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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.

References

[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.

Joshua.anthony.19@ucl.ac.uk

The Value of Life and Disaster Risk Reduction

Myra Farooqi14 May 2021

Humanity proves time and again that one life is not always equal to another, ultimately devaluing us all.

 

1 – 1 = -2. Basic arithmetic would explain why this answer is incorrect, but the valuation of life is far from basic.

There have been many attempts at discovering the value of life, ranging from the economical for use in labor practices to the metaphysical to the biomedical to the religious. On an individual level, humans search for the answer as well — consciously or not.

Every day, we make choices that place value on the lives of ourselves and others, and this is at the core of every aspect of disaster risk reduction (DRR). Who we define as vulnerable, who we choose to abandon, and what we choose to protect are all questions of value, and that value has consequences as illustrated by the fact that “children from the poorest households die at twice the rate of their better-off peers” (UNICEF).

In her recent book, The Sum of Us, author and economist Heather McGhee argues that we have been taught that our value stems from the devaluation of others, and this belief “distorts our politics, drains our economy, and erodes everything…from our schools to our air to our infrastructure” (p.xxiii). McGhee specifically discusses the American experience, but this valuation process is applicable to almost every interaction in power dynamics.

For example, why do we use drone warfare? It allows us to protect our own people while fighting others. Why do we restrict access to elections? It allows us to protect our power from waning. Why do we engage in factory farming? It allows us to feed ourselves more easily.

These are simplifications of complex issues, but they do reflect our values in practice. Time after time, conflict after conflict, day after day, we (those with power) decide whose life is more important, and act accordingly. Unless we work to combat this inequality, incorporating DRR principles may never reduce our disasters of choice. At the end of the day, the unequal valuation of life will leave us all at a loss.

1 – 1 will equal -2.

 

Myra Farooqi is an MSc student at the IRDR, and can be contacted at myra.farooqi.20@ucl.ac.uk 

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.

UCL Humanitarian Institute Masterclass: Earth Observation and Natural Hazards

Saqar ' M Al Zaabi5 March 2020

Written by Dr Akhtar Alam, Research Fellow at UCL IRDR

A masterclass was organised by UCL Institute for Risk and Disaster Reduction (IRDR) on February 20, 2020. Attended by twenty-five researchers, practitioners and students from different institutions, the event included lectures, proactive sessions and a laboratory exercise.

The morning session started with a lecture on the application of Earth Observation (EO) technology in monitoring and mitigating natural hazards, delivered by Aisha Aldosery, a PhD student at UCL IRDR. She presented an overview of the fundamental principles of remote sensing, data products and space programmes. She also discussed the applications of this technology to collect information on various natural hazards.

The second lecture was an illustration of a case study – “Cyclone risk assessment of the Cox’s Bazar district (CBD) in SE Bangladesh”, delivered by Dr Akhtar Alam, Research Fellow at UCL IRDR. He demonstrated the use of EO data, statistical methods and GIS for simulating risk scenarios at varied spatial scales of the study area. He also discussed the issues concerning the availability and selection of the data, uncertainties and limitations of the procedures, and validation of the results in the risk assessment process.

In addition to the conceptual discussions, the participants were given an exercise on risk mapping. The objective was to simulate the spatial patterns of risk with a manual procedure. It imitated the complementary use of EO technology, Geographic Information System (GIS) and Analytic Hierarchy Process (AHP) for mapping the risk. This was an exciting session where participants were divided into groups and engaged in the activity. At the end of the session, they were given a chance to express their views and present the results of the exercise.

The afternoon session was devoted to a GIS exercise in the laboratory.  Original raster data layers were provided to the participants to perform a landslide hazard analysis. The learning outcomes included visualization, interpretation and integration of the standardized raster data layers for weighted overlay analysis in ArcGIS, deriving weights of different parameters and checking the consistency of the weighting process using AHP, and developing a landslide hazard map of the study area from the given data layers.

The participants expressed positive feedback about the event.

Natural Hazards, Conflicts and Disasters in the Himalayan Region

Saqar ' M Al Zaabi3 March 2020

Written by IRDR Master’s student Ronja Lutz

The UCL Humanitarian Institute evening conference, held on 19 February 2020 and chaired by Prof Peter Sammonds, presented a panel of four speakers giving diverse perspectives on disaster relief in the Himalayan region.

Dr Jessica Field from Brunel University gave the first talk. She introduced the history of disaster relief in India in order to zoom in on the situation in Ladakh. She characterised disaster governance in this region of Northern India as focused on top-down security and military interventions, relief practices as centred on hazards, and being reactive rather than proactive. Of particular interest was her analysis of relief work in the context of different actors, governmental and non-governmental, competing for legitimacy.

The second talk, by Sultan Bhat of Kashmir University, was focusing on factors that make the Kashmir valley vulnerable to hazards such as floods. He then highlighted changes due to tourism, such as deforestation, expanding settlements, that lead to increased vulnerability. In a long-term overview spanning several centuries, he was able to show that not only vulnerability but also the occurrence of floods in the Kashmir valley has increased.

Third up was Dr Punam Yadav from UCL’s Institute for Risk and Disaster Reduction (IRDR), presenting on the conflict in Nepal and its effects on women. She gave an overview of Nepal’s Civil War 1996–2006, in the wake of which around 70,000 people are still displaced. Despite the numerous negative effects of conflict, Dr Yadav pointed out how conflict can create spaces for women. For example, the political representation of women has increased from 6% to 33% after the introduction of a quota in 2007, and 20% of combatant roles in the military are now reserved, arguably due to women’s involvement in civil war combat.

The final talk by IRDR’s Akhtar Alam gave a broader overview of the challenges to disaster risk reduction in the Himalayas in the future. After surveying the numerous natural hazards in the region, including earthquakes, flash floods, and landslides, he pointed out that despite a high occurrence of hazards across the whole region, the vulnerability of certain regions is what ultimately determines fatality rates. For example, Myanmar and Bangladesh saw relatively few incidents compared to other regions, but a very high death toll. Consequently, he urged for increasing resilience to natural hazards, for example by improving and enforcing building standards in the face of earthquake risks. Similar to Dr Field, he cited a focus on response instead of prevention and a neglect of community involvement as obstacles to preventing disasters in the Himalayan region.

The event was live-streamed and you still can watch the video on the Institute for Risk and Disaster Reduction YouTube channel: https://youtu.be/dhYU0MuJf3g

Disaster Science is one of five key themes for partnership between UCL and Tohoku University

Joanna P Faure Walker21 October 2018

UCL and Tohoku University signed a Memorandum of Understanding on Thursday 11th October 2018 as part of the kickoff partnership event. President Arthur and President Ohno stated their commitment to continuing research exchange, following the agreement of the previous five years.

President Arthur and President Ohno sign memorandum of understanding Photo source: https://www.tohoku.ac.jp/japanese/2018/10/news20181018-02.html

Workshops for five key themes were held on the 11th and 12th October as part of the event that saw 50 delegates come to UCL from Tohoku University. The five themes were disaster science, data science, neuroscience, higher education and material science and spintronics.

The disaster science delegation (From left to right) Prof. Shinichi Kuriyama Dr Katerina Stavrianaki Dr Ilan Kelman Ms Anna Shinka Dr Tiziana Rossetto Dr Joanan Faure Walker Dr David Robinson Assist. Prof. Shuji Seto Prof Maureen Fordham Ms Miwako Kitamura Prof David Alexander Assoc. Prof. Anawat Suppasri

The disaster science delegation comprised representatives from UCL IRDR, Tohoku University IRIDes (International Research Institute for Disaster Science), and UCL EPICentre. The workshop has helped form new collaboration opportunities building on the existing relationship between these research institutions. Our collaboration cincludes joint publications in earthquake stress transfer (e.g. Mildon et al., 2016), disaster fatalities (Suppasri et al., 2016), and temporary housing (e.g. Naylor et al., 2018). We look forward to the next five years of working with all our colleagues at IRIDeS to enhance the field of disaster science.

Discussions during the disaster science workshop Photo source: https://www.tohoku.ac.jp/japanese/2018/10/news20181018-02.html

The disaster science workshop included the following talks, which prompted discussions of further questions we would like to research together:

  • Assist. Prof. Shuji Seto (IRIDeS)
    • New Research Project on the Fatality Process in the 2011 Tohoku Earthquake for Survival Study from Tsunami Disaster
  • Dr Ilan Kelman (UCL IRDR)
    • Disaster, Health, and Islands
  • Prof. Shinichi Kuriyama (IRIDeS)
    • Challenge of Public Health to Disaster – Using Public Health Approach and Artificial Intelligence Techniques
  • Prof Maureen Fordman (UCL IRDR)
    • Gender and Disasters
  • Ms Miwako Kitamura (IRIDeS)
    • Gender problems as seen from the oral history of the bereaved families of the deceased Tsunami in Otsuchi Town, during the Great East Japan Earthquake
  • Ms Anna Shinka (IRIDeS)
    • A questionnaire study on disaster folklore and evacuation behavior for human casualty reduction – Case of Kesennnuma City, Miyagi Prefecture.
  • Prof Tiziana Rossetto (UCL EPICentre)
    • Building response under sequential earthquakes and tsunami
  • Assoc. Prof. Anawat Suppasri (IRIDeS)
    • Building damage assessment considering lateral resistance and loss estimation using an economic model “Input-Output table”
  • Prof David Alexander (UCL IRDR)
    • A framework for Cascading Disasters
  • Dr Joanna Faure Walker (UCL IRDR)
    • Disaster Warning, Evacuation and Shelter

NHK, the largest broadcaster in Japan, reported the workshop with a focus on Miwako Kitamura and the UCL Gender and Disaster Centre:  NHK report (in Japanese)

IRDR Masters student publishes Early Warning and Temporary Housing Research. This is part of the on-going collaboration between UCL-IRDR and IRIDeS-Tohoku University

Joanna P Faure Walker4 June 2018

Angus Naylor, an IRDR Masters student alumni and Masters Prize Winner, has published the research conducted for his Independent Research Project. The research was carried out as part of his MSc Risk, Disaster and Resilience with me, his project supervisor, and our collaborator at Tohoku University IRIDeS (International Research Institute of Disaster Science), Dr Anawat Suppasri.

Following the Great East Japan Earthquake and Tsunami in 2011, UCL-IRDR and Tohoku University IRIDeS wanted to join forces to learn more about both the fundamental science and impacts of disasters both in Japan and around the world. Naylor’s recently published paper adds to other collaborative outputs from the two institutes: Mildon et al., 2016, investigating Coulomb Stress Transfer within the area of earthquake hazard research; Suppasri et al., 2016 investigating fatality ratios following the 2011 Great East Japan Tsunami; and IRDR Special Report 2014-01 on the destruction from Typhoon Yolanda in the Philippines. The two institutions have met on a number of occasions, and have an upcoming symposium in October 2018.

In 2014, three and half years after the Great East Japan Earthquake and Tsunami destroyed much of Tohoku’s coastline, I led and Dr Anawat Suppasri organised a joint UCL-IRDR and Tohoku University IRIDeS team, visiting residents of six temporary housing complexes in Miyagi and Iwate prefectures. While there, we used written questionnaires and informal group interviews to investigate the suitability of early warning systems and the temporary housing among the elderly population affected by this event.

When analysing the results, we found overall that age was not the principal factor in affecting whether a warning was received, but did play a significant role regarding what was known before the warning was received, whether action was taken and how temporary and permanent housing was viewed. The results suggest that although the majority of respondents received some form of warning (81%), no one method of warning reached more than 45% of them, demonstrating the need for multiple forms of early warning system alerts. Furthermore, only half the respondents had prior knowledge of evacuation plans with few attending evacuation drills and there was a general lack of knowledge regarding shelter plans following a disaster. Regarding shelter, it seems that the “lessons learned” from the 1995 Kobe Earthquake were perhaps not so learnt, but rather many of the concerns raised among the elderly in temporary housing echoed the complaints from 16 years earlier: solitary living, too small, not enough heating or sound insulation and a lack of privacy.

An example of Temporary Housing following the Great East Japan Earthquake and Tsunami visited during the fieldwork for this study (Photograph: Dr Joanna Faure Walker)

The research supports previous assertions that disasters can increase the relative vulnerabilities of those already amongst the most vulnerable in society. This highlights that in order to increase resilience against future disasters, we need to consider the elderly and other vulnerable groups within the entire Early Warning System process from education to evacuation and for temporary housing in the transitional phase of recovery.

The paper, ‘Suitability of the early warning systems and temporary housing for the elderly population in the immediacy and transitional recovery phase of the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake and Tsunami’ published in the International Journal of Disaster Risk Reduction, can be accessed for free until 26th July here, after this date please click here for standard access.

The authors are grateful for the fieldwork funds which came from The Great British Sasakawa Foundation funding to UCL-IRDR and MEXT’s funding to IRIDeS. The joint UCL-IRDR1 and IRIDeS2 fieldwork team comprised Joanna Faure Walker1, Anawat Suppasri2, David Alexander1, Sebastian Penmellen Boret2, Peter Sammonds1, Rosanna Smith1, and Carine Yi2.

Angus Naylor is currently doing a PhD at Leeds University
Dr Joanna Faure Walker is a Senior Lecturer at UCL IRDR
Dr Anawat Suppasri is an Associate Professor at IRIDeS-Tohoku University

Disaster Risk Reduction Communication: challenges and chances

ucfbjjs18 August 2015

Audience5Disaster Risk Reduction (DRR) is a rising field, growing in scientific production and relevance. DRR aims to identify causes and trends of hazards impacting human lives, in order to reduce their intensity, reduce the possibility of occurrence and tackle the resulting effects.
A key action of DRR is to share knowledge, so that the people can take adequate measures to prevent the consequences. Part of this field involves communicating with the exposed communities at risk of damages and losses, to understand their expertise and requirements. Effectively communicating DRR research to affected communities is one of the biggest challenges faced by researchers. Ineffective or missing communication leads DRR to fail one of its goals, condemning a fundamental body of knowledge to be underutilised or simply ignored. It is necessary to improve communication and fill this critical gap, in order to reduce disaster risk.

This topic shaped the debates at the Third Academic Summit and the 5th IRDR conference, held at UCL on 24th and 25th June 2015. Institutions’ representatives, DRR researchers, lecturers and practitioners had the chance to share their experience and compare their points of view at the two events, discussing current examples and future developments of DRR.
Specifically, the debates tried to answer the following questions:
– What are the most effective methods of communication for DRR?
– Which are the current trends of disaster prevention, management and recovery?
– Is academic work becoming more relevant for practitioners?
– How can students contribute to apply and improve DRR?

Throughout the two days, sharing information about natural hazards, conflicts and epidemics was repeatedly marked as a priority, in order to make the exposed communities aware of the related impacts that disasters can cause.
At the Annual Conference, Ben Lishman’s session about the Arctic Risks and Michael von Bertele’s management of the Ebola Crisis widely proved the importance of good communication, arousing high interest and participation from the attendees.
The visual communication
of data is an emerging area of interest for DRR researcher. At the Annual Conference, Ben Stuart showed the visual impact given by the combination of assembled data and graphic design, while Vanessa Banks (BGS), Richard Wall (UCL Hazard Centre) and Richard Teeuw (University of Portsmouth) offered a wide range of GIS tools and relative applications to cope with natural disasters and improve financial and business services. Digital mapping and graphic design are paving the way for a stronger and deeper intervention in the field, where the exposure to risk occurs. The latest softwares can highlight the most dangerous areas and assemble data towards an effective visual impact.

However, the use of updated tools does not mean that DRR is always appropriately explained. The shared experience from the speakers showed that there is a great comprehension of the disaster cycle in all its phases. However, it remarked also a static approach, only able to produce results within the academic environment. This contrast between research and action emerged through the debate “Training, teaching and exercising challenges” at the Academic Summit led by Gordon Macdonald (ICPEM), Dr Fredrik Bynander (CRISMART) and David Jones (Rescue Global). Mr Macdonald spoke about the need of ‘translating’ the academic language into the practitioners’ one, Dr Bynander stressed the relevant applications of scientific production for the National Defence’s activities, while Mr Jones clearly stated the necessity of the scientific research to start considering real-life issues and the practitioners’ activities.
The main points that emerged from these conferences are:
– The complexity and fertility of the most different scenarios, threatened by hazards but also studied more and more in depth.
– A strong necessity to reconsider how DRR communicates itself, for a better and common goal pursued by all those involved.
– A persistent communication gap between academics and practitioners. Both groups need to work together to bridge this gap.

The conclusion of the IRDR Conference saw the presentation of research projects by the MSc and PhD students of IRDR and other attendees. The posters’ topics spanned from physical science and engineering to the social sciences, combining detailed explanations and comprehensible graphics. However, their common trait was a strong application to risk-related issues, improving the performance of the tools and the quality of future researches.
The students’ point of view and interventions are gaining more and more relevance within the contemporary debate around the theory and practice of DRR. Part of this successful trend is given by their ability to build cross-cutting competences, to take the scientific production in the ‘real world’, and to report their field-based experiences into the universities.
Overall, productive discussions and clashing views were appreciated by the attendees, which generated the sensation of an informal discussion environment. UCL Institute for Risk and Disaster Reduction has been able to collect expertise from different fields, offering an arena for a multifaceted comparison.

Two NGOs set up by the young people of Rikuzentakata, Iwate, Japan

Joanna P Faure Walker7 June 2013

Dr Joanna Faure Walker visited Rikuzentakata, one of the worst affected towns in the Iwate Prefecture, as part of the Great East Japan Earthquake EEFIT return mission. While there, she and her associates met with two NGOs: ‘Save Takata’ and ‘Sakura Line’ that were set up following the disaster.

Okamoto Shoma  and his mother Keiko Shoma in the Save Takata office

Okamoto Shoma and his
mother Keiko Shoma in the
Save Takata office,
Rikuzentakata

In March 2011, Okamoto Shoma was a twenty-year-old architecture student in Tokyo who had grown up in Rikuzentakata. Following the tsunami, Okamoto and some class mates from Tokyo spent one and a half days driving to Rikuzentakata with recovery supplies and gasoline.  Communications were down so Okamoto could not contact his mother, Keiko, whose house in Rikuzentakata had been destroyed by the tsunami. Fortunately he found her in an evacuation centre.

During the first month after the disaster, there were many requests from those outside the region about the residents’ safety and to make donations. Okamoto and his classmates formed Save Takata to help with coordination of the relief work; public services provided large-scale food and services, but additional help was needed to get smaller donations and reach small groups that needed assistance. It currently has a number of activities to help Rikuzentakata and its residents:

  1. Acting as a conduit and passive coordinator for people in Tokyo who want to donate money and expertise (examples include teaching and entertainment such as dance shows).
  2. Making up-to-date maps of Rikuzentakata permanent and temporary structures showing shop locations and distributing them to residents.  (Initially conditions were changing rapidly so maps were updated every two months, going forward they will be updated every six months.)
  3. Promoting Rikuzentakata products and selling them in Tokyo and other big cities. (In 2011, 200,000 volunteers went to Rikuzentakata and in 2012 there were 130,000; Save Takata hopes to use this network)
  4. Providing internet services and I.T. training for small businesses.
  5. Informing residents and businesses about which relevant schemes are available to help them from around the country. (A particularly popular donation – especially amongst the elderly population – were small Buddha statues for people’s temporary homes.)
  6. Coordinating entertainment events such as festivals for children.  (Keiko explained that although two years after the event the housing situation has become stable, people are bored and need community activities.)
  7. Renting a house for visiting volunteers; this house also acts as a meeting place and hub for activities for young people.

The Prefectural Government has made arrangements to employ people and dispatch them into jobs in NGOs; three of Save Takata’s eight full-time staff are with this scheme. Save Takata also has 2 part-time staff and 30 volunteer members. All staff originally volunteered their time, but now some salaries are being paid.  In the early stages they relied on donations from private companies, however now they need to apply for support from both the private and public sectors.  The organization is trying to transform from being a voluntary organization to having an increased amount of self-funding from the activities it organizes.

Save Takata’s future plans include producing a manual comprising the lessons learnt from setting up and running a NGO in a post disaster situation and being a NGO coordinator in potential future disasters as they recognize in a large disaster it is important to have good communication, coordination and organization between the different parties in the recovery process.

Okamoto is now also helping Sakura Line  – the NGO that shares an office with Save Takata in a one-year-old temporary shopping centre – that was started by Hashizume Takumi.

Temporary shopping centre housing Save Takata and Sakura Line

Temporary shopping centre housing
the offices of
Save Takata and Sakura Line

Hashizume, who acted as a volunteer fireman helping people evacuate and closing the tsunami gate, escaped to high ground with only a few minutes to spare before the tsunami arrived.  The disaster killed over fifty of his family and friends. Hashizume saw on television that historical tsunami had reached sacred places within cities in the region; he was angered when he saw there was a stone in Hinota marking where a historical tsunami had reached with a message instructing not to build houses lower than it. Hashizume feels it is his duty to pass on the message to future generations so decided to start Sakura Line, a project to create a continuous line of trees marking the border of the 2011 tsunami inundation.

One of the first cherry trees to be planted as part of the Sakura Line programme. Behind the tree is where downtown Rikuzentakata used to be.  The local government is currently raising the ground level to 12m above sea level  before reconstructing the town.

One of the first cherry trees to be planted as part
of the Sakura Line programme. Behind the tree is
where downtown Rikuzentakata used to be.
The local government is currently raising the
ground level to 12m above sea level before
reconstructing the town.

The first trees were planted near the Judo Temple and other sites around Rikuzentakata. So far they have planted 520 trees.   If completed, the line will extend beyond the city to become 170km long comprising 17,000 cherry trees. It is anticipated that it will take many years to finish. These trees live for about 100yrs so it is hoped that future generations will care for the trees and keep the line going. I hope his project receives the support it needs and acts as a successful reminder to future generations to help reduce the risk from future tsunami.

 

 

For more information on these projects see http://www.savetakata.org/en/ and http://www.sakura-line311.org/.

Dr Joanna Faure Walker was funded by EPSRC through EEFIT (http://www.eefit.org.uk). A new EEFIT report about observations made on the most recent trip in June 2013 will be available soon. The IRDR Special Report 2013-01 provides details about the observed damage and recovery of the Great East Japan Earthquake at and Tsunami in October 2012 (http://www.ucl.ac.uk/rdr/publications/IRDR-Special-Report-UK-Japan-Workshop) and the EEFIT Report provides observations from May-June 2011 (http://www.istructe.org/webtest/files/1d/1d158684-b77b-4856-99f8-2522fa25533b.pdf).