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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

Could Arctic disasters create diplomacy?

Saqar ' M Al Zaabi12 June 2019

Post written by Patrizia Isabelle Duda, PhD researcher at UCL IRDR

Fancy lodgings with outdoor Jacuzzis, brand-name clothing outlets, a Thai massage centre, restaurants offering haute cuisine, a supermarket that displays all manner of fresh food and electronics items—one would have thought that I landed in a First World urban setting. But the Norwegian-governed settlement of Longyearbyen on the Arctic Svalbard archipelago is anything but that.

Longyearbyen’s main street with fancy restaurants and hotels during Svalbard’s dark winter season – Copyright Patrizia Isabelle Duda 2019

Rather, it is a small settlement north of the Arctic Circle, the size of a thumbprint viewed from on high – plunked down in the midst of a valley, surrounded by mountain ranges and a vast road-less expanse of rock, snow, and glacial ice that is prone to avalanches, landslides, flooding and extreme weather conditions. The archipelago is roamed by polar bears, geographically isolated from the Norwegian mainland that governs it (it is halfway between Norway and the North Pole), and reliant on good weather conditions to access it. Thus, Svalbard is especially vulnerable to disasters, from which response mechanisms, no matter how well planned, may not always deliver.

The landscape of Longyearbyen – Copyright Ilan Kelman 2009

 

A photo of Longyearbyen taken on a winter climb to a mountain top nearby in -47 °C – Copyright Patrizia Isabelle Duda 2019

As far as disasters go, there is a gamut of factors besides its remote location and its dicey weather that impinge on Svalbard’s ability to respond. A lack of communication between its settlements is problematic. Its possible overreliance on national response structures which must both be able to react with adequate resources within narrow time frames, as well as have the political will to do so, further compounds the precarious situation. In addition, the present restricted ability of Svalbard’s small hospital to treat more than minor-level injuries, necessitates an over-reliance on aeromedical evacuation to the mainland.  Thus, the capacity for major trauma scenarios is missing.

Given both the existing gaps as well as clear developing and future challenges, it is critical that we take stock of Svalbard’s emergency preparedness and response capacity and develop robust policies that are adapted to the local realities on the island. This means that not only search-and-rescue capacities are needed, which it seems Svalbard has well understood (albeit these are and can only be imperfect); but that improved governance on a much wider scale is urgently required. It must be remembered that disaster efforts do not always happen formally. Both when formal disaster efforts fail, but also when they do not, informality is often a key element of disaster preparedness and response.  In Svalbard’s particular case, this means cooperation and coordination between the two main players on the island—formally, Norway and Russia, and informally, Norwegians and Russians—for efforts both to prevent disasters, as well as to address them when they happen.

These are the questions I pondered together with a team of nine researchers from London, Moscow and around Norway who assembled in Longyearbyen to launch our new project. Generously funded by the Norwegian Research Council, we initiated a 2-year investigation into disaster diplomacy’s potential to foster cooperation (or not) between Svalbard’s Norwegian and Russian stakeholders in their formal and informal responses to disasters. To this end, the project will be looking at three hypothetical disaster scenarios: an oil spill emergency, a crisis involving radiation release from a ship, and a disease outbreak in (Russian) Barentsburg—the second of the only two permanently inhabited settlements on Svalbard.

View of Longyearbyen – Copyright Ilan Kelman 2019

The importance of this project is startingly clear. Moving on from its early days as a coal-mining settlement, Svalbard is now home (albeit a transient one) to a growing population of scientists and tourists. Moreover, this group of islands is currently being re-imagined and re-developed into an Arctic Ocean emergency management hub.  This new hub will act like a magnet, drawing yet more scientists, tourists and job-seekers to an island of roughly 2600 inhabitants, requiring quickly built new infrastructure to support these activities. Coupled with the effects of the already changing environment, Svalbard’s vulnerable settlements, not to mention, the whole region and its ecosystems, are further at risk.

Additionally, some fear that it may also spark a new round of disputes and conflicts between Norway and Russia, (and looking out on the broader horizon, between other nations that have stakes in the Arctic region). Transnational cooperation will be more crucial than ever in tackling the already compromised possible disaster responses. Thus, from a different perspective, this emerging reality might, at least in theory, pave the way for greater diplomatic and practical collaboration on disaster issues and may, by extension, improve many aspects of relations between these two countries that share vested interests in Svalbard.

It is clear from research on disaster diplomacy in other global settings that this second idealistic and much more hopeful perspective is not supported by actual results. Disaster diplomacy has not yet been shown to lead to better relations between countries. But can these findings be applied to Svalbard, and to the Arctic in general, an area which is held to be ‘off the charts’ in so many spheres? As researchers, we hear the often-recited mantra that Arctic players have already come up with uniquely successful and often unprecedented cooperation schemes. Thus, could the Arctic prove to be an exception in the universe of unsuccessful disaster diplomacy case studies? And might the various factors that were present in the particular Arctic situation be extrapolated and applied in disaster conditions elsewhere in the world?

“Welcome” – Copyright Ilan Kelman 2019

I ask myself these questions, as I gaze out past the high-end stores and entertainment centres, to the beautiful but forbidding mountain range just behind them, looking off into the polar-night sky. Svalbard is fragile, vulnerable to disaster, and may well become even more exposed to danger.  But might it not also hold the seeds to plant future opportunities for cooperation and improvement in international relations? Or, will the research results elsewhere in the world be confirmed? Our team hopes that our research will be able to begin to answer some of these questions.