Wednesday, 15 April 2015

Research students beware

A former member of academic staff, now an Emeritus Professor, did his PhD on an aspect of physical processes in deserts. A company that specialises in aerial surveys paid for him to collect sand samples over a wide area of uninhabited land in North Africa. He brought the samples back to England and took them to his department. In the laboratory, he opened the packages of sand up to look at them and check that they were in the same condition as they were when he had so meticulously collected them. It was Friday afternoon and he went away for the weekend.

On Monday, he came back and the table on which he left his rows of bags full of sand was empty. It had evidently recently been cleaned. He panicked and rushed around looking for his samples. Those were days when fire suppression technology was very much more rudimentary than it is now. Eventually he found a cleaner who took him round to the back of the building and showed him a row of red-painted fire buckets full of multi-coloured sand. He broke down and wept.

Two friends of mine, who were married to each other and living together, did research for their theses in English Literature. One day, when they were close to the end of their studies, they decided to have a barbecue. They grilled the meat on the balcony of their apartment. Unfortunately, this happened in North America and they lived in a wooden building. It had been a long, hot summer and everything was bone dry, including the wood of the balcony. They failed to put the barbecue grill out properly after they had used it and the building caught fire. It was consumed by the flames in nine minutes flat. No one was injured but the building was a write-off. My friends had written their theses and had made electronic copies of the files and had printed out hard copies as well. Unfortunately, they were all in the same place, namely, in the house. The hard copies were reduced to ashes, the computers melted and the disks were consumed by fire. My friends never graduated.

Recently, I caught a snippet of the local radio news. It said: "Police divers were out in the river looking for his thesis..." It reminded me of how works of scholarship were more prone to disaster in the pre-digital age. For example, the distinguished South African geomorphologist Lester King found that his houseboy had taken his thesis down to the rubbish dump and burned it, thinking he was doing a favour in cleaning all those disorderly pieces of paper out of King's office. King was another luminary who never got his doctorate. And then there was T.E. Lawrence, who forgot to reclaim the manuscript of Seven Pillars of Wisdom from the luggage rack when he left a railway carriage at Reading station. It was never found and he had to rewrite the whole, rather substantial, book from scratch. Thank goodness he did.

The moral of these stories is care, protection, redundancy and keep things at more than one site.

Friday, 20 March 2015

The Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction

Ishinomaki Mangattan Museum, Miyagi Prefecture, Japan

The 2015 World Conference on Disaster Risk Reduction has ended with the publication of the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction, 2015-2030 (SFDRR). No doubt, to induce the representatives of so many diverse countries to agree on the structure and wording of this document was a Herculean task that involved the exercise of great patience and a conspicuous ability to compromise. Despite rumblings of discontent from those who did not get their way, the framework is a reasonable summary of what needs to be done to reduce the risk of disaster.

But we knew that already.

It is singular that the conference excited almost no attention from the international mass media, despite being the biggest of its kind, with the most far-reaching agenda, for years. A thorough examination of the BBC news website reveals no reference to it, despite coverage of the devastation wrought by Cyclone Pam in the South Pacific. Newsworthiness is a function of what competes for attention, and it is clear that the World Conference on Disaster Risk Reduction is way down at the bottom of the agenda. Is that true of DRR in general?

On thing that the media might have commented on is that, by my estimation, travel to the World Conference by 6,500 delegates and their entourages put at least 10,000 tonnes of carbon into the atmosphere. This must be offset, to some extent, by the benefits of face-to-face collaboration, but it nevertheless calls into question the legitimacy of great meetings at which environmental problems are augmented as they are discussed.

So now we have a clear, modernised statement on what needs to be done to abate the risk and impact of catastrophe. However, the Sendai Framework does not tackle the 'dark' side of disasters, namely the forces in society and globalisation that tend to increase disaster risk. So important have these become that the protagonists of FORIN, the forensic disaster investigation methodology (IRDR 2011), have suggested that we should change our emphasis from disaster risk reduction to disaster risk creation (Lewis 2012). In a world that has suffered 45 years of continuous transfer of wealth from the poor to the rich, this is a vitally important point.

During the World Conference, Vanuatu suffered the ravages of Cyclone Pam, which induced its President to make an emotional appeal to the world community for aid and assistance. Vanuatu is a relatively poor small island state. Over the years it has made some effort to "get its act together" in terms of preparing for disasters (Gero et al. 2013). In this process, there are signs of misplaced emphasis: on tsunamis when cyclones are more common, on small events when large ones are potentially a bigger problem. There are also signs of progress that is at best limited and patchy regarding what needs to be done. Perhaps Vanuatu needed to adopt the "Cuban model" (Aguirre 2005)? Almost certainly, it needed to do more. There is something slightly obscene about a country being taken by surprise by a disaster during the World Conference.

The Sendai Framework reminds one of a student paper on disasters. In the absence of penetrating analysis, the student lists what "ought to be done": "governments should do this, governments should do that..." To be blunt, we all know what should be done. The issues, and in very many cases the solutions, are staring us in the face. The more pertinent question concerns why things are not being done. Shortage of funds is a weak excuse, as this is often a matter of priorities. More than ever before in human history it is also a matter of power structures. Power is based on resources—in modern terms, global finance. The use of financial resources to keep populations compliant, docile or otherwise under control has reached pandemic levels.

Adherence to a global protocol either signifies a government's intention to "get serious" and do something about a problem or it is a process of legitimation. Signing up to a worthy initiative, such as disaster risk reduction, can legitimise the kind of governments that deserve to have anything but international recognition and acclaim. Both abroad and at home, it makes them seem caring and sensitive to their populations' needs. Then comes the 'implementation gap.' The proposed solution to this is monitoring based on indicators and standards. Given the political problems that an inspection regime would encounter, much of this is self-assessment, which is notoriously unreliable, either through inability to see matters objectively or deliberate desire to create a false picture. For we academics involved in this field, cosmetic disaster risk reduction ought to be a sub-discipline.

Page 8 of the Sendai Declaration contains a reference to human rights. This counters sustained criticism that rights were left out of the earlier drafts of the document. However, the issue is mentioned so fleetingly that no one would gather that it is a fundamental underlying theme of disaster risk reduction (Shetty 2011). Human rights represent access, entitlement, protection, equity, fairness, morality, ethics, balance, and responsibility. If governments find that offensive or threatening, let them go to the devil.

Since the start of the recession, and the Arab Spring, the world has become a nastier place wracked by problems that seem ever less surmountable. Concerted action has failed in the Middle East and on the global financial markets. Under such conditions, why should it succeed in disaster risk reduction? We live in a world in which agreement masks disagreement, and in which our representatives increasingly do not represent our interests.

In criticising, it is easy to dismantle without constructing. With great celerity, Ben Wisner has provided a worthy critique of the targets and objectives of the Sendai Framework (Wisner 2015). Deconstruction is the easy part and a necessary preliminary, but I have long felt that we need a more honest approach that seriously and objectively confronts the world's problems in order to start solving them. Governments may be impervious to being shamed, but there are many cases in which it is worth trying.

Immense efforts have gone into creating a global framework and strategy for reducing disaster. Time will tell whether this initiative is productive or not, although it will be difficult to separate the results from what would have happened in the absence of such an instrument. At present, the real challenges have not been addressed: to understand exactly why decisions, strategies and power structures are increasing disaster risk and to do something to halt that process.

Plaudits to Allan Lavell for winning of the UN Sasakawa Prize for disaster reduction. He is our Noble Laureate in this field. For me, his award is the best outcome of the World Conference.


Aguirre, B.E. 2005. Cuba's disaster management model: should it be emulated? International Journal of Mass Emergencies and Disasters 23(3): 55-72.

Gero, A., S. Fletcher, J. Thiessen et al. 2013. Understanding the Pacific’s adaptive capacity to emergencies in the context of climate change: Country Report – Vanuatu. Institute for Sustainable Futures, University of Technology, Sydney, 30 pp.

IRDR 2011. Forensic Disaster Investigations: the FORIN Project. FORIN document no. 1. Integrated Research on Disaster Risk, Beijing, 29 pp.

Lewis, J. 2012. The Good, The Bad and The Ugly: disaster risk reduction (DRR) versus disaster risk creation (DRC). PLoS Currents 21 June 2012, 4: e4f8d4eaec6af8.

Shetty, S. 2011. Human Rights and Natural Disasters: Mitigating or Exacerbating the Damage? Global Policy doi: 10.1111/j.1758-5899.2011.00108.x

UNISDR 2015. Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction 2015-2030. A/CONF.224/CRP.1. United Nations International Strategy for Disaster Reduction, Geneva, 25 pp.

Wisner, B. 2015. Lies, damned lies, and statistics. Global Network of Civil Society Organisations for Disaster Reduction.

Tuesday, 13 January 2015

Why I am not a Charlie

In the aftermath of the shooting of the staff of Charlie Hebdo satirical magazine in Paris, we are all encouraged by popular sentiment to adopt the phrase "I am Charlie." Unfortunately, in traditional English usage, "I am a [right] Charlie" means "I have done something stupid or thoughtless." Hence, one translates "Je suis Charlie" at one's peril.

No reasonable-minded person could condone the terrible acts of violence perpetrated by Islamic fundamentalists in Paris, or elsewhere. My main reaction is sadness and sympathy for the victims and the bereaved. What  am concerned with here is the popular reaction to the Parisian atrocities, and this is something that worries me.

I was living in America on 11th September 2001, and the events in New York directly involved some of my students, who were part of the response, and left one of my colleagues mourning a brother who was on one of the aircraft that crashed into the World Trade Center. I witnessed an immediate change in the social climate of the United States. Overnight and at the following weekend, I struggled to reinvent myself as an expert on terrorism, or at least someone who could say something intelligent and authoritative about it.

The power of mass communication is extraordinary. When it succeeds in coalescing popular sentiment, the results are mind-boggling. When Diana, Princess of Wales, died on 31 August 1997, the writer Ian Jack described the response as "grief police". We all had to grieve—visibly—or face massive public opprobrium. In the aftermath of "nine-eleven", the prevailing slogan was "either you're with us or you're against us." Vigorously, public figures vied to out-patriot each other and out-condemn the vile acts of that fateful day. American patriotism has succeeded in creating a country of extraordinary diversity in which there is remarkably little dissent from the basic principles that launched the nation. This is an amazing achievement, but there are times when the patriotism is taken to ludicrous lengths. I have never been one for putting my hand on my digestive system every time the national anthem is played.

The net effect of "either you're with us or you're against us" was to stifle debate about the motivations behind the terrorist outrages. Publicly to question US foreign policy or actions abroad became physically dangerous, and graphic demonstrations of that danger occurred in my local area. Anyone who was not visibly orthodox ran the risk of becoming the target of militarised, gun-toting thugs who were acting "in the name of patriotism" to police the nation's thoughts and attitudes. At a local town meeting, a Mexican citizen stood up and said, with great courage, that he felt threatened by the American flag. It was a relatively mild admission, but foolhardy nonetheless. For those of us who had grave doubts about US foreign policy, and also some sense of the injustices of Middle Eastern history, it felt as if we were re-experiencing Germany in the 1930s.

Clearly, the hostage-takings and killings in Paris January 2015 have had a deep effect on the French nation's psyche. People feel justifiably outraged and vulnerable to further attacks. As a form of resistance, there has been a surge of support for the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo. It follows a long tradition of political and social mockery. In the dramas of Athens in the fifth-century BC, satyrs, beings that combined elements of man and goat, mocked the heroic events of the past. The plays were lewd and subversive, and thus was born satire. I read English and Italian satirical magazines and I appreciate the ability of satire to illuminate problems in creative and refreshing ways. I rather think the insistent mocking of Mohammed is now in rather bad taste. I also suspect that there are many instances in which modern satire applies double standards : for example, it is rare to see Jews mocked to the extent that Muslims are.

The effect of the Charlie Hebdo affair on Italy is surprising—or perhaps not. Judging by the nightly round of chat shows and televised debates, the country has been shocked almost to the same extent as France has been. Suddenly, Italy seems to have woken up to the realisation that we are all at risk of terrorist outrages, and the main reaction seems to be smarrimento—bewilderment. "Experts" on international affairs and counter terrorism have been dragged in front of the cameras, and have generally acquitted themselves atrociously. Women in hejab have been strategically placed in studio audiences, microphones have been thrust in the faces of inarticulate Muslim street traders in the big Italian cities; the right-wing Northern League has worked night and day to blame it all on immigration (something that required the ingenious application of tortuous logic). Not infrequently, television debates have degenerated into shouting matches, in which the "winner" is the person who manages to bluster loudest and ignore all the other participants.

Charlie Hebdo has intensified the dialogue of the deaf. Events such as this seem to deal a death-blow to the ability to listen to other people's points of view, consider them seriously and reason in a measured way. Many commentators have striven to increase the level of public angst, to make television viewers feel unsafe. Well they might: there is money to be made in the security industry and the way to make it is to ensure that everyone feels unsafe. In supporting Charlie Hebdo, we are supposed to be defending liberal, democratic values of free speech. In this respect, it is a well-known fact that free speech has its limits before it becomes slander and libel. Moreover, free speech is often inconvenient. Marco Travaglio, a highly respectable Italian journalist, went in front of the cameras and, in the Chomskian tradition of giving people chapter and verse, reeled off a long, copious history of occasions on which the Italian Government has censored RAI (the state television channels), often on the grounds that a programme which attempted to probe some wrong-doing was "in bad taste". Travaglio clearly does not suffer from quite the level of selective memory that is so prevalent among others who speak to the television cameras.

The conclusion from all the hubris is that we live in a world of forced consensus. Ordinary citizens, public officials or elected representatives are quite capable of becoming aggressive, to greater or lesser degrees, when faced with apostates who fail to accept what the public regard as a kosher attitude (forgive my archness in mixing religious metaphors!).

I find it unnerving to live in a place in which the debate on terrorism is so immature. It is true that the phenomenon is hard to explain: in a very respectable introduction to terrorism, issued by no less a publisher than Oxford University Press, the learned author seems to struggle to explain why terrorism exists. The fact is that we, the vast majority of people,  who find it utterly abhorrent (and counter-productive, which it most definitely is), do not have the cultural referents to imagine ourselves as terrorists and hence cannot empathise with those who are. A mature debate would see terrorism as a very serious problem, but one that should not be allowed to overshadow other serious threats, including 'natural' disasters and climate change. A mature debate would pay much attention to the roots of conflict in the Middle East, and the role of European countries in fomenting it. Instead we in Europe live in a land of historical amnesia, but the peoples of the Middle East have much longer memories, and that helps explain why they are so often scathing about our pronouncements on terrorism and free speech.

Monday, 12 January 2015

Medice, cura te ipsum

On 23rd November 1980 a magnitude 6.8 earthquake occurred in southern Italy. It caused 3,006 deaths and 8,841 injuries and damaged 400,000 houses in 630 municipalities. I was one of the survivors left homeless by this event. Almost exactly 34 years later, on 22rd November 2014, I was in Japan when a magnitude 6.8 earthquake occurred near where I was staying. It destroyed 37 houses and injured 57 people. Some 22 people were trapped under the rubble of collapsed buildings, but all of them were rescued alive. The physical parameters of the two events were remarkably similar, but the states of vulnerability were very different.

I spent December 2014 in central Italy. In mid-month, an earthquake swarm began. At 10:36 a.m. one day, my house rocked and swayed in a rippling motion that was the most precise earth tremor I have ever felt. Well it might have been: the epicentre was almost exactly 10 km away, on a bend in the road that connects two villages, both of which are in the same municipality as my house. This magnitude 4.1 event briefly cut electricity supplies, and it certainly caused a great deal of fear and alarm locally. Schools and offices were immediately closed and many people took to the streets.

This may well have been the first occasion in a millennium in which the area of Tuscany that contains my home was affected by a locally generated earthquake swarm, albeit not one of very high power. We experienced up to 100 earthquakes a day. Although low power events are not in themselves particularly dangerous, they remind one that a swarm could contain at least on event of significantly higher magnitude, as has been the case in many earthquake sequences in peninsular Italy; for example, at L'Aquila in 1703 and 2009, and Ferrara in 1570-4. This causes a very uncomfortable feeling of being exposed to danger. After 34 years the old, familiar sensation of acute sensitivity to vibrations suddenly returned.

My first act was to consult the catalogue of past earthquakes. The map of seismicity is based on the record of previous events, which is, of course, more and more vague the further one goes back in time. On expert suggested to me that to construct a realistic picture of the magnitudes and frequencies one might need a catalogue of 50,000 past events, and this assumes that there is no significant temporal trend in the data. Hence, the record is incomplete and the map is a hypothesis. It suggests that I live in a broad area of medium seismicity, with a local "trough" of lower hazard in the immediate area of the town in which I live.

One item of concern is that the tower of a local church, built in AD 880, leans fairly precipitously (over an occupied house) as a result of an earthquake in 1895. The epicentre for this was 25 km away. As areas of much higher seismicity exist in the Mugello, Garfagnana and Casentino, parts of the Apennine mountains, this begs the question as to what effect seismicity of distant origin would have on local structures such as my house. My home, incidentally, was built in 1909 in unreinforced masonry. It has been strengthened (at my expense), but to make it fully anti-seismic would cost something like 30 per cent of the value of the whole building, a fairly enormous sum.

The catalogue includes a magnitude 5.6 event with epicentre so close that I can walk out of my front door, cross the adjacent park, and look down on it in the valley nearby. This may be the millennial event in the area and details of its effects are sketchy, as it occurred in 1812, before the advent of systematic records of earthquakes. From what is known I deduce, as a rule of thumb, that the risk of significant earthquake damage to my house is about 0.4 per cent per lifetime. The risk of catastrophic damage is too low to be estimated.

I have a family disaster plan, and the local civil protection service has a plan that designates muster areas and prescribes organised assistance in the event of a serious earthquake. In December 2014 information leaflets were widely distributed. Whether this is sufficient is difficult to assess. As a scholar of disasters, I am aware of the need to set a good example, and disseminate information that is comprehensible and valid to those local people who ask me about the situation. However, there are few very useful guidelines about how to prepare for earthquakes in areas of relatively low risk, in which the benefits of expensive or restrictive measures are highly debatable. One can, at least, monitor the progress of seismic events and try to determine whether there is anything in the pattern that would stimulate one to be more active in preparedness. As I write, the swarm continues intermittently with events whose magnitude is lower than 2.5, most of which are imperceptible. May this be the worst we have to deal with!

Sunday, 11 January 2015

HFA2 - Does it Matter?

A decade ago, Dr Alan Kirschenbaum published a book (Kirschenbaum 2004a), in which he put forward the audacious hypothesis that the relationship between, on the one hand, the number and impact of disasters, and, on the other, the founding and promotion of disaster risk reduction* organisations is the opposite of what we usually believe. He argued that the increase in disasters is largely illusory and the result of the need for the organisations to justify their own existence by aggrandising the problem.  He also published a paper that provided a theoretical basis for this hypothesis (Kirschenbaum 2004b). It is not exactly that the organisations cause the disasters, but they make them seem more serious than they are. More than ten years later, I am writing this in the aftermath of shootings and hostage-takings in France, which have been discussed in the mass media as if they are the first sign of the end of civilisation as we know it. The fact is that mass murder by shooting is a common problem in some countries, particularly in the Americas. In the ensuing debate, it is very evident that commentators see the events in France as an opportunity to frighten the general public and advance the position of people who are involved in counter-terrorism. In writing this, I am not endeavouring to minimise the risks associated with modern terrorism, but I am concerned about the attitudes to terrorism prevention, many of which are clearly self-serving and perhaps of dubious effectiveness.

Similar problems exist with other forms of disaster: natural, technological and social. Few attempts have been made to evaluate the effectiveness of counter-terrorism measures (Alexander 2011), and even fewer of these have been impartial and independent. In disaster risk reduction generally, the tendency is not to evaluate the effectiveness of organisations, to do so under the starting assumption that the organisations are necessary, or employ self-evaluation. This the OECD's assessment of Italian Civil Protection was conducted largely through self-evaluation (OECD 2010). The results of this are predictably laudatory. Of course, they may be right, but in evaluating, not merely performance, but also the basic need for organisations, much depends on the degree of objectivity and, crucially, the criteria set for evaluation. It is easy to fall into the trap of allowing the latter to be self-fulfilling.

Disaster risk reduction keeps people in employment, including the undersigned. I often wonder about my own effectiveness, but recently I have had doubts about the value of the Hyogo Framework for Action renewal process (UNISDR 2005, et seq.).

Let there be no doubt that the United Nations International Strategy for Disaster Reduction, set up after the Decade for Disaster Reduction (1990-2000), is a vital organisation that does some essential and irreplaceable work, particularly in encouraging initiatives and disseminating information. The Hyogo Framework for Action, 2005-2015 was launched in Kobe, in the Japanese Prefecture of Hyogo, in the wake of the 1995 earthquake, which at the time was the world's most expensive disaster. The Framework enunciated the general principles on which disaster risk was to be reduced for the next decade. It is now up for renewal (UNISDR 2013).

The preparations for the March 2015 UNISDR world conference on disaster risk reduction have gathered pace like a runaway train on an incline. Organisations from small to large, provincial to international, have been publishing their views on the process. Never in this field has there been such a desire to state the obvious (or at least the well-known) and repeat the message. It may well be that the whole process is unnecessary. Governments that are striving to reduce the risk of disaster would do it anyway: those that are not pulling their weight are unlikely to be influenced. The economics of disaster, and its effect on power structures, provide the imperative to reduce disaster. In considering this, it is as well to remember that national governments are increasingly marginalised by the forces of globalisation in production, migration, trade and the labour market. Where governments can have an effect, participatory governance (i.e popular involvement in democracy) and the rule of law are the determinants of whether the problems of civil society can be tackled effectively (Fukuyama 2014).

There is a "sex of the angels" feeling to the debate about what wording to include in HFA2. Unfortunately, the experience of other treaties, declarations and international programmes (ozone layer, CFCs, climate change, human rights, etc.) is not encouraging. Governments may or may not sign up, may or may not make promises and set targets, and may or may not make an effort to achieve them.

An alternative view is that the impetus comes neither from the national nor the international levels, but from local sources. Surveys suggest that there has been little influence of the global and national processes on local initiatives (GNCSODR 2009, 2011). Fundamentally, it may be that the debate, conducted in international conference centres and national cabinet offices, is detached from the reality on the ground.

Those readers who strongly support the HFA2 process may suggest that I have been unduly negative, indeed cynical, in this assessment. Time will tell whether an international framework for disaster risk reduction is helpful or not, or at least it will tell if we make the effort to find out. Certain developments are inevitable, others are unpredictable. Perhaps I have misunderstood HFA2, but it is not a legally binding treaty, it is a framework. To take a rather puritanical view, the effort that is going into negotiating the wording, the carbon emissions that are produced by international meetings, the struggle to produce a document, might better be spent reducing disaster risk at the local scale. One need not believe Kirschenbaum, but his analysis should stimulate us to think freshly about what is needed and what is worthwhile.

*In 2004 the field was not called 'disaster risk reduction', but there are always dilemmas as to what appellation to use. This is another problem that, fundamentally, does not matter!


ACT Alliance 2014. Sustaining Lives and Livelihoods in the Face of Disasters: Act Alliance Key Asks [sic] on the Post-2015 Framework on Disaster Risk Reduction. ACT Alliance, Geneva, 8 pp.

Alexander, D.E. 2011. Sense and sensibility about terrorism. Journal of Integrated Disaster Risk Management 1(1): 1-12.

Fukuyama, F. 2014. Political Order and Political Decay: From the Industrial Revolution to the Globalisation of Democracy. Profile Books, London, 464 pp.

GNCSODR 2009. "Clouds But Little Rain..." Views from the Frontline. A local perspective of progress towards implementation of the Hyogo Framework for Action. Global Network of Civil Society Organisations for Disaster Reduction, Twickenham, UK, 64 pp.

GNCSODR 2011. "If We Do Not Join Hands..." Views from the Frontline. Local reports of progress on implementing the Hyogo Framework for Action, with strategic recommendations for more effective implementation. Global Network of Civil Society Organisations for Disaster Reduction, Twickenham, UK, 51 pp.

Kirschenbaum, A. 2004a. Chaos, Organization, and Disaster Management. Marcel Dekker, New York, 328 pp.

Kirschenbaum, A. 2004b. Measuring the effectiveness of disaster management organizations. International Journal of Mass Emergencies and Disasters 22(1): 75-102.

OECD 2010. Italy: Review of the Italian National Civil Protection System. OECD reviews of Risk Management Policies Vol. 4. Environment and Sustainable Development. Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, Paris, 173 pp.

UNISDR 2005. Hyogo Framework for Action, 2005-2015. Building the Resilience of Nations and Communities to Disasters. United Nations International Strategy for Disaster Reduction, Geneva, 22 pp.

UNISDR 2013. Towards the Post]2015 Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction: Tackling Future Risks, Economic Losses and Exposure. United Nations International Strategy for Disaster Reduction, Geneva, 21 pp.

Sunday, 26 October 2014

Leg-trap: toxic problems in disaster risk reduction

1.    How should we define our terminology?

2.    Do we have a discipline?

3.    Is what we do sufficiently interdisciplinary?

4.    Is disaster and emergency management a profession?

If you, gentle reader, can avoid having to answer these questions, you can make progress in research, teaching and service in DRR.

Cat among the pigeons: the twelve maxims of data analysis

The ongoing surge in the number of publications does not represent a corresponding increase in scientific productivity. In part, this is because many recently published studies do not observe the following dicta.

1.    No analytical study should be published for a general readership—scientific or otherwise—unless it contributes something genuinely new to knowledge about the matter in question. It is the responsibility of the author of the study to ascertain this by gaining a thorough knowledge of the pre-existing literature, including works which were not published in the recent past.

2.    No pattern in data should be presented as the result of an analysis without investigation of its meaning and significance.

3.    No analytical technique should be employed to analyse a data set unless a prior reason exists to use it.

4.    No sample should be taken unless the population from which it comes is well defined and the representativeness of the sample can be established.

5.    The smallest number of variables and the smallest data sets should be used compatible with achieving a reliable outcome to the analysis.

6.    Inductive methodology should be used as little as possible, and only when there are not enough indications to formulate a deductive hypothesis.

7.    Correlation should be abandoned unless causality can be established by independent means.

8    No index should ever be created unless it has a clear meaning independently of the numbers it contains.

9.    Ranks should never be assigned to phenomena with multiple meanings or significances.

10.    Data for which numbers are assigned (e.g. by expert opinion) should be used separately from data in which the numbers are derived by measurement.

11.    Principal components and factor analysis should be banned; they have no inherent meaning and do not acquire it in producing results.

12.    'Data' is a plural word.

Friday, 19 September 2014

Fortieth Anniversary

On 19th September 1974, I set out from University College London bound for the Mezzogiorno in order to start my field research for a PhD in geomorphology. Hence, today marks the 40th anniversary of my involvement with Italy, something that has grown and diversified over the years.

I am now bilingual in Italian and able to give as good as I get in three dialects. I am familiar with 147 of the 150 largest cities and towns of Italy, and the three I have never visited (Vibo Valentia, Iglesias and Carbonia) are small and remote. I know all 20 regions and 109 provinces (my favourite place is Sabbioneta, followed closely by Montepulciano—but don't tell anyone!). Twenty-four years ago I wrote and published my first book in Italian, which appeared in hardback in Bologna. I now have family and property in Italy and a long experience of working with and within Italian universities, schools and other institutions from the far North to the Deep South and islands. For five years I occupied the position of Scientific Director in the Region of Lombardy's Advanced School of Civil Protection. In past years I have had a (rather disjointed) dialogue with the current Prime Minister and I have a rich but mixed experience of appearing in Italy's mass media.

For the past 700 years there has been nothing on Earth quite like Italy. Italians regard their nation with an odd mixture of pride and shame. It has given the world cultural riches beyond anyone's wildest imaginings, but it has also consistently defied logic. In short, it has disappointed as much as it has inspired. Nevertheless, many of the stereotypes about Italy are no more than that. It is a country of individualists, and one that tolerates individualism more than do most other nations, but it is capable of extraordinary feats of organisation and collective effort. In the applied part of my field, civil protection, it has created the best models and produced the greatest synergies. Yet one consistent trait in Italy is that it is nearly perfect, but, in the modern world, the utter inability to remove that word 'nearly' leaves it hanging on the brink of great achievement. A Swiss professor of pathology once told me that, in his opinion, Italy is the place where genius is closest to madness. He was from the German-speaking part of his country and his view was entirely consistent with the Swiss love of order and predictability (Canton Ticino, where they speak a sort of Italian, is regarded by some Swiss as the Alabama of Switzerland). But perhaps he had a point.

One effect of the individualism is that, more than any other country, Italy is the land of diversity. It is usually amusing to watch the incomprehension between northerners and southerners, at least if it is benign rather than unpleasant, as they struggle unsuccessfully to understand each other's cultures. It is disorientating to ask for directions in Val Venosta only to find that one's German-speaking interlocutor pretends not to understand any Italian—and yet on the other side of the valley they speak Ladin (a mountain language) and no German. It is amusing to see the disdain that the people of Livorno have for the inhabitants of nearby Pisa, and how that is represented in the Vernacoliere, their monthly satirical magazine, or the haughtiness of the Florentines when they regard the Sienese, and the reciprocation of the latter. Occasionally, the safety valve lifts (on social media, perhaps) and out boils all the suspicion, incomprehension, distrust and disdain that each city state, or pocket-handkerchief territory, harbours for the rest of the country. I had an early introduction to this when, in 1974, I was taken to see a self-proclaimed 'republic' in the hills of the Province of Matera founded by a man who fell out with the administrations of the towns of Tricarico and Grassano and set up his own fiefdom at the crossroads half way between them. None of the local inhabitants thought this unusual.

It is always interesting to see how Italians regard the British. The official ties between the two countries are much less significant than the informal ones. The United Kingdom is a sort of alter ego to Italy. It is not always admired, and not always respected, but it is never ignored. Italian knowledge of Britain is generally limited to London, Oxford, Cambridge, Brighton and Plymouth (perhaps I should add the indigenous Italian community of Bedford, but it is in danger of being eclipsed by Asian Britons). This represents a sort of colonisation attempt, and the rest of the country is hic sunt leones. Indeed, Italian journalists have written books to explain Britain to Italians, from which one would think that there is no inhabited land north of the Severn-Trent line—works that are almost as bad as the Brits' literary efforts to explain Italy (it cannot be done). I once met an Italian in Dorchester, who was completely disorientated and trying to act like some brave pioneer. I did also once meet one who toured the Scottish Highlands in a Fiat cinquecento (the original model), but that was regarded as equivalent to going the wrong way across the Sahara Desert.

My grandfather worked for Negretti & Zambra, the Clarkenwell instrument makers, which was eventually swallowed up by another British company—Marconi. In 1944, my father did a stint in the Italian Navy aboard ships such as the Reale Incrociatore G. Garibaldi, and the minesweepers Indomito and Fenice. Fascism had collapsed and they used these ships in British convoys. It all amounted to a certain predisposition to italianesimo, acquired, I suppose, by cultural osmosis. The dilemma of those of us who are propelled into new cultural domains is that we can never completely abandon our roots and never completely assimilate the new environment. For instance, I can never understand why there have to be at least three chat shows on Italian television every night of the year, nor why they always consist of a table full of people shouting at each other and not listening to what anyone else says. After a long sojourn in Italy, I once interrupted a speaker at a round table discussion in Germany. The consensus was that I should abjectly beg forgiveness of all participants. In Italy, he who shouts loudest wins—probably using a mobile phone in a crowded place. And, by the way, on one occasion, I heard a phone play a can-can during a benediction by the Bishop of Prato. Thank God it wasn't a funeral!

In 40 years some habits die hard. Weeks ago I overdid it on Amaro Lucano, an after-dinner liqueur that my father once described as "alcoholic syrup of figs", referring to the laxative he was given as a child. It was pure nostalgia, as I did my PhD research on soil erosion that eats away at the ground around the Amaro Lucano factory at Scalo Pisticci in the Basento Valley of Basilicata, southern Italy, at least 86 km from the nearest city. Forty years of momentous change have passed, but at least Amaro Lucano is the same, although possibly a little watered down compared to how it was in 1974, or 1894?

Tuesday, 2 September 2014

The Pros and Cons of European Research on Disaster Risk Reduction

The European Commission (EC) has pledged €78 billion to support projects under the 'Horizon 2020' Framework Programme for Research and Technological Development of the European Union. After seven previous framework programmes, perhaps it is time to take stock as the latest one begins and the frenzy of proposal writing gets underway.

On the positive side, European funding has propelled institutions towards a form of collaboration in which there are bound to be synergies. For some countries, and many institutions, framework programmes such as FP6, FP7 and H2020 are the only source of external funding to which they can apply. These programmes have moved the agenda decisively towards applied research and evaluation of the utility of research products. They have contributed to European unity and striven to satisfy the needs of European citizens. In the field of disaster risk reduction, there have been substantial phases of research into vulnerability and resilience, and these have helped create a body of methodology and have illustrated how it can be used by risk managers in the public and private sectors. The funding has produced a rich variety and copious number of forums in which the problems of managing risks, dealing with disaster and recovering from impacts have been debated very thoroughly.

Despite these considerable advantages, there are drawbacks. To begin with, the templates imposed by the EC for applications, the submissions procedure and the proposal evaluation mechanism are all suitably rigorous, but they tend to encourage mediocrity and discourage real innovation. Because the investment of large sums of money is involved, research funding decisions tend inherently to be conservative and averse to risk. Most European projects succeed in achieving their aims and some fail, but are the aims really worthwhile? All the projects contain elements such as a website, management structure, software, oversight committees, "stakeholder" meetings, brochures, fliers and work-packages (how, exactly, can work be "packaged"?). Are all such elements needed, and what differentiates one project from another?

The inherent conservatism and conformity tend to filter out creativity and the kinds of risk-taking that lead directly to innovation. The net result of these projects is a massive duplication of research output. In part, this stems from the rigid structure imposed on the research design and precise requirements concerning the applications of research; in part it comes from the conservatism of the evaluation process; and in part it is a result of the dilution of initiative by the need to collaborate on all matters, large and small.

From FP6 to H2020 there is a trend towards increasing the applied component of research projects and placing a heavy emphasis on technological development. In some instances, this has had the effect of 'hollowing out' research and creating fresh sources of vulnerability to disaster (Figure 1). Many FP7 and H2020 projects involve the manufacture of software and hardware designed to support risk and emergency managers. Seldom is there any evaluation of whether the ever more sophisticated routines and gadgets are actually more efficient than pencil and paper or word of mouth. Moreover, there is frequently a risk that induced dependency on sophisticated electronic equipment or routines will leave the users vulnerable to the effects of the failure of such technology during a crisis. If the equipment gives erroneous results, the operator does not understand exactly how to use it, or, quite simply, a battery runs down and there is no means of recharging it, then the result is, at best, inefficiency and at worst an inability to carry out vital tasks.

Figure 1. How funding arrangements are 'hollowing out' research.

Besides the common lack of evaluation of the effectiveness of technology, it is quickly outdated by the development of new devices, systems and platforms. Either it will become redundant or large amounts of money must be spent on adapting it, which in the majority of cases is unlikely to happen because the project that produced will probably end before the adaptation is needed. In addition, the more sophisticated a technology is, the more training it requires in order to be used. The training infrastructure may be poorly developed and the result may be either under-use of devices and software or the emergence of a technological elite upon whom the non-users depend.

One of the greatest risks of this situation is that over-sophisticated responses will be developed to essentially simple problems. "Stakeholder interest" tends to be fickle and so does the involvement of target "end-users". Although many projects go to elaborate lengths to understand the needs of the users, in many cases there is no guarantee that the initial rush of enthusiasm will be followed by sustained adoption of what is proposed. The criterion for many end users is whether a device, routine, methodology or other supposed innovation makes their work easier or more successful. Over-sophistication obscures rather than answers that question.

European research financing has spawned a large number of private institutions that feed on it. Some provide technological services and some actively do research. Some exist merely to create research proposals. The level of competency of these organisations varies more than that of the research universities, and so does their ability to manage research projects. Although the EC's aim of including "small and medium size enterprises in research is laudable, it surely did not mean that the process should create such institutions as self-perpetuating entities.

One thing that all institutions seem to have in common is a rush to publish. There is an assumption, which is largely false, that productivity equates with copiousness. Applied to post-disaster investigation, some have aptly termed this the "gold-rush mentality" (Gomez and Hart 2013). This prompts a consideration of the general state of disaster studies, as they are the context in which European projects in this field are set.

Ballooning publication rates are fuelled by several trends. One is the tendency to publish ever earlier in one's career, which makes a mockery of experience, and possibly also of training. It reduces the role of accumulated wisdom and narrows the perspective by excluding large bodies of previously acquired knowledge. It is thus hardly surprising that disaster research tends to "reinvent the wheel" by repeating research. A good example of this is the small symposium on risk perception and management in relation to Hurricane Sandy published in Risk Analysis journal (Cox and Lowrie 2014). The findings of the perception research essentially replicated those obtained after Atlantic hurricanes  in previous decades (e.g. Beatley and Brower 1986, Cross 1990)  Another is the strong connection between academic publication and personnel decisions. A third factor is the effect of highly misleading bibliometric measures (Moustafa 2014).

Disasters are becoming ever more sophisticated phenomena, with subtle and complex changes in their occurrence and their context. Studies of disaster seem to become ever more summary and focussed on elements that contribute little or nothing to the broader picture and the development of theory. One has the sensation that we are moving away from understanding disasters, rather than becoming more knowledgeable. As disaster research has increased, so the overall quality has decreased, giving rise to a widening per capita 'inspiration gap' among researchers. Per person, we seem to know less than we did decades ago, not more (Figure 2).

Figure 2. The 'inspiration gap' in disaster research.

Over the last 30 years, disaster research has shied away from facing up to its own fundamental issues: human rights, moral disengagement, ethical issues, fairness, equity and stability in human communities. Disasters can only be understood in the context of a society that is becoming less and less fair, and in many parts of the world more and more unstable. The gap between, on the one hand, expectations and recommendations (i.e. diagnosis and proposed cure) and, on the other, action—or the lack of it—on the ground, has never been higher. Hence, I believe that research, in Europe as elsewhere, has to be more creative, innovative, broadly based and realistic than it currently is. To achieve this, the funding mechanism needs to be adjusted, and that will require some radical departures from the current model.


Beatley, T. and Brower, D.J. 1986. Public perceptions of hurricane hazards: the differential effects of Hurricane Diana. Coastal Zone Management Journal 14: 241-269.

Cox, T. and K. Lowrie (eds) 2014. Papers on risk perception and Hurricane Sandy. Risk Analysis 34(6): 981-1094.

Cross, J.A. 1990. Longitudinal change in hurricane hazard perception. International Journal of Mass Emergencies and Disasters 8(1): 31-48.

Gomez, C. and D.E Hart 2013. Disaster gold rushes, sophisms and academic neocolonialism: comments on ‘Earthquake disasters and resilience in the global North’. Geographical Journal 179(3): 272-277.

Moustafa, K. 2014. The disaster of the impact factor. Science and Engineering Ethics DOI: 10.1007/s11948-014-9517-0. (Impact Factor: 1.516)

Monday, 21 July 2014

On Evidence-Based Practice

Revellers dressed as Mozart (or the female equivalent) dig up a gas main in central London sometime in the 1930s. Evidence of not much at all.

   "Now, what I want is, Facts. Teach these boys and girls nothing but Facts. Facts alone are wanted in life. Plant nothing else, and root out everything else. You can only form the minds of reasoning animals upon Facts: nothing else will ever be of any service to them. This is the principle on which I bring up my own children, and this is the principle on which I bring up these children. Stick to Facts, sir!"
    - Thomas Gradgrind, in Hard Times by Charles Dickens (1854)

Several days before I wrote this piece, the British Government suppressed a report it had commissioned on immigration into the United Kingdom. News of this was leaked to the press, and BBC television interviewed a government spokesperson, Mr Vince Cable, Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills and a Liberal Democrat politician. Mr Cable described the report as "one-sided" and was very much at ease with the fact that the Government had had it rewritten twice and was reluctant to issue the final product in any shape or form. The report (which I cannot reference) consisted of a wide-ranging survey of the evidence on immigration to the UK. According to the television news, it concluded that immigration has had a range of positive benefits for British society and economy. It also noted that immigrants use the National Health System less than indigenous Britons and contribute very much to it in terms of their skills and labour. This is in contrast to the Government's legislation to curb "benefits tourism" (a phenomenon that the report notes is largely non-existent).

The reason for mentioning this case here is that the British Government commissioned a review of evidence and then tried to alter and suppress it because the evidence ran counter to its policies. The evidence could not be used to support an anti-European or xenophobic stance, nor to increase the anxieties of voters about multiculturalism and the shortage of jobs.

As it happens, I do believe in "evidence-based practice". Logic demands that we take experience into account and that we consider all relevant knowledge pertaining to a problem before we decide how to solve it. Without such an approach, policy makers risk blundering around in the dark, and their policies risk being, at best, inefficient, and at worst downright injurious. However, there are two main problems with evidence-based practice. One concerns the nature of evidence and the other refers to the way in which it is, or is not, used.

What is evidence?

It is axiomatic that policy and practice should be based on as complete a knowledge of a problem as the evidence will allow. That is why policy formulators use academics and advisors, because they have a wide-ranging knowledge of the problem in question, its connotations and the evidence that, properly interpreted, can lead to a solution.

However, for any problem in society, economy and ecology that begs to be solved, there are at least nine important questions that may well lack an adequate answer. They are as follows.

  • What exactly is evidence?
  • To what extent is evidence a surrogate for direct experience, or, alternatively, how much evidence should be derived from experience and how much from indirect sources?
  • How should evidence be verified?
  • Leading on from the previous question, is 'evidence' merely objective data, or does it include subjective experience?
  • Evidence of what? To what should the evidence be attributed?
  • What is evidence capable of proving or confirming?
  • What is the connection between evidence and wisdom?
  • Can we do without evidence?
  • Lastly, how much evidence is enough before decisions can be made?
Clearly, the answers to these questions will differ from case to case. In general, 'evidence' is information that is capable of contributing to the solution of the problem, which has been obtained by objective methods and that paints an objective picture of the situation under examination, and one that is as complete as needed in order to draw conclusions, formulate policy and develop strategies to implement a solution.

Merely trawling for data does not adequately define the process of compiling evidence. On the other hand, the inevitable resort to selectivity risks the introduction of bias into the process of accumulating evidence. Moreover, as risk analysis involves risk perception, and as risk perception has a strong influence on how risks are communicated and managed, then subjective experience is clearly part of the 'evidence' in some way. 'Wisdom' is therefore the process of sifting and selecting evidence in an impartial and even-handed manner. In the modern world, information technology has promoted a massive return to the kinds of inductive science that were common in the times of the Encyclop├ędistes of the eighteenth century. Computers have taken the hard work out of blind analysis of data, but they have also removed the thinking. In intellectual terms, there is nothing more feeble and pathetic than data mining.

How should evidence be used?

There are three kinds of evidence:-
  • precise and decisive
  • equivocal, ambiguous and puzzling
  • uninterpretable (evidence of what?).
Data  are a low-level form of evidence and may not be enough to form an adequate generalisation about a phenomenon. Disaster impacts have two unfortunate features: over time, they are spiky and they have a (somewhat ambiguous) trend. Hence, it can be difficult to make a generalisation about the future on the basis of evidence derived from the past. This was illustrated by an editorial in a journal, which congratulated the world on reducing disaster death tolls to 59,000 a year over the previous five years (Wilson 2005). It was published just as the Indian Ocean tsunami killed more people in one catastrophe than had died in all disasters during the previous 60 months. Unfortunately, for many phenomena, evidence alone will never be sufficient to characterise them, especially if their mean values trend over time. Hence, we need evidence, models and inspiration. As all use of evidence is selective, the criteria by which facts are selected should be made explicit so that they can be evaluated. In short, evidence can constrain uncertainty, but it cannot eradicate it.

A cautionary tale

The Irish engineer Robert Mallet developed a strong interest in earthquakes. Indeed, he is to some extent the "Father of Seismology". One of his greatest achievements was to compile all the known evidence of earthquakes into a catalogue and map. Mallet knew  the location of plate boundaries before anyone knew of the existence of tectonic plates. In December 1857 the Italian region of Basilicata was struck by a major earthquake that killed about 5,000 people. Mallet organised an expedition there and assiduously collected evidence, often at great personal hardship, which he published in two volumes that have become classics of observational science (Mallet 1862). Mallet missed no piece of evidence, however trivial, but he was unable to deduce the cause of earthquakes, which he thought had something to do with subterranean steam. It took John Milne (1850-1913) to do that, in concert with a number of other scientists, using a new and more sensitive kind of seismograph.

Let's ignore the evidence

Here is a more modern case, but one that harks back in its structure to the immigration question with which I started this piece. Since 2006 there has been a set of international regulations that prohibit passengers from taking bottles of liquids larger than 100 ml onto flights. It stems from some assumptions about how liquids could be mixed on board an aircraft to make a bomb. To begin with, the standard size of bottles, at least in the European Union, is 60 an 120 ml. Hence, vast numbers of the latter have had to be thrown away at airports (the container size is what matters, not the amount of liquid inside the bottle). Secondly, in terms of concocting a bomb, 100 ml is definitely not a magic number. I asked a highly experienced counter-terrorism artificer about this and he told me that 25 ml of certain substances would be sufficient. I do not know whether one could buy the relevant substances in the airport pharmacy, having already passed security.

I mention this example because there is virtually never any attempt to evaluate the efficiency and effectiveness of counter-terrorism measures. The evidence is secret, or perhaps merely lacking.

Let's ignore the evidence when it hits us in the face

A report from the UN International Strategy for Disaster Reduction states that "The City of Venice joined the [Safe Cities] Campaign as a role model for cultural heritage protection and climate change adaptation" (UNISDR 2013). Indeed, such an example is Venice that it appeared on the cover of this document. In reality, Venice is severely threatened by the arrival of cruise ships of up to 140,000 tonnes in size, which navigate within one metre of the historical urban fabric, causing damage with their bow waves and creating a massive risk of collision and shipwreck. Despite the example of the Costa Concordia (the world's most expensive shipwreck), in 35 years of debate the city council has refused to legislate on this issue. Protests by Venetian residents have turned violent but there has been no change. Indeed, no attempt was made adequately to regulate the chaotic water transport on the Grand Canal until an eminent German was crushed and drowned in the collision between two boats. Meanwhile, the mayor, Sig. Giorgio Orsoni, has resigned after being arrested in a corruption investigation regarding the city's flood defences. So much for evidence-based practice, both within Venice and looking in.


Evidence-based practice is a good idea providing we are not too naive about it. Any attempt to collect, martial and interpret evidence on a particular problem needs to be transparent, fair and impartial. It must state the criteria by which evidence is included and excluded, and must ensure that an objective, balanced view of the problem is compiled. Besides the fact that they are grossly inefficient, inductive and aductive processes will not automatically ensure this. A 'blind' approach to evidence will not make it objective or comprehensive, because choices inevitably have to be made in the way that evidence is collected.

Lastly, examples described in this essay illustrate the fact that evidence alone does not "shame" policy makers into adopting a better, more objective approach. They are perfectly at liberty to use evidence selectively, or ignore it altogether.

Hence, we need an evidence-based investigation of exactly how and why policy makers ignore or manipulate the evidence.


Mallet, R. 1862. Great Neapolitan Earthquake of 1857: The First Principles of Observational Seismology. Chapman and Hall for the Royal Society, London, 2 vols.

UNISDR 2013. Making Cities Resilient: Summary for Policymakers. A Global Snapshot of How Local Governments Reduce Disaster Risk. United Nations International Strategy for Disaster Reduction, Geneva, 20 pp.

Wilson, H.C. 2005. Editorial. Disaster Prevention and Management 14(1). (accessed 21 July 2014).