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UCL Institute for Risk and Disaster Reduction


Stop The Disaster! IRDR Spring Academy 2021

Joshua Anthony28 April 2021

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

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

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

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

A snapshot of the UNDRR game Stop the Disaster.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Happy (mostly) Faces of IRDR

Can you write about your research using the 1,000 most common words in the English language?

Joanna P Faure Walker10 May 2019

At the IRDR Spring Academy, I set each member of the IRDR the challenge of explaining their research using only the 1,000 most commonly used words in the English language (taken from this website).  We were allowed the odd exception for a few essential keywords (in my case “earthquake” and “fault”). We had about ten minutes to do this. Below we share some of our attempts. Would you like to try the same exercise?

IRDR Spring Academy 2019

Mohamed Alwahedi:

Some scientists think that all earthquakes happen in the same way, and by the same reason. That is called the self-similarity theory. I am going to test that theory.

David Alexander:

My latest research is on a sunken ship that is full of thousands of live bombs. The work looks at how the risk has been managed and what might happen to the wreck. There are several reasons why the ship might explode. Unfortunately, for 75 years, nothing has been done to reduce the risk, which has grown as the wreck has become older. The British Government has failed to create a clear picture of the danger posed by the ship. Hence, in terms of details, the risk is poorly known. An explosion could cause a terrible disaster. It is time to act, defuse the bombs and clear away the ship, but the options are limited by the danger.

Lucy Buck:

I study how a tsunami changes the land after the water has gone and what this means for the people who live there.

Joanna Faure Walker:

What makes an earthquake occur when and where it does? Scientists seek to answer this question using many different methods. My current work has two main approaches. First, if we collect more field data can we improve risk knowledge? Second, how much more can we learn when we measure details of fault structures? Through my work we have learnt more about how faults join and grow, where earthquakes occur and why, and what next steps need to be taken to help us reduce risk from earthquakes.

Jessica Field:

I have been researching in archives (which is a place where old documents are kept) in Delhi to better understand how the Indian government managed aid during emergencies like floods, earthquakes and conflicts during the 1940s-1960s.

Nathanael Harwood:

Not all ‘Global Warming’ has an equal impact across the Globe; the Arctic in particular has warmed at twice the rate of the rest of the globe, causing the region to be warmer and moister than it should be according to the last half-century of records.  At the same time weather extremes, including hot and cold waves that stick around for longer, have become a common occurrence further south of the Arctic where billions of people live in the warmer ‘midlatitudes’.  As Londoners, that includes us.  Normal weather conditions, or at least weather we would expect given the record, rely on a stable temperature and pressure difference between the Arctic and the midlatitudes which drives the wind and blows weather patterns like storms away at a reasonable pace.  But when these differences are changed, and the Arctic warms at a rate never seen before, it seems obvious that wind patterns and the atmosphere as a whole could be disturbed, made wavier and slower, or even blocked.

Despite this, we still don’t know the specific details on how the Arctic is impacting our weather, or the main driver of our weather called the ‘Jet Stream’, which blows above us at about the height you would take a jet plane at.  Computer models have given a wide range of results, and traditional techniques to look at climate records have failed to provide any robust answers.  This project uses ‘Bayesian Networks’, a way of considering how different things relate to each other in a large network, to look at how the Arctic region fits into relationships between the atmosphere and different parts of the world.  These large-scale disturbances of the jet stream, wind and weather are a crucial part of the climate change puzzle because they can cause devastating cold conditions, like on the US East Coast, unbearable heat waves across parts of Europe, as well as floods and droughts.  If we want to understand what the future holds for us in terms of extreme weather, we need to understand the relationships between these different drivers so that we can predict and better prepare for a future with a very warm Arctic.

Ilan Kelman:

There is a lot of talk that people must move because the climate is changing. Counting these numbers of people is very difficult and cannot really be done. People move for many reasons and do not always make decisions using long times. It is hard to pick only one factor.

Claudia Sgambato:

Earthquakes are some of the most dangerous natural events, causing many deaths and damage. It is important to contribute to the knowledge of when and where the next earthquakes will occur, and how destructive they can be. However, it is not an easy task: at present there is no way to predict an earthquake. My research addresses this problem, by studying where the structures responsible for producing earthquakes, called faults, are, and how often they rupture. I also study the geometry of the faults, in other words their changes in shape, because these may have an important role in the seismic hazard, causing a higher rate of deformation.

Mark Shortt:

Alone, I travelled to the north to research sea ice. It was very cold with a lot of wind, but with the help of other scientists I got some strength values. This will be important for oil and gas companies.

Omar Velazquez Ortiz:

I am trying to understand and improve the different escape ways that structures’ occupants can use under a shaking event, considering early warnings

Rory Walshe:

How does the history of risk from major cyclones effect society and culture for institutions and individuals and how can we research history to understand response.

Caroline Wood:

International professional instructions are available to help doctors give drugs to stop disease. Doctors can find it difficult to use these instructions in their practice, particularly for operations. Our research designs digital decision resources (apps) to help improve knowledge and educate doctors about the correct drugs to give.

Punam Yadav:

My recent research, which focusses on political participation of women and their agency, examines the life experiences of women who have been elected at the local government. The aim of this research is to examine the impact of reservation on the everyday life of these women politicians.

I carried out 25 interviews with women politicians and 5 interviews with male politicians. Despite increase in women’s representation in politics in Nepal, these women politicians talked about how difficult it was for them to work in a male dominated environment. They also spoke about opportunities their new roles had brought for them. They have access to new space and earned more respect due to their new roles.