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Is there such a thing as ethical and safe disaster research?

By Mhari Gordon, on 29 February 2024

photograph of a conference presentation. Presenter stands in front of whiteboard with "Important Considerations" as title of slide
Workshop on Research Safety, Security, and Ethics during the NEEDS Conference 2023 PhD School  (link to original post).

Disaster ethical and risk considerations have received a growing—and needed—interest in the past few years. This has led to a rise in the likes of calls for ‘Disaster-zone Code of Conduct’ (see Profs Gaillard and Peek in Nature) and disaster discipline-specific ethical standards (see Dr Traczykowski in RADIX).

The ‘Box-Ticking’ Exercise

Ethical and risk considerations have long been treated as peripheral to a research project and only reflected upon when applying for ethics and risk assessment approval from a university – with such procedures often viewed as an ‘obstacle’. Common complaints are centred around the time it takes to fill in various forms and providing documentation, as well as the length of the review process. The approval procedures have largely been derived from medical and physical sciences using quantitative methods and analysis. As such, their appropriateness to disaster studies, as well as being treated as a tick-box mentality, has been critiqued by disaster and other social science researchers. There is a need for ethical and risk considerations to be reflected and acted upon throughout the entirety of a project.

Disaster Ethical and Risk Considerations

Many of the ethical and risk considerations and procedures used in disaster studies have been drawn from lessons and practices in the humanitarian and global health sector. Such sectors tend to operate in different contexts and landscapes than disaster research. A lot of the time, disaster researchers are not working in such controlled spaces or in teams, like in humanitarian responses (see Dr Smirl’s book Spaces of Aid: How Cars, Compounds and Hotels Shape Humanitarianism). Therefore, it is important to reflect and develop ethical and risk considerations which are representative of disaster research.

Table: 
column 1: ethical considerations.
values: •	Lack of ‘giving back’ or benefits for the participants
•	Data exploitation
•	Participant re-traumatization
•	Researcher traumatization
•	Researcher positionality
•	Unknown and/or unfamiliarity of risks (i.e., causing offense or cultural misunderstanding)
column 2: risk considerations.
values: •	Illness
•	Loss of information or data
•	Petty crime and robbery
•	Harassment
•	Bribery (i.e., coercion or scam)
•	Stress (i.e., anxiety or burnout)
•	Political risks
•	Everyday risks
The most common ethical and risk considerations, as shared by Dr Rodrigo Mena and Lea Maria Liekefedt during a workshop on ‘Research Safety, Security, and Ethics’ during the NEEDS Conference 2023.

‘Outsourcing’ of Ethics and Risk

A common mitigation strategy and ‘best practice’ used to overcome certain ethical and risk considerations is to collaborate with local partners or research assistants. For example, having locals conduct surveys or hiring a local person as a driver or translator. Whilst this can contribute great value and legitimacy to a project, it can also (unintentionally) create situations and conditions which may place such individuals in precarious situations (see Mena and Hilhorst’s paper on ethical considerations in disaster and conflict-affected areas or Redfield’s (2012) paper on Médecins Sans Frontières efforts to decolonize). For example, locals being asked by authorities to share information about the project(s) or non-local researchers. As such, this can potentially transfer the onus of ethics and risk from the principal researcher and their institute to their local counterparts.

To assess ethical and risk considerations effectively, research plans and actions should be reviewed and revised during the entirety of the project—with a focus on the relation with others including local people, partners, and organisations/institutions.

Future of ethical and risk considerations in disaster studies

There is a growing recognition within the disaster studies that there is a need to engage in more ethically and risk aware research practices. Some scholars are using and encouraging the use of more reflexive and creative methodologies and methods – stimulating a move away from the historically popular quantitative methods and fully-objective approaches. Multi-media use in combination with more traditional methods, such as interviews, have been increasingly used in disaster research and publications. For example, using playdough or body-mapping workshops and interviews to describe experiences of floods in South Africa (see Emily Ragus) or creating novella-based creative workshops and interviews with Puerto Rican families about their experiences of recovery from Hurricane Maria (see Dr Gemma Sou).

Whilst certain methods may not be new, per-se, the reflexive manner to which they have been applied to disaster studies can be argued to be novel and showing a shift in general approaches. Such approaches will – of course – have their set of ethical and risk considerations, however, these types of approaches have the potential to be more in-tune with such considerations for the researcher, participants, and wider populations. The growing momentum of such approaches is recognised in the likes of an increasing number of signatories to the RADIX Disaster Manifesto and Accord, as well as an upcoming special issue in the popular disaster journal, Disaster Prevention and Management, on ‘Creative, Reflexive, and Critical Methodologies in Disaster Studies’ with a focus on ethical dimensions and power imbalances.

As disasters continue to be experienced and researched globally, it is important that continued efforts are made to further integrate ethical and risk considerations in disaster research. Collaborating and sharing experiences, lessons, and reflections with other disaster researchers and practitioners will be significant in working towards keeping everyone safe in the research of preventing, experiencing, and recovering from disasters.


Mhari Gordon is a PhD student at the UCL Institute for Risk and Disaster Reduction. Her research focuses on displaced populations and their experiences of risk, disasters, and warnings, which is funded by the UCL Warning Research Centre. During her PhD, she has been active in other research projects, teaching, and volunteering. Mhari would like to gratefully acknowledge UCL IRDR for funding the expenses to attend the NEEDS 2023 Conference.


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

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Mapping the world’s largest hidden resource

By Mohammad Shamsudduha, on 15 February 2024

photograph of a water pump in wet agricultural land
Groundwater-fed irrigation in southwest Bangladesh (credit: Ahmed Rahman, UCL IRDR)

Water sustains life and livelihoods. It is intrinsically linked to all aspects of life from maintaining a healthy life, growing food, and economic development to supporting ecosystems services and biodiversity. Groundwater—water that is found underneath the earth’s surface in cracks and pores of sediments and rocks—stores almost 99% of all liquid freshwater on Earth. Globally, it is a vital resource that provides drinking water to billions of individuals and supplies nearly half of all freshwaters used for irrigation to produce crops. But are we using it sustainably?

Abstraction


Groundwater is dug out of subsurface aquifers by wells and boreholes, or it comes out naturally through cracks of rocks via springs. Today, about 2.5 billion people depend on groundwater to satisfy their drinking water needs, and a third of the world’s irrigation water supply comes from groundwater. It plays a crucial role in supplying drinking water during disasters such as floods and droughts when surface water is too polluted or absent. Despite its important role in our society, the hidden nature of groundwater often means it is underappreciated and underrepresented in our global and national policies as well as public awareness. Consequently, A hidden natural resource that is out of sight is also out of mind.

Some countries (e.g., Bangladesh) are primarily dependent on groundwater for everything they do from crop production to the generation of energy. Other countries like the UK use surface water alongside groundwater to meet their daily water needs; some countries (e.g., Qatar, Malta) in the world are almost entirely dependent on groundwater resources. Because of its general purity, groundwater is also heavily used in the industrial sector.

photograph of man taking measurements at a borehole
Measuring groundwater levels in a borehole in Bangladesh by IRDR PhD student Md Izazul Haq

Monitoring


Despite our heavy reliance on it, there is a lack of groundwater monitoring across the world. Monitoring of groundwater resources, both quality and quantity, is patchy and uneven. Developed countries like Australia, France and USA have very good infrastructure for monitoring groundwater. Monitoring is little or absent in many low- and medium-income countries around the world. There are some exceptions as some countries in the global south such as Bangladesh, India and Iran do have good monitoring networks of groundwater levels.

Groundwater storage changes are normally measured at an observation borehole or well manually with a whistle attached to a measuring tape, so when it comes into contact with water, it makes a sound. It can be also monitored by sophisticated automated data loggers. Groundwater can be monitored indirectly using computer models and, remotely at large spatial scales, by earth observation satellites such as the Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment (GRACE) twin satellite mission. Models and satellite data have shown that groundwater levels are falling in many aquifers around the world because of over-abstraction and changes in land-use and climate change. However, due to lack of global-scale monitoring of groundwater levels, mapping of world’s aquifers has not been done at the scale of its use and management.

Current research


New research published in Nature (Rapid groundwater decline and some cases of recovery in aquifers globally) led by researchers from UCL, University of California at Santa Barbara and ETH Zürich has analysed groundwater-level measurements taken over the last two decades from 170,000 wells in about 1,700 aquifer systems. This is the first study that has mapped trends in groundwater levels using ground-based data at the global scale in such an unprecedented detail that no computer models or satellite missions have achieved this so far. The mapping of aquifers in more than 40 countries has revealed great details of the spatiotemporal dynamics in groundwater storage change.

The study has found that groundwater levels are declining by more than 10 cm per year in 36% of the monitored aquifer systems. It has also reported rapid declines of more than 50 cm per year in 12% of the aquifer systems with the most severe declines observed in cultivated lands in dry climates. Many aquifers in Iran, Chile, Mexico, and the USA are declining rapidly in the 21st century. Sustained groundwater depletion can cause seawater intrusion in coastal areas, land subsidence, streamflow depletion and wells running dry when pumping of groundwater is high and the natural rates of aquifer’s replenishment are smaller than the withdrawals rates of water. Depletion of aquifers can seriously affect water and food security, and natural functioning of wetlands and rivers, and more critically, access to clean and convenient freshwater for all.

The study has also shown that groundwater levels have recovered or been recovering in some previously depleted aquifers around the world. For example, aquifers in Spain, Thailand as well as in some parts of the USA have recovered from being depleted over a period of time. These finding are new and can shed light on the scale of groundwater depletion problem that was not possible to visualise from global-scale computer models or satellites. This research highlights some cases of recovery where groundwater-level declines were reversed by interventions such as policy changes, inter-basin water transfers or nature-based but technologically-aided solutions such as managed aquifer recharge. For example, Bangkok in Thailand saw a reversal of groundwater-level decline from the 1980s and 1990s following the implementation of regulations designed to reduce groundwater pumping in the recent decades.

Groundwater is considered to be more resilient to climate change compared to surface water. Experts say climate adaptation means better water management. Globally, the awareness of groundwater is growing very fast. It has been especially highlighted in the latest IPCC Sixth Assessment Report, the UN World Water Development Report 2022 (Groundwater: Making the invisible visible), the UN Water Conference 2023, and more recently in COP28 (Drive Water Up the Agenda). Groundwater should be prioritised in climate and natural hazard and disaster risk reduction strategies, short-term humanitarian crisis response and long-term sustainable development action.

Read the full nature article.


Dr Mohammad Shamsudduha “Shams” is an Associate Professor in IRDR with a research focus on water risks to public health, sustainable development, and climate resilience.


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

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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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Is the Humanitarian Sector Outdated?

By Evie Lunn, on 31 August 2023

Amidst historical levels of displacement and urgent need, the humanitarian sector is struggling to remain afloat. Despite reaching an increasing number of people, the fragmented global aid architecture cannot keep pace with the growing frequency and intensity of suffering globally. Attempts to reform the system have only addressed surface-level issues while leaving fundamental problems unaddressed. Power imbalances, rivalries between organisations, and distorted institutional incentives have remained largely untouched. Is the sector outdated?

In order to survive, humanitarians must find a way to get ahead of the crisis curve and break the cycle. The sector’s challenges and its shortcomings were at the heart of a recent panel discussion at the Institute for Risk and Disaster Reduction (IRDR) Humanitarian Summit. There is an urgent need for innovative approaches to realign the humanitarian sector with the requirements of the twenty-first century.

Photo image of three people sat behind a table with the UCL banner on. Behind them is a video screen showing an image of themselves next to a livestream image of a fourth person.

In conversation with Professor David Alexander (left), Dr Maria Kett, (middle), Dr James Smith (right), and Stuart Kefford (joining online). Photo by Ilan Kelman

 

Funding and Power

This is a well-recognised issue, with themes of funding and power dynamics underlying much of the discourse. For example, the panellists raised concerns about donor practices, such as hiring supposed ‘third-party’ consultants that lack the impartiality needed to evaluate programs. It is a failure in accountability with no unified system for tracking and evaluating outcomes, with a significant portion of funding absorbed by administrative costs and bureaucracy.

There is a clear discrepancy between investment and impact. One of the reasons for this is that organisations have been known to inflate funding needs to secure resources, aware that they will receive only a fraction of their requests. A vicious cycle is created, where funding needs skyrocket and cash does not flow where it is needed, leading to donor fatigue and a lack of inclination to provide further support. At least 20% of funding for education for Syrian refugees in Lebanon is believed to have been lost due to donors’ preference for funding UN agencies and INGOs over giving directly to local NGOs. Calls have been made for the sector to “let go”: of power and control, of perverse incentives; to let go of divisions and embrace differences.

A Forced Hand

Could modern challenges fast-track the much-needed change? The New Humanitarian recently identified seven policy issues that could help the sector evolve. “The Ukraine Effect” has exposed deep inequalities in the system. A huge amount of money has been injected into the Ukraine response in a very short period of time, overwhelming international agencies. In comparison, other equally pressing remain woefully underfunded. This imbalance is a symptom of a sector that does not know how to communicate or manage its resources effectively. In response to the climate-crisis, eco-friendly shelter materials are now being implemented in refugee camps, climate data is being used to predict humanitarian crises, and drought-resistant seeds are being introduced to help combat famine. Humanitarians are certainly moving in the right direction, but not quite fast enough.

Beyond Funding

Are there other ways to address the issues that do not always come back to finances? An interesting proposal at the Humanitarian Summit advocated for integrating youthful voices into leadership, fostering flexibility and creativity in thinking, and dismantling hierarchical structures that hinder progress. A lack of fresh perspectives and innovative ideas from younger individuals is perpetuating outdated approaches in the humanitarian world. It seems obvious that a new, creative way of thinking is needed to overcome challenges, but the sector remains bent on trying to solve new problems with old solutions. Addressing ingrained thinking patterns within the system is essential for an innovative way forward.

Failure is an essential component of learning. But many decision-makers are understandably reluctant to commit to doing anything differently because of the high-stakes associated with failure in the humanitarian sector. Failure doesn’t just mean pay-cuts and a publicity disaster, but increased death and suffering. Any humanitarian who introduces a novel or untested idea runs the risk of living with real blood on their hands.

The Upshot

Change is possible in the humanitarian sector, but it requires an honest and comprehensive evaluation of the system. In our current climate, the gap between humanitarian needs and available resources demands collective action and commitment. Outdated approaches no longer suffice; innovative and collaborative solutions, combined with long-term planning and community empowerment, are what we need to prioritise if the humanitarian sector is to redeem itself. Aid dependency cycles need to be broken, and the spotlight needs to rest on the root causes perpetuating suffering. This shift will usher in a new era of agile, creative, and unyielding humanitarian action, dedicated to meaningful change in practice, rather than just unfulfilled promises.

It is imperative that we tackle the core issues of power imbalances, institutional incentives, and structural dynamics. The consequence of the humanitarian sector’s outdated infrastructure is a fundamental crisis of legitimacy. Only by addressing these challenges can the sector hope to achieve real change and meet the ever-evolving demands of the modern world.


Watch the full Humanitarian Summit.


Evie Lunn is an Undergraduate student on the Global Humanitarian Studies program at IRDR.

Contact Evie by email here.


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How not to prepare for earthquakes: lessons from history

By Dan Haines, on 16 August 2023

Two devastating earthquakes hit India, Pakistan and Nepal in the 1930s. Can we learn anything from history which will help reduce disaster risk today?

The takeaway: colonial officials kept improvising their response to major earthquakes instead of preparing for future events or building resilience. After independence India, like many other countries, remained focused on response and rehabilitation. Despite legislative and policy changes since the 2000s, more can be done to mainstream disaster risk reduction. Several South Asian organisations are leading the way on this including AIDMI and SEEDS in India; NSET in Nepal; Duryog Nivaran in Sri Lanka. We should support their work.


Map of the Bihar and Quetta earthquakes, indicating approximate locations of most intense damage in British India. Reproduced under a CC-BY license from Haines, D. (2023), Recovering the status quo: tipping points and earthquake aftermaths in colonial India. Disasters. 

The earthquakes struck in 1934 and 1935, when India and today’s Pakistan were still colonised by the UK. The colonial state reacted by organising search and rescue and calling for public donations to relief funds for survivors. It rebuilt roads, railways and telegraph lines.

South Asians mounted their own responses, which both supported and challenged the state’s. By the 1930s the Indian National Congress and a host of other organisations had generated a well-organised mass movement that opposed British rule.

Nationalists started their own relief fund after the 1934 earthquake in Bihar, North India. Colonial officials cooperated with them despite political differences and the worry that nationalists would gain greater public support by doing highly visible relief work. Many other civil society organisations which had less antagonistic relationships with the state also helped survivors.

After the 1935 earthquake at Quetta, Balochistan (now in Pakistan) the colonial government banned nationalists and other volunteers from even travelling to the ruined city. Instead they evacuated 30,000 people – almost the entire civilian population – by rail. Survivors were sent to refugee camps or their ‘home districts’ in Punjab and Sindh.

Nationalists protested against the travel ban and criticised the colonial army’s search and rescue operations. In response the state used repressive legislation to fine newspapers for ‘sowing dissent’.

Nervous of the challenge that nationalists posed to their legitimacy as rulers, British officials kept politics at the forefront of their response to earthquakes. The army worried that ‘the desire to make political capital’ motivated Indians who applied for permission to go to Quetta after the earthquake there. Even in Bihar officials focused on maintaining law and order, making a show of protecting state assets and private property against suspected ‘looters’.

Let’s look beyond politics. The colonial state lacked coherent policies on earthquake management. Search and rescue, relief, and reconstruction efforts were all ad hoc.

The government improvised every time it faced a big earthquake, even though it had had policy frameworks for managing frequent famines and recurrent floods since the nineteenth century: not just in the 1930s, but also after earlier quakes in the 1890s-1900s.

Sound familiar? After independence, India inherited colonial bureaucratic structures. For decades it continued focusing on emergency response and rehabilitation for survivors. That came at the cost of preparing and funding people, institutions and physical infrastructure for future crises.

The Government of India’s own Task Force reported in 2013 that response capacity was good. But major legislative and policy changes of the early 2000s needed better on-the-ground enactment to make holistic risk reduction really effective. State and district level disaster management authorities needed professionalisation and more resources.

The National Disaster Management Plan (2016, revised 2019) still speaks of the need to mainstream disaster risk reduction across sectors and departments.

So – the colonial state’s strengths in response have carried forwards through time, but so has its tendency to improvise during emergencies rather than prepare effectively for the future.

A recent assessment by Indian and UK researchers found that district-level disaster management is still stuck in responsive mode, though with improvements in efficiency.

Many NGOs in South Asia are proactively building resilience and rightly advocating for preparedness. Including AIDMI and SEEDS in India; NSET in Nepal; Duryog Nivaran in Sri Lanka. These organisations are helping regional governments to improve existing approaches and correct colonial missteps.

My lesson from history? We should continue to support their work.

Read my article, just published in Disasters, to learn more about the history and politics of earthquake response in colonial South Asia. No paywall!


Daniel Haines is lecturer in disaster and crisis response at UCL IRDR. He researches historical hazards, dam-building and international river water disputes in South Asia. He tweets at @DanielHaines1.


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Beirut Blast: from trauma to purpose

By Racha Doumit, on 4 August 2023

Three years ago, day for day, my city blew up before my eyes. I have been thinking of a softer way to start this piece, but I figured why bother. Nothing about August 4 or the days that followed was soft. One moment I had a clear view of the Port of Beirut; the next all I could see was a thick coat of toxic ashes. I could not fathom what the city would look like once the ashes set. Hands shaking, I tried to get a hold of beloved ones who I suspected were in the blast-affected region. Thoughts racing, I visualised weeks of mourning. Little did I know that long after the ashes were swept, I would still be mourning.

At times, I feel like I am mourning a country I never knew, one where the government actively seeks to protect its citizens; one where reports of inappropriate storage of hazardous substances do not go unaddressed for seven years; one where residual risks do not result in one of the largest non-nuclear blasts in the history of humanity. I am mourning a time when August 4 was just another day, when the sound of sweeping broken glass did not trigger my trauma, when the only pictures I had of Beirut were those of a vibrant city. I am mourning not only the dead, but also the unlucky who survived, those who deal with the aftermath, those who wake up every day to face injustice, those who tirelessly lobby for change, those who were pushed to escape the place they call home.

August 4 became just another reminder of the struggles of being Lebanese, of embodying the myth of the Phoenix, of piloting life in survival mode. It was a decisive date that pushed me to pursue a master’s degree in Risk, Disaster, and Resilience. That’s when August 4 became just another event on a long list of tragedies. Class after class, it was considered as a case study. I had a hard time coming to terms with the fact that the blast was reduced to a dissected disaster, a prime example of mismanagement of risks, state neglect, and ill-preparedness. I struggled to dissociate from my emotional attachment to the event. It was tough to take an academic stance on a disaster I experienced: victims were now numbers, destruction was quantified, and years of struggle were just the recovery phase. At times, when caught off guard, I teared up when the picture of the silos was displayed on the board or when the professor referred to “the catastrophic blast that happened a couple years ago in Beirut”. As the year progressed, I delved deeper into identifying hazards, understanding vulnerability, and reducing exposure to risks. Progressively, the blast became less about mourning the country I never knew and more about creating an alternative reality through advocacy and policy. Ironically, it became less about August 4 and more about all other days in the year. It became less about me, my people, or my country and more about the intrinsic need to promote a safer world for all.

Understanding that the blast is bigger than my country was a hard pill to swallow. It does not signify that I came to terms with it. I am still mourning, I probably always will. Only now, I appreciate that advocating for disaster risk reduction extends beyond the borders of my tiny Mediterranean nation. Yearning for Disaster Risk Governance in Lebanon concurs with expecting all governments to uphold higher standards of safety. Seeking justice for Beirut, its victims, and its survivors equates to calling for accountability for all disasters. No matter how hard we try, we cannot alter the past: many died, many were injured, all were traumatised. No matter how disillusioned we feel, we cannot repeat the past: lives and livelihoods must be protected. Beirut was a victim of its own dysfunction—other cities should not endure that same fate.


Racha Doumit is pursuing her master’s degree in Risk, Disaster, and Resilience at IRDR. Prior to joining UCL, Racha worked as a WASH Engineer with the Red Cross in Lebanon.

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What is the Future of the European Court of Human Rights?

By Jasmine Andean, on 13 July 2023

Reflections on the 13th IRDR Annual Conference’s Conversation with Judge Mykola Gnatovskyy

With governments around Europe engaging in increasingly aggressive anti-migrant rhetoric and Russia’s war of aggression in Ukraine, the success of the European project and the role of international bodies such as the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) has come into question.

Dr Yulia Ioffe (IRDR) in conversation with Judge Mykola Gnatovskyy. Photo by Ilan Kelman.

With governments around Europe engaging in increasingly aggressive anti-migrant rhetoric and Russia’s war of aggression in Ukraine, the success of the European project and the role of international bodies such as the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) has come into question.

To explore this issue, the Institute for Risk and Disaster Reduction (IRDR) recently had the honour of hosting Judge Mykola Gnatovskyy of the ECtHR at the Institute’s 13th Annual Conference. The conversation was facilitated by IRDR’s Dr. Yulia Ioffe and explored the role of the ECtHR in the face of war, the distinction between international human rights law and international humanitarian law, and the role of the Court in safeguarding refugee rights.

The fate of the ECtHR itself may also come into question following the political developments of recent years.

When the European Convention of Human Rights was adopted in 1950, it was assumed that the Convention would apply only in times of peace, with international humanitarian law governing in times of armed conflict. However, the ECtHR has decided on the issues related to armed conflict, as seen, for example, from the case law on Chechnya and now again on Ukraine.

The ECtHR, set up in 1950 in the aftermath of World War II, was tasked with supervising human rights within the Europe and preventing war on the continent. Judge Gnatovskyy reminded the conference audience of some of the philosophical underpinnings surrounding the creation of the Court as a body safeguarding the human rights of individuals, following the belief that if the rights of individuals are truly respected, aggression simply cannot occur, as this would inherently violate these rights. In the practice of the Court, most cases have been brought by individuals in relation to alleged violations of their human rights. Of one thing Gnatovskyy was particularly clear: this liberal dream, unfortunately, has not come true in Europe.

The ECtHR is once again tasked with responding to a situation of warfare in Ukraine: a situation that the Court arguably was not designed to have jurisprudence over. Nonetheless, the ECtHR has accepted jurisdiction over claims arising in wartime, too. Thus, the Court has integrated concepts of international humanitarian law into the interpretation of the European Convention on Human Rights, despite theoretical insistence that international humanitarian law and human rights law are separate. Although initially the ECtHR incorporated international humanitarian law into its practice subtly, without explicitly citing the 1949 Geneva Conventions, for example, the Court has since more openly acknowledged that international humanitarian law is being taken into account in international human rights cases.

Judge Gnatovskyy’s astute insights left me with several questions about the fate of the ECtHR, the legal disciplines of international human rights law, and international humanitarian law, as well as the wider fate of the European project. It is clear that international humanitarian law will continue to be incorporated into the Court’s practice, but questions remain about the extent to which this will take place, and what the consequences will be for other international courts around the world and for the wider discipline of international law.

The fate of the ECtHR itself may also come into question following the political developments of recent years. It seems that the Court has failed at the task that it was set out to complete: to prevent the war in Europe. With the death of the dream of a Europe free from war, the role of the international institutions safeguarding this dream is uncertain. Moreover, rising populist nationalism and aggressive anti-migrant rhetoric within several European countries may pose a further threat to the Court, with the UK for example threatening to leave the Court, including following an issuance of interim measures preventing the UK government from removing asylum seekers to Rwanda. If the UK, historically a cornerstone within the Court, does follow through with these threats, the authority and power of the ECtHR will be considerably undermined, and its future may be called into question.

In his closing remarks of the conversation, Judge Gnatovskyy left the conference with a combination of optimism that a change for the better is possible and bleakness in the face of the war in Europe:

“When there is an understanding that things must change, they will change; and it will be too late. International law is usually one war too late.”


Jasmine is an undergraduate student in UCL IRDR Year 2021-2024 on the Global Humanitarian Studies programme.

Reach out: jasmine.andean.21@ucl.ac.uk


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Ahead of the 13th IRDR Annual Conference: Drawing Links Across Conferences

By Joshua Anthony, on 19 June 2023

This week marks the 13th year of the Institute for Risk and Disaster’s annual conference series, continuing a tradition that yearly tackles cutting-edge ideas in risk and disaster science. Covid-19, drones for health emergencies, why warnings matter—no stone is left unturned. Conquering risk demands a look at its wide-ranging constituent parts, from the global scale down to the minutiae of everyday life. But these challenges are often not isolated, spanning geographical, social, and political boundaries. What impact do borders, physical and metaphorical, have on efforts to tackle these issues? A day of discussion at IRDR will examine this, endeavouring to look beyond them, towards Risk Without Borders. In the same spirit, we traverse the temporal border, looking back at the 12th Annual Conference to draw links across conference themes. How do borders affect Climate change – Disaster Risk, Loss and Damage, or Action?

It’s hard to ignore the relevance of borders today when divisions of vulnerability and governance can often have more of an impact than physical geography alone on risk outcomes. A major challenge to tackling this is defining loss and damage, which as Lisa Vanh pointed out last year, could significantly differ across cultural and social boundaries. Timmons Roberts, who has done extensive research on climate negotiations between global north and south countries, raised the issue of equity, how developing countries need the assistance of wealthier countries to overcome the challenges of climate change. Though early attempts at this had failed with proposals in 1991 from Pacific Island nation Vanuatu, there have been promising developments since then. It highlights the barriers that exist between divisions of wealth and power that ultimately come down to borders, be that the invisible lines with which we delineate them, or the diminishing shoreline of a small island developing state.

As important as economics are voices. During her passionate keynote speech, Vanessa Nakate, a climate justice activist, described the risks of climate change that Uganda is already experiencing, and the challenges that activists from the most affected countries face in having their voices heard on the international platform. Perhaps nothing is more symbolic of the arbitrary constraints of borders than the visa application system and how this has prevented young climate leaders from attending UN conferences. As Nakate puts it: every activist has a story to tell, every story has a solution to give, and every solution as a life to change. Not only unique stories, but shared ones across borders are just as noteworthy, as Lucy Easthope, author of When the Dust Settles, explains when reflecting on the similar challenges experienced by both her, a UK expert in emergency planning and disaster recovery, and a midwife working in Myanmar, Sudan, and Bangladesh.

Examining discussions from the previous conference demonstrates that their individual themes should not be viewed as distinct boundaries. Even where there was no explicit mention of borders built within the itinerary and theme, experts could not avoid the limitations that they place on risk research and experience. No doubt, themes from last year will spill over to this one. See it for yourself this Thursday 22 June!


Watch last year’s annual conference on the IRDR youtube channel.


Thank you to Heghine Ghukasyan whose rapporteur notes helped immensely in writing this blog.

Learning from Fire and Rescue services in London and Bergen

By Joshua Anthony, on 17 February 2023

Author: Jarle Eid


Researchers from University College London, Haukeland University Hospital, National Defense University in Sweden and the University of Bergen met in January for a working meeting on a joint research project focusing on how operational psychology can inform municipality responses and resilience to disruptive events.


Research meeting at the Bergen fire station. Anne Bjørke (Bergen Fire and Rescue Services), Roar Espevik (National Defense University in Sweden), Guttorm Brattebø (Haukeland University Hospital), Jarle Eid (University of Bergen) and Gianluca Pescaroli (University College London). (Photo by Ilan Kelman).

What kind of operational situations are seen as most challenging and difficult to handle for fire and rescue workers? How did the COVID-19 pandemic influence operational capacity and resilience in the Fire and Rescue Services? What future training and educational needs are seen as most important to develop resilient fire and rescue services? What can we learn from cross national comparisons of fire and rescue services in London and in Bergen?

These and other questions are being explored based on in depth interviews with first responders in a cross-country comparison of Fire and Rescue services in Bergen and in London. The study is supported by a grant from the Regional Research Fund in Western Norway, the Fire and Rescue services in Bergen, and the Greater London Authorities.

Gianluca Pescaroli (University College London) and Anne Bjørke (Bergen Fire Services) discussing operational issues by the incident command vehicle. (Photo by Ilan Kelman).

We are very pleased to have this opportunity to collaborate with Professor Ilan Kelman and Associate Professor Gianluca Pescaroli on this new project. Here we are exploring three main issues. One is how the fire end rescue services were affected by the protracted covid situation, secondly we explore and collect examples of difficult operational situation, and thirdly, we explore training and development areas.

A particularly exciting issue is that in this project we have been collecting data both from Norway and from the U.K. and a cross national comparisons will be a true advantage to this project. In January we had the first joint working group meeting in Bergen, Norway and in April we will have the second working group meeting in London with our UCL colleagues.

 


Jarle Eid is Professor of Work and Organizational Psychology in the Department of Psychosocial Science, University of Bergen. 

The Search for a Natural River

By Joshua Anthony, on 27 January 2023

Following the UK’s exit from the European Union, the legacy leftover from the EU’s Water Framework and Flood Directives, which jointly encourage sustainable management of flood risk, lives on. The UK has seen a number of similar national policy frameworks implemented aiming to reduce flood risk while improving water quality and biodiversity, with over 100 river restoration projects seen in London alone between 2000 and 2019. Most of these efforts are geared towards sustainability in the face of climate change, but, with regards to the long-term, the river itself is often left out of the plans.

The historic human efforts to manage rivers have been progressively called into question over their sustained maintenance costs and an incongruity with environmental and ecological health. An alternative solution is to renaturalise and restore natural processes—reconnecting rivers with their floodplains, reintroducing wild species, run-off targeted tree planting—but this would also be to submit to a changing and dynamic landscape. Rivers can change course—sometimes very suddenly—or silt-up and become unnavigable. True sustainability should therefore account for the long term changes of rivers, but these changes are rarely accounted for in flood risk management policy. As Andrew Revkin asks: “sustain what?”

The problem with “natural”

The problem is partially semantical. The terms renaturalisation, restoration, and rewilding carry with them the image of an implied prior state or a “Lost Paradise”. Ironically, it is precisely the long legacy of human engineering, which some modern schemes are trying to reverse, that denies us the knowledge of a natural state; it is difficult to look into the past, when the waters are so muddied by our imprint. As a result, our ability to assess the future impact of renaturalisation is equally hindered. 

Arguably nowhere in the UK is this problem illustrated better than in the Somerset Levels, which as far back as the roman occupation of Britain has seen artificial drainage and reclamation in order to take advantage of its pastoral and arable potential. At present, the flat, largely reclaimed floodplain relies heavily on a vast network of excavated drainage ditches (rhynes in the local vernacular), sluice gates (clyces), and pumping stations that push the water through the highly banked and augmented river channels; a £100 million tidal barrier has just been approved on the River Parrett, while existing rivers continue to be enlarged to carry extra flood water. Clearly, it is hard to imagine what natural means in this context.

A clyce (sluice gate) in Highbridge that stops in the inflow of tidal water.

Seeing Into the Past

Fortunately, remnants of abandoned rivers—palaeochannels—that have long since stopped flowing through the Levels litter its landscape and offer a glimpse into the past. There are numerous examples of such ancient rivers still visible on the Somerset landscape today, which often surface during high flood stages, but are now easily identifiable with the advent of Light Detection and Ranging (LiDAR) technology, which provides high-resolution elevation data. Palaeochannels have been of interest to researchers in this area because they reveal historic drainage patterns, showing in which direction rivers used to flow before being redirected or abandoned long ago.

Where archaeological records are unavailable—often early in or before human occupation—the reasons for change are less clear. Were the causes human made, or related to a historical climatic shift? And could this inform the way we plan rivers today? To find out more, it is necessary to dig deeper into the landscape. 

The Somerset Levels have experienced their own fair share of devastating floods and are intensely embroiled in the debate between hard engineering measures and natural flood management, which has previously culminated in fierce criticism of the Environment Agency for not carrying out regular dredging. This image reveals an ancient river channel emerging from the flood waters of 2013/2014 around Burrowbridge, Somerset.

Seeing Beneath the Surface

Beneath the sediment that buries them are rivers preserved from a past time. Within the sediment is contained information from the processes and conditions that presided over the river’s eventual abandonment. Here we can see the geometry of the river and look for signs of erosion and migration, and indicators for the causes of abandonment.

A seismic refraction survey conducted in the Somerset Levels.

To overcome the logical problem of seeing buried features, geophysical methods offer a quick and non-invasive way of imaging the subsurface. By applying a force to the ground and measuring a response from beneath, a model of the rivers can be produced. These methods have been tested extensively by scientists for many years in a variety of environments, including floodplain sediments, and are in the UK probably most famously associated with Time Team’s “geofizz”, due to their strong archaeological applications. 

This research uses a combination of electrical resistivity, seismic refraction, and ground penetrating radar methods to image the buried cross-section of ancient rivers. In this way, the river acts as an archaeological feature for investigating the past, and is hoped to provide reference states for river systems that have existed prior to and throughout different periods of human occupation. Surveys have been completed on two sites on either side of the River Parrett, clearly showing the extent of the historical river systems. More are to follow at different sites across the Somerset Levels. 

Imagery of a buried channel as depicted by measurements of resistivity to an electrical current.

Glimpsing into the past of ancient river systems could help in planning for the future development of renaturalised rivers, by exploring scenarios where the measures that humans (and rivers) have grown accustomed to are absent. It may be that, like a river, management plans must be dynamic and adaptable to natural change; otherwise, a one-size-fits-all approach to sustainability is bound to become unsustainable.


To find out more about this project, email me at joshua.anthony.19@ucl.ac.uk

Josh Anthony is a PhD Candidate at IRDR and Editor of the IRDR blog.