Tuesday, 31 August 2021

A Five-Minute Plea for Better Civil Protection

Although we need to change attitudes to disaster from response to preparedness and prevention, this must not be done at the expense of our ability to respond to disasters when they occur. In the light of climate change, technological risks and migration, we will soon need civil protection systems that are an order of magnitude more powerful than those that we have now. One of their principal functions will be to limit damage.

In prevention, there is almost always a positive relationship between investment and return. In other words, spending money on preparedness saves money on damage contained and casualties avoided. We have known this in some detail since the mid-1960s. However, the time-lag between expenditure and return is often fatal to prevention initiatives because it is longer than the typical political cycle. This is not the case with response, but both prevention and response encounter the problem that impacts may or may not happen in any defined period of time, or in any measurable decision-making cycle.

What makes the present day different is that, for many kinds of disaster, recurrence intervals have shortened drastically. They will continue to do so. Disaster is a daily occurrence, along with all the bereavement, suffering, misery, destruction and curtailment that it brings in its wake. Governments have not woken up to the fact that it is now a significantly more intense phenomenon than it was in previous decades. But you haven't seen anything yet: the disasters of the future will be far worse, unless, that is, there is a miraculous sense of enlightenment.

Typically, planning for disaster is a conservative process - if it exists at all (its value is consistently underrated and its functions are consistently misunderstood). Governments tend to plan for past disasters, not future ones. We do have the foresight to anticipate what comes next: what we lack is the leadership to do something about it.

I say to leaders, it is absolutely necessary that you be radical. We need a revolution, not the usual pitifully slow and feeble pace of evolution.
  • Make emergency planning and management a key profession: develop it nationally.
  • In this technological age, move from command-and-control to coordinate-and-collaborate.
  • Modernise the culture of civil protection and make it properly inclusive.
  • Develop the system strongly so that it is a powerful, permanent presence at the local level.
  • Involve the population through consultation and the development of organised voluntarism.
  • Coordinate it regionally and harmonise it nationally - in other words, weld it into a functional system that works together at all levels.
  • Fund it well, because the consequences of not doing so will be terrible.
  • Protect your people.
By and large, governments do not want to know about disaster risk reduction. They believe they can get by without it. Nor are they particularly interested in mounting efficient and effective responses to disaster. Neither is there much demand for them to do so, such is the level of ignorance and fatalism about disasters. It is simply naive to assume that if one gives governments scientific information they will act on it. Some governments might be more likely to imprison and torture one.

We live in an age in which reality means different things to different people. To some extent, objective scientific reality has been beaten into a corner. We have to learn to fight against the kind of dissidence that causes anomie to proliferate, the breakdown of values and standards. Society is grappling with powerful technological change. It does not fully understand the vulnerability of the technology (consider, for instance, the effects of long-term loss of electricity) nor what methods should be used to control it. 

Disaster risk reduction cannot be based on a narrow view of the problem. All vulnerability is contextual (see my writings on that). Much disaster research is backward looking: that will no longer do. Have the courage to face the future - objectively. To know the problem well is half way to achieving the solution to it.

Friday, 20 August 2021

Haiti: has there been progress in disaster reduction since the last big earthquake?


Some years ago I met a 31-year-old Bulgarian policeman whose main claim to fame was that he had been the Chief of Police for the Republic of Haiti for 20 minutes, or in other words until someone more senior arrived from Port-au-Prince airport. This was in 2010, shortly after Haiti had been prostrated by a magnitude 7 earthquake.

Nobody knows how many casualties there were in that disaster: perhaps 240,000 dead and 300,000 injured. As bodies piled up on street corners and in courtyards there was no time to count them all. Some 1.6 million people were displaced from their homes, but the earthquake destroyed more than people and their homes: it dealt a near fatal blow to government. 

The 2010 earthquake occurred after yet another period of instability, which the United Nations Peacekeeping mission (MINUSTAH) had striven to bring to an end. Stabilisation was due to give way to peacekeeping and development when the earthquake struck the country and abruptly reversed the gains achieved.[i]

The international aid caravan

As 130 countries brought in personnel, materials and supplies, it was a useful moment to take stock of whether the international disaster relief community was applying the lessons it was supposed to have learned in decades of dealing with disasters. In 2010, much good work was done in Haiti by dedicated, selfless emergency responders, particularly in medical assistance and search and rescue. Nevertheless, there were some spectacular failures.

In six months only two thirds of the money requested in the UN's flash appeal had been pledged, and some of that was never paid. Rumours eventually circulated that 80% of the monetary aid supplied to Haiti found its way back to the donor countries. This is impossible to substantiate, but goods manufactured in a donor country, brought to Haiti by transport from that country and distributed by personnel from the same country would do little to stimulate the Haitian economy. In his book about the earthquake, the eminent Harvard medical doctor Paul Farmer[ii] noted that only 3.8% of monetary relief went to the Haitian Government, and yet that is exactly where responsibility for public services and safety lay.

This was particularly true for donor-supplied shelter.[iii] A field in Port-au-Prince became the exhibition site for examples of this, some of them priced at over $50,000 per unit. Shelter may be 'innovative' or 'inspiring' to an architect from a highly developed country, but it could equally be detestable and impractical to the potential user. In 1978 the architect Ian Davis published a small book entitled Shelter After Disaster,[iv] which included a number of well-chosen exposés of post-disaster housing as architectural fantasy rather than useful dwelling place. Professor Davis has continued his work on this theme ever since[v] and eventually won the most prestigious UN award in his field, but is the aid community really listening?

A massive earthquake affects Haiti roughly once every 60 years. Four such events have occurred since the country attained independence from France in 1804. It is as well to remember that some of them have caused tsunamis. The 14th August 2021 magnitude 7.2 earthquake did so, but fortunately the waves were small and their effect was limited. That is not invariably the case with large Caribbean earthquakes. Neglect of seismic safety is bound to be fatal, but Haiti has no building codes and certainly no means of enforcing them if they existed.

Meteorological disasters

Named tropical storms and hurricanes make landfall in Haiti on average once every 18 months, but the incidence is irregular, and so is the power of each storm. Moreover, a strong La Niña resurgence during the North Atlantic Oscillation can accentuate the Spring and Autumn rainfall peaks and increase the likelihood of hurricanes. For example, in the 2008 hurricane season, four named storms arrived.

Both flooding and accelerated soil erosion are worsened by decades of deforestation  that have denuded slopes of the kind of vegetation that would retain moisture and soil cover. In Haiti, a third of the population lacks secure access to food. In mid-2021, 40 districts are currently enduring a crisis of food availability, and 130,000 children are  suffering from acute malnutrition. The intensification of storms, floods and erosion, and accompanying damage to agriculture are much to be feared as climate change intensifies.

Either storm-related disruption or the presence of infected Nepali UN peacekeepers brought cholera to Haiti the aftermath of the 2010 earthquake and made it endemic. The outbreak killed 9,000 Haitians and infected 800,000. Fortunately, despite continual disruption of healthcare, the effect of Covid-19 has so far been limited (600 deaths in a population of 11.5 million), but in mid-August 2021 only 0.1% of the population has been vaccinated.

A changing situation

The eminent anthropologist Anthony Oliver-Smith argued[vi] that in Haiti colonialism has left an enduring legacy of vulnerability to disasters. In his words, "the colonial institutions’ assiduous extraction of surpluses left the population both destitute and vulnerable to hazards for centuries to come." Nowhere more than in Haiti has disaster been made inevitable by the nexus of poverty and vulnerability.

It remains to be seen whether the usual mistakes are repeated by the international disaster aid community after the August 2021 earthquake. The intervening years have produced conflicting signals. Consider, for example, the role of the Internet and social media. It has greatly increased the politicisation of aid, which has generally been a negative factor because it distorts the relationship between needs and supply.

On the other hand, it has also provided a ready channel for assistance. Haiti is one of the three countries (with the Philippines and Pakistan) that are most dependent on remittances by their diaspora. As they lend a sense of immediacy and connection, social media have strengthened that relationship, and never more than in times of disaster. This is practical solidarity in its most direct form.

The devastation to the bidonvilles of Port-au-Prince in the 2010 earthquake was one factor that sparked a new interest in the the effect of disasters on informal settlements. In many large developing country cities, these are vast–and highly vulnerable, not least because they are usually situated on the least safe and stable land. Researchers have identified four goals[vii]: secure land occupation, sufficient and resilient livelihoods, robust and resilient ecosystems, and adequate disaster risk and emergency management.

Stability, good governance and democratic participation are essential ingredients of disaster risk reduction. Haiti has long had a shortage of all three. For example, it ranks 170th out of 180 in Transparency International's Corruption Perceptions Index 2020. Nevertheless, battered by earthquakes, storms, floods and landslides it has by necessity proved to be country full of remarkably resilient people. That is an important strength, but time will tell whether it is enough to get by on.


[i] Muggah, R. 2010. The effects of stabilisation on humanitarian action in Haiti. Disasters 34(S3): S444-S463.

[ii] Farmer, Paul 2012. Haiti After the Earthquake. Public Affairs, New York, 443 pp.

[iii] Abrahams, D. 2014. The barriers to environmental sustainability in post-disaster settings: a case study of transitional shelter implementation in Haiti. Disasters 38(S1): S25-S49.

[iv] Davis, Ian 1978. Shelter After Disaster. Oxford Polytechnic Press, Oxford, 127 pp.

[v] Davis, I., P. Thompson and F. Krimgold (eds) 2015. Shelter After Disaster (2nd edition). UNOCHA and International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, Geneva, 252 pp.

[vi] Oliver-Smith, Anthony 2010. Haiti and the historical construction of disasters. NACLA Report on the Americas 43(4): 32-36, doi: 10.1080/10714839.2010.11725505

[vii] Sarmiento, Juan Pablo, Suzanne Polak and Vicente Sandoval 2019. An evidence-based urban DRR strategy for informal settlements. Disaster Prevention and Management 28(3): 371-385. doi: 10.1108/DPM-08-2018-0263


Tuesday, 16 March 2021

GEJET - Great Eastern Japan Earthquake and Tsunami (and Nuclear Release) - Tenth Anniversary

The tsunami museum at Rikusentakata, seen from atop the coastal tsunami barrier across the land that was devastated by the waves in March 2011

Thursday 11th March 2021 was the tenth anniversary of the Japanese triple disaster: earthquake, tsunami and radiation release. I sent my greetings and respects to my Japanese colleagues and spent the day teaching my students about the event and its aftermath.

I first visited the affected area in 2014, having failed to gain a place on an earlier expedition that took place a year and a half after the disaster. The affected area is the Tōhoku region of northeast Honshu island. In particular it comprises the eastern parts of the prefectures of Iwate, Miyagi and Fukushima, the picturesque Sanriku Coast, a land of forests, rice paddies, estuaries and drowned rias.

A tsunami is usually nothing like the breakers that surfers ride. The 11 March 2011 waves, seven of them, were a slowly rising mound of thick, viscous grey-black water, full of debris, oily, turbulent, menacing and highly destructive. Observers were horrified to see the water go on and on rising until it engulfed everything in sight and obliterated most of it.

One of my early memories is to have visited the shell of a school at Arahama, a few hundred metres from the sea in Miyagi prefecture. The gymnasium was full of personal effects that had been salvaged from the wreckage and no one had the heart to throw them away. Photograph albums, statuettes, wedding pictures, cameras, even clothes. Most heart-rending was a collection of about 100 children's school satchels, symbolic of an education blown apart by the disaster. Remarkably few children died in the tsunami, but almost all of those who did were in the Okawa elementary school, where a misconceived evacuation decision had fatal consequences for almost all students and teachers. The building is due to become a national monument. The story of Okawa is movingly described in Richard Lloyd Parry's remarkable book Ghosts of the Tsunami: Death and Life in Japan.

When it comes to earthquakes, Japan is a remarkably well-prepared country. I was in a magnitude 6.8 earthquake in southern Italy in which nearly 3,000 people died, 8,800 were injured and 280,000 were left homeless. I experienced an earthquake of the same magnitude and remarkably similar physical characteristics in Sendai, capital of the Tōhoku region, and in the local coffee bar people did not even stop reading their newspapers as the ground shook.

On the Sanriku coast, vast amounts of debris were systematically separated into artificial mountains of soil, concrete, wood and steel, and then recycled. Around them, cemeteries, shrines and monuments sprang up. A makeshift shrine was erected at the base of the three-storey emergency operations centre in Shizugawa. It was washed out by a 20-metre tsunami wave, while the officials who remained at their posts broadcasting warnings until they drowned. Two survived by clinging to the radio mast on the top of the building. As I stood beside the shell of the building, local people driving to work would stop and say a prayer at the shrine in memory of the emergency managers who sacrificed their lives for the community.

The Japanese Government promised reconstruction in only seven years. Broadly, they achieved it. People who lost their homes had to live in transitional houses only 28.5 or 33.5 square metres in size, but in compensation they knew they would be given proper homes in a period of time that was remarkably short. Elevated ground, refuge mounds, sea walls, improved infrastructure, landscaping and flood gates appeared all along the Sanriku coast. So did tsunami museums. Several of these are large, bold structures which demand of the residents and visitors that they remember the disaster and ponder on its meaning. In Kesennuma, the museum is integral with a school that was washed out. A car was deposited, upside down, on the upper floor, 15 metres above ground level. Piles of rusty debris remain in situ. In the museum's auditorium visitors are shown a film of a 17-year-old giving his high-school graduation speech, nine months after the tsunami. His teacher whispers to him "be strong", as he grapples with his emotions and struggles to express the enormity of coming of age in a time of major disaster. It is a very moving testimony.

In November 2019, on my second visit to Fukushima Dai'ichi, I stood in front of the wreckage of reactor no. 1, about 20 metres away. It was streaming out radiation at a rate equivalent to 350 chest X-rays. That was on the up-slope side. On the ocean side the rate was one third higher. The reactor site is a remarkable place: hundreds of tanks, each holding 100 tonnes of radioactive water, thousands of radioactive vehicles that cannot be driven off site. The ruined reactors, the cryological barrier and all the impedimenta that maintains it, the businesslike air of programmed activity. On my first visit there were 9,900 workers on site; on my second visit exactly 3,730.

The road infrastructure of the irradiated area is being upgraded and the fields are full of workers who are stripping off the soil. Everywhere, there are dumps full of back bags of soil and biomass, low-level radioactive waste. One looks at the landscape, perhaps bright green in summer, or golden-russet in autumn, and it looks so peaceful and innocent. However, the level of radioactivity varies widely, from negligible to three times the permissible limit. There are 'hot-spots', small and large. In Iitate the town is open for business and its buildings are shiny with newness, but only 10% of the population has returned, mostly elderly people. Radiation levels in Iiatate are low: in the local noodle restaurant only 2% of the permitted maximum, but translocation means that the situation is unreliable. Forests cannot be decontaminated without razing them. Radioactive leaves blow across and settle on the decontaminated fields.

Down the road in the interdicted area there is a plant where contaminated soil is being mixed with uncontaminated soil and spread on the land so that a variety of plants can be grown in it. This is an interesting experiment with careful control and monitoring of the processes involved (even rainwater is collected from the roof of the plant and tested for contamination). However, the workers need 40 minutes to deal with one cubic metre of soil. Unless the final process is heavily automated it will be a Sisyphean task. Meanwhile, the problem of what to do with hundreds of thousands of bags of radioactive soil and biomass seems insoluble.

In Natori, on the coast near Sendai, I met an elderly couple who were looking after 30 dementia patients in sheltered housing. They had decided to devote their lives to serving the community, in thanks for having survived the tsunami. Overlooked by the local authority they were struggling with a care burden that was making their lives intolerable, but they soldiered on with strength and fortitude, uncomplaining. We took the matter up with the local authority and pleaded that they be given more support.

The tsunami zone has been losing population for decades and the disaster could only accelerate that process. Yet, not all is lost. Artists have been irresistibly attracted to the area. Small businesses have reappeared. Tepco, the culprits of the nuclear disaster, have been talking about establishing a vineyard in the area. The Sanriku narrow-gauge  railway, devastated by the tsunami, was washed out by the floods of October 2019 (which also submerged and ruined 12 brand-new Shinkansen bullet trains). However, it has been mulling over returning to service on a model akin to the Welsh tourist lines, and there is solid local support for this community asset. 

In contrast to Europe, in Japan property loses its value over time. Perhaps this is part of the philosophical concept of the impermanence of human existence. However, there is nothing ephemeral about the resurgence of life on the Sanriku coast after the devastating triple disaster. We have just witnessed ten years of a most remarkable transition, from devastation to the reestablishment of orderly life.