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The Global Water Crisis is a Local Problem

By Mohammad Shamsudduha, on 11 July 2024

map of arsenic concentrations around the world. A zoomed in image of arsenic concentration in Bangladesh shows higher values in the south of the country close to the Bay of Bengal. Another smaller image shows arsenic incidents and concentrations in a village.
Machine learning algorithm generated map showing groundwater contamination (i.e., probability of arsenic concentrations >10 μg/L which is the WHO standard for drinking water) from a global study.

We often hear that the world is facing an imminent water crisis as demand for freshwater outstrips supply and water quality is degrading globally. This is true for many parts of the world. However, is it accurate to label this a “global water crisis”? The term conjures images of a unified, worldwide struggle against dwindling freshwater resources. This perspective often obscures the true nature of the crisis: a series of highly localised problems that vary significantly from one region to another. Global-level policies, though well-intentioned, frequently fail to address the specific needs and challenges faced by local communities. By examining issues such as groundwater depletion, water quality challenge (e.g., salinity, arsenic, faecal contamination), water poverty, and poor governance, we can better understand why the global water crisis is, in reality, a collection of local problems requiring tailored solutions.

Groundwater depletion in India

According to a World Bank report, India is the largest user of groundwater, extracting over 230 km3 annually, which accounts for about 25% of the global total. Groundwater serves as the lifeline for agriculture, drinking water, and industry across India. Over-abstraction of groundwater, particularly in states like Punjab, Haryana, and Uttar Pradesh, has led to severe depletion of aquifers. This overuse is driven by policies that encourage water-intensive crops and subsidise electricity for pumping water, without considering the long-term sustainability of water resources. Despite global efforts to promote sustainable water use, the issue persists due to the local agricultural practices (e.g., water-intensive rice crop cultivation) and policy incentives that need to be reformed.

Water salinity in coastal Bangladesh

In coastal Bangladesh, water salinity has become a major concern. New research led by a PhD student at RDR shows that reduction in river discharge, rising sea levels, and frequent cyclones, exacerbated by climate change, have increased the salinity of both groundwater and surface water sources. This has made it difficult for local populations to access fresh drinking water and has adversely affected health and agricultural production. Global climate policies may address the broader issue of climate change, but they do not provide immediate solutions to the salinity problems faced by coastal communities in Bangladesh. Localised strategies, such as building freshwater reservoirs, rainwater harvest, and adopting salt-tolerant crops, are essential to address these specific challenges. A study from the World Bank highlights that over 25 million people in Bangladesh are currently exposed to saline groundwater.

Arsenic contamination in Bangladesh and India

Arsenic contamination of groundwater has been a severe issue in parts of Bangladesh and India, particularly in the Ganges-Brahmaputra-Meghna Delta since early 1990s. Millions of people are exposed to arsenic levels far above safe limits, leading to serious health problems. Recent reports show that around 20 million people in Bangladesh and 13 million in India are exposed to very high arsenic contamination in drinking water. While international guidelines and global health policies raise awareness about the dangers of arsenic, the solution requires localised intervention. This includes identifying contaminated wells, providing alternative water sources, and educating communities about the risks and mitigation strategies. Global policies cannot replace the need for targeted, on-the-ground action to manage this public health crisis.

Water poverty in Sub-Saharan Africa

Water poverty remains a significant challenge across various regions globally, impacting millions of people daily. In many parts of Sub-Saharan Africa, access to clean water is a daily struggle. Water poverty, defined by lack of access to adequate, safe, and affordable water for a healthy life, affects millions. Global initiatives often focus on large-scale infrastructure projects, but these can overlook the specific needs of remote or impoverished communities. Local solutions, such as community-managed water supply systems, rainwater harvesting, and mobile water treatment units, can be more effective in addressing the unique challenges faced by these populations. According to the United Nations, over 400 million people in Sub-Saharan Africa lack access to basic drinking water services.

Sewage disposal and water pollution in the UK

Here in the UK, ongoing issues with sewage disposal by water companies highlight significant governance failures in managing water resources. Water companies have been criticised for discharging untreated sewage into rivers and coastal waters, leading to severe water pollution. This practice has contaminated waterways, affecting ecosystems and public health. Despite regulatory frameworks intended to protect water quality, enforcement has been lax, and infrastructure investments have lagged. According to the Environmental Agency, in 2023, England’s rivers and seas endured over 3.6 million hours of untreated sewage discharges, a 54% increase from the 1.75 million hours in 2022, with the total number of spills reaching 464,000​​. This severe water pollution impacts ecosystems and public health, underscoring the urgent need for stronger local governance and enforcement to address these issues effectively. Watershed Investigations has recently published a UK-wide map of water pollution that contains 120 datasets, ranging from river health, bathing water health, to historic landfill sites, sewage dumping, intensive farming, heavy industry and more.

Global awareness and local realities

While the global narrative of a water crisis is useful in creating public and policy awareness, it often fails to solve specific local problems on the ground. Unlike the global climate crisis, which is primarily driven by carbon emissions affecting the entire planet, water issues are highly localised and influenced by regional natural and anthropogenic factors.

Global policies tend to generalise the water crisis, leading to solutions that do not fit local contexts. For instance, the UN’s global water development report highlights broad issues, but without localised strategies, these insights do not translate into actionable solutions on the ground. Global campaigns such as the Sustainable Development Goals (SGD) may raise awareness, produce lots of reports, and mobilise resources but fall short in addressing specific local challenges such as the infrastructural deficits in Sub-Saharan Africa or the unique ecological impacts on Bangladesh’s coastal regions due to water and soil salinity.

Addressing the global water crisis through localised strategies is essential for real change. For instance, India’s severe groundwater depletion due to over-extraction for agriculture necessitates local policy reforms and sustainable water management practices. Coastal Bangladesh faces increasing water salinity from rising sea levels and cyclones, which can be mitigated through localised solutions like freshwater reservoirs, rainwater harvesting and salt-tolerant crops. In Sub-Saharan Africa, sustainable groundwater development, including managed aquifer recharge, solar-powered boreholes, and community-based management, effectively addresses water scarcity. The UK’s severe sewage disposal issues underscore the importance of stringent governance, regulation, and infrastructure investments. These examples illustrate that while global awareness is important, tailored, region-specific interventions (“global water crisis but local solutions”) are critical for effectively addressing diverse water challenges worldwide.


Dr Mohammad Shamsudduha | Department of Risk and Disaster Reduction

Dr. Mohammad Shamsudduha (Shams) is an Associate Professor at UCL RDR, specialising in water crises and risks to human health, irrigated agriculture, and climate adaptation. His research focuses on sustainable water management, water risk, and resilience strategies, with significant contributions to understanding groundwater quality and quantity crises around the world. Dr. Shams has been promoted to Professor of Water Crisis and Risk Reduction, effective from October 2024.


The views expressed in this blog are those of the author(s).

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Launch of Gender Action Plan (GAP) to support Sendai Framework for DRR

By Zahra Khan, on 16 May 2024

photograph of conference room. Approximately 30 people sit around a square table with microphones.
Launch of the Gender Action Plan. Photo by Zahra Khan.

On the 18th of March 2024, at the Commission for the Status of Women (CSW) 68 in NYC, the Gender Action Plan (GAP) to support the Sendai Framework was launched. I was very happy to be sitting in the room that was very full, especially of women and representatives from different delegations and UN agencies. It was a celebratory occasion marking an important milestone in Disaster Risk Reduction (DRR) and the beginning of the discussion to implement the plan collectively over the next 6 years.

UN Women, the UN Fund for Population Activities (UNFPA), and UNDRR were all present to provide some insight. UN Women started by commenting that since the launch of the Sendai Framework in 2015, they have been working together to link gender equality in resilience, and the role that gender inequality plays in disaster related risk – the most impacted by disasters are those marginalised such as women, the elderly, and the youth. Last year marked the halfway point of the Sendai framework, where parties renewed their commitment and agreed to close the gender gap in DRR and resilience with the GAP providing a clear pathway in closing that gap. It addresses the disproportionate effect of disaster on women and girls and emphasises the need to involve and increase women participation at government level so they can influence and implement policy.

Climate change is deepening, and over 12000 climate disasters have been recorded since 1970 resulting in tremendous economic and human loss. There’s only six years left of the Sendai framework to reverse this bleak trajectory, but by working together this can be done. Take, for example, the hole in the Ozone layer – 35 years ago countries came together to combat the impact and now it is currently healing. The GAP was built by 70 countries and 500 non-governmental stakeholders, highlighting the need to scale up gender responsive DRR to get back on track for the 2030 agenda, and increasing efforts in supporting women in small island developing states (SIDS) and least developed countries (LDCs) to access DRR offices.

The UNFPA echoed these sentiments; the GAP integrates a gender lens in all DRR practices and is structured around the 4 fragilities in the Sendai framework to accelerate impact by governments. Gender based violence (GBV) was also mentioned as this increases in a disaster context and we need better access to healthcare, reproductive health and family planning services. Gender disaggregated data is still a challenge and we need to strengthen the availability of it to better inform policy.  Women are key agents of change, with unique capacities that are indispensable in building resilience. Accessing financing was brought up more than once – where you need funding for women led initiatives in the DRR space.

The UNDRR reiterated that the GAP is a fundamental step in the right direction in mainstreaming gender within DRR and is important because we need to accelerate the progress of the implementation of the Sendai Framework – the costs of disasters are increasing, and we need to manage and control the risks. The GAP cuts across 33 actions over 9 objectives with a consideration for early warnings where women are often left behind. They want to work with countries to implement this and adapt it to turn actions into impact and are currently working on several indicators. The UNDRR hope that in 2030 we can look back on the GAP, having reduced gender inequality and saved lives throughout the world. 

The Secretary General’s office was also present and stated a few words. The GAP underlines the resolve of the international community to take decisive action. Policy needs to be risk informed and leverage women leadership – they need to be the centre of policies, planning and decision making especially in resource allocation and deployment. Its full implementation will reduce gender inequality and keep the SDGs promise for all.

Representatives from Malawi, Philippines, Australia, and the stakeholder groups were also in attendance and took the floor to share their insights. Intersectionality with mention of disability was spoken about for the first time. Women with disabilities have different risk exposure and often lose their devices in disasters. Societal inequalities in non-disaster contexts leads to compounded discrimination and the manifestation of GBV which is heightened during disaster response. Malawi has developed training manuals to train women led organisations to implement gender interventions within DRR. The GAP gives confidence to respond to gender issues and ensure that systematic implementation will achieve its objectives, but they are looking for financial support to fully realise these goals.

The Philippines demonstrated a strong intention to commit and reinforce the goals of gender equality, especially in DRR. They also highlighted the need to apply an intersectional lens, shedding light on women and girls in poverty who have different needs and protection in disaster zones. Evacuation shelters should prioritise highly vulnerable women. They have implemented programmes with cash incentives, so people come to the training. They stressed a multisectoral response – governments cannot work alone and need strong collaboration with social welfare services to support internally displaced people. They didn’t want the GAP to be a theoretical exercise, but put into practice, scaling up either gender efforts.

Australia was very active in the consultation and drafting of the GAP with a secure, political commitment for gender responsive and risk informed DRR. They have provided seed funding investment to support the implementation of the GAP. They have increased stakeholder engagement, working in the Pacific region, and assisting partner countries to mobilise domestic resources and eliminate risks to advance the localisation of DRR. They are working to enhance early warning systems across the South Pacific and found that for every $1 invested, they saw a $4 return. They are prioritizing their effort to accelerate the Sendai Framework though measurable actions and sharing good practice.

The representative for the non-governmental stakeholder group was the first to mention that disasters are not natural but are a result of social and economic injustices. There was sense of urgency and determination with a refusal to accept complacency. Half of the population is condemned to powerlessness but it’s a matter of rights and survival – women stabilise economies. The stakeholders which involved many civil societies and women led organisations stand in solidarity to make the GAP a catalyst for lasting change.

The session concluded with questions from the floor where issues of non-paid work and budgets were brought up, the need for accessibility and increased participation of women and girls to drive transformative change. Final remarks stated that the GAP is a vital blueprint towards 2030, to see a substantial decrease in gender related disaster risk and the key priority now is what gets done and we, collectively, need to be the ones that do it.


Zahra Khan is a research and outreach assistant at the GRRIPP project


The views expressed in this blog are those of the author(s).

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Was the flood disaster in Oman avoidable?

By Salma Al-Zadjali, on 25 April 2024

Photograph of the Al Hajar mountains. Road with cars in the foreground, mountain range in the background.
Al Hajar Mountains” by Iwona Rege is licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0.

On April 14, a severe flash flood invaded Oman from an extreme precipitation event that lasted until April 17. The highest rainfall record over the entire period was 302mm, while the peak hourly record reached 180.2mm. This weather event is not an extraordinary case considering the topography of Oman represented by the lofty Al Hajar mountains. Advection from hot and cold air masses during this transitional season and moisture flow from the surrounding water basins are all a recipe for severe thunderstorms, especially when combined with an external trigger such as surface low pressures and extended upper level-troughs. However, the interaction of humans with natural hazards created susceptibility to a disaster. Up to April 18, 21 people were found dead, including 11 pupils and infants. The final number of lost bodies is not yet confirmed. At least 1200 people including kids were trapped in schools and buses rescued by the Civil defence. Many people were isolated on the road or in their houses as flash floods invaded their homes and gardens, cutting off transportation links.

The loss was tremendous despite the issuance of warnings and forecasts. The root cause of this disaster was inadequate decision-making which led to the loss of life and enormous damages by increasing the risks, exposure, and vulnerability. Communities live on the floodplain and the flood-prone areas in the valleys (locally known as Wadis) that connect the mountains and the coastal plain. Intensive floodplain land use and a poor urban planning system aggravated flooding incidence. However, no statistics are available to the public indicating the extent and nature of property damage. The absence of a sufficient drainage system amplified the calamity during this case due to the saturation and flooding of the ground from the persistent precipitation.

Are we prepared for more extreme precipitation and intense tropical cyclones in the future as a consequence of climate hazards and cloud seedings operations? How can we mitigate and reduce the risks from extreme future scenarios when the precipitation record is broken?

Call for Action

Day and Fearnley (2015) divided mitigation systems into three main strategies based on when and how actions should be taken: permanent mitigation, responsive mitigation, and anticipatory mitigation. Their study showed how important it is to integrate and coordinate these three strategies, which also need to be tested to see how well and resilient they work. For these strategies to work well together, paying close attention to how they affect each other is essential. The most important thing to consider is how the vulnerable population understands the decision-making processes, how they react to the warning messages regarding their awareness, and what they expect these strategies to do. For example, the limited ability of permanent mitigation strategies to deal with rare hazards under poor responsive and anticipatory strategies leads to disastrous results. The historical record was ignored during the northeast Japan earthquake and tsunami on March 11, 2011, despite the high standards of permanent mitigation measures. The same thing could happen under irresponsive actions toward the issued warnings. The schools and workplaces would have been moved online, and the announcement should have been made at least 48 hours before the approach of the significant weather cases.

Successful mitigation systems require four key components: a map of the hazards, an early warning system, a control structure and non-structure measures, and regional planning and development (Wieczorek et al., 2001; Larsen, 2008). Non-structural measures can include reorganising, removing, converting, discouraging, and regulating growth (Wieczorek et al., 2001). For example, preventing, and minimising the redevelopment of areas susceptible to the future hazards. Hazard-prone areas can be utilised as an open space or certain type of farming taking in consideration the relevant factors.

A structural measure could include designing and constructing parallel to the flow direction and constructing multi-story buildings where the second floor can be used for living instead of the first (Kelman, 2001). Unfortunately, no public building census data is available to determine the number of stories in existing buildings in Oman. Other engineering solutions, such as large debris flow impoundment dams and their regular maintenance, could offer some protection even for the alluvial fan regions. More research must be conducted in each watershed to answer specific design questions, including the size of the event for which they should be built (Larsen, 2008).

Although the warning system does not prevent property damage, it protects lives by predicting flood-prone areas. It relies on radar, ground, and upper-air observations, as well as a robust model to identify the thresholds that trigger flood risk for each place with a rapid and practical link between Ministries of education, higher education, labour, civil defence, police, and the relevant authorities. Using general flash flood forecasts for fear of false alarms reduces the credibility and practicability of the warning system. On the other hand, the use and value of a warning are inversely proportional to the size of the geographical area covered by the warning (Larsen, 2008).

Regional planning and policy formulation need to involve multidisciplinary experts. For example, developing a flood hazard management policy requires technical expertise, public education and awareness, and good communication between scientists, policymakers, and politicians. Local communities should be involved alongside physical and social scientists. Post-event decision-making about recovery and reconstruction involves an exemplary dialogue between the government, experts, and the local population. Different options must be considered, such as balancing flood risk reduction against loss of livelihood and social considerations, and a compromise must be reached between the different groups. This measure guarantees that local voices and narratives are heard, ensuring resilience can only be accomplished by appreciating human livelihoods. 

With the increasing responsibilities and capability of efficiently responding to warnings, the study of how decision-makers and people receive and react to a warning has become essential to warning design. Educational programmes should be developed to increase familiarity with the warnings and the appropriate response (see Towards the “perfect” weather warning from the WMO), which is also emphasised in Target G of the Sendai Framework to “Substantially increase the availability of and access to multi-hazard early warning systems and disaster risk information and assessments to people by 2030”.

There is a need to develop disaster risk reduction strategies and systems that allow for the large uncertainties in the region’s hazard frequency-intensity distributions. No one can deny the complexity of Oman’s topography or the flood risks in the Al Hajar mountains, but this topography can be a boon if properly engineered and utilised.

Finally, a comprehensive national flood hazard management strategy is urgently required, along with urgent actions to be implemented to tackle the cascading flood risks. With each further delay, the total cost of the bills will go up even further in the future.


Salma Al-Zadjali is a PhD candidate at IRDR, researching decadal climate variability of precipitation in order to assess the feasibility of a cloud seeding project over the Al-Hajar mountains in Oman. 


The views expressed in this blog are those of the author.

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Cop28: we need more accountability in adaptation

By Susannah Fisher, on 8 December 2023

photo of cop28 conference panel from audience perspective
Dr Susannah Fisher is in Dubai following the COP28 adaptation negotiations and sends us her account.

After early progress on the loss and damage fund and announcements on energy and health from COP 28 in Dubai, attention in the corridors in week 2 is turning to adapting to the impacts of climate change. One of the major topics of negotiation is the global goal on adaptation. Members of the Accountable Adaptation team at IRDR are following these discussions to understand the politics behind measuring adaptation.

What is the global goal on adaptation?

The global goal on adaptation was established in the Paris Agreement in 2015 and seeks to create a global political commitment to action on adaptation on par with mitigation. The goal seeks to “enhance adaptive capacity, strengthen resilience and reduce vulnerability to climate change in the context of the temperature goal of the Agreement”. Progress has been slow since 2015, but work started in earnest after the Glasgow COP in 2021.

Since Glasgow negotiators and observers have been meeting every few months in a series of workshops to push the idea forward and consider what it means to create a global goal for adaptation. These workshops have covered issues such as transformational adaptation, indigenous knowledge and links with other global frameworks but only in recent months have steps forward been made on a concrete framework for the goal.

Why do we need a goal?

Progress on adaptation action has been very slow and largely incremental. This means governments, communities and the private sector have been making small changes and tweaks to existing activities, policies and programmes to adapt. For example growing a new crop, building an irrigation system or putting sandbags around a house close to water. As the impacts of climate change are becoming clearer, in many cases we know this will not be enough. We will need to make more systemic, more transformative choices to adapt and live well with the scale of the climate impacts anticipated.

Adaptation has not received the same political attention as mitigation, and if we are to make progress on these challenges, this needs to change. There also hasn’t been enough money invested in adaptation and the international community has not fulfilled its promise to deliver $40-50 billion a year for adaptation. The latest UNEP Adaptation Gap report shows that only $21 billion was delivered in 2021, and the needs for adaptation are 10-18 times higher than the amount of public finance available.

Why is it so hard?

There are many challenges to measuring adaptation – outcomes and priorities depend on local contexts and it touches all sectors. Data is limited. In many cases we don’t really know what effective adaptation looks like. This could be different in a 1.5 degree world, 2 or the 3 we are heading for without more ambitious action. To design a global framework has therefore been full of political and technical challenges.

What has happened in the negotiations in Dubai?

Negotiations have been going on all week on the global goal on adaptation but little progress has been made. According to the Earth Negotiations Bulletin one observer called them “dire: and negotiators fear what will happen if the goal “crashes and burns”.

In the negotiating room, governments have been debating what role finance should play in the text on the global goal, what thematic areas should be included, what indicators are relevant, and if work should continue beyond this COP. There has been no agreement so far.

Does any of this really matter?

The global goal matters as it will set the level of ambition and the framing for what adaptation success looks like. It is a key tool for accountability allowing the COP to check if the international community is on track with planning, implementation, and finance to address the impacts of climate change, and to change course if it is not.

As part of our research at IRDR, we are analysing how governments and others understand the role of measurement and how adaptation measurement shapes action. These conversations on the global goal can often get lost in finding the best way to measure this complexity, but metrics embody a set of values and an understanding of success. Measurement can be used to raise ambition, build inclusion, and frame what solutions look like. It is inherently a social and political process.

As the doors to Expo City open today, we wait to see how the goal will move forward.


Dr Susannah Fisher is UKRI Future Leaders Principal Research Fellow. She works across research, policy and practice on adapting to climate change with an interest in ensuring climate finance supports effective and equitable adaptation, and that adaptation is at the scale and ambition we need for the escalating impacts of climate change.

Wagamama: have we thought enough about the impacts of gendered norms in disasters?

By Punam K Yadav and Miwako Kitamura, on 30 November 2023

A damaged house on the side of a road
Tohoku after March 11 by Shinsuke JJ Ikegame is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

Recognition of the different impacts of gendered norms is not new. We know that people are impacted differently in disasters and that attention needs to be paid to these differences while planning for preparedness, evacuation, response, and recovery. We also know that, like sexual and gender minorities, women are not a homogeneous group. However, have we paid enough attention to the impacts of culture-specific, often unspoken and implicit, gendered norms, which get exacerbated during crises? Often learnt through everyday practise, they are not only invisible to the outsiders but also to the insiders, taken for granted and seen as normal or obvious. The effects of such norms are often felt and experienced more by women and gender minorities than men. In this blog, we are going to talk about such unspoken norms in Japan and their impacts on people’s lives.

Wagamama

Here we would like to introduce a term, Wagamama. Interestingly many of us who live in the UK already know this term well, however, with a completely different understanding. ‘Wagamama’ is the name of a restaurant chain in the UK, which it says was inspired by fast-paced Japanese ramen bars. Many of us may have been there and enjoyed their delicious food. This restaurant portrays a positive meaning of this term of being self-indulgent, self-centred, picky, fussy, and so on. However, do we know the cultural meaning and interpretation of this term? How is it used and what does it really mean in Japanese culture?

Wagamama is a Japanese word, which means being selfish, demanding, or thinking about yourself and your own needs instead of others. This term is used to describe a certain behaviour of a person in a certain context. In some culture, it may be seen as a positive thing as the Wagamama restaurant portrays it to be. However, in Japan it is often used as a negative term. This term has a temporal element (which could have a long-term impact on people’s lives), as it is not a fixed characteristic of a person; however, it is used to describe a certain behaviour of a person.

Harmony

The opposite of this term is harmony. Harmony is key in Japanese culture and the meaning is quite vague leaving a lot of room for interpretation. Harmony generally means thinking about others and putting their needs before your own, which includes thinking not only about your family but the wider community too—and this becomes even more prevalent in the context of crisis. Although in theory this may look like a very good thing, having to live up to this expectation can create severe consequences for some. Non-compliance to maintaining ‘harmony’ means you are a Wagamama. This applies to all, including women, men, children, elderly, people with disability, and gender minority. However, for some people the consequences of non-compliance are severe. We will use some stories (based on real incidents) to illustrate this concept. However, we will use pseudonyms (and non-Japanese names) to avoid any indirect harm or unintended consequences.

Examples

Mike is a transgender man who was looking for a job. He went to the job centre to ask for help. He said as a transgender man he was facing difficulty in finding a job, so he needed help. Instead of helping him, the person at the job centre told him that it was selfish of him to expect that people should understand his gender identity—that he was thinking about himself and not others. Here one would think he hasn’t asked for anything, so why would anyone call him selfish? In a Japanese context, even disclosing your gender identity is seen as ‘Wagamama’—being selfish and not caring about other people. This becomes even more evident in the context of disaster as they are not meant to ask for any special treatment based on their gender identify, including any medical help.

People who worked in the evacuation centres during the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake said it was very difficult to find out what women needed and what challenges they were facing as they would not speak for fear that if they asked for something—even for gender specific needs—people would call them Wagamama. Likewise, if food supplies were not adequate, then they will stay hungry and not announce that they have not eaten anything. Likewise, due to the gender division of roles and expectations, women were supposed to cook and feed everyone in the evacuation centres. Regardless of how tired they were or unwell they felt, they still had to carry on. They feared that if they said anything or asked for help, people will call them Wagamama.

These cultural expectations are also the same for men due to the gender division of labour, although women and gender minorities are disproportionately impacted by the Wagamama culture. Men are expected to be strong and brave. For instance, after the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake, men struggled to express their feelings and vulnerability to their families and relatives. As a coping mechanism, some men went to sex workers to unburden their physiological distress.  Likewise, even elderly women were feared seeking help as they did not want to be called Wagamama in the times of crisis as there were bigger needs and community harmony was more important than their own needs, so they suffered but did not ask for help.

Despite all that has been done to recognise gendered social norms and their impacts on people, there is still a lot of work to be done in DRR. It is important to understand both spoken and unspoken social and cultural norms and their impacts on people’s everyday lives for inclusive DRR. In this short blog, we discussed some of the examples of Wagamama and its impacts on people’s everyday lives. We are currently working on a full paper where we analyse more cases to illustrate this concept, so watch this space.


Dr Punam Yadav is Associate Professor of Humanitarian Studies and Co-director of the Centre for Gender and Disaster at the Institute for Risk and Disaster Reduction, University College London. Click here to learn more about her work.

Dr Miwako Kitamura is an Assistant Professor at the International Research Institute of Disaster Science (IRIDeS) at Tohoku University, Japan. She is one of the founder of a non-profit organization dedicated to supporting special minorities and people with disabilities in disaster.

Do we need more ‘pre-emptive retrospection’?

By Chris Needham-Bennett, on 12 October 2023

If something went wrong and in two years’ time the investigative documentary, ‘Panorama’ or the like, made a programme about the sequence of events, hosted by the most antagonistic of interviewers, would my organisation and/or me, look prudent or reckless?

Risk and its popular acceptance are determined by whomsoever one might define as ‘society’. The intensely complex relationship of risk and society has been debated in detail by the likes of Ulrich Beck, and shaped by Anthony Giddens. The sociological perspectives and arguments available are lengthy and intricate but are basically about how a society responds to risk.

Titan

A recent tragic example was the Titan submersible in its final decent to the Titanic. A great deal of commentary has revolved around the ‘I told you so.’ retrospective, the lack of regulation, ‘certification’ and the alleged irresponsibility of the designer who also died in his own craft. The risks were, at least when measured in media column inches, unacceptable. Yet the development of flight, which we now almost take for granted and accept as being ‘safe,’ demanded a far higher death toll of its pioneers. Lilienthal, now regarded by many as the father of flight, (he invented the concept of the first modern wing) died of injuries suffered in a stall from 50 feet. The ‘Comet’, the first commercial pressurised jet passenger aircraft lost three aircraft in twelve months from catastrophic in-flight break ups. There appears to be a ‘balance sheet of fatalities’ required to achieve progress, and the terms used by society, ‘reckless’ or ‘pioneering’ are generally a product of the time in which the events occurred, and the relatively recent loss of two Boeing 737 MAX aircraft was not generally viewed with the same phlegmatic, post war acceptance of the Comet losses.

Making Progress

Based on the assumption that progress in any discipline, despite ethics committees, will involve some risk to someone at some time, the critical question is what degree of risk and consequent loss is acceptable to maintain progress in such a discipline. Remember that we are in the Institute for Risk and Disaster Reduction (not its Eradication). Most disciplines have developed their own particular measures in line with their industry’s ethical milieu. The more familiar are medical trials and processes of drug licencing which are rigorous, expensive and time consuming for all the right reasons. Additionally, one can plainly see the evolution of such risk management measures from 1796 and Jenner’s retrospectively unethical but brilliant action of the vaccination of a single 8-year old.

Many other industries, food, cosmetics, and furniture all have some form of standards. The EU even has rules for makers of hot air balloons who rejoice in a publication Easy access rules for balloonswhich is a mere 345 pages long. But, where we are confronted by a plexiglass and carbon fibre submarine, metaphorically made in an inventor’s shed, the position is less clear. There is no real licencing authority for voluntary and informed consent pleasure trips into the Abyss; and if we are seeking to define the acceptable level of risk proportionate to progress in any field then it is equally apparent that it lies neither with the increasing imposition of banal risk/Health & Safety regulatory bureaucracy, nor a laissez faire arrogance as to genuine risks.

Reasonableness

How do we strike the right note on the spectrum between impotent over-precaution and wilful recklessness? First, as (Professor) James Reason humanely advocated, we need to guard against hindsight bias:

Before judging too harshly the human failings that concatenate to cause a disaster, we need to make a clear distinction between the way the precursors appear now, given the knowledge of the unhappy outcome, and the way they seemed at the time.

James Reason in Human Error, 1990. Cambridge University Press.

But as Reason implied some degree of judgement is required and the question remains what level of judgement should be applied. In English civil law cases the test of ‘reasonableness’ is long established as a principle of judgement. It was exemplified by the term, the ‘man on the Clapham omnibus’. This was updated by Lord Steyn’s analogy of the “commuter on the underground”. The principle in this test is that what is deemed ‘reasonable’ in a legal context in a civil case, would be that which the normal person on public transport felt was reasonable. In other words, “What would a reasonable person of ordinary prudence have done in the defendant’s situation?”

However, the problem of reasonableness is that it seems remarkably easy to convince oneself as to one’s own reasonableness, how indeed could it be otherwise? Naturally, the test of reasonableness is almost always applied retrospectively and, as Reason notes above, the person taking the risk at the time of the event might have had little cause to appreciate the risk. Like Lilienthal, if you are the first person to successfully fly a glider there is no reason, a priori, to understand the aerodynamics of a stall. Therefore, one is left with a further question of how one might fail to appreciate a risk but nonetheless demonstrate sufficient reasonableness to still convince the reasonable commuter of your prudence, especially a commuter who has, by the time of the inquiry or trial, read all of the initial news reports.

Pre-emptive retrospection

At this point we introduce the new notion of ‘pre-emptive retrospection’ (PER). Mentally one goes forward in time from now to a point say two years in the future and one asks the question as follows. If something went wrong and in two years’ time the investigative documentary, ‘Panorama’ or the like, made a programme about the sequence of events, hosted by the most antagonistic of interviewers, would my organisation and/or me, look prudent or reckless? This notion introduces an introspection of the activity that goes beyond the test of reasonableness (of which it is easy to convince oneself). This technique, forces an emphasis on foresight as to how one’s action could be perceived in the future with the dubious benefit of hindsight, it is not merely the question, ‘does it seem reasonable to me/us right now?’ It can also be applied from a variety of perspectives, consumer opinion, victim perception, stakeholder interest, shareholder confidence, and the media influenced reasonable person; this goes beyond one’s contemplation of one’s own potential reasonableness.

Pre-emptive retrospection is not a legal test like reasonableness, nor does it inhibit risk taking, rather it simply demands a pause for objective thought as to how ones current actions could be perceived in the future.


Dr Chris Needham-Bennett is Managing Director at Needhams1834 Ltd and Visiting Professor at University College London.


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Building Resilience with Decision Analysis

By Jeffrey Keisler, on 25 May 2023

I have the wonderful honour of being a MAPS Fellow at UCL. This came about through conversations with my friend and colleague (and now host), Prof. Gianluca Pescaroli. Although we bonded through discussions about used vinyl records, I will instead talk about our work.

My background is in decision analysis, a field that takes quantitative approaches involving probability, utility, and decision trees to identify the overall risks and benefits associated with actions under uncertainty. In the context of resilience, there is much uncertainty but most of the focus is on trying to improve systems.

Thinking of information as a separate dimension of protection–because information helps people make the decisions that lead to optimal recovery–can lead to lower cost ways to bring about greater resilience. But improving information itself is costly. It can be tricky to figure out which information-related efforts are worthwhile. There are different ways to bring information into a decision process.

By taking a concept from decision analysis, value of information (VOI), we can take a more strategic approach. We can actually quantify the benefit of different possible efforts. Basically, we characterise the mix of potential consequences of making the best possible choice given a limited amount of information and compare this with what would happen if the same decisions were made with the benefit of more information. With this analysis, we can improve resilience by making investments to ensure that relevant information will be available after disruptions. These can be just as beneficial as investments in physical assets which can also minimise the damage of disruptions.

In managing resilience, we anticipate possible disruptions, and consider what can happen before, during, and after them. With a VOI approach, we also consider what information will be available for which decisions before, during, and after disruptions, and then can take steps to make that information available during those periods. Examples include purchasing information, building better information systems and communication systems, performing experiments, or potentially buying time for information to arrive by speeding decisions implementation and freezing damage during the time we’re waiting for information.

During my time at UCL I am meeting with a number of researchers in IRDR to apply this idea efficiently to problems in several important areas where we are studying resilience. These include healthcare, natural hazards, and technological or business crises. With these results, we can look toward building more sophisticated analyses or refining the planning process to flesh out the informational dimension. The researchers here have backgrounds in quantitative areas such as risk analysis and systems analysis as well as in the social sciences and in the physical sciences. There are many different types of data and phenomena to consider as we pull together these models. My hope is this will lay the groundwork for future valuable projects and continued collaboration.


MAPS Fellow Jeffrey Keisler is a Professor in the College of Management at University of Massachusetts Boston, where he specialises in Decision and Risk Analysis. He thanks the welcoming and wonderful group at IRDR for their making this visit such a special experience. 

Finding Mosquitoes!

By a.aldosery, on 12 December 2022

Aisha Aldosery


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

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

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

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

The hardware component of the MOISS system.                                                          

Trip Two – Introducing Madeira Mosquito Surveillance App 

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

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

Environmental agents, after completing the surveillance app workshop.

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

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

Assembly and testing phase of MOISS units at the lab.

MOISS system deployment.

Trip Four – Madeira Mosquito Surveillance App Piloting Workshop

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

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

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

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

Acknowledgements

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

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


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

Is Legislation Useful for Disaster Risk Reduction?

By Jesús Garrido Manrique, on 28 November 2022

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

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

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

Does smart legislation ensure better DRR?

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

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

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

Barriers to DRR legislation

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

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

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

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

Legislation and the Sendai Framework for DRR

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

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

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


References

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

Acknowledgments

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


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

Vulnerability is the root cause of Pakistan’s susceptibility to disasters

By Joshua Anthony, on 21 November 2022

Author: Dr. Laila Shahzad*


According to the IPCC AR5, the human influence on the planetary climate system is undeniable and emissions from greenhouse gases (GHGs) are at the highest levels ever seen in the history of mankind. These climatic changes have had widespread impacts on human and natural systems. The most visible effects of changing climate are variation in rainfall pattern, increasing average temperature, glacier melting, rising sea levels, crop diseases, species invasions, weather related disasters and many more. Human activities involved in bringing these changes are industrial processes, fossil fuel burning, vehicular emission, and agriculture. The unpredictable rainfall patterns and variable seasonal precipitation badly influence the soil water availability for crop, loss from floods or drought, and become a serious issue for the farmers of South Asia and policy makers as a greater threat to food security.

South Asia, a region chiefly described as having agricultural-based economies, is considered as the most vulnerable region in the world. As the change in food growth and production will directly affect the food needs of burgeoning population due to disturbance in financial, ecological, and social systems on this part of planet earth. The situation in the region is worsened by locality, topography, socio-political influences, literacy rate, unskilled labourers, economic instability, poverty, and livelihood dependency on natural resources.

Pakistan, a country with 225 million (approx.) inhabitants suffered by the unprecedented floods in June 2022 which lasted for months. Torrential monsoon rains triggered the severe flooding which washed away thousands of houses and crop land leaving people homeless and food insecure.

A little background

Pakistan is the second largest country by its area in South Asia after India, and is highly vulnerable to climatic changes, ranked among the top ten countries by the Global climate risk index of the world in past many years. The country is recurrently affected by the disasters in both the long term index and in the index of a respective year, alluding to the persistent nature of underlying vulnerabilities. The climate of the country ranges from subtropical arid to semi-arid and temperate to alpine. Precipitation varies from 100 to 2000 mm mainly from June to September across the countryside. It is broadly an agrarian country with a contribution of 21% to GDP from agriculture which provides employment to 62% of the population. The main crops are wheat, cotton, and rice grown at different agro-ecological zones of the country with diversified hydrological, soil, and climatic conditions. Temperature and rainfall show constantly increasing and decreasing trends, respectively. Since the start of the 20th century, the rising temperature has caused an increase in demand of evapotranspiration for crops by up to 10-30%. The agricultural system in Pakistan is already worsened by the urbanisation as it has decreased the production due to conversion of fertile land into housing societies. On the other side, recurring floods end up losing the soil fertility and disturbing the crop cycle.

Floods of 2022: a compound disaster

The 2022 Pakistan floods caused unprecedented damage to agriculture crops, livestock, and infrastructure, including damages to storage facilities with tons of grain, posing unmeasurable risk. Badly affected crops include—but are not limited to—rice, sugarcane, cotton, wheat, and small-scale farmers totally lost their livelihood. Pakistan is the world’s fifth-largest producer of cotton and produces about 5% of world’s demand which will affect the supply due to flood damages.

According to the World Bank, the worst hit sectors are housing, agriculture, livestock, and, lately, transport and communications with significant damages of USD 5.6 billion, USD 3.7 billion, and USD 3.3 billion, respectively (Pakistan Floods 2022 Post-Disaster Needs Assessment). This actually calls for cascading effects as such massive disasters have tangible and intangible losses; in terms of water borne diseases, shortage of food, price hike, loss of machinery, post disaster trauma, losing mental health and wellbeing, and disturbing the crop cycle due to water logging.

So now the question arises: could this event be controlled or at least better managed? What Strategies did Pakistan have to minimise flood losses? The government of Pakistan is currently in the phase of recovery, where bringing people back to normal life is not easy. Though time has proved that this tragic event has to be a turning point when it comes to making disaster risk reduction policy for the vulnerable. The policy should have focused on the most vulnerable in enhancing climate resilience and adaptations by developing community-based disaster management at district and tehsil levels. Focus should be on nonstructural risk reduction measures by giving disaster education to the masses. In the shortest way, the emergency health system, training local farmers, introducing livelihood diversification, and emergency cash transfer system can be prioritized. This calls for interactive and integrated polices where communities need to be prepared for future disasters and be a part of policy making. The government tiers have to be more connected than working in isolation as managing the compound impacts will not be an easy job.

With the theme of building back better, Pakistan should not only manage the losses and provide immediate support to families; rather, a long way to go is “to plan” as climatic emergencies will keep coming with more magnitude and frequency, and to the more vulnerable.


*Dr. Laila Shahzad is a post-doctoral fellow in the Institute for Risk and Disaster Reduction, UCL London and Assistant professor at Sustainable Development Study Centre, GC University, Lahore, Pakistan. | lailashahzad@gcu.edu.pk