Tuesday, 15 November 2016

How to Write an Emergency Plan

Alexander, D.E. 2016. How to Write an Emergency Plan.
Dunedin Academic Press, Edinburgh and London, 268 pp.
ISBN 978-1-78046-013-0 (pbk)

In 2002 I wrote and published a book entitled Principles of Emergency Planning and Management. At the time, several volumes were available that dealt with how to prepare for and respond to emergencies, but they tended to be tied to particular systems. In fact, most of the available books were based on the American system of emergency response. That was all very well, but most countries do not have a Federal Emergency Management Agency. In those nations which lack a federal structure, the balance of powers between national, regional and local authorities can be very different from the way it is in the United States, and thus so can the national emergency management system. My book of principles was designed to show that there are fundamental challenges, issues and practices that transcend the prevailing administrative system. Emergency management is not the same in any and every country, but the different systems have much in common and respond to universal needs for safety, rescue, care and recovery.

Principles was well received but some of the feedback I received from readers suggested that they would welcome a more hands-on practical book. Rather than write a second, updated edition of the Principles volume, I decided to develop a book entitled How to Write an Emergency Plan. The principles that govern the process would still be there, but emphasis would be given to the practical steps in formulating, maintaining and using emergency plans of various kinds.

Every so often during my 36-year career as a "disasterologist" I have encountered people who have been thrust into the role of emergency planner with little or no preparation. Some of them have had experience of responding to emergencies; others have been entirely new to the field. A common question was "where do I start?" I have met people from all levels of public administration (local, regional and national) and from private companies who have been in this predicament. In writing the book my aim was to provide them with some guidance, and for those people who are already experienced emergency planners. I also wanted to show how emergency planning is special, and why it is worth doing.

The paradox of writing a book of this kind is that I am not sure I believe in emergency plans. In many instances, they are bound to fail. However, as the book states right at its starting point, the precious--indeed invaluable--element is the planning process. It is a means of learning about emergencies, the urgent needs that they create and the ways in which those needs can be satisfied. Emergency plans may need to be adapted to the unique circumstances of a particular crisis, but the process of creating a plan should force the planner to confront many of the issues that stem from the need to prepare for future emergencies. Failure to confront them could be construed as negligence, when equipment is not available, personnel are untrained, command structures lack functionality, and so on. So many things about the next emergency can be predicted from previous crises, and if we heed the lessons we will be more resilient and better prepared next time around.

The 'bedrock' level of emergency planning is that of municipal government. In one sense, even the very largest disaster is a local affair, because its effects will be felt at the scale of neighbourhoods, villages, towns and cities. Although I did not concentrate exclusively on municipal emergency planning, I treated it as the basic model because most other scales or types of planning must refer to the municipality as the basic unit of response and command.

The basis of the book is the generic, multi-hazard plan that every local authority ought to have, an instrument that is adaptable to both the known, anticipated hazards and the unanticipated ones that strike out of the blue. The core chapters of the book explain, step-by-step, how to construct such a plan. However, the longest chapter in the work is dedicated to the various kinds of thematic plan. Airports, hazardous industries, hospitals, museums, they all need emergency plans, and the various plans need to fit together so that the response to the next emergency is seamlessly 'joined up', rather than disconnected. There is also a need for emergency plans for particular functions, such as medicine supply (pharmaceuticals) and veterinary response, and particular sorts of person, such as those with disabilities. These are, of course, dealt with in the book.

Emergency planning is a lively field which is continuously evolving. The threats, hazards and challenges that the emergency response community--and the public--face are changing at an ever faster rate. Constructing, maintaining and using an emergency plan offers an opportunity to improve the services that provide safety, security and rescue to those in need. There is also a chance to decide what the priorities should be when scarce emergency resources need to be deployed. Thinking over these issues, and many others, How to Write an Emergency Plan was an interesting book to put together and for me it was a continuous learning process.

The Principles book is now 14 years old and it has weathered quite well, despite the momentous changes in society and hazards in the meantime, and the constant evolution of emergency response worldwide. In How to Write an Emergency Plan it now has a partial successor, but there is unfinished business: it is time to think about a book called How to Manage an Emergency.

Alexander, D.E. 2002. Principles of Emergency Planning and Management. Terra Publishing, Harpenden, UK, and Oxford University Press, New York, 340 pp. Available from Dunedin Academic Press.

Sunday, 18 September 2016

The "prison of experience" - the Italian case

 Over the last decade, two very influential books in Italy have been La Casta ("The Caste") by Sergio Rizza and Gian Antonio Stella (2007) and Gomorra: viaggio nell'impero economico e nel sogno di dominio della camorra ("Gomorrah: Journey into the Economic Empire and Dreams of Domination of the Camorra") by Roberto Saviano (2006). La Casta describes, on a detailed and individual level, the privileges and power of the political class. It is a handbook on corruption. Gomorra details the connection between the political class and the most economically successful of the four mafias in Italy. The response of the population to this is to feel trapped in a situation in which there are no democratic alternatives. The system was put in place in 1947 by the Americans and rigidly reinforced during the Cold War. The effect of this has been to fossilise, or perhaps indurate, it so that it even survived the collapse of Christian Democracy and the so-called "First Republic", which was induced by the end of the Cold War and bipartisan polarisation.

This explains the very substantial rise of the Five Star movement, a political party based on protest against the system. Unfortunately, Five Star does not have disaster prevention in its agenda.

With regard to disasters Catholicism has a positive side vested in its emphasis on charity and service. Its negative side is that it tends to induce fatalism. If one is Hyblean, female and of a certain age, the Virgin Mary holds the key to understanding earthquakes: if one is Sabine, it may be St Tammaro - and so on. Prayer and supplication are cathartic but do not add up to disaster risk reduction.

Another factor is a severely practical one: the constraints of multiple ownership of property. The historical tendency for people and families in the Mediterranean to live in very close proximity stems from the Roman (or possibly Iron Age) oppida, a defensible site on high ground. With modern demand for space, the population density of historical settlements in Italy is 10-40 per cent of what it was a century ago before mass emigration took hold. The modern equivalent is the reinforced concrete apartment block. In any case, living cheek by jowl is still the norm. Yet in a condominium it is routine to encounter opposition to spending money on structural reinforcement. For example, my second home is in a building 700 years old, located in a highly seismic area, and that has five owners. Four of us had to threaten one of the owners with prosecution in order to obtain payment for essential repairs to the roof. Seismic retrofitting is out of the question unless those who want it are prepared to pay on behalf of those who could not care less.

Added to this is the effect of the performance of dense urban fabrics in earthquakes and other sudden-impact disasters. Collapse at the top of the hill brings down 'innocent' buildings down the slope in a sort of landslide of rubble. This is a particular problem in historical hill villages. Even if buildings are not damaged, they may be inaccessible as a result of being surrounded by damaged and precarious masonry. This was the case for many residents of the centre of L'Aquila city after the 2009 earthquake.

The net effect of these considerations may amount to what Kates (1971) referred to as the "prison of experience", which induces a sense of impotency rather than empowerment. This is triangulated by three points: (a) the difficulty of obtaining any positive change from the political class, and the concomitant effect of organised crime on corruption, which maintains the 'alternative' economy in a dominant position over the official one; (b) a feeling that forces beyond one's control govern the likelihood of experiencing damage or injury in disasters; and (c) stonewalling, opposition to safety measures and lack of hazard perception by one's neighbours. These are some of the root causes of continued seismic vulnerability. They enable moderate earthquakes to cause major damage.


Kates, R.W. 1971. Natural hazards in human ecological perspective: hypotheses and models. Economic Geography 47: 428-51

Friday, 26 August 2016

Italian Earthquakes, Large and Small

       O 1693 c’ha succirutu!
    E si n’ha ghiutu lu Vallu ri Nuotu
    S’u  u pi sorti an-Catania iti
    Ciù ri milli voti lacrimati!
    Catania ca era ciù perfunna
    Ricca ri –ngegnu e ri storia ornata
    Spincitivi l’ate a truviriti
    L’afflitta virgine a batiuoti.*
        (Burderi 2014)

In Italy damaging earthquakes occur on average once every 19 months, and seismic disasters happen about once every four years.

The M6.2 earthquake of 24th August 2016 in central Italy occurred at 03:36 hrs local time and had a hypocentral depth of about 4 km. At least 291 people were killed, with the highest total at Amatrice (pop. 2,646) in the Province of Rieti (Region of Lazio). This event occurred in a predominantly rural area of the Apennines, and the population of the area of major damage was a mere 5,100 people. As a whole, the event recalls the M5.2 seismic disaster of May 1984 in the Abruzzi National Park (140 km south of Amatrice), in which three people died and 11,000 were left homeless (Alexander 1986). In terms of damage to schools, it recalls the M6.0 earthquake of October 2002 at San Giuliano di Puglia, 182 km from Amatrice, in which 27 children and three teachers were crushed to death when a school collapsed (Langenbach and Dusi 2004). In Amatrice the collapse of a school prompted the same questions about the seismic resistance of educational facilities, and the quality of seismic upgrading as had been raised at San Giuliano (Grant et al. 2007). There are possible indications of corruption and that, according to correlation studies, is the principal cause of seismic disasters, world-wide (Escaleras et al. 2007, Ambraseys and Bilham 2011).

In Italy, the immediate political response to the 2016 Amatrice disaster involved a great many fine words and pious hopes about prevention, reconstruction and the preservation of culture. With respect to previous earthquakes, there were some improvements in the organisation and planning of post-event recovery, notably in cultural heritage protection. However, the sums of money offered to the affected area were by no means large enough to accomplish what the politicians said should happen. Italy is the largest beneficiary of the European Union solidarity fund, and in times of seismic disaster it has also drawn heavily on regional support grants. This has not always meant that the use of the funds has met with EU approval—see the conclusions of the European Court of Auditors' report on the 2009 L'Aquila earthquake (ECA 2012).

Typically in Italy, events such as the 2016 Amatrice earthquake do not lead to a sustained government response, for there are too many other demands upon the public purse. Commonly, the public part of reconstruction funding is largely gleaned from European funds or else is tacked onto parliamentary bills designed to fund other things, in what Americans call 'pork-barrel legislation'. At best, a government may wait until the financial climate is more favourable before it allocates significant funding to recovery. Thus it was three years before the first stirring of reconstruction occurred in L'Aquila after the M6.3 earthquake of 2009. Public debt incurred in reconstruction after the 1968 Belice Valley, western Sicily, earthquakes, will not be paid off until 2038, 70 years after the disaster. Belice, moreover, had to wait 15 years before reconstruction even started (Parrinello 2013).

These are the minor events. People suffer no less in them than they do in the major ones, but the overall picture is quite different.

At the time of writing this, I have just returned from three weeks in the Hyblean part of Sicily, the southeast limestone massif. This area, which extends from Etna, Catania and Siracusa to Gela, is a Mediterranean landscape of dramatic mountains,  broad valleys and rocky coasts. In January 1693 it was struck by an earthquake of magnitude 7.4, which killed about 60,000 people and totally destroyed towns such as Noto and Grammichele. They were rebuilt in such Baroque splendour that a very wide area has been designated a UNESCO World Heritage site. It also includes one of the most sumptuous Roman villas (at Casale, near Piazza Armerina), which was sacked by barbarians after the fall of the Empire, and then covered by mudflows.

Noto, with its 33 baroque churches, is the capital of this immense cultural resource. Ruined in 1693, Noto was transferred 14 km to a greenfield site 250 m lower down valley and closer to the sea at the Gulf of Noto. The new town was built on an elegant and rational plan in the decades after the 1692 earthquake, and produced one of the finest concentrations of high Baroque buildings in the world (Tobriner 1982). Nevertheless, the symbol of the post-1693 reconstruction elsewhere. It is the Co-Cathedral of St George at Modica, which was constructed in a pure, elegant proto-Rococo style, over the period 1702-1738. It was the inspiration for the famous Frauenkirche of Dresden (1726-43), which was destroyed by British bombing in 1945 and rebuilt over the period 1993-2005. The rebuilding of the latter was a major financial and technical challenge, and perhaps a major cultural one as well.

St George's Cathedral has an unforgettable grace and luminosity, but all of the Hyblean Baroque monuments, with their dazzling splendour, could at any moment be destroyed. The Hyblean Plateau of South-east Sicily is geologically a foreland of the African plate. Almost all of it has expected peak ground acceleration (PGA) values of more than 0.25g, with a ten per cent probability of exceedance in 50 years for a 475-year return period (D'Amico et al. 2012). As this is a value for rock, the PGA for soft sediments could be very much higher, with devastating consequences.

The extraordinary oral testimonies and histories collected by the noted anthropologist and linguist Marcella Burderi show eloquently that in the Hyblean culture, the Virgin Mary and St George, with his invincible sword, figure very strongly as protectors of ordinary people and righters of wrongs. They also serve as a means of transmitting knowledge of natural disasters from one generation to another (Burderi 2011). These gentle cults may do little to reduce seismic vulnerability, but they are an important source of awareness and a valuable palliative:-

       * "In 1693, what things happened!
    The Vale of Noto was destroyed.
    If you happen to go to Catania
    Lamented by thousands of people,
    Catania was the most important place,
    Rich in industry, decorated with history,
    Lift up your hearts and you will find
    The Eternal Virgin of Catania in pain."
        (Burderi 2014)


Alexander, D.E. 1986. Disaster Preparedness and the 1984 Earthquakes in Central Italy. Natural Hazards Working Paper no. 57, NHRAIC, University of Colorado, Boulder, Colorado, 90 pp.

Ambraseys, N. and R. Bilham 2011. Corruption kills. Nature 469: 153-155.

Burderi, Marcella 2011. Maria nella voce delle donne. Testimonianze scritte e orali di un percorso mariano. Edizioni Associazione Culturale "Dialogo", Modica, 177 pp.

Burderi, Marcella 2014. Il terremoto del 1693 nella pietà popolare. Archivio degli Iblei, July 2014: 1-13. (archiviodegliiblei.it)

D’Amico, V.C. Meletti and F. Martinelli 2012. Probabilistic seismic hazard assessment in the high-risk area of south-eastern Sicily (Italy). Bollettino di Geofisica Teorica ed Applicata 53(1): 19-36.

ECA 2012. The European Union Solidarity Fund’s Response to the 2009 Abruzzi Earthquake: the Relevance and Cost of Operations. Special Report no. 24, Publication Office, European Court of Auditors, Luxembourg 52 pp.

Escaleras, M., N. Anbarci and C.A. Register 2007. Public sector corruption and major earthquakes: a potentially deadly interaction. Public Choice 132: 209-230.

Grant, D.N., J.J. Bommer, R. Pinho, G.M. Calvi, A. Goretti and F. Meroni 2007. A prioritization scheme for seismic intervention in school buildings in Italy. Earthquake Spectra 23(2): 291-314.

Langenbach, R. and A. Dusi 2004. On the cross of Sant'Andrea: the response to the tragedy of San Giuliano di Puglia following the 2002 Molise, Italy, earthquake. Earthquake Spectra 20(S1): S341-S358.

Parrinello, G 2013. The city-territory: large-scale planning and development policies in the aftermath of the Belice valley earthquake (Sicily, 1968). Planning Perspectives 28(4): 571-593.

Tobriner, S. 1982. The Genesis of Noto. University of California Press, Berkeley and Los Angeles, 252 pp.

Sunday, 3 July 2016


A week before I wrote this, there began a period of unprecedented turbulence in world affairs. An ill-considered, badly designed and poorly administered referendum* has left the United Kingdom, and Europe, in chaos. In the UK the result has divided the nation into two. It has pitted the old against the young, the haves against the have-nots, the educated against the ignorant, and the cosmopolitans against the isolationists. The country's political classes are in chaos, with the exception of those in Scotland, who stand for a national unity that is totally at variance with the direction taken by the rest of Great Britain. In Ireland, the referendum has undermined the basis of the peace agreements and left the island with an unsolvable border problem, which threatens a resumption of the violence that was stopped only with great difficulty after 30 years.

Within hours of the result of the referendum, the promoters of the leave campaign revealed that the promises which induced 17 million people to vote for them were nothing more than empty rhetoric. They now have no plan.

It is blatantly obvious that the outcome of the referendum was nothing more nor less than the cry of the dispossessed. Unfortunately, the scapegoat, the EU, was the wrong one and the outcome will not give them redress.

In England and Wales, irreparable damage has been done to institutions. It will not be remedied, if it ever is, for generations. Multiculturalism has collapsed under the rising tide of xenophobia, racism and intolerance. People with foreign connections, including those who have every right to call themselves indigenous - and myself - now feel deprived of their frame of reference, disorientated and fearful for the future. Those of us who have worked for years to promote European unity have seen our efforts smashed to pieces on the rock of xenophobia. It is a disease that is as contagious as it is toxic.

Young people, already carrying an intolerable burden, have seen their outlook ignored, their aspirations shut off, and their burden increased. Many of them are left with feelings of anger and helplessness. Who shall represent them now?

Half the population have misguidedly shown us to be traitors to the European project, something for which I will never forgive them, and the other half are left powerless in the face of profound and fundamental changes that they do not accept.

As individual countries and a continent we, if I may still use the term 'we', have suffered for years from leadership that has been weak, ineffectual and self-serving. It has lacked the vision and foresight that could have prevented this and might yet prevent the horrendous consequences that threaten to unfold all over Europe and beyond.

In disaster studies for a long time it has been evident that we need to look more closely at the root causes, or "underlying drivers" of vulnerability, risk and disaster impact. The leading root cause of the referendum crisis is migration, a phenomenon that is not in itself necessarily negative or detrimental.

I advocate striving to reverse the damage done by the referendum and the decision to leave the European Union. I advocate remaining in the EU. I also believe it is time the United Kingdom had a constitution, as does almost every other country. Moreover, the UK needs to begin the process of educating its population in governance, something that is seldom if ever discussed and is not taught in schools. Only one in seven people in Britain could answer three simple questions about the European Union. Thus, the views of very many people about the EU are based on vague prejudice rather than fact.

*Foreigners were allowed to vote, providing they were not EU citizens, but many expatriate British citizens were disenfranchised. Is that fair and reasonable?

Tuesday, 15 December 2015

Devil's Advocate and the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction

This is the sceptic's agenda for world-wide disaster risk reduction. A little scepticism is a good thing: too much of it makes one a thorn in the flesh - or worse.

1.    Do we need this document, and if we do, why?

2.    Whether it is good or bad, will it actually help to reduce losses caused by disasters?

3.    What are the alternatives to having a Sendai Declaration? Is there a better way?

4.    Who will hold governments to account, and how?

5.    Would changing the wording of the SFDRR have any impact upon disaster losses?

6.    Can a document like the SFDRR ever be anything but top-down, and if it can't, does this matter?

7.    The word 'should' appears 20 times in the SFDRR: does it have any real meaning in comparison with the word 'must'?

8.    In the face of 'disaster risk creation'*, do targets have any meaning?

9.    For whom is science, and who will ascertain this?

10.    What sort of framework will produce positive results if a government is corrupt and unethical?

11.    What if principles cannot be implemented at the national level because of globalism?

12.    Is it disingenuous of governments to wait for a framework to be published before embarking on a proper programme of disaster risk reduction? ("Houston, we have a problem. We can't fix it: no one has told us to.")

13.    Is the SFDRR part of a self-generated, self-justifying culture? If it is, what are the implications of this for disaster risk?

I expect a spirited defence of the Sendai Framework in retaliation.

*Lewis, J. and I. Kelman 2012. The Good, The Bad and The Ugly: disaster risk reduction (DRR) versus disaster risk creation (DRC). PLoS Currents Disasters 2012 Jun 7 [last modified: 2012 Jun 21] doi: 10.1371/4f8d4eaec6af8.

Thursday, 3 December 2015

Syria, Security and Safety

As I write this, we are living through apparently momentous times in which the British House of Commons has voted to go to war with Syria. At least, that is the picture that has been portrayed in the mass media and propagated by the members of Parliament. The whole business of voting has been presented to the electorate as a mighty struggle akin to a decision to seek out and destroy Hitler (during the debate, that very metaphor was used in a variety of contexts).

Military strategists have described the decision as "insignificant". The addition of a few fighter planes and extension across a nominal border of their range of action will have little strategic impact on the situation in the Middle East. In any case, only ten per cent of bombing raids involve the dropping of bombs. One hopes that the targets are chosen on the basis of adequate knowledge about what they contain.

Islamic State (ISIS, ISIL, IS, Daesh & Co.) obviously needs to be thwarted and most of us would prefer it to be destroyed. Aerial bombardment does not do that. Carefully aligned with concerted ground-based action, it can play a part. However, in Syria more than a hundred independent factions are fighting. Moreover, the Russians, with vastly greater firepower than the UK offers, are bombing some of the factions that would fight IS on the ground.

Bombing Iraq led to the spread of radicalisation, the fragmentation of the country, the widespread perpetration of atrocities and a domino-like destabilisation of the Middle East. It did not cause these things, but it certainly helped them to occur. Moreover, bombing campaigns are obscenely expensive. We cut support to the poor and needy and we splash out on riotously expensive military campaigns. The two Gulf Wars cost the Western coalition more than any other single human endeavour that took place in the late 20th century.

With a great fanfare, some distasteful jingoism, and plenty of irrelevant references to the 1930s and 1940s, Britain has "opted for war", or in other words made a great deal of fuss about a relatively small change. It may be small, but it could be significant if it increases radicalisation and terrorism in Europe in the way that past bombing campaigns have.

There is no way that bombing Syria will end the war there. One vital aspect of that endeavour is rarely discussed in public: the supply of arms and money to the combatants. Islamic State could be stopped if its resources were cut off. This would require concerted action against the world's tax havens and that is inimical to the decision makers. It would require much greater control of the circulation of oil and oil revenues than they are willing to support.

Now what does all of this have to do with disasters, other than the self-evident fact that warfare is a disaster in its own right? To begin with, there is the dialectic, and in present times the struggle, between 'safety' and 'security'. The latter currently has the upper hand (but wait for the next large "natural" disaster on our doorstep). Actions in the streets of Europe help bring security: at the same time, actions on the world stage reduce it.

In London the Tate Gallery, Tate Britain, is showing an exhibition entitled 'Art and Empire'. It includes a room full of military paintings that glorify British losses. The Afghan campaign of 1839-42 ended in a total rout and massacre for the British expeditionary force that initially conquered Kabul. It is shown in oils on canvas as a heroic last defence: General Custer, UK style. It was the premature conclusion to another proxy war carried out by the great powers in lands that were not their own. Such are Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq in the modern age. Military solutions are not necessarily futile or counter-productive, but much depends on what other strategies they are allied with. In Libya and Iraq there was no other strategy and the result was failure. Neither country is a 'failed state': both are hardly states at all, failed or otherwise.

After "Nine-eleven" in the United States, President Bush intoned "My fellow Americans, America is at war!" Disaster researchers pointed out that the premiss for war did not exist. Of course, there was a serious situation, but it was not a war (Comfort 2005). The response to 9-11, the 'phoney war', was so heavy handed and lacking in foresight that it undoubtedly encouraged opposition, destabilisation and radicalisation. Rather than learning the lessons of history, we now see the politicians making the same mistake.

Disaster research can learn much from the study of strategic issues, and 'security'. in the modern world, albeit often in a negative sense. Resources devoted to 'security' are taken away from 'safety' - and welfare. 'Security' is vastly more expensive than many forms of safety. Decision making in the security field tends to focus on part, not all of the chain. As with disaster risk reduction, it tends to ignore or undervalue the underlying 'risk drivers'. The most powerful people on the world stage may find it convenient to do so, but that is not the case for the millions of victims of conflict and disaster. Finally, the strategic situation forms a context that is now so powerful that, in disaster risk reduction, we may say that the context is the problem, not merely its environment.

Syria is a seismic country, and it has, or had, a well-developed civil protection service. Under the current situation, that matter-of-fact observation seems bizarre.


Comfort, L.K. 2005. Risk, security and disaster management. Annual Reviews of Political Science 8: 335-356.

Tuesday, 8 September 2015

Refugees as a "Threat": The Role of Misleading Information

Rational debate on the refugee question is being stifled by misleading information and wrong assumptions. Here are some common viewpoints and refutations. It is worth bearing in mind that the previous UK Government suppressed a report on the evidence base behind migration, describing the evidence as "one-sided". Some of the attempts to mislead are inadvertent, but it is clear that some are deliberate. Almost all the British mass media, including the BBC, are guilty of providing a conflicting picture of the refugee situation, in which unreconcilable information is offered. The tabloid newspapers are, as usual, the worst.

"We are being swamped by migrants."
Most migrants are refugees, hence the term ' migrants' is misleading. There will be opportunists among them, as there among the victims of 'natural' disaster, but the proportion will probably be small.

"This wave of immigrants is unprecedented."
Or so say the Jutes, Saxons, Vikings, Normans, Mediterranean Celts, Huguenots, Picts and Romans (and the vast numbers of Brits who settled abroad).

The Calais entrance to the UK is "under seige".
Fewer than 1% of migrants to Europe arrive there. France offers better benefits to refugees than does Britain, so they would be advised to stay where they are.

"Send them all back."
It is cheaper to integrate refugees than repatriate them.

"They are welfare tourists."
Refugees use health services less than indigenous populations do.

"The UK is the preferred destination."
The UK is not a particularly attractive destination for refugees and it offers them fewer and smaller benefits than some other European countries do. Per capita, Greece has proved to be a more attractive destination.

"We are not really involved."
European countries have a legal obligation to resettle refugees without discrimination. It comes from the UN Convention and Protocol, not the EU.

"They are a burden on our economy."
The aging population of Europe needs to be rejuvenated by in-migration, or tax revenues will decline and economies will suffer the 'Japan syndrome' (Japan has almost no in-migration and as a result it will lose 11% of its GDP by 2030 and find it very difficult to support its healthcare system). Refugees are seldom lazy.

"There will be rivers of blood." (Enoch Powell)
Despite the Conservative politician's firebrand words, integration of Ugandan Asian refugees in Leicester was highly successful and rejuvenated the local economy.

"They are taking over our country."
Many refugees would rather go home if it were safe to do so.

"We will build fences and walls to keep them out."
Futile: even the Great Wall of China was a failure.

"We are being dictated to by the European Union."

Member states decide EU policy - by common compromise.

"We are on top of the situation."
There is a dreadful, hand-to-mouth lack of foresight and planning.

Tuesday, 9 June 2015


I am writing about a disaster before it happens. The study of disasters is, of course, not only about so-called 'natural' impacts such as volcanic eruptions, earthquakes and floods, nor is it enough to add technologically induced emergencies. There are also social and intentional crises.

The invasion of Iraq on a pretence in 2003 set off a chain of instability in the Middle East, fuelled by earlier interventions, including the partition of 1920 that created modern Iraq, British interventions in Iran in the 1930s and 1950s designed to safeguard British oil interests at all costs, and bombing of the families of Arab nationalists. Despite massive mortality in Iraq as a result of war and sanction, the same sort of intervention was employed in Libya, where, as in Iraq, there was no follow-up strategy that might have helped create a peace. So Iraq and Libya have turned into sectarian wars dominated by ideological extremism and Syria has become another proxy war between the great powers. It is therefore hardly surprising that there is a human tide of refugees from these conflicts, and from those in other parts of the Middle East and Africa.

It is plausible to argue that the disaster I mentioned above has already begun. Some 3,400 migrants died attempting to cross the Mediterranean Sea in the first five and a half months of 2015. In a year, 150,000 were saved from a similar fate. Many others have struggled towards Europe across the land bridges of Greece and the Balkans. And still others are facing analogous dangers in Southeast Asia, the Pacific and Central America.

Europe has faced its migrant crisis like a rabbit in the middle of the road, mesmerised by the approaching headlights of the car that will crush it. On the one hand, everyone recognises that not to save the lives of those who will otherwise drown is a dereliction of moral duty, and in most cases international obligation. On the other hand, Europe fervently wishes that the migrants would simply go away. There is a school of thought, that has proved to be surprisingly influential, which argues that the migrants should be left to die as a warning to others who would make the crossing. How quintessentially Victorian: "If they would rather die," said Scrooge, "they had better do it, and decrease the surplus population." Malthus was actually a kinder man than his apostles, and it is that latter that Dickens was lampooning.

Everyone agrees that the 1951 UN Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees is an instrument designed for a world that no longer exists. It has not been replaced by anything more appropriate. In Europe, the front-line states, Greece, Malta, Italy and Spain, have struggled to cope, while northern countries, with the exception of Sweden, have done their level best not to help in any way. For years, Italy has been arguing that the burden is too great for it to bear alone. So it is, but the governments of the other countries have no sympathy for Italy's predicament and have withdrawn into a defensive position.

Paradoxically, migrants are not necessarily a bad thing for our economies. They tend to be light on health services, and, given the chance to work, on social services as well. They tend to make an energetic and positive contribution to the economy, and at the same time, by being relatively young and fertile, they help counteract the fiscal effects of a low indigenous birthrate. These are the conclusions of a report commissioned by the British Government and suppressed, not once, but three times, as a cabinet minister stated (rather bare-facedly) on British news television. Migrants are, of course, unpopular because of people's fear of unfamiliar cultures, ignorance of the benefits they bring and exaggerated ideas about the proportion of migrants. All of these negative attitudes are energetically fomented by the tabloid press, and the main political parties appear to be terrified of gainsaying them by pointing out the real evidence.

The sight of refugees in detention centres and the xenophobic quality of debate on migration is quite reminiscent of the early 1940s. Not infrequently some of the detention centres are compared with concentration camps, and not necessarily in irony.

Those who argue that the European Union is an anachronism would be well advised to remember that it was set up to prevent any return to the situation that prevailed in 1940. Nevertheless, the EU has performed remarkably badly on the migration issue. The reason is not hard to find. Although many Europeans imagine that the EU dictates policy to its member countries, it does not. Policy is the result of negotiation and consensus, to be implemented by national governments, and it is here that the cowardice lies. Adequate policy would involve rapidly resettling some immigrants in Europe and sending some back to Africa and Asia (I fear), as well as energetically fighting the human trafficking system and devoting very large resources indeed to the process of clearing up the mess in the Middle East (and African states) so that peace can be restored. Our politicians and governments seem to be terrified of the idea of having a joined-up strategy, even though knowledgeable advisers have told them what needs to be done.

In June 2015, there is absolutely no sign that a solution is imminent.

Right across the political spectrum, parties in Europe have preferred to feed the xenophobia rather than try to reduce it. With the exception of the front-line states, Europe's nations have simply tried to shut their doors. Where that has not worked, they have tried to pretend migration is not happening. When moral qualms are prevalent, we are treated to the spectacle of the Royal Navy saving migrants from leaky boats and then dumping them on the shore at Catania: "here you are, Italy, they're all yours!"

The G7's Middle Eastern policy is in tatters, and the crisis is worsened by the effect of the Ukranian proxy war in preventing East-West cooperation to bring order to Syria and Iraq. There are also negative influences from other conflicts or proto-conflicts, from Afghanistan to China.

In mid-2015 we face a summer of rapidly increasing migration, which will inevitably lead to social tensions. To be balanced, it is as well to recall that in 1968 the right-wing politician Enoch Powell predicted  that the arrival in Britain of 30,000 Ugandan Asian migrants ousted by Idi Amin would result in 'rivers of blood', whereas it actually resulted in prosperity and integration. However, there is every chance that a different kind of racial war will take place: one designed to keep the migrants out by force. One reason why this is such a danger is the utter lack of a strategy for coping with the influx.

Since the start of the recession in 2008, Europe, and very especially Britain, has become a substantially less egalitarian place. There has been a massive transfer of wealth from the poor to the rich. Billionaires in the United Kingdom have doubled their wealth: the poverty rate has doubled as well. Given the disenchantment that this situation brings, no politician has the courage to propose a strategy for tackling the migrant issue, because it would inevitably be thoroughly unpopular, and bluntly opposed by the opinion-forming mass media. Hence we are faced with a resolute failure to act on a disaster in the making.

Monday, 4 May 2015

Strengthening the Links between Academics and Practitioners

The object of this brief essay is to outline some of the issues and challenges that academics and practitioners in the field of disaster risk reduction (DRR) and resilience face in communicating with one another and working together. My aim is to offer a preliminary contribution to discussions that will take place at the UCL Academic Summit on 24th June 2015.

With respect to risks, crises, emergencies and disasters, in their various phases, the function of academics is, broadly, to observe and deduce. This is part of a constant search for enlightenment, in which what events in the field form the raw material of research, teaching and advice. A body of existing knowledge is brought to bear on new developments. By synergy, it is augmented during that process.

Academics are the chief producers and utilisers of theory. If it is any good, theory explains, connects, validates, qualifies and makes practical action more efficient. As the eminent sociologist of disasters, Tom Drabek, noted, it is the road map of disaster reduction and relief because it clarifies issues and fundamental relationships. Leaving aside bad, irrelevant or misconceived theory, which clarifies nothing, DRR and resilience are distinctive, if not unique, in that the test of good theory is its immediate applicability to practical problems. There is much less emphasis on storing up theory for use at some undefined time in the future, although, of course, this can be useful as well.

Theory needs to be formulated and validated by measuring it against the evidence. The first of these steps involves creating models that, as elegantly as possible, simplify reality to its most important elements and filter out extraneous detail (to use an electrical metaphor, the model extracts the 'signal' from the 'noise'). The models are made by observation of reality "in the field", employment of existing methodology and building upon previous formulations. The evidence must be collected in the field and from statistical sources, as appropriate.

Caveat emptor: in academic research, much is made of the concept of an evidence base, as DRR and resilience are considered to be fields in which there has been something of a failure systematically to amass evidence. Although there is much truth in this observation, care needs to be taken over what is evidence and how it can be used. Evidence can be misleading, inconsistent, indeterminate or selective. It can defy interpretation, or it can be manipulated. Indeed, all use of evidence is selective, whether in pursuit of objectivity or not. Hence, any emphasis on collecting and using evidence throws up a series of questions. To what extent is evidence a surrogate for experience? Is evidence composed of "objective data", or is it mere perception of how the world functions? What is the connection, if any, between evidence and wisdom? How much evidence is enough? Finally, can we do without evidence and would explanation be more efficient if this were the case? These are all open questions, for which the answers require deep thought and much debate.

According to some commentators, there is a distinction between academics and practitioners, in that the latter inhabit "the real world". It is perhaps worth noting that there is nothing less real about the academic world. Indeed, in some cases it may well be more "real", in that academic work permits one to develop overviews and explicitly to measure situations against knowledge of how the world functions in ways that practitioners can seldom do.

Nevertheless, there is certainly a high degree of separation between the world of the academics and that of the practitioners, from policy formulators to front-line operatives. To make decisions about expenditure on risk reduction or humanitarian intervention; to run a business in the face of a risk that it may be interrupted or destroyed by disaster; to save lives after natural hazard impact; to make calculations about structural resilience; to provide shelter; these are examples of the work of practitioners and every one of them would benefit from a measure of sound academic work in both research and training, or education.

The simplest way for academics to be appreciated by practitioners is to produce something that makes the work of the latter simpler or easier. At their best, academics can generate insight, correct impressions, solve problems, provide learned commentary, invent new routines or instruments and connect up the pieces of a problem in ways that are creative and revelatory. At worst, they fall foul of the phenomena that obstruct common endeavour.

There are several barriers to communication and collaboration between academics and practitioners. The first is language. Many academics have a tendency to write in long, intricate sentences that present abstruse concepts by way of impenetrable jargon. There may be fields in which this is justified, but they do not include DRR and resilience. Granted, one cannot avoid much of the technical language of physical and construction sciences, but in the social sciences obfuscation is greatly overused. Complexity is particularly attractive to the neophyte. It conveys an aura of wizardry (hey presto! this is research!), and it is seen as endowing a work with legitimacy. Lovers of complexity would do well to read J.B. Priestley's essay "Making writing simple", in which he looked back wryly on his own youthful pretentiousness and in his maturity offered common sense and sagacity.

The second barrier is divergence of objectives. Not all scholarship needs to be immediately applicable to practical problems. Indeed, it is one of the great tragedies of modern research policy in DRR and resilience that the emphasis falls so heavily on applications that basic research is being given short shrift. However, it is often possible to fulfill theoretical and practical objectives at the same time, as the latter become a spin-off of the former. Thus, research for the sake of research may still result in practical applications, as well as storing up knowledge for use in future practice.

The third barrier is mutual incomprehension. Both sides need to make the effort to appreciate the perspective of the other without denigrating it. Synergy or symbiosis, or in other words, added value, can only be created if there is genuine input on both sides.

The fourth barrier is indeterminacy. Understandably, practitioners want answers. Academic culture induces us to hedge our statements with qualifiers. The response is often "Yes, I understand that, but is it going to happen or not?", and the academic replies, "Well it might do, under certain circumstances", which leaves the practitioner distinctly unenthused. The misperception that science has all the answers is widespread. We live in a world dominated by indeterminacy and unsolved problems. More than ever, the emphasis in science has shifted from providing the answers to constraining uncertainty as far as is possible with current knowledge and techniques. Neither side wants to admit that the answer could be "there is no answer", but that is often the case. For example, regarding earthquake prediction, we know the location of broad areas of seismicity. We know much about the recurrence intervals of events of certain sizes, and we can amass information on the effects of earthquakes by studying local vulnerability. However, broad-term magnitude-frequency predictions remain controversial as a result of the duality between probabilistic and deterministic methods, while short-term prediction may be an unattainable goal. In many areas, the way that the interaction of faults changes the stress field in the Earth's crust is complex enough roundly to defy exact prediction of when and where the next seismic event will occur, and what will be its magnitude. Paradoxically, human reactions may be more predictable than that, if we only learn to observe the signs.

The final barrier to collaboration lies in divergent imperatives. The politician, business manager or field operative is under pressure to produce results. In the academic world there may be intense pressure to publish or teach. Assessment can limit the opportunity to work on problems that are outside the parameters set by the assessors. Nowadays, research funding programmes often include a vaguely-defined criterion called 'impact'. However, in DRR and resilience, there is still a big gap between the academic research agenda and the fundamental needs of society. Great efforts have been made to close it, but institutional, employment and funding pressures continue to dictate the agenda independently of other issues.

One other issue is important. In the present day, much is made of trans-, inter- and multi-disciplinary work. There is a widespread understanding that the boundaries between disciplines need to be crossed, because practical problems have multiple facets and can be appreciated and analysed in different ways. A holistic approach to DRR and resilience is better than one that attempts to solve only part of the problem because it stems from the perspective of only one discipline. This is entirely justifiable, as problems associated with disasters tend to be complex, and more than 40 disciplines are professions are engaged in trying to solve them.

I advocate two criteria for strengthening this approach. The first is to abandon the concept of disciplines as far as is possible. Those, such as engineering, that involve liability cannot entirely be forsaken. However, it is axiomatic that the demands of the problem should determine the solution, not those of the discipline through which it is viewed. Half of the battle to reduce risks and disasters lies in appreciating the potential of disciplines and professions that are not one's own. Secondly, one should try to avoid the natural human tendency to assume that there is only one reality and each of us is a party to it. The best way to appreciate human motivations and objectives is to see problems in the light of different views of reality dictated by different life experiences, cultures, and forms of education and training. Broad-mindedness is the basis of collaboration, along with a willingness to accommodate new perspectives.

In the light of these considerations, several themes emerge for debate. The first is how to make research more useful. This obliges one to define 'useful' and to think about what academic research can contribute to the solution of urgent practical problems in our field. It may also require some consideration about what is not being done and should form part of the agenda. For instance, how should we appreciate the opportunities and limitations that go with working to reduce disasters in the light of any particular human culture?

The second issue is how to improve communication across the boundaries between disciplines and professions. In our academic or professional training, we are taught to reason in particular ways, yet the distinctive feature of disasters and crises is that they create an imperative need for answers to problems that may transcend the barriers. Despite all the talk of interdisciplinary work, there are still very strong pressures to identify with disciplines and professions, to protect their territory in the field of learning, and to conform to their norms. Yet, given the urgency of the need to protect the world's populations against disaster, loss of identity and loss of credibility may be the least  important of our worries.

Thirdly, we need to address how to improve teaching and training so that they better suit the needs of the trainees. Courses are beset by the problems of fragmentation among the disciplines that contribute to DRR and resilience. Do we fully appreciate the need to produce 'educated generalists', who understand the multi-faceted nature of disasters? Before launching our courses, did we conduct a needs assessment, and afterwards have we measured the effectiveness of the training or education provided? What should be the content of the core curriculum, and what are the best methods of putting it across?

Finally, it is imperative to find out how to avoid the isolation brought by monodisciplinary approaches. Are there antidotes to the pressures to conform in disciplinary circles? Can we press for better recognition of genuinely interdisciplinary work? Despite the rhetoric, there remain many more opportunities for interdisciplinary (or indeed non-disciplinary) work than examples of it in practice.

In conclusion, the debate needs adaptability, receptiveness and a desire to avoid the 'dialogue of the deaf'. Academics can help practitioners find answers to the problems that beset them, and to find their way around the maze of existing knowledge. That process cannot take place without mutual understanding and a genuine desire to adapt to the perspectives, exigencies and cultures of the other side in this debate.

Saturday, 25 April 2015


Kathmandu fire engine, 1930s style.

A few years ago I went to Kathmandu and had the opportunity to meet members of the national and local governments, as well as the international aid community. Kathmandu suffered the impact of a magnitude 7.4 earthquake in 1934. It did much damage, but what were then grassy fields are now densely populated tenements in a chaotic, rapidly spreading urban fabric. There are 1.6 million people in the Kathmandu valley. The calculated return period of the 1934 event was 70 years: a major earthquake was overdue. If such a disaster could not be coped with locally, aid would have difficulty in arriving at an airport that was too small, cramped and difficult of access (the presence of Anapurna means that aircraft have to corkscrew down to land). The logistics remind one of Port au Prince in Haiti.

I visited the city's emergency management department, which was run by five men who occupied a decrepit office in the city hall. Their equipment consisted of a second-hand laptop computer, a rusty motorbike and a megaphone. The fire and rescue service of Kathmandu had six engines. Three were museum pieces from the 1930s: the others were relatively modern appliances dating from the 1960s. The UN emergency management arrangements had been entrusted to a young man who had no relevant experience and consequently radiated nervousness. Government ministers whom I met clearly had their minds on other matters: while I was there, 67 people were injured in a riot. Meanwhile, pro- and anti-government forces bristling with armaments put up rival shows of strength in different parts of the city.

The international community and aid agencies have spent considerable sums on consultancy work to assess the vulnerability of Kathmandu to floods and earthquakes. GIS-based mapping has produced a detailed picture. This struck me as rather like contemplating the statue of Oxymandias in the desert ("Look upon my works, ye mighty, and despair!"). Much more simply, one could jump into a decrepit Suzuki 800 taxi and look out the windows as it crept through the traffic jams. The vulnerability was painfully obvious to the eye, but what was being done to reduce it?

I left Kathmandu with a pervasive sense of having encountered wrong priorities. It had consultants, committees, reports, conferences and NGOs. It needed neighbourhood search and rescue, emergency response training, massive increases in hospital capacity, and retrofitting of key buildings (and of cultural heritage).  Without these developments, the result would be a fatal and debilitating aid dependency. I know that since my visit some progress has been made. However, the news that has come out of Nepal in the first hours after the magnitude 7.8 earthquake of 25 April 2015 is disheartening, largely because of the crushing predictability of the predicament in which Nepal and Kathmandu find themselves.

Nepal is a low income country that ranks 157th in the UN's Human Development Index. It is now time for a debate on the extent to which disaster risk reduction should be a key development priority in such countries. Simple, cheap measures are needed in place of the complex ones imported by the humanitarian aid industry. The measures need to involve and be supported actively by the whole population.

Evidently, there has been progress since my visit to Kathmandu. Dr Ben Wisner recently returned from a trip to Nepal. In the discussions following the earthquake he commented as follows:-
"I was impressed by the achievements of the Nepal Society for Earthquake Technology (NSET), ... other Nepali NGOs, INGOs, the Nepal Red Cross, and to some extent government—especially at the municipal level.  ... I am sure lives were saved because of these efforts to train on earthquake aware construction, enforcement of the building code in Patan (one of the historic cities that now compose the metro Kathmandu region), preparedness planning in the health sector, establishment of 68 green space safe areas, training in some of the cities in light search and rescue and pre-positioning of tools for this purpose."
Hence, there has been some positive change. The level and nature of the damage indicate that its scope is limited. Dr Wisner added that, although half of Nepal's 20,000 schools are situated in the Kathmandu Valley, only 260 of them have been given a seismic performance assessment and retrofitted. It is fortunate that the earthquake occurred out of school hours, but one cannot be sure that this will be the case in the next major earthquake.

Social and political tensions have persisted in Nepal into the present day, and they represent a distraction from the process of disaster risk reduction (DRR). The aftermath of the April 2015 catastrophe will doubtless be characterised by national unity in the face of crisis. However, as the risk of another major earthquake will remain high during the ensuing decades, it would be well to ensure that DRR remains a top priority in national development.