’t deserve such gratuitous procrastination and inefficiencies.


Savin Bansal is an Indian civil servant (Indian Administrative Service) and presently pursuing a Master’s degree in Risk, Disaster and Resilience at IRDR, University College London. Serving the Government of Uttarakhand, India, as an administrator and public policy practitioner, he has an extensive experience in Disaster-Climate risk management domain as a decision-maker and leading multilateral development projects.

Contribute to the discussion: savin.bansal.21@ucl.ac.uk

Disclaimer: The views and perceptions expressed are in personal capacity and can’t in anyway be construed as that of the Government of Uttarakhand, Government of India or the University College London.


 

The Disaster of War

David Alexander17 March 2022

Bombs bursting on the Fortress of St. Malo, France, 1944. Photo from Lee Miller.

By convention, when we study disasters we exclude warfare. It is not easy to find a completely logical reason for this. It is more a matter of convenience and a feeling that to conflate the two phenomena would lead to problems because not all generalisations about the one are applicable to the other. At the same time, there is always the basic truth that war is a disaster in its own right because of the casualties, suffering and destruction that it causes. Moreover, as we are seeing in Ukraine and surrounding countries, it is all too often accompanied by a major humanitarian emergency.

In recent years there has been increasing interest in trying to understand the intersectionality between war and other forms of disaster. The other forms are natural hazard impacts (please do not call them ‘natural disasters’ as they, too, are largely the result of human agency), technological failures, social movements (riots, crowd crushes, unplanned mass migrations, etc.), intentional disasters (essentially terrorism) and composite events. Such is the complexity of modern life that the last of these categories predominates. We live in networked societies and disasters tend to be events with cascading consequences.

In recent days, vast numbers of women, children and the elderly have crossed international boundaries as they have fled the fighting in Ukraine in what has become Europe’s fastest mass migration since the 1940s. As a result, we have a humanitarian emergency that encompasses primarily Ukraine itself and six countries on its western borders but potentially the whole of Europe. In Ukraine the challenge is to provide basic necessities under highly dangerous conditions and via an infrastructure that is becoming more and more damaged and fragmentary. Outside Ukraine it is a matter of accommodating hundreds of thousands of refugees, most of whom come from families that have been split up by the war.

Gone are the times when war was fought on a battlefield between assembled armies. There is no room any more for a Napoleon or a Wellington. In modern warfare everyone and everything is a target. Grain, fertiliser, gas, oil and minerals are casualties as well as people, and so are those who depend on these commodities and are deprived by shortage or rising prices from accessing them.

In a world that faces grim challenges in dealing with climate change, ecological catastrophe, loss of the carrying capacity of the land and problems with the vulnerability of technology, the last thing we need is a major war. Nothing can compensate for the loss of life and destruction of people’s living conditions that it causes, but it may yet accelerate the transition towards more sustainable consumption and more rational ways of living. Amid the lies and manipulations that lie behind the aggression, there is also solidarity and rationality. Let us hope that in spite of everything these admirable qualities will prevail. We need them so that we can confront the next disaster.


David Alexander is Professor in UCL’s Institute for Risk and Disaster Reduction. He is a citizen of Britain and Italy.