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How to communicate risks better?
Hazards may be natural, disasters are not
A hazard is „a process, phenomenon or human activity that may cause loss of life, injury or other health impacts, property damage, social and economic disruption or environmental degradation.” (UNISDR, 2016).
When it comes to origins, hazards may be natural, anthropogenic or socio-natural. Natural hazards are foremost connected to natural processes, be it geological and meteorological, such as earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, wildfires, cyclones, floods, droughts, avalanches and landslides or biological (disease, infection, infestation and invasive species) (Burton et al., 1993).
Not every natural hazard must, however, cause what is often referred to as „natural disaster.” In fact, most scientists and disaster experts agree that „there’s nothing “natural”—which is to say, nothing inevitable—about a disaster. (Pierre-Louis, 2017):
“Most of what we call natural disasters (tornadoes, droughts, hurricanes) are indeed natural, though human contributions may increase their likelihood or intensity. But they aren’t disasters—they’re hazards. If a hurricane slams into land where no one lives, it isn’t a disaster; it’s weather. A disaster is when a natural hazard meets a human population. And often, that intersection is far from natural.” (Pierre-Louis, 2017).
In other words, what makes (natural) hazards become (unnatural) disasters depends primarily on the way people interact with, prepare for and respond to hazards. Potential disastrous impacts may be avoided, lessened or worsened depending on our choices. In many cases, hazards are either predictable or have even been predicted prior to their emergence.
The need for a more integrated, holistic approach both to the resource management and to the global policy in general became even more undisputable with the adaptation of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) in 2015. To simultaneously address the 17 major priorities, ranging from poverty and hunger alleviation, gender equality, industry development to sustainable production and environment protection, we are all required to recognize the interrelatedness and interdependence of these, partially overlapping or competing, goals, and to grasp the complex net of interactions, trade-offs and synergies that they create. Advancing towards a more stable and sustainable future depends thus on the “nexus thinking” or “systems thinking” that, instead of just looking at individual components and short-term quantitative outcomes, recognizes feedbacks and connections, and promotes concerted action and cooperation on a global scale across sectors, time and space.
From time to time a woman in black approaches each department, passing them a thick pile of documents. Upon her arrival, the group discussions become even more stormy. It means that a new problem or request has been submitted by the society. Departments’ heads are scanning the documents quickly, trying to prioritize issues the group has to address. The time is running, members of the groups seem to be far from reaching a consensus, and a stream of new issues is still flowing. Suddenly, a collective sigh of relief may be heard – the water department voted for a policy unanimously. The head of the department leaves to pass their proposal to the council. Just in time! Almost simultaneously, a moderator rings a bell and asks the buzzing crowd for attention.
It is easy to be wise after the event
Let’s take the example of Katrina, one of the most disastrous hurricanes that hit the USA and caused the flooding of 80% of New Orleans in 2005. In fact, experts on hurricanes and on New Orleans had known the impact of Katrina on the city even before it emerged. Many earlier storms had similar effects on the location. In addition, computer models were built by the Louisiana State University Hurricane Center and „predicted that a storm of Katrina’s strength would produce ‘back door’ flooding from Lake Pontchartrain and the canals. (Hays, 2005). “Anybody, going back 10 or 15 years, could see this was a disaster just waiting to happen” (Sohn, 2005). So, if the hazard had been known, how come it was „allowed” to develop into a disaster?
Martin Ras (2005) has the answer: Disaster exposure is highly dependent on the way we develop, build and construct our towns and cities. In cases of New Orleans, it was literally “wrested from nature” (Hays, 2005). Built in the Mississippi River delta where the river dumps into the Gulf of Mexico, for hundreds of years, the city was regularly haunted by floods. The surrounding marshes and islands were, however, able to absorb the impact of storm surges from hurricanes that systematically occurred in the area in summertime. Unfortunately, in the 1980s, the river banks were strengthen with concrete and levees were built (Sohn, 2005). Since then, New Orleans has not had regular flooding. Silt no longer builds up and the ground under the city has been sinking. “Now, when hurricanes come, the natural shock absorber of the delta is gone, increasing the impact of storm surges.” (Sohn, 2005)
Underestimating the risk
Hurricane Katrina is just one of the many examples of how erroneous construction decisions, risk-blind land use or short-term economic interests may lead to the increased vulnerability and exposure to hazards. It’s not that we do not have the engineering and technological capacities to mitigate disaster impacts. All the time engineers and scientists design disaster smart solutions. In fact, scientific and technological advances have made it possible to anticipate disaster risks, enabling governments, civil society organizations, NGOs and communities to prepare for these eventualities and take early action (Solinska-Nowak et al., 2018).
So why don’t we make use of this information? Why, despite warnings, people continue to locate their homes and assets in exposed areas? Why do they ignore building constraints or invest in wrong solutions? The answer seems worryingly simple: Many people still live in risky areas or take irresponsible decisions because the risks weren’t made clear to them, or because they underestimate them.
Need for a new approach to risk communication
How to change this? One of the solutions may be a new approach to risk communication. For many years, traditional approach to risk communication and disaster management has been focused on top-down, centralized processes in which “the decision-making and strategy development is the forte of governments, researchers and disaster managers” (Solinska-Nowak et al., 2018). In such approach, little attention is given to translating scientific information and expert knowledge to more comprehensible language. As a result, regular people cannot easily make sense of what is communicated to them and remain blissfully unaware of what precautions they may take.
For this reason, there have been increasing calls in the last decade to move away from top-down, structural and purely scientific approaches to more participatory and community-based DRM strategies (Solinska-Nowak et al, 2018). The main advantage of such approaches is the fact that “…the end users of information [are treated] not merely as a target audience but as partners in co-learning through processes and products that reflect their own contributions” (Roncoli, 2006).
Can games and simulations help?
Following this shift in approach to risk communication, decision-making and practice, there is increased recognition that serious games and simulations may serve as a promising participatory tool, and support understanding of essential issues, such as sustainable development, climate-change mitigation and disaster resilience. Authors of an interesting article “An overview of serious games for disaster risk management – Prospects and limitations for informing actions to arrest increasing risk” decided thus to check the potential of such activities for raising disaster-awareness. If you want to learn how (and if) games and simulations can help people become less vulnerable do natural hazards, you should definitely read it! It is enough to follow this link.
Burton, I.; Kates, R.W.; White, G.F. (1993). The environment as hazard. Guilford Press. ISBN 9780898621594.
Hayes, B. (2005) Natural and Unnatural Disasters. American Scientist. November-December 2005. Volume 93, Number 6, p. 496, DOI: 10.1511/2005.56.496
Martin Ras (2017) Natural disasters don’t exist but natural hazards do. United Nations Development Programme
Sohn, E. (2005) Unnatural natural disasters. Science News for students.
Solinska-Nowak A., Magnuszewski, A., Curl, M., French, A., Keating, A., Mochizuki, J., Liu, W., Melcher, R., Kulakowska, M., Jarzabek, J. (2018), An overview of serious games for disaster risk management – Prospects and limitations for informing actions to arrest increasing risk. In: International Journal of Disaster Risk Reduction., 31(6), 1013-1029.