Ramblings about what I encounter within the realm of the geosciences, as well as the occasional rant about nonsense.

31 January 2010

Un-Natural Disasters

This post was chosen as an Editor's Selection for ResearchBlogging.orgResearchBlogging.org
Sergio Mora published a paper in the Journal of the Geological Society (here subscription is required for full text*). This was published back in December 2009, but it took on new (and rather unfortunate) significance in Haiti recently. It is really an excellent paper, he presented something similar as the keynote speaker at the 1st North American Landslide Conference in Vail, CO 2007. My summary doesn't do the paper justice, so I strongly suggest anyone reading this post find a copy of this article.

Sergio's paper "Disasters are not natural: risk management, a tool for development" labels "natural" disasters as the result of economics and/or political shortsightedness. While it is true that the processes of the earth contribute to these disasters, most of these processes can be mitigated (or avoided completely) if proper precautions are taken. For example, landslides are natural processes, but a landslide is not called a "natural disaster" unless it adversely affects a human population center . The way to avoid these disasters is through risk management:
Risk management is inspired by the anticipated reduction of losses (human and material) that natural hazards may cause in the future. It is a policy by means of which the possibility of losses is identified, analysed and quatified, and at the same time measures of prevention, mitigation, reduction and retention or transfer of risk can be proposed and executed.
Ultimately, Dr. Mora argues, proper risk management is not regarded as "high priority" by the decision-makers in a society. "[R]isk management is still regarded as a cost, not as an investment". Governments tend towards a reactive stance regarding natural hazards rather than a preventative stance. However, there is a key to correcting this perception. It revolves around educating both the general public and the policy makers about the potential hazards, and how to mitigate these hazards, in a given area. In short, scientists should take a more active role in shaping policy.

Scientists, while far from having a perfect knowledge of natural hazards, should be able to help lead policy towards taking sufficiently safe precautions to avoid the brunt of the hazards. However, even with this input, the losses incurred through hazards are steadily rising.
Considering these poor results, it seems reasonable to ask why the historical memory is lacking and why risk management performance is so deficient in many countires that are so frequently and intesely affected by natural hazards. Perhaps a part of the answer lies in the fact that, so far, the scientific community has been incapable of generating awareness in decision-makers, of provideng them with tools to address their politiacal arguments in a convincing way towards establishing public policies, and in incorporating risk management in public-private investments and planning.
The clearest example of limited historical memory, on the side of the politicians, would be how often (and to what end) they bring up natural hazard mitigation. Using the U.S. as an example, I'm sure that every geoblogger remembers the confluence of cosmic irony when Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindel scoffed at "volcano monitoring" only to have Mt. Redoubt erupt less than a month later. Another example, from U.S. politics, would be the New Orleans flood. Michael Chertoff famously argued that nobody could have predicted such a disaster could have occurred (though scientists had predicted such an event).

This tends to be the pattern of politicians mentioning natural hazards. Either label preventative measures as wasteful spending, or when (not if) the disaster occurs, claim that nobody could have predicted such an event. Only the situation is more dire in poorer countries, such as the ones Dr. Mora focused on. It is one thing when a country's economy is resilient enough to offset some of the shortsightedness of its leaders, it is entirely different when the country is among the poorest of the poor. This tends to disproportionately affect poorer nations, and as a result increases these nations' future vulnerability to hazards.

I also like Dr. Mora's definition of 'vulnerability' for this scenario. "[Vulnerability] could be summarized as 'the exposure, fragility and deterioration of elements and aspects generating and improving social existence'." He then breaks vulnerability down as a measure of 5 factors.
  1. the degree of exposure to hazards
  2. the degree of fragility (inverse of resilience) of the elements exposed
  3. the social-economic value of possible losses
  4. the alterations to the human quality of life (deaths, injuries, trauma, forceful displacements, etc)
  5. the impact on environmental-natural goods, services and functions.
He also points out that vulnerability can replace an adequately designed society with one of lesser quality. This can further weaken/divide society. Because the more affluent are capable of rebuilding/recouping losses, while the impoverished cannot. This can act to further divide a society, which increases future vulnerability... and so on.

Sergio's solution is one that focuses on education. This is something that scientists hear quite often. Scientists need to be better communicators toward the public. Unfortunately, there are very few publications that suggest how exactly scientists should go about doing this. The best solution I've heard, though it may have been tongue in cheek , is for scientists to pretend they are talking to first-graders (especially important when talking to politicians). Sergio suggests:
The first step that the scientific community should take is learning the language of political decision-makers and private investors. The goals of this pursuit can be to: (1) orientate and influence decision-makers to incorporate risk management in national development planning, public policies and investment processes; (2) foster interest in, and awareness and appropriation of the topic, so that national leaders leaders and entrepreneurs will commit themselves to the actions of risk management
Dr. Mora takes it a step further by offering suggestions as to how one could go about accomplishing these goals:
The means of achieving such a strategy should take into account the following: (1) understanding the idiosyncrasy of decision-makers and adapting the technical content of information and action proposals; (2) presenting the message in an attractive way, making it profitable from the managerial and political standpoints; (3) highlighting the advantages of preventive vision, as well as the responsibilities acquired by inaction; (4) making clear that it will not be acceptable to plead ignorance, considering the present information available; (5) underlining the fact that development and reduction of vulnerability are two inseparable processes.
I particularly like suggestions 4 and 5. Geologists may not know everything there is to know about Earth processes (we don't), but we know a hell of a lot more than the people making the decisions and exposing their constituents to unnecessary risk. I think the biggest thing geologists can do, aside from educating the public (which hopefully we all do to some extent already), is to reverse the thinking regarding risk management. Sergio points out that risk management should be thought of as "a long-term investment ([presently] it is considered a cost)".

*so go to a library/university to download it unless you are a member of the Geological Society.
_______________________________________________
Citations:Mora, S. (2009). Disasters are not natural: risk management, a tool for development Geological Society, London, Engineering Geology Special Publications, 22 (1), 101-112 DOI: 10.1144/EGSP22.7

No comments:

Disclaimer

All the Latin on this page is from my vague recollections from High School. There are mistakes in the text. I just was trying to get the point across

Between Los Alamos,NM and White Rock, NM

Between Los Alamos,NM and White Rock, NM
The photo of the travertine spring was taken in the small opening in the center of the image.

Lectio Liber