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The Search for a Natural River

By Joshua Anthony, on 27 January 2023

Following the UK’s exit from the European Union, the legacy leftover from the EU’s Water Framework and Flood Directives, which jointly encourage sustainable management of flood risk, lives on. The UK has seen a number of similar national policy frameworks implemented aiming to reduce flood risk while improving water quality and biodiversity, with over 100 river restoration projects seen in London alone between 2000 and 2019. Most of these efforts are geared towards sustainability in the face of climate change, but, with regards to the long-term, the river itself is often left out of the plans.

The historic human efforts to manage rivers have been progressively called into question over their sustained maintenance costs and an incongruity with environmental and ecological health. An alternative solution is to renaturalise and restore natural processes—reconnecting rivers with their floodplains, reintroducing wild species, run-off targeted tree planting—but this would also be to submit to a changing and dynamic landscape. Rivers can change course—sometimes very suddenly—or silt-up and become unnavigable. True sustainability should therefore account for the long term changes of rivers, but these changes are rarely accounted for in flood risk management policy. As Andrew Revkin asks: “sustain what?”

The problem with “natural”

The problem is partially semantical. The terms renaturalisation, restoration, and rewilding carry with them the image of an implied prior state or a “Lost Paradise”. Ironically, it is precisely the long legacy of human engineering, which some modern schemes are trying to reverse, that denies us the knowledge of a natural state; it is difficult to look into the past, when the waters are so muddied by our imprint. As a result, our ability to assess the future impact of renaturalisation is equally hindered. 

Arguably nowhere in the UK is this problem illustrated better than in the Somerset Levels, which as far back as the roman occupation of Britain has seen artificial drainage and reclamation in order to take advantage of its pastoral and arable potential. At present, the flat, largely reclaimed floodplain relies heavily on a vast network of excavated drainage ditches (rhynes in the local vernacular), sluice gates (clyces), and pumping stations that push the water through the highly banked and augmented river channels; a £100 million tidal barrier has just been approved on the River Parrett, while existing rivers continue to be enlarged to carry extra flood water. Clearly, it is hard to imagine what natural means in this context.

A clyce (sluice gate) in Highbridge that stops in the inflow of tidal water.

Seeing Into the Past

Fortunately, remnants of abandoned rivers—palaeochannels—that have long since stopped flowing through the Levels litter its landscape and offer a glimpse into the past. There are numerous examples of such ancient rivers still visible on the Somerset landscape today, which often surface during high flood stages, but are now easily identifiable with the advent of Light Detection and Ranging (LiDAR) technology, which provides high-resolution elevation data. Palaeochannels have been of interest to researchers in this area because they reveal historic drainage patterns, showing in which direction rivers used to flow before being redirected or abandoned long ago.

Where archaeological records are unavailable—often early in or before human occupation—the reasons for change are less clear. Were the causes human made, or related to a historical climatic shift? And could this inform the way we plan rivers today? To find out more, it is necessary to dig deeper into the landscape. 

The Somerset Levels have experienced their own fair share of devastating floods and are intensely embroiled in the debate between hard engineering measures and natural flood management, which has previously culminated in fierce criticism of the Environment Agency for not carrying out regular dredging. This image reveals an ancient river channel emerging from the flood waters of 2013/2014 around Burrowbridge, Somerset.

Seeing Beneath the Surface

Beneath the sediment that buries them are rivers preserved from a past time. Within the sediment is contained information from the processes and conditions that presided over the river’s eventual abandonment. Here we can see the geometry of the river and look for signs of erosion and migration, and indicators for the causes of abandonment.

A seismic refraction survey conducted in the Somerset Levels.

To overcome the logical problem of seeing buried features, geophysical methods offer a quick and non-invasive way of imaging the subsurface. By applying a force to the ground and measuring a response from beneath, a model of the rivers can be produced. These methods have been tested extensively by scientists for many years in a variety of environments, including floodplain sediments, and are in the UK probably most famously associated with Time Team’s “geofizz”, due to their strong archaeological applications. 

This research uses a combination of electrical resistivity, seismic refraction, and ground penetrating radar methods to image the buried cross-section of ancient rivers. In this way, the river acts as an archaeological feature for investigating the past, and is hoped to provide reference states for river systems that have existed prior to and throughout different periods of human occupation. Surveys have been completed on two sites on either side of the River Parrett, clearly showing the extent of the historical river systems. More are to follow at different sites across the Somerset Levels. 

Imagery of a buried channel as depicted by measurements of resistivity to an electrical current.

Glimpsing into the past of ancient river systems could help in planning for the future development of renaturalised rivers, by exploring scenarios where the measures that humans (and rivers) have grown accustomed to are absent. It may be that, like a river, management plans must be dynamic and adaptable to natural change; otherwise, a one-size-fits-all approach to sustainability is bound to become unsustainable.


To find out more about this project, email me at joshua.anthony.19@ucl.ac.uk

Josh Anthony is a PhD Candidate at IRDR and Editor of the IRDR blog.

Finding Mosquitoes!

By a.aldosery, on 12 December 2022

Aisha Aldosery


Mosquitos are a fundamental part of testing the novel idea of my PhD, which focuses on developing intervention tools to support developing an early warning system to control the mosquito, thus, combatting mosquito-borne diseases. However, with the COVID-19 pandemic, it was quite hard to fly to Brazil, considered one of the Latin American countries that was hit hard by mosquito-borne disease and has a strong program for mosquito surveillance. Therefore, conducting my fieldwork in a different location was more feasible, such as the Portuguese island of Madeira, located in the northeastern Atlantic Ocean, 900 km from mainland Portugal. A volcanic and subtropical island which seems like a perfect location for mosquitoes, it introduced an efficient program in 2005 focusing on mosquito surveillance. Four field trips have been conducted since November 2021 with Patty Kostkova, my primary supervisor, to achieve my project’s overarching goal. We worked together in designing and presenting several workshops on Madeira mobile app surveillance with the local environmental agents, as well as deploying several devices in the fields for environmental monitoring.

Trip One – Mosquito Ovitrap IOT-based System pilot system.

This trip was the first to Madeira after the COVID-19 pandemic; the trip was in late October 2021 and lasted for about three weeks. The main objectives of my first fieldwork trip (three weeks) were to establish a new collaboration with people from ITI / LARSyS, introduce and discuss my PhD idea with the team, and lastly, build a prototype version of the proposed system. Although the trip was considered short, we achieved a significant project milestone. During this trip, we started by calibrating the water sensors, building the IoT-based unit and deploying the prototype version of the MOISS system to understand how various weather and water parameters influence mosquito breeding and habitat favouring. The first version of the system has been deployed and running since November 2021 at the Natural History Museum of Funchal on Madeira Island. All timely data collected in the field by the sensors, such as the air temperature, humidity, pressure, water temperature, pH, DO, and conductivity, will be used along with the entomological data collected by the environmental agents to design and build a model to provide us with a better understanding of the mosquito’s development and presence.

Deployment of the first version of the MOISS system at the Natural History Museum.

The hardware component of the MOISS system.                                                          

Trip Two – Introducing Madeira Mosquito Surveillance App 

This trip was mainly about the project’s second component, which is about designing a mosquito surveillance app based on the local settings to be adopted by the environmental agents during their routine visits to the mosquito traps. To achieve that, establishing another collaboration with the local health sector is essential. The trip includes a couple of meetings and a workshop:

  • Meetings with Dr Bruna Ornelas de Gouveia, Regional Directorate of Health in Madeira Island, to discuss and design the collaboration protocol with the UCL IRDR Centre for Digital Public Health in Emergencies (dPHE). The collaboration entitles us to pilot our app on the island and gives us access to historical mosquito density data.
  • Meeting with the technical and GIS team, who showed us the mosquito data, hotspot maps and the effective strategies adopted by the local government to control mosquitoes across the island (https://www.iasaude.pt/Mosquito/ ).
  • We ran the first workshop with the environmental agents to introduce the idea of the surveillance app and how it could positively affect their work. During this workshop, we presented some showcases from our Brazilian project (Belmont) and a prototype of the Madeira app. The agents demonstrated different scenarios that could happen on the ground and what actions needed to be considered in each scenario. Finally, we had an interactive session, a very productive session that helped us understand the local settings in different conditions.

Environmental agents, after completing the surveillance app workshop.

Trip Three – Mosquito Ovitrap IOT-based System (MOISS) Large Deployment.

The third fieldwork was the most significant and challenging trip as many milestones needed to be completed, including the IoT-based system units implementation and deployment, along with a lot of logical preparation. Yet, it was one of the most exciting trips to see the theories and paper design coming true. This trip was from July to the beginning of August 2022 (four weeks). The focus of this trip was the MOISS system. During this trip, we calibrated and tested 60 water sensors in a week period, which required specific weather conditions. Then, two engineers from ITI / LARSyS and I assembled 17 system units in a week, including the testing and debugging of each unit. The conducted lab testing was quite challenging, resulting in several issues, including problems with the manufactured IoT shield, slow network connections, power, etc. We ended up with 13 devices deployed across the capital of the Island, Funchal. The decision about how many devices and where to deploy them was collaborative work with environmental agents and the technical team to select suitable study sites based on several criteria, including technical, logistic and mosquito data. The locations include schools, hospitals, one university, the port, and a private building.

Assembly and testing phase of MOISS units at the lab.

MOISS system deployment.

Trip Four – Madeira Mosquito Surveillance App Piloting Workshop

The last trip of this year (September 2022) was a four-day trip for Madeira. The main objective of this trip was to run a three-hour workshop with the environmental agents to show them the first completed developed version of the app, which is designed and implemented based on the requirements collected in the first workshop (second trip). Patty and I gave the agents technical support to install, operate and test the app for about two hours. After that, we had a one-hour interactive session to collect their inputs, which will help us improve the app and develop another sufficient version. The agents were delighted with the mosquito surveillance app and were excited about the next phase, piloting the app for several months.

During this trip, the project gained the attention and interest of local Madeira TV, which was there during the workshop and interviewed Prof Patty Kostkova.

Patty Kostkova interviewed on Telejornal Madeira. Click image to open video (interview at 18:15-20:40).

We are currently looking for funding to develop and deploy the mosquito surveillance mobile app and collect data on a large scale. Finally, although each trip had its challenge, some went differently than we had planned and expected. I have learned much beyond my research scope and gained knowledge on project management and building collaboration. Many thanks to Patty for accompanying me in each project phase and trip to support me in moving the project forward. We had a great time enjoying the weather, and more significantly, we managed to deploy our IoT system and pilot the surveillance app.

Acknowledgements

Trip one was fully funded by the UCL Institution of Risk and Disaster Reduction (IRDR); trip two was fully funded by UCL Mathematical and Physical Science Faculty, PhD Students Travel Grant; trip three was mainly funded by the  UCL IRDR Centre for Digital Public Health in Emergencies (dPHE) and partially by the UCL Institution of Risk and Disaster Reduction (IRDR); trip four was fully funded by my PhD sponsor, King Abdulaziz City for Science and Technology, Saudi Arabia.

A big thanks and appreciation to our IRDR Finance team for their significant support which played a crucial role in helping me while preparing my PhD project. Special thanks to Matthew Lee for his outstanding support in managing equipment quotes and dealing with orders.


Aisha Aldosery is currently a doctoral candidate at the UCL IRDR Centre for Digital Public Health in Emergencies at University College London. She is also a researcher at King Abdulaziz City for Science and Technology (KACST), Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. She earned her master’s degree in Software System Engineering from UCL. Her broad research areas are software engineering and the Applied Internet of Things. She is particularly interested in designing and developing digital health intervention tools such as surveillance and early warning systems. She is also interested in designing environmental IoT-based sensor devices and analysing sensor data using machine learning methodologies. The focus of Aisha’s PhD research project is investigating mobile apps, the Internet of Things (IoT) and sensing technologies for predicting mosquito populations to combat vector-borne diseases – a pertinent global issue with global research significance.

Is Legislation Useful for Disaster Risk Reduction?

By Jesús Garrido Manrique, on 28 November 2022

From when we are born until we die most of our daily activities are controlled by different norms, such as civil registration, house buying/letting, mortgages, work contracts, inheritances. We know that if we do not respect the law we will be faced with criminal or civil penalties. Hence, we act accordingly. Could you imagine a real, rather than an ideal, society without laws? Despite the importance of laws and regulations, experts and organisations without a legal background do not usually think about them in the context of Disaster Risk Reduction (DRR). In my experience, they usually tend to hide from laws and regulations. They simply pay attention to technical standards and guidelines.

Environmental legislation usually involves the legal framework for mitigating natural hazards through sectoral legislation in areas such as land, water and coastal management, civil protection or public works and the provision of housing. Legislation could regulate the uncontrolled growth of cities through a land act, which it is usually something that governs the different tools for land use planning. In hazard-prone areas, prohibitions, restrictions, or recommendations could be used. Environmental legislation deals with strategic environmental assessments, which evaluate the plans (for instance, a flood risk management plan or local hazard regulation plans). Meanwhile, a civil protection act regulates different disaster risk reduction actions to be taken before, during and after a potential or actual harmful event. Compulsory building codes or antiseismic norms also contribute to the mitigation of disasters. Legislation establishes a network of procedures and mechanisms for cooperation and collaboration among different institutions so that disaster risk management is gradually adopted through laws and regulations, as is the case in some countries.[1]

Non-structural measures such as legislation and land use planning are some of the most cost-effective DRR tools. They can mitigate or minimise, or even avoid, socio-economic losses related to natural hazards before destructive events happen. Unfortunately, civil protection is usually focused on short-term horizons during and after disaster instead of becoming a cornerstone of long-term actions before the disaster in the fields of prevention and prediction. “It is better to be safe than sorry”, but politicians or planners engaged in disaster risk management (DRM) probably prefer a “safe bet” by spending money in the short term in early warning, response and recovery of a real disaster instead of “wasting money” in prevention and mitigation of future adverse events. Local governments are usually more concerned about making money through construction permissions than in ensuring safety. DRM fails if risk reduction legislation is not enacted and enforced.

Does smart legislation ensure better DRR?

Not necessarily: compliance with laws and regulations is usually low. Although DRR mechanisms may be treated as compulsory in some national or local systems, institutions tend not to enforce them. For instance, flood hazard and risk maps have been established by EU countries after the enactment of Directive 2007/60/EC on the assessment and management of flood risks. Such maps should be considered in local planning, but local authorities do not usually use them to establish land use in relation to the level of hazard, even when flood hazard and risk maps are freely available.

In Spain, according to civil protection legislation, local emergency plans that focus on earthquake, flood and volcanic hazards have been compulsory since the 1990s. However, most municipalities still have no civil protection plans. The Lorca earthquake of 2011 killed nine people, but the earthquake hazard map was blamed instead of the lack of compliance with the seismic building code. The La Palma eruption of 2021 affected more than 1500 houses, but the volcano was treated as the only guilty party, even though some houses were built too close to the ravines in which the lava flowed. For public administrations it is easier to blame scientists or practitioners than recognise their own faults.

In the last century, some natural disasters were considered to be “acts of God”. Currently, climate change is blamed. The authorities are not assuming their own responsibilities and thus, when disaster strikes, all citizens pay for their lack of responsibility.

Barriers to DRR legislation

When dealing with DRR, it is not easy to find the right mix of legislation. Scattered sectoral legislation tends to become lost in this complex legal labyrinth. Conflicts of competency and jurisdiction are particularly common in countries with decentralised administrations. In many cases, methodologies and return periods for hazard and risk maps have not usually been established using appropriate technical standards and guidelines. Unfortunately, cooperation and coordination among different stakeholders do not have a history of effective achievements.

While the legislation is the means, planning is the outcome. Even the presence of compulsory laws and regulations does not guarantee that land use and hazard maps will be effective. Lack of instruments to systematically monitor compliance with legislation, for instance in urban planning, means that it is difficult to assess the proportion of local plans that fail to respect the law. Hazard-prone areas should be classified as rural land instead of developable land, or at least some land uses should be avoided, or some restrictions or recommendations should be considered according to the level of hazard. However, it is difficult to tell whether planning institutions really proceed according to the law. On the other hand, hazard maps to be expressly used for zoning should be created by means of the economic resources of governmental institutions (and probably at a small scale). However, they tend to be created using private resources and at larger scales. In the first instance, DRR legislation is mainly designed to be enforced by public administrations, but prevention is usually transferred to individual stakeholders.

Natural hazards maps are not cheap to make or easy to create. Hence, shortage of economic funds and a deficit of well-prepared human resources constitute more barriers to DRR. However, in my opinion, the lack of accountability of decision makers is the most important barrier. In their own businesses they probably employ a precautionary approach (much as environmental legislation does), but they avoid it in public affairs.

Incompatibility of different land-use planning systems and tools is something that adds difficulties to disaster risk management.

Legislation and the Sendai Framework for DRR

The importance of legislation was underlined in the Hyogo Framework for Action, which focused on the enactment of dedicated DRM laws. The Sendai Framework goes further by promoting the coherence of the entire national legal and policy framework.[2]

All priorities for action (PFAs) of the Sendai Framework for DRR need to be rooted in legislation. In particular, to achieve PFA 2 at the national and local levels, it is important to integrate DRR into national and local frameworks of laws, regulations and public policies by developing new laws or amending existing legislation. There is a need to allocate necessary resources and establish mechanisms to ensure compliance. On the other hand, land-use planning has been considered as a vital means to achieve PFA 2 (from local to global levels) and PFA 3 (at national and local levels).

References to different relationships among policies, strategies and plans can be found throughout the Sendai Framework for DRR. They should lead to normative tools.


References

  1. Garrido, J. and Saunders, W.S.A. (2019). Disaster Risk Reduction and Land Use Planning: Opportunities to Improve Practice. In: Shakoor, A., Cato, K. (eds) IAEG/AEG Annual Meeting Proceedings, San Francisco, California, 2018 – Volume 5. Springer, Cham. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-319-93136-4_20.
  2. IFRC and UNDP (2015). Handbook on Law and Disaster Risk Reduction. International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies and United Nations Development Programme: Geneva, Switzerland. p 76.

Acknowledgments

I gratefully acknowledge discussions with Prof. David Alexander. Thanks for his kind and helpful revision.


Jesús Garrido Manrique is a visiting researcher at IRDR, analysing the application of legislation in urban planning for disaster risk reduction. He is a Lecturer in the Department of Civil Engineering at the University of Granada, Spain, and is the Head of World Geologist NGO (Andalusia Branch), working in DRR and water supply projects in Central America.

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

Pushing the Boundaries in Disaster Studies: Reflections from the NEEDS 2022 PhD Workshop

By Mhari Gordon, on 14 November 2022

Mhari Gordon is a PhD student at UCL-IRDR.

This blog was jointly posted with RADIX and COPE.


This month, November 2022, I was fortunate enough to attend and present at the Northern European Emergency and Disaster Studies (NEEDS) Conference as well as participate in the preceding PhD workshop. The PhD workshop was run over a day and a half by Emmanuel Raju, Ksenia Chmutina, and JC Gaillard and attended by 18 PhD students. The workshop was a fantastic experience and great opportunity to meet enthusiastic disaster scholars.

NEEDS PhD Workshop participants, facilitators, and guests. Photo credit: Ksenia Chmutina (original photo link).

The workshop kicked off with an activity mapping how our PhD research topics connected in terms of key concepts, methodologies, research subjects or objects, and geographical locations. Despite diversity in our research orientations and backgrounds, the mapping exercise highlighted overlaps. For example, many of our studies focus on groups which are under-represented individuals in disaster studies, such as genders beyond the binary, learning challenges, youth, and refugees. We also noticed a trend in using methodologies which sit more on the mixed and qualitative methods side, moving away from large-scale approaches observed in quantitative methods.

Moreover, we recognised and spoke about our experiences of using concepts such as vulnerability, resilience, and intersectionality. Terms which were originally critical ‘western’ concepts that have now turned into mainstream buzzwords and act as blanket and uniform (or universalism) approaches in disaster studies. There is a tension between reclaiming the true heterogeneous nature of such concepts, but also debating the need to move beyond them. Such concepts may not have the same meanings, or even exist, in all cultures and languages. New disaster studies need to be more reflective and critical by expanding out of the previous siloing and labelling as well as welcoming the diversity of cultural contexts. This led to us reflecting on our positionality in studying disasters and how to navigate this in terms of methodologies and sharing our messages with audiences. During the afternoon sessions, we started asking questions such as why is the research being done and who will benefit? We then analysed and critiqued a more extensive set of questions which is outlined in the RADIX Disaster Studies Accord (link).

The second morning was dedicated to publishing in disaster journals. The workshop facilitators and guests, including Christine Eriksen, Rodrigo Mena, Eefje Hendriks, and Ricardo Fuentealba, shared valuable and practical advice. The two key takeaways from the morning were to consider 1) the editors of a journal and 2) the format of publication. As authors of academic publications, we need to critically consider how we can best present and do justice to the messages that we are sharing. This may be in the likes of keeping parts of the text in the original language so that the local context and meaning are not lost in translation or interpreted with western-academic terms and norms. Or the likes of different formats to the standard academic paper such as a comic strip – which will be included in an upcoming issue of the Disaster Prevention and Management Journal (journal link).

The advice shared with the PhD students for publishing in Disaster journals was:

Ask colleagues and mentors about their experiences with different journals and seek their advice on which journal they think is most suitable for our manuscript.

Read the scope of the journal and if there is still uncertainty about whether our manuscript’s topic fits, then send an email to the editor(s) asking for their advice before formally submitting.

Look at which journals our citations and references, as well as scholars with similar research interests, have published in. This will give one an initial indication of the type of work which is accepted by the journal.

Editors can usually tell by the title and first few sentences of the manuscript whether it will be accepted for peer review or not – so our manuscript needs to be convincing from the start.

Do not panic if it is taking a few months between the manuscript being accepted for review and receiving feedback. It can take time to find appropriate and willing reviewers and for them to review the manuscript. There are also unexpected delays or interruptions during this process.

Finally, if the authenticity of the research and manuscript does not match the standardised format but fits within the scope of a journal, then we should not hesitate to contact the editor(s) to see if they are willing and able to find a creative solution!

Overall, the key message from the PhD workshop was to keep pushing the boundaries of disaster studies, in terms of concepts, methodologies, and assumptions, as well as how we share our research!

Climate, Disasters, and Displacement: Asia-Pacific Perspectives panel. Presenters for part two (left to right): Mhari Gordon, Sivakamy Thayaalan, Yvonne Su, and Geeta Moni. Photo credit: Mhari Gordon (original photo link).


More information about the NEEDS 2022 conference, including keynotes and panels, can be found at: https://eventsignup.ku.dk/needs2022/conference.

I would like to gratefully acknowledge the UCL Warning Research Centre for funding my PhD study and the UCL Institute for Risk and Disaster Reduction for funding the expenses for me to attend the NEEDS 2022 Conference.

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).

What Do Students of Disaster Research?

By Joshua Anthony, on 12 October 2022

As a trans-disciplinary department, the Institute for Risk and Disaster Reduction (IRDR) fosters disaster-risk research from a variety of perspectives and experience. From previous and ongoing crises to future perils, work done by our staff and students is positioned to respond to the increasing necessity for disaster research imposed by unrelenting exposure to hazards and vulnerabilities. Students attending IRDR learn about these complex interactions and develop the skills needed to assess the many dimensions of disaster. This article presents a short collection of research projects conducted by some of our master’s students.


Evacuation Decision Model of Flood-Affected People in South Kalimantan, Indonesia

Flood is the most prominent hazard in South Kalimantan Province, Indonesia. On January 2021, South Kalimantan suffered from the most severe flood in the last 60 years, which inundated 10 out of 13 regencies/cities in the province. Moreover, the event generated over 100 thousand dollars of economic losses, nearly 80 thousand people affected, and 21 death tolls. As for December 2021, floods hit the province again and impacted several regions. To save more lives in future events, evacuation for people at risk is an important action in the emergency phase. However, evacuation decision-making involves complex variables such as sociodemographic conditions, capacity, risk, as well as warning systems. Therefore, this study aims to identify the significant variables that influence people’s evacuation decision.

This study will focus on two districts, one in Tabuk River District (rural area) and another one in West Banjarmasin District (urban area). The two regions were severely flooded in January and December 2021. Tabuk River District is frequently flooded due to fluvial (river) flooding, while West Banjarmasin District is frequently flooded due to tidal flooding. My data collection method will distribute questionnaires to people in the flood-affected area and data analysis will be conducted using a binomial regression model.

Khonsa Zulfa | khonsa.zulfa.21@ucl.ac.uk


Copula theory with applications to assess flood risk in the Calgary region, Canada

As a geologist, I have always been intrigued by the occurrence of extreme natural phenomena. For that reason I chose for my dissertation project the study area of Canada, and more specifically the region of South Alberta, in Calgary. Canada is a flood prone country, which has faced extreme floods over the years; however, the 2013 flood in southern Alberta was one of the costliest disasters in Canadian history. That being the case, I was really interested in identifying and estimating the potential flood risk in this particular region with the use of the copula theory, which is a statistical method that allows us to consider a number of factors related to flood risk, and then provide the right mitigation measures to tackle this hazard. In that way, we could understand the probability that a flood event of a particular intensity will occur over an extended period, and thus, make the right decisions to protect the general public from an imminent disaster—having always in mind that prevention is better than cure.

Kleoniki Theodoridou | kleoniki.theodoridou.20@alumni.ucl.ac.uk


Agent-Based Tsunami Evacuation Model for Tsunami Risk Assessment in Tanjung Benoa, Bali, Indonesia.

Bali, a world-famous tourist area, is one of Indonesia’s islands prone to megathrust earthquake-generated tsunamis with magnitudes up to M9.0 due to its location on the subduction zone between Eurasia and the Australia plate. Therefore, understanding risk and the ability to evacuate during tsunami is critical and essential to reducing the risk, which is mostly influenced by people-behaviour in decision-making. This study aims to model the tsunami evacuation to analyze the tsunami risk, including casualty estimation and shelter analysis in Tanjung Benoa village, Bali, Indonesia. This study includes tsunami hazard modelling using COMCOT v1.7 software, people-behaviour surveys about tsunami evacuation through questionnaires, and modelling the tsunami evacuation using agent-based model in NetLogo software. The tsunami model shows that the estimated arrival time ranges from 15-20 minutes with 15 meters of maximum tsunami height. Of 300 respondents, the majority (87.7%) will choose to evacuate by foot and the rest (12.3%) by vehicle, with the departure time 5 minutes after the shaking, resulting tsunami evacuation model with a casualty estimation of up to 22.2%. Improving the tsunami preparedness strategies is essential for the stakeholders—especially adding more vertical tsunami shelters, as this study also found that the capacity of the current shelters in Tanjung Benoa is still less than 50% of the total population.

Giovanni Cynthia Pradipta | giovanni.pradipta.21@ucl.ac.uk


How far do India’s Disaster Risk Reduction policies consider the sustainable livelihood needs of tribal women: A case of Keonjhar District, Odisha

In this study, I evaluated whether disaster risk reduction (DRR) policies reduce tribal women’s vulnerability and offer sustainable livelihood options. Moreover, I proposed ways to improve the effectiveness of these policies by identifying their shortcomings. Using a gender lens and Sendai Framework, this study contributes to the literature on the convergence of DRR with the Sustainable Development Goals in the context of the marginalized group of tribal women. Presently we don’t find any DRR policy explicitly addressing this issue of tribal women. Though different Central and State programs for reducing the overall vulnerability of women are in progress. The government is taking a variety of measures and gender-inclusive disaster governance is gradually gaining ground.

Swati Sharma | swati.sharma.21@ucl.ac.uk


The IRDR Master’s Programmes facilitate research in a wide variety of topics.

Thank you to our student contributors,

Joshua Anthony, Editor of IRDR blog.

Joshua.anthony.19@ucl.ac.uk | Please get in contact if you would like to contribute to this blog.

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

By Joshua Anthony, on 24 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

By Victoria Maynard, on 7 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).

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

By Joshua Anthony, on 14 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)