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Corona Wars: The Cost of Calling Disasters ‘Wars’

Patrizia Isabelle Duda4 May 2020

Written by Patrizia Isabelle Duda and Navonel Glick

War on Coronavirus poster

On March 17th, U.S. President Trump began calling the Covid-19 pandemic a “war”, to wide acclaim by supporters and scathing condemnation by critics.

The reasons for using the war metaphor are straightforward. By calling the pandemic a war, Trump is appealing to a familiar scenario that we feel we ‘know’ how to relate to. It ostensibly simplifies the crisis, mobilises the public, and calls for unity.

The war metaphor is a powerful and effective tool that is often used in politics, but it is also pervasive in the world of disaster risk reduction and response. The historical links between disaster management and the military are well-documented. Today, from operational frameworks like the Incident Command System (ICS) that were inspired by military management structures, to the extensive use of military terminology like ‘deploy’, ‘mission’, or ‘surge’ by even the most ‘military-averse’ NGOs (e.g. IRC, Plan International), the connection remains.  Even the widely revered (and much maligned) ‘logical framework’, meant to improve transparency and accountability in the aid sector, originated in planning approaches for the U.S. military.

At first glance, the war metaphor makes sense. The chaotic images from disaster areas that make the headlines are reminiscent of war zones, and the associated urgent, high-stress, life-and-death decisions demand composure, bravery, and decision-making attributes that we have learned to equate with our armed forces.

Yet, the analogy quickly crumbles. For one, as most disaster practitioners would confirm, the period immediately following a disaster which might require such an approach, at best, represents only a fraction of any disaster response effort, let alone long-term recovery or disaster risk reduction (through sustainable development).

In addition, as our experience in the field shows, armed forces are notoriously poor at interacting with vulnerable civilian populations, particularly in complex situations of unrest. More importantly, the war analogy is plagued by a core contradiction. While it can be argued that armies engage in war to ‘defend’ or ‘protect’ a population, destruction is often their main tool for doing so. This is not what disaster response or humanitarian aid are about, much less how one reduces disaster risks and builds disaster-resilient communities.

So why does the war metaphor continue to dominate the field? The simple answer may be because it works. It appeals to the pleasure-pain principle, triggers our basic fight-or-flight instincts, and provokes a reaction.

Yet, this strategy may be poorly suited to pandemics. We rightfully celebrate our health-care workers and other front-line personnel as ‘heroes’—yet another war term—and many of them may be faced with ‘war-like’ situations of urgency and life-and-death situations. But for the rest of us, “wash your hands” and “stay at home” are woefully anti-climatic ‘weapons’ to ‘fight’ the ongoing coronavirus ‘enemy’.

Photo credit: hairul_nizam / Shutterstock.com

Furthermore, the ‘war metaphor’ may succeed in the short-term during a crisis, but such bursts of energy (or adrenaline) cannot be maintained over time. Pandemics are not addressed by acute, short-term measures or bursts of adrenaline, but instead, by a complex web of systematic health and public health initiatives, drawn out over a long period of time.

The most damning trait of the war metaphor is, therefore, the focus on the disease itself, instead of the systemic issues that allowed it to become a pandemic. Diseases, much like earthquakes or hurricanes, are natural hazards. They only become disasters when we are left exposed and vulnerable to them by insufficient preparedness and poor risk reduction measures. Thus, tackling the underlying social, economic, and political systemic issues that drive disaster vulnerability should be our priority.

The analogy of a marathon instead of a sprint comes to mind, except that in this case the race has no end. In fact, it never was a race to begin with. This may be the biggest fallacy with using the war metaphor for disasters: wars are arguably won or lost; at least they (should) end. Disaster preparedness and reducing risks do not—they are an ongoing process of achieving and maintaining sustainable practices.

The war metaphor, therefore, from the very beginning, begs to disappoint, because there will not be the closure it promises. Calling our health workers and other frontline workers ‘life-saving heroes’ is an admirable title they deserve, but were they any less worthy of it before the pandemic? And will they not continue to perform the same essential role once the coronavirus pandemic has passed?

In this time of acute crisis, when the lack of preparedness and risk reduction is painfully exposed, we may be glad to have the war metaphor for the action that it catalyses. But by continuing to prioritise response over prevention, and perpetuating the myth of the ‘race’, what social habits will we continue to reinforce, and at what cost?

What would an alternative look like?

Conflict, Disaster, and Disease: A Colossal Catastrophe Looms in the Rohingya Camps in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh

Bayes Ahmed20 April 2020

A panoramic view of the Kutupalong Rohingya camp in Cox’s Bazar district, Bangladesh. Source: Bayes Ahmed, fieldwork, 2019.

On 17 April 2020, another boat floating in the Bay of Bengal for two months was found carrying 30 dead bodies and 400 other Rohingya refugees, mostly women and children, fleeing armed conflict from Myanmar. Also, since 23 March 2020, the Myanmar military has been carrying out daily airstrikes and shelling in Rakhine State resulting in at least 32 civilian deaths, mostly women and children, and destroying homes and schools [1]. The killing of innocent people and civilians by the Myanmar Army/Tatmadaw in Rakhine is still taking place fearlessly despite the International Court of Justice (ICJ), the principal judicial organ of the United Nations (UN), officially endorsed the ‘Rohingya identity’ in January 2020 and ordered the Myanmar government not to commit acts of genocide and take effective measures to prevent the destruction of any evidence related to genocide [2]. The final verdict on the prevention and punishment of the Crime of (Rohingya) Genocide against Myanmar is pending.

The crisis is not new. The Rakhine State of Myanmar and Cox’s Bazar District of Bangladesh share international borders, and both countries were commonly ruled by the British Empire. Being the same colony for over 120 years, eventually the Muslim Bengalis and Buddhist Rakhine people travelled between the two states (formerly known as the Arakan State) for business, agricultural and other purposes. However, since the independence of Burma in 1948, the Muslim population in Rakhine have been labelled as ‘illegal Bengali migrants’ and later on referred to as the Rohingyas. Failing to permanently expel the Rohingyas from Rakhine, the Burmese (Military) government, introduced a citizenship law in October 1982 stating that “full citizens are descendants of residents who lived in Burma prior to 1823 or were born to parents who were citizens at the time of birth” [3]. The amended law has a clear link with the Muslim migration during the British rule in Burma between 1824-1948. Eventually, the Rohingyas lost their citizenship and became stateless.

Since then persistent torture, human rights violation and persecution followed by a number of major military crackdowns, genocidal policy adopted by the Myanmar Army, communal violence between Muslims and Buddhists in Rakhine, and killing and murder of innocent civilians and burning down their homestead resulted in forced displacement of Rohingyas to Bangladesh notably in 1978, 1992, 2012, 2016, 2017, and in 2019. Recently, Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) estimated that at least 9,400 people lost their lives due to direct violence in Myanmar between 25 August and 24 September 2017. The UN estimates that over one million stateless Rohingya are still remaining in Rakhine State (600,000 displaced and 470,00 non-displaced) [4]. The actual number is unknown due to fabrication in Myanmar’s national population census and strategically replacing the names of local villages/townships. The Rohingyas are facing extreme discrimination and are being denied basic humanitarian access, livelihoods and services in Myanmar [4]. In contrast, Bangladesh is currently hosting over 859,000 Rohingyas (78% of them are women and children) in the UN registered camps in Cox’s Bazar [5] and over 300,00 of them are hiding as undocumented refugees [3]. The crisis has adversely impacted more than 444,000 Bengali host community members in Cox’s Bazar [5].

An enormous protected area of hill forests in Cox’s Bazar district (6,000 hectares) has already been wiped out to build makeshift shelters by cutting hills and to arrange fuel for cooking for the Rohingyas [6]. They are living in camps that are absolutely vulnerable to landslides, flash flooding, cyclones, and fire hazards. Between April to November 2019, at least 1400, 500, 70, and 35 major incidents were reported across all camps related to landslide/soil erosion, wind/storm, flood, and fire hazard respectively. As a result, over 85,000 individuals were affected and 4,000 households were displaced to another location [5]. No effective early warning system is available for them, although the partners are consistently working to make the camps weather-proof and resilient to natural hazards.

Multi-hazard prone Rohingya makeshift camps in Cox’s Bazar district, Bangladesh. Source: Bayes Ahmed, fieldwork, 2018-2020 and ISCG [5].

The Rohingyas in Cox’s Bazar are not allowed to move outside the camps and build permanent shelters. No formal education is also allowed. They depend on nominal humanitarian assistance from the UN such as basic food (rice, palm oil, and lentils). These embargos are imposed mostly to comply with the standard UN refugee mandates. The novel Coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic is posing another major threat to the Rohingyas, as they are living in exceedingly overcrowded camps and the existing health centres are not equipped with necessary testing and treatment facilities. Same situation applies to the host communities. As instructed by the UN, the partners are advancing with the construction of an isolation and treatment centres, reducing activities to essential services and assistances only, promoting hygiene activities, training healthcare workers, and ensuring social distancing inside the camps. As of 20 April 2020, the entire Cox’s Bazar district including the camps are now locked down, and no Rohingya is even allowed to move between two camps until further notice.

Activities undertaken to prevent COVID-19 outbreak in the Rohingya camps in Cox’s Bazar district, Bangladesh. Source: ISCG [5].

The Rohingyas are also afraid to go back to Myanmar as they suspect fresh attacks on them by the Myanmar Army. The repatriation process is halted. The Rohingyas have strong community bonding and trying their best to adapt in this dreadful situation, however, all these efforts are not enough to ensure resilient futures for them. Given the international and national resolutions, the only sustainable solution for the Rohingya refugees would be to repatriate them in Myanmar with safety and dignity. 

Overall, the genocide-fled Rohingyas and already over-stressed Bangladeshi host communities in Cox’s Bazar are not ready to face the impending threats of natural hazard-induced disasters and Coronavirus pandemic. If, for example, a landslide/cyclone disaster and COVID-19 outbreak collides in the coming months, then it would be another catastrophic humanitarian crisis. The threat is inevitable, but nobody knows any decisive remedy to tackle it. Now, we can only pray for a strong cyclone or consecutive torrential rainfall events not to occur during the cyclone and monsoon season (May-October) or the Coronavirus not to spread in the Rohingya camps in Cox’s Bazar. Yet, there is no hope for their sustainable repatriation, integration, third-country settlement, or justice. The situation is somewhat true or even worse for the remaining 70 million displaced people worldwide – their sufferings have no limits!

Even a pod of whales can travel from the Indian to Atlantic Ocean, a flock of birds can fly from one continent to the other, but unfortunately, we have created such a sickening (in)human civilisation where a group of distressed people fleeing war, conflict, climate change and natural disasters are not allowed to move freely or even claim basic human rights for their minimal level of survival. This is the bitter truth! The only long-lasting solution to this grave crisis would be to fully support global truce (including the insurgents and militias), end hatred and discrimination towards minority and refugee population, and promote peace, sustainable economic growth, and global and regional cooperation gradually.

Rohingya camps in the no man’s land in Tumbru, Naikhongchari Upazila, Bandarban district, Bangladesh. Source: Bayes Ahmed, fieldwork, 2018.

References:

[1] The Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (UN Human Rights). (2020). Press briefing note on Myanmar/Bangladesh – Rohingya. United Nations (UN). http://ow.ly/LsfE50zgP9R (accessed on 18 April 2020).

[2] International Court of Justice (ICJ). (2020). Application of the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide (The Gambia v. Myanmar). https://www.icj-cij.org/en/case/178 (accessed on 17 April 2020).

[3] Ahmed, I. (Ed.). (2010). The Plight of the Stateless Rohingyas: Responses of the State, Society & the International Community. The University Press Limited, Dhaka, Bangladesh.

[4] United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA). (2019). Myanmar Humanitarian Response Plan 2020 (December 2019). https://reliefweb.int/report/myanmar/myanmar-humanitarian-response-plan-2020-december-2019 (accessed on 17 April 2020).

[5] Inter Sector Coordination Group (ISCG). (2020). United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA). https://www.humanitarianresponse.info/ru/operations/bangladesh/document/2020-joint-response-plan-rohingya-humanitarian-crisis-january (accessed on 17 April 2020).

[6] Ahmed, B.; Rahman, M. S.; Sammonds, P.; Islam, R.; Uddin, K. (2020). Application of geospatial technologies in developing a dynamic landslide early warning system in a humanitarian context: the Rohingya refugee crisis in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh. Geomatics, Natural Hazards and Risk, 11(1), 446–468.

Author: Dr Bayes Ahmed, UCL IRDR

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

9th International Conference on Digital Public Health

Saqar ' M Al Zaabi27 February 2020

The team from UCL IRDR Centre for Digital Public Health in Emergencies (dPHE) attended the 9th International Conference on Digital Public Health (www.acm-digitalhealth.org) chaired again by the dPHE Centre Director, Prof Patty Kostkova.

Held on 20th – 23rd November 2019 in Marseille, France, the DPH 2019 was supported by the newly established UCL IRDR Centre for Digital Public Health in Emergencies (dPHE) and for the first time held in conjunction with a public health event – 12th European Public Health Conference 2019 and continue our cooperation with ACM Special Interest Group on Knowledge Discovery and Data Mining (SIGKDD). There were two parallel tracks on digital health: 9th DPH 2019 conference with technical focus, and a joint track with EPH ‘Digital Applications in Health’ bringing public health applications of digital health. Young researchers, MSc and PhD students enjoyed a truly interdisciplinary ‘Young Researches Forum’ day organised in collaboration with ASPHER, the Association of Public Health Schools in the European Region.

Building on the growing success of previous editions (2008 London, 2009 Istanbul, 2010 Casablanca, 2011 Malaga, 2013 Rio de Janeiro, 2014 Soul, 2015 Florence, 2016 in Montreal, 2017 London, 2018 Lyon), the 9th International Digital Public Health conference mission has ideally met the EPH 2019 vision: ‘Building Bridges for Solidarity and Public Health’.

This year, we enjoyed exciting plenary session bringing the highest calibre of international speakers for topical panel debates: ‘AI and Big Data: Ethical challenges and health opportunities’ (chaired by Patty, organised jointly with EPH), international perspective was discussed at a DPH plenary on ‘Challenges of Implementing Healthcare Technology and Innovation across Europe and Beyond’ (chaired by Dr Arnold Bosman) and lessons learned from successful DH innovation projects will be highlighted at plenary on ‘Digital Health Innovation: From Proof of Concept to Public Value’ (chaired by Dr Michael Edelstein). The role of fake news in social media for public health is addressed at the joint session: ‘Online anti-vaccination movements: The role of social media in public health communications’ was chaired by Patty and organised jointly by DPH, EUPHA Health promotion section & EUPHA Infection Diseases Control section. Another highlight featured the launch of the European mHealth Knowledge and Innovations Hub – a bold new partnership for the future of mHealth in WHO European Region. DPH 2019 offered even more: a joint EPH and RECON workshop offering a session on programming in R for epidemiologists.

In addition to being busy chairing with the event, Prof Patty Kostkova, Dr. Caroline Wood, Dr. Anwar Musah, Dr Adrian Rubio Solis and Georgiana Birjovanu had the opportunity to present their recent digital solutions to combat antibiotic overuse or to create an early-warning tool for the ZIKA virus and the gamified intervention improving resilience of women in Nepal, MANTRA. Several dPHE papers were published by ACM Digital Library and European Journal on Public Health.

The conference started with the Young Researchers Forum, where postgraduate students were able to present their recent work, followed by an exciting session on Missing Maps. This session, led by Katherine Roberts-Hill from the British Red Cross and Dr. Anwar Musah, and supported by Medicines Sans Frontiers, offered participants the opportunity to contribute to open-source maps that help geolocate women at risk of Female Genital Mutilation in Tanzania. A concurrent Missing Maps session was run at UCL for IRDR students by a guest lecturer at the Digital Heath module – real-time concurrent mapping in two countries – how more digital one can get? 😉

The conference also comprised of many exciting sessions, from talks on how technology can help achieve a healthy lifestyle, assessing food consumption behaviour using machine learning in order to advise patients with diabetes to the potential of AI and Big data in the health domain.

One of the peak moments of this event was represented by the 2019 Innovation Prize Pitches, where the teams pitched for the Best Data-Driven Innovation and the Best Partnership awards. On behalf of UCL, Dr. Caroline Wood presented as the Best Partnership program the GADSA project, a Gamified Antimicrobial Decision Support App that provides feedback to surgeons when prescribing surgical antibiotic prophylaxis. Georgiana Birjovanu pitched for the Best Data-Driven Innovation, presenting the ZIKA platform and mobile app, designed to help health agents in Brazil to gather environmental data and to predict the mosquito populations based on the data collected. Both presentations were awarded the Best Runner Up awards by the international jury.

The Digital Public Health Conference represented a great opportunity to meet experts from different areas within the public health domain – world-class researchers, World Health Organization representatives and small to medium-sized enterprises – it’s where the digital health minds meet. No wonder  #DPH2019 hashtag was trending on Twitter all week.

Please click the link below to watch a video of photos showing the different conference events.

https://drive.google.com/file/d/1UMQ8ExeLHE4NdPM69Q7AkUTZsWt4IbyV/view

We look forward to DPH 2020 and hope to tempt more IRDR colleagues to attend this exciting event with us 🙂

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.

UCL IRDR at the World Conference on Disaster Risk Reduction – Human Rights and DRR Panel

ucfbrzz25 March 2015

On Monday 16th March 2015, UCL IRDR hosted a public forum panel discussion on “Human Rights and Disaster Risk Reduction” as a side event of the UN World Conference on Disaster Risk Reduction in Sendai. David Alexander, UCL IRDR Professor of Risk and Disaster Reduction, convened the panel to explore whether failure to mitigate disaster risk may be related to a failure to guarantee basic human rights, and if disaster situations can sometimes be used as an opportunity to deny rights. David proposed that whilst the articulation of human rights – as outlined by the UN, EU, and in national conventions and laws – are often ineffective in practice due to loopholes, exclusions and varying interpretations, and although externally imposed rights may clash with local cultures and traditions, there is a need to be more courageous about asserting human rights. Starting from the assumption that human rights are indeed universal, and that they have a direct bearing on disaster risk reduction, he requested that the panel consider (among others) the following questions:

  • Do disasters lead to particular violations of human rights?
  • Is denial or restriction of human rights diagnostic of marginalisation, and how does this make people and communities vulnerable to disasters?
  • To what extent is the freedom and development of women and girls a human rights issue, and how does this bear upon resilience against disaster?
  • Will an improved dialogue on human rights (a more explicit treatment of the question in open public discussion and official agreements) lead to reductions in disaster risk?
  • How universal is the concept of human rights, and does it have a cultural dimension?
  • How does the assertion of fundamental rights fit with the need to assume responsibility for disaster risk reduction?

On considering whether there is a human right to DRR, the first panelist, Richard Olson, Professor and Director of the Extreme Events Institute, Florida International University, posed the question ‘Is there a human right to life-safety?’. He stated that a major driver of loss of life from natural disasters derives from land use and building standards. These are planning issues with long-established solutions for which ignorance is no longer an acceptable excuse. Yet many decision makers continue in their behavior of ‘non-decision making’. That is to say, they keep issues that could address the human right to life safety off the agenda, such as improved building code enforcement and land use planning.

The second panelist, Terry Cannon, Senior Research Fellow at the Institute of Development Studies (IDS), questioned the universality of the concept of human rights, proposing that human rights can be perceived as a colonial imposition of the western world on other cultures. He explored the notion that some nations and cultures may not conform to the western interpretation of the ‘right’ way and questioned the relevance of legally backed rights in changing cultural behaviour. He suggested that human rights as viewed by western capitalist nations may not be appropriate for different political systems at different stages of development, and that the ‘push back’ against an external imposition of rights could in fact make the situation worse.

Virginie Le Masson, Research Officer at the Overseas Development Institute (ODI), also considered the culturally variability and universality of the concept of human rights, through the lens of gender rights. She advocated that although DRR workers do not have the right to impose their cultural values onto the communities where they are engaged, there is a moral obligation inherent to development assistance that compels one to oppose inequality, especially in the context of women’s rights. DRR is premised on the reduction of vulnerability, and this vulnerability frequently arises from inequality and disadvantage. If human rights are an imposition, claimed Le Masson, then so too is DRR.

Panelist Arif Rehman, Vulnerability and Resilience Coordinator at LEAD Pakistan, offered practitioner examples from experiences of DRR in Pakistan. He reported that although human rights are formally guaranteed by the state, the devolution of responsibility for these rights to local governments has resulted in strengthening existing power structures and local elites, rendering the notion of state-guaranteed rights redundant, especially given that many of the most vulnerable people are already beholden to local interest groups such as landowners.

The next panelist, Nanako Shimizu, Associate Professor in the Faculty of International Studies, considered the human rights issues that resulted from the Fukushima nuclear disaster. She claimed that the causes of nuclear health risk issues to the population surrounding the nuclear power plant were, (1) failure of prevention, (2) insufficient or misleading post-accident measures, and (3) lack of awareness within the population to realise their rights in a post-disaster context.

The final panellist, Cassidy Johnson, Senior Lecturer at the UCL Development Planning Unit, considered human rights in the aftermath of an earthquake in Turkey. Immediately after the earthquake, the disaster served as an economic leveler between the rich and poor, all of whom lost homes, family, and livelihoods. However, compensation measures implemented by the state in the recovery phase resulted in aggravating inequality by providing property to past owners and depriving tenants of the right to new housing. Cassidy’s case study highlighted how the continuation of pre-existing property regimes into a post-disaster context can amplify rights inequality.

Much of the discussion at the event centred around the question of whether human rights are an imposition or a necessity in the implementation of an effective and just DRR system. Whilst a few of the audience agreed with Cannon’s view, that human rights should not be externally imposed on other societies, many challenged it. Relating more closely to the issue of DRR within human rights, several audience members highlighted examples where the presence of pre-existing human rights violations left societies more vulnerable to disasters, so there is still much more to debate on this issue.