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The double affliction: conflict and natural hazard – the importance of tackling disaster risk amidst insecurity.

Mark Weegmann28 June 2021

This blog is also posted on The Anticipation Hub.

In January 2015, Storm Huda brought heavy snow, torrential downpours, and strong wind across the Levant. For Gaza and the West Bank in occupied Palestinian territories this resulted in the death of three children and one adult, almost 2,000 households newly evacuated or displaced, and extensive damage to fields, greenhouses, and livestock affecting 9,000 farmers (IFCR, 2015). It triggered a state of emergency and an international response effort. Whilst localised damage was reported in Israel, having similar exposure, the scale and impact were not comparable.

Storm water fills the streets of Shati’ Refugee Camp (Beach Camp) in Gaza, where 82,000 refugees are living. (© ICRC / il-e-01841, 2010)

Disasters and conflict

An unhappy confluence exists between states experiencing fragility, conflict, and violence suffering heightened disaster risks from natural hazards. Disaster deaths are 40% higher in these settings (Marktanner, et al., 2015) and they disproportionately rank ‘highly at risk’ to disasters and crises (EC, 2021). This is not surprising given our understanding of the social conditions that contribute to transforming hazard into disaster. Evidence demonstrates how conflict exasperates vulnerabilities, undermines resilience and coping capacities, increases exposure through displacement, and can even heighten hazard risk through environmental degradation (Harris, et al., 2013). The result of this compounding conflict and disaster risk is a concentration and exasperation of human suffering.

By the time Storm Huda reached Palestinian territories, there were still 100,000 people displaced and 18,000 homes destroyed or severely damaged from the outbreak of fighting in Gaza Strip the previous summer (ICRC, 2015). Damage to the energy, water, and sanitation infrastructure meant that much of the area had only partial running water and electricity for parts of the day. When a second winter cold wave hit in February, this had deadly consequences. The use of unsafe heating to stay warm, like open fires or electric heaters, caused a 16-month-old child in Northern Gaza, a 22-year-old mother and her 2-month-old baby in Nablus, and three children of the same family, aged 3, 4 and 15, to die from fires breaking out in residential homes and temporary shelters (UNICEF, 2015).

When an estimated 1.5 billion people today live in fragile and conflict-affected states (EC, n.d.), and 80% of total international humanitarian needs are focused in these areas (World Bank, 2021), disaster research and disaster risk reduction (DRR) efforts must account for this confluence if our efforts towards the sustainable development goals (notable SDG 11) are to be realised. DRR is, however, notably absent in these contexts ($1.30 spent on DRR for every $100 spent on response (Peters & Budimir, 2016)). There is a moral imperative to reduce suffering, operational advantage to decrease costly humanitarian interventions, and practical benefit lessening the humanitarian burden, to develop effective approaches and tools to change this.

Acting early: reducing disaster impacts

Anticipatory Action approaches – defined as “a set of actions taken to prevent or mitigate potential disaster impacts before a shock or before acute impacts are felt. The actions are carried out in anticipation of a hazard impact and based on a prediction of how the event will unfold” (IFRC, 2020. p. 351) – can provide one such tool. It can be useful because it is implemented through humanitarian actors who are already operational within these contexts, target vulnerabilities which are shown to have been exasperated by conflict, and the short lead times of the intervention enable a highly targeted response that alleviate specific needs that have a high probability of occurring (Wagner & Jaime, 2020). Yet, despite some initial pilots, Anticipatory Action is not fully functional in conflict situations yet. Evidence in non-conflict settings demonstrate Anticipatory Action’s ability to reduce operational costs, improve project design, and reduce negative disaster outcomes for affected communities (Weingärtner & Wilkinson, 2019).

Given the low baseline for DRR – including Anticipatory Action – in conflict-affected contexts, there is need to invest in understanding the unique and contextual interactions between disaster and conflict risks, how these inter-relate, and what the consequences are. A key component for implementing Anticipatory Action interventions is to understand not only what the weather will be, but what the weather will do to at-risk communities (Harrowsmith, et al., 2020). This is understanding how hazard, exposure, and vulnerability affect people living in conflict, and in what way the conflict compounds these disaster risks. With this, building blocks for appropriate interventions can be built.

For example, in the West Bank, houses close to the separation wall have experienced frequent flooding during heavy rain due to the wall impeding the proper flow and drainage of the rain. Drainage pipes running under the wall often get blocked but clearing them is often challenging due to access constraints. With advanced forecasts of rainfall, pre-positioning water pumps in these localities could prevent rainwater accumulating and flooding the surrounding homes.

Niger Red Cross implementing early action protocol to successfully reinforce part of the embankment holding back the flooded River Niger (CRN / Red Cross Red Crescent Climate Centre, 2020)

Scaling up Anticipatory Action to conflict-contexts

Understanding these risks exacerbated by conflict is therefore crucial for Anticipatory Action. This research aims to build on the evidence base around the impacts that the double vulnerability has on populations affected by armed conflict (Peters, et al., 2019) by conducting a comprehensive historical review of disaster impacts in conflict affected settings. This is focused on the Palestine and Darfur regions & the three protocol areas of Sudan as case studies. It builds on the ICRC and The Red Cross Red Crescent Climate Centre’s research agenda of Climate and Conflict 2020, and particularly key research questions about Anticipatory Action in situations of conflict (IFRC, 2020).

It seeks to establish a database of the impacts that disasters caused by hydro-meteorological hazards have had in Palestine and Sudan since 2010, understanding 1) who were affected, 2) how they were affected, and 3) in what way the conflict context relates to the disaster impact. This impact analysis is conducted through collating ‘grey literature’ (needs assessments, situational reports, operational updates of humanitarian organisations) supplemented by academic research.

Generating a picture of historical disaster impacts is critical for exploring which Anticipatory Action interventions can reduce the impacts of future disasters. The output will be used to present a scenario of the types of disaster profiles – and their impacts – that these case studies are likely to experience in the future. For this, a review of potential actions will demonstrate how and why certain activities might be relevant. Interviews with practitioners holding expert academic, sectoral, or contextual experience will provide field-based insights. Combined, the challenges of Anticipatory Action in conflict-affected contexts will be explored, along with their opportunities to provide a practical analysis aimed ultimately at improving DRR in states affected by conflict and instability.

This research will feed into wider work being done aimed at reducing disaster risks by using Anticipatory Action in conflict-affected areas. In Palestine, this could mean that the cold waves and heavy rainfall that struck six out of the past ten years, do not consistently result in mass displacement, shelter destruction, injury, and fatality. With three days advanced warning of extreme low-temperatures, the Palestinian Red Crescent Society could distribute winterisation items – like blankets and safe heaters – along with information & educations campaigns as to how to safely heat household to those living in tents and unprotected shelters. As a result, further loss of life could be prevented. Given the recent flare up in violence – damaging an additional 17,000 shelters (2,000 extensively) (OCHA, 2021) – reducing disaster risks remains an imperative.

Palestinian Red Crescent Soceity distributing NFIs to Beouins close to Ramallah (PRCS / IFRC, 2015)

This study is conducted as a Master’s Thesis for the MSc Risk and Disaster Science course at the Institute for Risk and Disaster Reduction, University College London (supervised by Prof Ilan Kelman). It is done in collaboration with the Red Cross Red Crescent Climate Centre (supervised by Catalina Jaime, Climate and Conflict Manager), as a contribution to their work on scaling up Anticipatory Action in conflict-affected contexts. For more information, you can contact Mark Weegmann, graduate student an UCL and Junior Research at the Red Cross Red Crescent Climate Centre.

This work is supported by the Danish Red Cross with funds from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Denmark.

Mutual Aid: Community Power During a Pandemic

Joshua Anthony24 May 2021

In times of crisis, it is common to see the union of communities overcome the unique challenges that each disaster brings. Following the 2015 earthquake in Kathmandu, neighbours and relatives were rescued from building debris by locals immediately on the scene, while others set up temporary shelters for those in need. Independent tech-wizards during the 2010 wildfires in Russian built an online ‘help-map’ which pin-pointed danger zones and platformed aid-requests and -offers during the event. Most notably reported by the media, the Occupy Sandy group, which emerged in response to 2012’s Hurricane Sandy, could boast an impressive twenty thousand meals a day delivered to those in need.

Now, as the world collectively lives out a disaster, through the course of which its citizens have been told to socially distance and clinically vulnerable individuals advised to stay indoors at all costs—even for shopping and pharmacy visits—it is now that the power of and need for community action has become increasingly evident.

Figure 1. “In this together.” Marked under CC0 1.0. (Creative commons licence)

23rd March, 2020, British Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, announced the start of England’s first nationwide lockdown. By the next day, NHS England had launched their “rallying the troops” campaign, urging the English people to help their neighbours and families who were shielding with medication pick-ups, hospital visits and over-the-phone support. Such a call-out from the national healthcare service suggests it is ordinary people who are acknowledged to hold the power to tackle these wide and unique circumstances. Short of a Braveheart-esque ignition of national pride, one can commend the efforts of NHS to recognise and utilise the dormant community resources—but Community had already gotten there.

As early as the 12th March—before Matt Hancock’s address to parliament on the 16th March advising people to reduce “unnecessary” social contact—locally-led, self-described “Mutual Aid” support groups had begun to form across London. They offered a wide range of assistance for everyday needs such as grocery shopping, medication pick-up, and providing information and advice, and emotional support; and more bespoke aid was provided, including: technological repairs, online ordering, facemask distribution and flower deliveries—though, this list is surely not exhaustive.

By the sheer speed and timely nature of this community action, one is left wondering whether inadequacies within the institutional emergency response frameworks are what spurs communities on to take the direct action seen here.

Previous research shows that the emergence of new crisis response groups, the “emergent group” is the result of fresh challenges for which adequate facility to resolve them is not present or immediately available within existing institutions. In many disasters, this is a common feature that occurs at the early stages of the disaster cycle [1]. Uniquely, it appears as though some mutual aid groups, which in line with the emergent group research, formed at the beginning of the pandemic in March, 2020, have either maintained support or reactivated as the situation progressed and further lockdowns were imposed. This sustained activity is indicative of an environment whereby the needs of society have been continually supplemented throughout the crises by the work of grassroots groups.

To facilitate their operations, mutual aid volunteers were making posters, leafleting, researching information, translating, coordinating other volunteers, managing community finance pools and running phone-in services. And though there was some seeming structure of administration and coordination, an important principle that underpins much of these groups’ organisation was that they were non-hierarchical, independent and self-organising. More generally:

Mutual Aid as a mode of organisation refers to a horizontally structured relationship between voluntary participants from which help or aid are available mutually and free-of-charge between parties, at each’s own discretion, in the face of adversity—most commonly a shared one— unsanctioned by an overriding authority.” [2]

Figure 2. Mutual Aid finds it roots in Peter Kropotkin’s “Mutual Aid: A Factor of Evolution”, exploring concepts of mutually beneficial cooperation within societies. The text is widely cited within anarchist literature. “Mutual Aid Mural” by eshutt is licensed with CC BY-SA 2.0

Groups existed at the Borough scale down through the town, ward and even residential building level, with each scale of locality maintaining independence through to the volunteers themselves (see Figure 3 for a schematic diagram). Each group was unique: some welcoming new members immediately, while others were more guarded and required postcodes and reasons for joining; some had clearer organisational structures with dedicated officers and coordinators; group admins contacted for questionnaires surveys varied in their willingness to allow researchers access to the groups, some feeling a duty of care towards their group members. Responses have helped shed some light on common themes of organisation and activity between groups [2], but it is their anarchistic and amorphous nature, which makes them so hard to track and study, that could be their key strength in fighting an emerging and changing situation such as the COVID-19 pandemic.

Figure 3. Chain of Mutual Aid group formation displaying spontaneous formation at all geographical levels, Borough, Ward and Neighbourhood, with horizontal autonomy at each group level down to individual volunteers [2].

Despite a rich history of such emergent groups surfacing during disasters worldwide, no provisions in recent British pandemic-influenza response plans were made to include such groups. Though unfortunate, this is not surprising when observing the UK emergency response framework, which operates largely under a command and control structure [3], and is incongruent with the non-hierarchical and seemingly counter-establishment structure of mutual aid groups [2]. This is evident in the tensions that have arisen when councils have interfered and ‘micro-managed’ Mutual aid efforts [4].

All emergency response is local in effect, even when filtered through a centralised system: it is those on the ground that sort through the rubble, build the shelters and cook the food, not the ministers and policy makers. Mutual aid groups are no different, except that they have bypassed the centralised aspect of the emergency response chain and affected direct action. Looking at the impact they have had, it would be unwise to suggest that a rational integration of mutual aid groups and institutional emergency response would involve the placing of such groups within a hierarchical chain; rather, those in positions of power should acknowledge the legitimacy of their efforts and empower them through outreach and communication.

Fortunately, reaching out has been made possible through social media platforms such as Facebook and Whatsapp, which have given Mutual Aid groups operational power by allowing both those in need and able to help to communicate and coordinate online. Where the emergence of citizen groups typically relies on prior social networks [5], online networking has facilitated the quick establishment of community ties while also conforming to social distancing guidelines. Additionally, for interested researchers, a surprising benefit of online group presence is that group information and membership numbers were made accessible (in most circumstances), allowing for the gathering and analyses of emergent group data that could otherwise be too transient or chaotic under regular disaster conditions.

Analysis of borough-level mutual aid Facebook groups reveal that membership numbers are somewhat correlated positively with the percentage of those aged 25-34 years of age, and negatively with borough crime rates and the percentage of those classified by Government statistics as BAME (black and minority ethnic) [2]. However; explanations for these results can only be speculative. The National Council for Voluntary Organisations has estimated that the predominant ages of volunteers generally tends to fall within the bracket of 65-74 years of age, while those least likely to volunteer were in the 25-34 bracket; however, the risks posed to the older populations from COVID-19 is likely to have turned this balance on its head. Similarly, research has suggested that ‘BAME’ community members could be at a greater risk to COVID-19 [6], which, alongside key factors such as involvement in key worker jobs and family caring responsibilities, could limit availability for participating in mutual aid group activity.

Other independent Borough socioeconomic factors such as the index for multiple deprivation, household earnings, and internet usage did not produce significant correlations, but the analytical power of the modelling approach is limited by sample size and the informal nature of Mutual Aid groups—especially within a crisis—that makes the navigation of data difficult [2].

Though results are inconclusive and liable to error, current research efforts show that there is opportunity to better understand the phenomena of emergent mutual aid groups, which could enhance the effectiveness of their intentions in future times of turmoil. To these eyes, there are two alternate visions tugging against each other: one, where community power is harnessed and nurtured by emergency planners and institutions; and two, where institutional responses are effective enough to preclude the necessity for citizen action.

One thing this pandemic demonstrates for certain is that the subjects of disaster are not passive recipients of aid and can and have participated in affecting vital response. Time and time again we are reminded that chaos is not an inevitability of hardship, and that, when duty calls, communities have summoned the power that lies dormant beneath their lines in order to tackle catastrophe together.


[1] Twigg, J., & Mosel, I. (2017). Emergent groups and spontaneous volunteers in urban disaster response. Environment and Urbanization, 29(2), 443–458. https://doi.org/10.1177/0956247817721413

[2] Anthony, J. (2020). Modelling the Emergence of Mutual Aid Groups in London (UK) during the 2020 Covid-19 Pandemic.

[3] Alexander, D. E. (2016). How to Write an Emergency Plan (1st ed.). Edinburgh and London: Dunedin Academic Press

[4] Tiratelli, L. & Kaye, S. (2020). Communities vs. Coronavirus. The Rise of Mutual Aid. New Local Government Network

[5] Quarantelli, E. L. (1984). Emergent Citizen Groups in Disaster Preparedness and Recovery Activities. Final Project Report #33, University of Delaware Disaster Research Center. http://udspace.udel.edu/handle/19716/1206

[6] Race Disparity Unit, Cabinet Office (2020).Quarterly report on progress to address COVID-19 health inequalities

Joshua Anthony is Editor of the IRDR Blog and a PhD student within the institute.


Stop The Disaster! IRDR Spring Academy 2021

Joshua Anthony28 April 2021

This article is a summation of points and questions raised by members of the Institute for Disaster Risk Reduction at the 2021 Spring Academy.

The mid-afternoon sunshine passes through my east-facing window and strikes my laptop screen, where the faces of the Institute for Disaster for Risk Reduction shine back at me. It is not mid-afternoon for all: for some, they gather for the annual Spring Academy as the same sun straddles a different horizon. Due to coronavirus restrictions, we gather online, tuning in from around the globe, demonstrating the department’s widespread influence. Through activities organised by both the PhD students and research staff, we are here to engage with the diverse range of expertise in our department.

What can floods tell us about covid-19? Can the unsettling rise of water on the doorsteps of schools and hospitals inform the decisions we make during a pandemic? Using the UNDRR game, Stop the Disaster, as an illustrative tool, Qiushuang Shi and Rob Davis lead us through the process of emergency planning and management to answer these questions.

While some of us struggle to allocate funding for flood defences and deliberate over where to build the hospital in our virtual disaster village, one cannot help noticing the people that populate the little green boxes of grass next to the blue pixels of seawater. How would they respond to an early warning system, and would it work if it were a virus and not flood water knocking at their door?

A snapshot of the UNDRR game Stop the Disaster.

Once the unfortunate villagers are subject to the 8-bit flood water, Rob and Qiushuang move us on to discuss what we have learnt. There is a consensus between us that communication is vital to affect successful disaster risk reduction—across all hazards. No early warning system or public health advice it worth it if the information is not widespread and consistent and the risks properly conveyed; or if there are significant economic, cultural, political or societal conditions—such as gender structures—that inhibit this process or adherence to it. Prior knowledge and experience of a hazard within a society (or lack thereof) is likely to alter the perception of, trust, and response to the message, not to mention the political will to support and fund emergency resources and planning initiatives, which could be assisted by media initiatives.

The visceral threat of quick onset hazards may put the screws on emergency fund release at showtime, but what of slower hazards for which there is ample time to plan? For some in the world, climate change is a distant reality, while for others it is an immediate threat. Uncertainty plays a key role in the way we respond to hazards—in scientific calculations (such as for early warning systems) or in individual perceptions and acceptance of risk.

We can see that, though the propagation and imagery of flood water and coronavirus—or any hazard, for that matter—may differ, there is an unavoidable factor underlying the multitude of research topics across the Institute of Risk and Disaster Reduction’s members: vulnerability. Indeed, the most contrarian of us posit that one could approach disaster risk reduction entirely from a vulnerability perspective. This notion hangs in the balance. We move on to the next stage of the session: multi- and cascading-hazard scenarios

There are places unfortunate enough to be subject to multi-hazard events. Even now, as we live through COVID-19, one member notes, the HIV and AIDs epidemic that gained notoriety in the 1980s still affects millions of people. As we have seen over the past year, floods, forest fires, earthquakes, disease outbreaks—you-name-it—do not rest for each other, and all the while the climate still changes. Mitigation, preparedness and response procedure efforts must consider multi-hazard scenarios, and not be subject to a “flavour-of-the-month” approach to disaster risk reduction. Critical infrastructure may be pliable up to a point and break beyond that threshold. Existing and dormant vulnerabilities may be triggered under cascading disaster scenarios—otherwise interpreted as cascading vulnerabilities—as seen in the infamous triple-front attack on Tohoku in 2011, which manifested in a combination of an earthquake, a tsunami and a nuclear meltdown. The complexities of multi- and cascading-hazard scenarios are vast; one must look for interconnected and parallel vulnerabilities that transect all hazards in order to tackle the challenges. The importance of transdisciplinary research and collaboration of individual expertise are highlighted further by these situations.

Even when two hazards do not strike in unison, emergency planners must consider the impacts of a prior hazard on material and human resources for the next one. Under a changing climate, goalposts shift; resource allocation and size may change, funding options may have to be reconsidered. An example of a way to make use of existing resources in a multi-hazard scenario is suggested in adapting training facilities for one type of hazard to accommodate multiple. As we consider the way planning and management needs are altered in response to multi-hazard and cascading scenarios, one asks a question that should follow all disasters: has the learning come through? In other words, are we more or less resilient now we have experienced the crisis? This is a question one can imagine asking as we optimistically search for a light at the end of the tunnel after over a year of COVID. The darkness associated with the proverbial tunnel is often oversimplified to a period of turmoil before the promise of the light, but one overlooks its poignancy in portraying the struggle that one experiences while operating within the shadow of uncertainty.

As we close the session, the faces of IRDR, hailing from a wide array of different disciplines, stare back expectedly at me for a summary of the session proceedings. Well, here they are. However, it’s made evident—as I scrabble to collate my mish-mash of notes—that one voice solely is not enough to tackle the challenges we attempt to understand here at the IRDR.

Happy (mostly) Faces of IRDR

WHO Classification for Emergency Medical Teams: A Step in the Wrong Direction?

Navonel Glick20 April 2021

National/international medical professionals working together at a clinic in Ormoc, Philippines – a model that is no longer allowed by the current WHO EMT guidelines. Photo Credit: Boaz Arad/IsraAID (2013)

In 2013, Typhoon Haiyan devastated the Philippines and galvanised the international community. Organisations, like the American Red Cross, sent full-scale field hospitals. Others, like IsraAID, despatched medical personnel and supplies, providing surge capacity to local clinics.

Integrating external resources into existing healthcare systems is an effective strategy, with potential long-term benefits. Yet, while such activities may be a model for integrating disaster risk reduction into response, World Health Organization (WHO) guidelines do not permit them.

The WHO classification system was created to counter the variation “in capacities, competencies and adherence to professional ethics” amongst Emergency Medical Teams (EMTs). Each of the three approved EMT types must operate independently and be self-sufficient for 2–4 weeks. This emphasis on independence avoids ‘burdening’ affected populations, but it leaves no room for interventions to support national/local healthcare institutions.

In fact, the WHO’s 91-page document outlining EMT minimum standards contains no reference to existing healthcare systems, let alone strategies for cooperation. This omission perpetuates the myth that ‘helpless’ disaster-affected people need international organisations to ‘save them’, instead of recognising that disaster response is often locally driven. Further, EMTs acting alone face avoidable linguistic, cultural, and logistic obstacles that hamper the quality of care provided. Setting up alternative healthcare locations, pathways, and practices may also sow confusion, thus increasing long-term vulnerability by undermining trust in the healthcare system.

Efforts to standardise EMTs and rout out malpractice and disaster tourism are welcome. But the WHO guidelines sadly disregard successful integrated models, like IsraAID’s, instead promoting foreign intervention over local capacity and prevention. If only the WHO abided by their own Health Emergency and Disaster Risk Management framework.

Using Fault data in seismic hazard and risk assessment: A fault2SHA initiative

Joanna P Faure Walker22 March 2021

Effective fault data presentation helps make progress in the calculation of earthquake hazard and risk. 

Cross-disciplinary working can help progress. For calculating seismic hazard, the Fault2SHA Working Group has brought together data providers, modellers and seismic hazard and risk practitioners to help promote the use of fault data in seismic hazard assessment… Fault2SHA representing fault – to – seismic hazard assessment.

In the case of earthquake hazard and risk calculations, a key barrier to fault-based seismic hazard assessment has been the availability of data in a format that can be easily incorporated into calculations of hazard and risk. This has hindered efforts to provide long-term views of hazard and risk. Long-term, multi-millennia time frames cover several seismic cycles such that the long-term behaviour of faults can be identified and not miss out faults capable of hosting earthquakes which have not ruptured within a short-term observation periods (tens or hundreds of years). A further restriction has been the difficulty for modellers to interrogate the detail and uncertainties in primary data. To address these issues, the Fault2SHA Central Apennines laboratory, led by Dr Joanna Faure Walker (UCL IRDR), has created a database structure demonstrating a usable format by which geologists can present data that can be directly incorporated into hazard and risk calculations. To demonstrate its effectiveness, the laboratory has tested the database to calculate simplified calculations of risk in the Central Apennines and demonstrated the effectiveness, even at a simple level, for identifying which faults threaten the public the most and where additional data would have the most impact on current calculations. It is hoped those working in other regions can help the endeavour of promoting the use of faults in seismic hazard assessment through adopting a similar approach.

This work brings together researchers from different research groups in the UK, Italy and France: Joanna Faure Walker, Paolo Boncio, Bruno Pace, Gerald Roberts, Lucilla Benedetti, Oona Scotti, Francesco Visini, and Laura Peruzza

The two papers are published Scientific Data and Frontiers in Earth Science, while the database is available through PANGAEA.

Fault2SHA Central Apennines Database and structuring active fault data for seismic hazard assessment 

Which Fault Threatens Me Most? Bridging the Gap Between Geologic Data-Providers and Seismic Risk Practitioners

Fault2SHA Central Apennines Database

The Fault2SHA working group runs a monthly online learning series to help cross-disciplinary working and annual workshops.  The learning series and 2020 workshop is available through the Fault2SHA youtube channel. A summary of the database is provided by Joanna at 17 mins into the first session of the Fault2SHA 5th workshop:Promoting Faults in Seismic Hazard Assessment


Three IRDR affiliated papers in on Politics of Disaster Governance

Eija Meriläinen8 January 2021

The open-access journal Politics and Governance came recently out with a 21-paper special issue on Politics of Disaster Governance. The issue provides a wide selection of papers from an overlooked perspective, debating how the formal, the ‘real’ and the invisible governance all contribute to how disasters are addressed (see Hilhorst, Boersma & Raju, 2020). The special issue is also one testimony of the diversity of approaches and researchers at Institute for Risk and Disaster Reduction (IRDR). Altogether three papers and five researchers contributing to the special issue came from our community. In the following, the authors – appearing in the alphabetical order of their last names – introduce their own articles.

Hilhorst, D., Boersma, K., & Raju, E. (2020). Research on Politics of Disaster Risk Governance: Where Are We Headed? Politics and Governance, 8(4), 214–219. https://doi.org/10.17645/pag.v8i4.3843 [editorial of the special issue]

Patrizia Duda, Ilan Kelman and Navonel Click (all IRDR) on their article “Informal Disaster Governance”

In disaster risk reduction and response, too often, local realities and non-formal influences are sidelined or ignored to the extent that disaster governance can be harmed through the efforts to impose formal and/or political structures. A contrasting narrative emphasises so-called bottom-up, local, and/or participatory approaches which we encapsulate as Informal Disaster Governance (IDG). We theorise IDG, situate it within disaster science, and consider its ‘dark sides’. By doing so, we establish the conceptual importance and balance of IDG vis-à-vis FDG, paving the way for a better understanding of the ‘complete’ picture of disaster governance. Empirically, we consider IDG in and for Svalbard in the Arctic, including its handling of the 2020 coronavirus (Covid-19) pandemic, to explore the merits and challenges with shifting the politics of disaster governance towards IDG.

Duda, P. I., Kelman, I., & Glick, N. (2020). Informal Disaster Governance. Politics and Governance, 8(4), 375–385. https://doi.org/10.17645/pag.v8i4.3077

Jessica Field (IRDR) on her article “Caught between Paper Plans and Kashmir Politics: Disaster Governance in Ladakh, India”

This article argues that disaster governance must be considered relationally at a horizontal scale (i.e. relationally between two neighbouring areas) as well as vertically (i.e. a local area in relation to the national level) in order to appreciate the full range of pressures shaping an area’s disaster governance. Using the case study of Ladakh, India, I show how the politics of border security and conflict in neighbouring Kashmir have impacted — and often limited — Ladakh’s disaster governance aspirations. For instance, despite efforts to learn lessons from a cloud burst disaster in 2010, Ladakh remains without an effective Disaster Management Plan and experiences everyday setbacks in improving DRR, partly as a result of the Kashmir conflict’s impact on the economy, communications, and governance of the remote region.

Field, J. (2020). Caught between Paper Plans and Kashmir Politics: Disaster Governance in Ladakh, India. Politics and Governance, 8(4), 355–365. https://doi.org/10.17645/pag.v8i4.3143

Eija Meriläinen (IRDR) together with Jukka Mäkinen and Nikodemus Solitander on their article “Blurred Responsibilities of Disaster Governance: The American Red Cross in the US and Haiti”

This article focuses on private actors involved in disaster governance, arguing that their roles and responsibilities have been insufficiently challenged. In particular, the article politicizes the entangled relations between non-profit organizations, liberal states, and disaster-affected people. To interrogate the justice of disaster governance arrangements, the article builds on a Rawlsian theoretical framework. Following the framework, liberal states have two types of responsibilities in disasters: humanitarian (domestically and abroad) and political (domestically). NPOS are shown to be instrumental in blurring the boundaries between humanitarian and political responsibilities. This might result ultimately in actual vulnerabilities remaining unaddressed.

Meriläinen, E., Mäkinen, J., & Solitander, N. (2020). Blurred Responsibilities of Disaster Governance: The American Red Cross in the US and Haiti. Politics and Governance, 8(4), 331–342. http://dx.doi.org/10.17645/pag.v8i4.3094

Creating a relative suitability score for school buildings as evacuation shelters

Joanna P Faure Walker30 October 2020

A new paper published in Natural Hazards provides a method and worked case study from the Philippines for creating a relative suitability score of school buildings as use for evacuation shelters.

Tsioulou et  al., 2020, A method for determining the suitability of schools as evacuation shelters and aid distribution hubs following disasters: case study from Cagayan de Oro, Philippines

How can we make a decision based on multiple criteria?  How can we take qualitative expert opinions and create a quantitative comparison of the importance of different factors for decision-making?  What factors should be considered when evaluating the relative suitability of different buildings as evacuation shelters?  How can we identify which buildings could benefit most from cost-effective improvements? What do you think about whether school buildings should be used as evacuation shelters?

Alexandra Tsioulou (Willis Tower Watson, formerly UCL IRDR), Joanna Faure Walker (UCL IRDR), Dexter Sumaylo Lo (Xavier University, Cagayan de Oro) and Rebekah Yore (UCL IRDR and Rescue Global), as part of the PRISMH project, carried out expert opinion questionnaires and used the Analytical Hierarchy Process to create weightings of different criteria that should be considered when evaluating the relative suitability of different school buildings as evacuation shelters in Cagayan de Oro, the Philippines. Site surveys were carried out to evaluate the scores for each criteria and these were then combined to provide the relative suitabilities.  The paper provides an example methodology that can be applied elsewhere. The findings will be used to help make local recommendations.

Transforming my M.Sc. Dissertation into a Journal Article

Saqar ' M Al Zaabi2 October 2020

Written by Shamrita Zaman, UCL IRDR M.Sc. student 2018-19

A famous Latin phrase says ‘audentes Fortuna iuvat’. Its English translation is ‘Fortune favours the bold’. People who bravely go after what they want are more successful than those who try to live in the comfort zone. Believing this proverb, I have consistently taken steps towards fulfilling my dreams. A dream of mine was to complete post-graduation from a top-ranked university in the world and make myself presented to the research community. In 2019, I successfully graduated from the UCL Institute for Risk and Disaster Reduction (IRDR) wining the Commonwealth Scholarship, funded by the UK Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office. One of my biggest achievements was my M.Sc. independent project that was later published in the prestigious peer-reviewed International Journal for Disaster Risk Reduction (IJDRR) (IF: 2.896).  Progress, however, was not so easy, and it would have been impossible to fulfil the cherished dream without a dedicated focus on the goal. In this blog, I will discuss how I converted my M.Sc. dissertation into a peer-reviewed article.

Author’s first day at UCL to attend the induction event

My journey with UCL-IRDR began on 26 September 2018 by attending the induction event. Classes, presentations, essay submissions, and attending monthly seminars – all in all, the UCL Journey was going great. From November, Professor Peter Sammonds, IRDR Director, started inviting us to attend the drop-in sessions to choose independent masters project. He was the module tutor for IRDR0012: Risk, Disaster and Resilience M.Sc. Independent Project. He provided a list of more than 50 project topics with potential supervisors. As I was convinced to make myself introduced to the research arena of UCL, I regularly attended his drop-ins and discussed explicitly my ideas with him. I found some thought-provoking topics on disaster and conflict based on the 2017 Rohingya refugee crisis in Bangladesh.

Rohingya refugee crisis was a contemporary topic and yet the most talked about and criticized disaster in the world. Sample descriptions of those topics gave a feeling like interested candidates will acquire a real-world experience on how conflict can make a community more vulnerable to disasters by trapping them in a specific risky area. I then searched the IRDR website and found two ongoing British Academy funded projects on the 2017 Rohingya crisis where Prof Peter was the principal investigator and Dr Bayes Ahmed, Lecturer at the IRDR, was the project manager. It seemed like my chosen M.Sc. topic might partially fulfil the project’s purpose. It is worth mentioning that by joining Professor Ilan Kelman’s module titled IRDR0006: Conflict, Humanitarianism and Disaster Risk Reduction gave me the basics on disaster risk reduction approach for conflict and humanitarian perspectives. Hence, I communicated with Prof Peter and expressed my ultimate impulse to work under his supervision on how Rohingyas are adapting with the shifting paradigm of risks due to natural hazards in the Cox’s Bazar refugee camp in Bangladesh.

After a series of discussions, we decided to go for a structured questionnaire surveying. After two months of non-stop working, the questionnaire was finalized in the last week of March 2019. After pilot testing in the camps, the final survey was conducted in May 2019. Dr Taifur Rahman from HMBD Foundation, a local NGO, assisted and monitored the fieldwork. I prepared the full database and used SPSS software to run statistical analysis (the research methods were taught at IRDR). In the meanwhile, I presented the work in the third annual conference of UK Alliance for Disaster Research (UKADR) at Northumbria University, Newcastle in July 2019. Finally, with some interesting results, I produced the project report and got a distinction in my independent MSc project.

(a) Author presented her poster at the IRDR poster presentation session. (b) Author presented abstract in UKADR conference at Northumbria University.

To satisfy the conditions of the Commonwealth Scholarship, I had to return to my home country after the successful completion of my M.Sc. degree. However, it was easy for me to stop there but I did not. I wholeheartedly believed that the message of this work should reach the scientific community, and publication of this work in a peer-reviewed journal is the best way to do so. I expressed my thoughts to Prof Peter and Dr Bayes, and they were delighted, knowing my interest. Consequently, I was advised to select a best-suited journal for this work and was told to rearrange write-ups as per the journal format. Though my UCL studentship got expired, Prof Peter and Dr Bayes did not stop guiding me, rather their motivational guiding principles are still encouraging me for conducting better works. The article was submitted in IJDRR in December 2019. We were requested for revisions from reviewers in February 2020. At this stage, the work volume increased even more. One of the major revisions was to address refugees’ perceptions applying qualitative research methods. To address this comment, two focus group discussions were conducted in the refugee camp in February 2020, with the presence of Dr Bayes. Rigorous attempts were made to respond to each point raised by the reviewers. Finally, the paper got accepted and published on 22 May 2020.

From M.Sc. project proposal writing to journal publication, the journey was long but enjoyable and memorable. In my case, it took almost one and half year to publish the work which requires an extreme level of patience, planning, self-commitment and continuous guidance. Finally, my realization is that success is only possible if you have the precise mindset to stick behind your goal despite having so many failures and frustrations.

Thanks to UCL IRDR for making this dream comes true!

Imagined ‘Belongingness’ through Culture: Rohingya Journeys of Resilience and Survival in India

Saqar ' M Al Zaabi1 October 2020

Written by Minakshi Rajdev, PhD Candidate at the Centre for Historical Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, India, and Research Assistant on IRDR’s British Academy funded project: “Rohingya Journeys of Violence and Resilience in Bangladesh and its Neighbours

 Arar vatansonaliArakan Ohsunomusalman arar vatansonaliarakan

(Our homeland is the golden Arakan Oh listen Muslims, our homeland is the golden Arakan)

The violent displacement of the Rohingya Muslims from the land of ‘Arakan’ (Rakhine State) in Myanmar engendered their exodus to the neighbouring countries of South Asia, and then to the other parts of the world, often without families. It is in these host environments that survival and resilience-building become a priority, shaped by the shared experiences of pain and violence suffered at the hands of state-sponsored mass persecution and genocide.

What can bolster the spirit of life and humanity amidst traumas of displacement is a sense of imagined ‘belongingness’ to the host country, emanating from shared histories and cultures.

The Rohingya sense of belongingness in India comes from a mix of cultural signifiers, like Urdu (a language of Islam in Myanmar), Sufi heritage, Qawwali and tarana (song) melodies. But also, significantly, Bollywood movies and Hindi songs. Moreover, the presence of a sizeable Muslim population in India, syncretic religious practices, and the democratic set up of the country, evoke a cultural association with India, which can scaffold coping mechanisms for one of the most persecuted minorities of the world.

Rohingya taranas offer opportunities for the refugees to reminisce about their native lands of betel leaves and paddy farms. Moreover, Sufi poetry, widely celebrated in India, has close affinities with the spiritual Rohingya taranas—consolidating the fragments of belongingness between the cultural landscapes of India and Rakhine State.

Abdul1 a 70-year-old refugee who croons spiritual taranas several times a day, shares that he finds solace in the Sufi shrine of Muinuddin Chisti (1143-1236 CE), situated in Ajmer, Rajasthan. When asked about his fondness for taranas, he informed:

Abdul: Yes we had a group in Burma with whom I used to sit and sing taranas in remembrance of Allah.

Interviewer: Do you miss them?

Abdul: Yes. We have similar people in Ajmer (at the shrine of Sufi saint Moinuddin Chishti). I have been to the graves of several revered Sufi saints in India; I visited Ajmer Sharif Dargah, graves of Nizamuddin Aulia, Qutubuddin Bakhityar Kaki, and many other similar Sufi shrines situated in Delhi. [2]

When asked about taranas, his tearful eyes brightened with happiness, and he could not help spontaneously singing a few lines in his strong but melodious voice:

‘ore zaiverhota tutu mohononnai

Oh andergororhota re mohononnai

Ore asamaileazaralaishe tore naikulnivaallai

Zaiver re hota re tutu mohononnai

Oho hoborhota re mohononnai, asamaileazaralaishe…’ [3]

If I have come to the world, I have to leave it one day as well,

Oh god! I don’t know the way that comes to you,

Oh! sometime Azrael [an angel who takes lives] will come to take my life to you,

Oh god! I have come to the world and one day I will come to you,

Now I can’t wait, sometime Azrael will come to take me to you

The Rohingya enjoyment of Indian movies and Bollywood Hindi music carves a sense of esoteric conviviality that ‘India’ offers to them. Hindi singers like Mohammad Rafi, Kishore Kumar, S D Burman, Lata Mangeshkar, are equally exalted by Rohingyas and Indians alike. Similarly, the younger generations that grew up watching Bollywood Hindi movies and idolizing Indian actors picked up a sense of humanity through Bollywood movies, creating an imagined endearment for a land they have never been to. Fayyad, a young Rohingya who ran a studio that screened Bollywood movies in Myanmar, said:

“I have seen in the films that military people help civilians. I have seen humanity through Hindi movies only… I have not seen such things happening in Burma. Military should protect us but instead of that they want to kill us all.” [4]

The young Rohingya generation brought up in turmoil and the under an atmosphere of fear and violence really relate to meanings of humanity and equality from Bollywood cinema. When asked about the reason to come to India as a refugee, Fayyad continued:

“I believed India would be a nice country. I have seen India through Bollywood Cinema, and it inspired my thoughts of coming to India. I knew all the religions are treated equally in this country.” [5]

Many Rohingyas visualise their stay in India as an opportunity to learn Hindi music, which is viewed by them as relatively modern compared to Rohingya music – some learn it with a hope to take the craft back to Rakhine when it is safe to return home. As language is intrinsic to the expression of a culture, Hindi music provides comfort to the refugees; its closeness to Urdu aids the process of coping. When Ali was asked about his preference for singing, he informed:

“Now I have decided to sing Hindi songs. I think Rohingya songs would not work here, and those who know Hindi would like to listen to Hindi songs, even our Maulanas like Hindi songs because they respect Urdu as the language of our faith and Hindi is much closer to it.” [6]

Rohingya attempts at cultural exploration and efforts to make India their home for the time being are reflected in the synchronisation of Rohingya taranas with Hindi Bollywood music—creating a piece of art that has the soul of Rakhine in the body of India. Efforts to remember more than journeys of violence, pain and displacement are audible in these poetic and musical creations, as they express longing for the native land, yet are sung in the language of the host country. For instance, Rohingya performer Jafar Kawish expressed longing for his Rakhine homeland in an Urdu-Hindi song with a composition inspired from old Hindi songs:

Ye jahaan dojakh hai goya, tu hai jannat ai vatan

Hosh udd jata hai mera, Muh ko ata hai jigar

Yaad jab aati hai teri mujh ko surat-i-vatan

 This world [host country] is like hell and you [homeland, Rakhine] are the heaven, oh my beloved country,

I feel shell shocked, and my heart comes to my mouth

Whenever I remember condition of my country [7]

 ‘Imagined belongingness’ became a challenge for many Rohingyas once they reached India, as they have had to grapple with exclusions of the state rather than an abstract idea of belongingness. But the religious commonalities with communities in India, people’s trust in their faith, rhythmic expression of survival in the form of Rohingya taranas and Urdu nazm (a genre of Urdu poetry), Sufi heritage, Bollywood cinema, and shared cultural values have emerged as tenets of resilience through which Rohingya continue to hope for a better future.


[1] All names have been changed to protect participants.

[2] Personal Interview, Abdul, Mewat, 10.12.2019

[3] Ibid.

[4] Personal Interview, Fayyad, Hyderabad, 08.08.2018

[5] Ibid.

[6] Personal Interview, Ali, Hyderabad, 08.08.2019

[7] Jafar Kawish, Urdu Rohingya Tarana: tuja haan me hai hamara raz-i-izzat  i vatan(You are our honour, oh my country),music is inspired from Hindi songs. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Rj1sG3KTpWg (accessed on 13 September 2020)

Beirut Explosion: What History Tells Us About Accountability

Jessica Field6 August 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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