Tuesday 14 May 2024

Resilience is an illusion


After much pondering of the question, I have come to the conclusion that resilience is an illusion. This is not to denigrate the work of resilience managers, as there is obviously much to be done to reduce the risk and impact of adverse events. However, the concept of resilience is, I think, suspect.

Many researchers who have adopted the concept when trying to interpret disaster risk reduction have followed the work of Crawford Stanley "Buzz" Holling, as expressed in his 1973 paper (Holling 1973). Some have even stated that the 2100-year-old concept of resilience was invented by Holling. Previously (Alexander 2013), I thought that Holling was wrong about resilience. On reflection, I now believe he was right and the concept itself was suspect.

Holling studied ecological systems at a time when there was much interest in small islands. These are attractive because they are closed systems for mass and open systems for energy. Thus they are 'nice and tidy' for study. No matter how big the shocks that they endure, ecological systems tend towards equilibrium. This is homeostasis, a key feature of resilience, according to Holling.

When, in the early 2000s, resilience began to be embraced by students of disaster, problems were soon encountered with homeostasis, colloquially known as 'bounce-back'. The late Bernard Manyena suggested we concentrate on 'bounce forward', the concept of recovery as a transition to a better reality than the pre-disaster one. However, this does not dispense with homeostasis.

Put bluntly, in disaster risk reduction, these days the goalposts are moving faster than the players.  To start with, the pattern of disaster impacts is highly irregular around the world. Secondly, and more importantly, vulnerability, risk, impact and their controlling factors are all trending. As we move towards the end of the Second Age of Enlightenment (cf. Whatmore 2023), we face a situation in which change is absolutely inherent or ingrained. Strong trends are complemented by instabilities that could tip regional and global systems into an entirely different phase. Hence, public discourse and concerns could conceivably change overnight (as they did in the USA after "Nine-Eleven" in 2001). Migration, conflict, climate extremes, proliferating technological failure and associated consequences all pose this kind of threat.

In conclusion, resilience is an idea, or an approach, that we can usefully promote under certain well-defined circumstances. However, in broad terms it is an illusion. It can only be attained by constant adaptation, which is a case of pursuing an ever receding goal. What can we do instead? I recommend going back to vulnerability and endeavouring to identify, understand and reduce it.


Alexander, D.E. 2013. Resilience and disaster risk reduction: an etymological journey. Natural Hazards and Earth System Sciences 13(11): 2707-2716.

Holling, C.S 1973. Resilience and stability of ecological systems. Annual Reviews of Ecological Systems 4(1): 1-23.

Manyena, B. 2016. After Sendai: is Africa bouncing back or bouncing forward from disasters? International Journal of Disaster Risk Science 7(1): 41-53.

Whatmore, R. 2023. The End of Enlightenment: Empire, Commerce, Crisis. Allen Lane, Harmondsworth, 496 pp.

Monday 6 May 2024

A Proposed Strategy to Advocate for Improved Civil Protection in the United Kingdom


National elections in the United Kingdom are likely to bring a change in the political complexion of the government. This short essay puts the case for coming together to put pressure on the new leadership to improve British civil protection. The lessons of the Covid-19 pandemic, alas largely negative, show that a good civilian system designed to protect the public against major hazards and threats can save thousands of lives and billions in losses and wasted expenditure. In a world characterised by rising levels of hazard and threat, improvement of the civil protection system is a necessity. It is something that needs to be dragged onto the political agenda as a matter of extreme urgency, a matter to be treated, at last, with the seriousness it demands.

In the future the UK faces a dramatic escalation in threats and hazards, but is it sufficiently prepared to deal with them? Climate change is increasing the magnitude and frequency of floods, storms, droughts, cold snaps and heatwaves. Hence there is potential for floods that equal or exceed those generated in 2008, storms that may be more disruptive than Arwen was in 2021, heatwaves greater than that of July 2022, and so on. Increasing dependency on critical infrastructure makes the country ever more vulnerable to proliferating technological failure, whether it is caused by cyber attack, sabotage or natural forces. Unplanned mass migration is now a common phenomenon throughout the world and the combination of climate change and political and military instability can only lead to greater spontaneous movements of populations. Non-seasonal influenza retains the potential to cause a pandemic on the level of that of 1918-1920. Influenza pandemics occur with a recurrence interval of about 40 years. In the meantime the world inches towards proliferating conflict and rising authoritarianism.

Safety measures at Europe's largest nuclear plant, Zaporizhzhia in eastern Ukraine, hang by a thread. In the case of radioactive emission, it has been estimated that the top event could be 20 times greater than that of Chornobyl in 1986, which covered the entire continent with radioactivity. At a lesser scale, sabotage, targeted assassination, cyber attacks and political interference through social media are increasingly capable of causing runaway chains of adverse consequences.

It is common to find lags and inertia in civil protection. It is a field that is consistently neglected and that seldom attracts the level of investment required in order to protect society adequately against hazards, threats and disasters. Mami Mizotori, the Head of the United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction (UNDRR) stated in the mid-term report of the Sendai Framework that "progress [in implementing the SFDRR] has stalled and, in some cases, reversed". One of the UK's senior and most accomplished emergency planners recently remarked that "“our societal resilience is the lowest I have ever perceived”. Looking back at the inquiries and reports on large adverse events in the past, it could fairly be argued that no disaster has been managed well in the UK in the last quarter of a century. A consistent trait has been the failure to learn and implement lessons from past events, or indeed from good practice in other European countries.

The United Kingdom does not lack talent and expertise in civil protection. In addition, more than 60 universities teach and research on topics (hazards, risks, disasters, safety, security, etc.) that are pertinent to the field. However, the problem lies in the configuration of the system. In my opinion, the following issues need to be addressed.

Centrism versus devolution. The UK civil protection system is complex, unwieldy and top-heavy. A good system starts at the local level, as this is where expertise and capability are located. No matter how large a disaster is, it is a local affair because that is where the theatre of operations invariably lies. In the Covid inquiry Mr Hugo Keith KC described the system as "a bowl of spaghetti". The linkages between the component parts are unduly complex, but they also leave quite large areas bereft of clear indications as to who is responsible for them, especially when one is dealing with the relationship between central government and the devolved administrations of Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland (and to a lesser extent the mayoralities of the metropolitan areas).

COBRA, the national 'nerve centre' for directing major emergency actions in the UK, is a relatively small entity that does not match up to the specifications of a well-endowed national emergency operations centre.

The Civil Contingencies Act of 2004 is of debatable value, as evidenced by the fact that it was in effect abandoned during the Covid-19 pandemic emergency. The risk here is that any amendment to or substitution of the Act will merely tinker with the works, rather than effecting the fundamental changes in the system that are needed.

The long-standing tendency to circulate civil servants from one post to another risks losing expertise in the practical administration of civil protection functions. Over the last 15-20 years the profession of emergency manager has tended to lose prestige and has failed to gain an adequate career structure such that expertise can better be built up in terms of human resources.

The regional tier. The devolved administrations and metropolitan mayoralities are the nearest Britain comes to having a regional tier of public administration. These entities lack the coherence of, for example, the 20 Italian regions or 25 Netherlands safety regions. In these countries responsibility for coordinating local emergency actions is delegated to the regions. This makes sense as the problems encountered at the local level are likely to vary from one part of the country to another. Wales has developed three regional emergency response coordination centres, but the rest of the UK is not following suit. Abundant experience from the rest of Europe shows that regional coordination of civil protection resources makes sense.

The local level. For years, local authorities have been starved of funds and resources.  As a result, many of them have done relatively little to develop emergency response capability beyond existing 'blue light' capabilities. With respect to these, the Fire and Rescue Service has also suffered contraction due to lack of funds. Good emergency response is nevertheless dependent on the calibre of local responses in terms of personnel, equipment, expertise and coordination.

The voluntary sector. In some countries, notably Germany, Italy and Australia, the voluntary sector is the backbone of national, regional and local civil protection. In Britain there has been some discussion of the possibility of founding a national civil protection corps, composed of volunteers. The reaction of the voluntary sector has been to reject this idea in favour of better integrating the existing voluntary organisations into the official structure of emergency response. The age of spontaneous voluntarism is well and truly over. Organised voluntarism must be fully incorporated into the civil protection system.

Culture and inclusiveness. There is a tendency for the UK civil protection system to be dominated by a para-military ethos that is far from inclusive. Civil emergency management is often considered to be an appropriate second career for former military and police officers. They tend to be middle-aged white males. Some of them have brilliantly made the transition, bringing with them very valuable skills, but others have perpetuated the military and para-military ethos, which is decidedly not appropriate to modern civil protection. Command and control are being replaced by coordination and collaboration. If civil protection is to work, it needs to be an artefact of participatory democracy, and it must be fully inclusive. References to women and girls, people with disabilities and ethnic and cultural minorities are totally absent from the current version of the National Resilience Framework and almost completely missing from the UK Risk Register. Worldwide, there is a vast amount of evidence that this is not conducive to good practice in civil protection. An example is the excoriating report produced by three eminent Japanese women after the 2011 earthquake, tsunami and nuclear release, which highlights the deficiencies of a response system in which decision making is in the hands of elderly males.[1] The best solution to this problem is to promote inclusiveness in emergency preparedness at all levels.

Terminology. The word 'disaster' is seldom used in official UK civil protection parlance, yet how could one possibly call the Covid-19 pandemic tragedy a 'major incident'? Fire, flood, extremes of heat and cold, tempests, tornadoes, bombings, shootings, structural collapses, chronic contamination, infrastructure failure and transportation crashes are all features of recent British history and, where such events have had a profound impact, they deserve to be called disasters, and treated as such.

A strategy

Unfortunately, there is a very high likelihood that the UK will have to face major emergencies that are even more challenging than those of the post-War period so far. Within the limits of what can be achieved, governments have a duty to keep their citizens safe. In Britain there has been talk of innovation, for example in instituting a 'whole of society' approach and in making better use of academic expertise. However, in these respects there is little sign of change. Reports by the House of Lords, the National Preparedness Commission and other bodies, as well as various public inquiries, have drawn attention to the deficiencies of the civil protection system. Indeed, one might not classify it as a system at all, but rather a mere set of fragments of a system.

With a general election pending there is an opportunity to produce some strong advocacy for the development of a better civil protection system. The following are some suggestions for the improvement of the system:-

  • A national civil protection agency with a large, well-equipped coordination centre at the heart of government designed to act as the hub of a capillary system that reaches all parts of the country.

  •  A basic law (in place of the current Civil Contingencies Act) that defines the system at all levels and apportions the fundamental responsibilities at all levels. As clarity is essential, it should be written in plain English, not legalese.

  • A regional tier to coordinate local civil protection activities, with strategically placed regional emergency operations centres.

  • Empowerment of local authorities to have their own emergency managers and emergency operations centres, fully connected to the system in a capillary manner.

  •  Standardised,"all hazards" emergency planning methodology applied at all levels.

  •  Full incorporation of recognised voluntary organisations into the civil protection system.

  •  Qualified emergency managers, not the police, to coordinate emergency responses.

  •  Revision of the National Risk Register and UK Resilience Framework to remedy existing deficiencies (see above) and reflect the revised form of the system.

  •  Closer collaboration with European civil protection forces at the national and EU levels.

  •  An emphasis on understanding and reducing vulnerability rather than creating resilience, which is a less robust concept.

  •  To achieve a great improvement in the role of universities in educating and training emergency managers both as part of continuing education and for new entrants to the emergency planning and management profession.

  •  Ensure that the people who produce the plans are also the managers--i.e., the coordinators of emergency operations.

 A suggested strategy is as follows. In the light of a coming general election, we should:-

  •  convene interested parties

  •  organise a forum in order to debate the best strategy for advocacy

  •  endeavour to reach and record a consensus on the best strategy for reforming British civil protection

  •  produce two documents: a two-page open letter to the incoming Prime Minister and Home Office Minister and a white paper on what needs to be done, which provides more of the details.

[1] Domoto, A., M. Ohara and H. Hara 2011. Disaster risk reduction: a Japanese women's perspective on 3/11. Japan Women's Network for Disaster Risk Reduction, Tokyo, 17 pp. https://www.preventionweb.net/files/32983_32983insidetoprint1.pdf

Wednesday 1 November 2023

The Vajont Dam Disaster, Sixty Years On


Vajont is located about 100 km due north of Venice in the eastern extension of the Italian Dolomite Mountains, a part of the Alpine arc. It is also situated on the boundary between the Italian regions of Veneto and Friuli Venezia-Giulia. The Vajont valley is an eastern lateral tributary to the Piave River, which flows into the Adriatic Sea northeast of the Venetian lagoon. The area is renowned for the First World War battles that were fought at various locations there.

In the late 1950s, SADE, the regional hydroelectric company, prepared to build a dam on the Vajont stream. The location, close to the outlet of the valley, was chosen because it was the site of a deep, V-shaped defile in hard rock. The structure was to be a double-arched concrete dam built up with pre-cast concrete blocks. A double-arched structure throws the pressure at the upstream side of the dam onto the shoulders of the valley and can thus be a very strong solution that resists destruction by exceptional forces. The intended purpose of the dam was to regulate the flow of water to electrical turbines on the Piave River by ensuring a supply at times when the main river was at low flow.

During the construction of the dam a sizeable landslide occurred in the valley upstream. Upon completion, at 262.5 metres from floor to rim, it was the highest concrete arch-dam in the world. In 1960, as the water began to be impounded, there was a 700,000 cubic metre landslide into the reservoir on the south side, which is dominated by the vast bulk of Mount Toc. Various measures were taken to monitor and control slope stability, but they proved ineffective. On 9th October 1963, at 22:39 local time, a 240 million cubic metre landslide dashed into the reservoir from the flanks of Mount Toc, travelling at about 100 km/hr.

The mechanism of the Vajont landslide has been vigorously debated ever since. It was a sturzstrom, according to the term coined in 1930 by the eminent Swiss geologist Albert Heim. At the time only about 60 examples of sturzströme had been documented in the world. The phenomenon was controversial and poorly understood. Essentially, the larger the moving mass, the lower the basal friction, which is counter-intuitive in terms of basic physics. The Vajont landslide slid as a sort of gigantic mattress on a smooth plane of rock.

The material cascaded into the lake and produced a water-wave 180 metres high which climbed the opposing slope of the valley and obliterated the hamlet of Erto, as well as damaging a few houses in Casso, located further up the slope. Frantic efforts had been made to reduce the water level behind the dam, but it was only about 30 metres below the lip. The landslide-generated wave was about 100 metres high as it abruptly changed direction from northwards to westwards. It was thus 70 metres high as it gushed into the Piave valley straight towards the town of Longarone. It obliterated the town, with the exception of very few buildings located at some distance from its centre. The wave then roared down the Piave valley, destroying eleven small settlements as it went. At Vittorio Veneto, 44 km away, it was still six metres high.

Some 1,917 people were killed, most of them instantly, by the water wave. The dam survived with minor damage to its rim. The reservoir ceased to exist, as it was now filled with rock debris from the landslide. A small lake survives to this day 2 km upstream. Longarone was rebuilt, largely by emigres who returned from working abroad and elsewhere in Italy. The dam remains as a sombre monument to the disaster. It is visible from Longarone and its environs in the Piave valley.

In essence, the disaster was caused by a series of bad and unsustainable decisions about the stability of the Alpine landscape in the Vajont valley. The strata on Mount Toc are, to use a useful Italian term, a franapoggio, orientated in the direction of the slope in a way that provides a ready slip surface for overlying material. There were low-strength zones at depth. Filling the reservoir increased the pore-water pressure at the base of the slope, which decreased its strength. Finally, as subsequent research has revealed, sturzströme are not uncommon in the Alps.

Over the years after the disaster, a constant stream of geologists and engineers visited the site, which remained largely undisturbed, forlorn and peaceful in its terrible grandeur. It is particularly awe-inspiring in the cold, grey light of winter. A memorial park, mass-burial cemetery and two chapels were constructed. Marble tablets at the access tunnel to the dam commemorated the loss of life. In Longarone a documentation centre and small museum were built, along with a civil protection training centre.

Recently, the site of the disaster has been opened up to tourism, with a visitor centre, guided tours and a protected walkway across the rim of the dam. The valley has begun to lose its air of abandonment and isolation. Moreover, on the evening of the 60th anniversary of the disaster (9th October 2023), 170 theatres in Italy held manifestations, plays and readings, with a collective pause at the moment of the tragedy, 22:39 hrs. This was specifically designed to keep the memory alive and help people who are too young to have lived at the time of the disaster to know about it. The theatre performances drew upon a rich heritage of books, studies, memoirs, plays and music that over the years has commemorated the Vajont tragedy. There is also a major cinema film about the disaster, with spirited performances by actors representing the main protagonists, including the engineers and geologists involved in planning and designing the reservoir and dam.

In the aftermath of disaster there is often a tension between those who want to commemorate the event and those who want to forget it, or to obscure the memory. For example, in Lombardy 200 km away from Vajont lies the Stava valley, where in July 1985 the collapse of two mine tailings dams led to a mudflow which killed 264 people. For years, efforts to create a documentation centre and memorial at the site were routinely blocked. At the other end of the scale, in the Tōhoku region of northeast Honshu, Japan, there are now 62 museums dedicated to the March 2011 earthquake, tsunami and nuclear release. For better or worse, this is an area in which disaster tourism has come to stay.

Surely we would all agree that to avoid repeating errors of response and mitigation it is important to learn the lessons of disasters, and that in order to do so we need to keep the memory of such events alive. Yet researchers have also described a phenomenon called 'dark tourism', which tells us that people can have good or bad motives for wanting to visit the sites of past disasters. This is a complicated matter, as it is difficult to define what is good and what is bad. Nevertheless, some of the 'disaster tourists' may be mere sensation seekers while others are motivated by a more noble desire to learn and to confront the realities of life.

With 60 years of hindsight, it is very clear that a large reservoir dam should never have been built at Vajont and that the tragedy resulted from appalling negligence in allowing that to happen in an area of steep, unstable slopes, fractured geological formations and a highly exposed population. A remarkably similar disaster had occurred in France in 1959 with the collapse of the Malpasset dam and the loss of 423 lives. Once again, superficial geological and geotechnical survey work was at the heart of the calamity. Unfortunately, similar tragedies have continued to occur (witness the Derna, Libya, dam collapses of September 2023) and have sometimes been narrowly averted (as in the Whaley Bridge, Derbyshire, emergency of August 2019, which necessitated the evacuation of 1,500 residents from downstream. On balance, it is useful, not only for us all to hear these stories, but for us all to think carefully about what they mean in terms of human safety in the future.


Thursday 14 September 2023

The real burden of risk


                       A piece of the Sanriku coast at Minamisanriku, NE Japan.
                       In 2011 there was a 20.5-metre tsunami here.

In 1966 the eminent Californian risk analyst Chauncey Starr published a seminal paper in Science Magazine in which he stated that "a thing is safe if its risks are judged to be acceptable." In effect, he built his reputation on the premise that the acceptability of risk is arbitrary.

Before I travel on university business I am required to fill in a complicated on-line form called a risk assessment. Recently, I had to do this before attending a series of meetings in Japan. By and large, Japan is a very safe country in which to travel and sojourn. By contrast, where I live in north London, within a radius of 400 metres of my front door, there have been at least two murders, a major and lethal terrorist incident, an international terrorist conspiracy, a series of road accidents, some of which were fatal, episodes of chronic pollution and overcrowding, and a constant battle between the police and a well-organised, wide-reaching drug supply ring. In the 1950s the area was immortalised in the photographs of Don McCullen, who was attracted by the presence of the London mafia.

When I travel from north London to my university I use public transport, which is of variable reliability. I then have to cross a busy four-lane arterial road. At one point the green light allows five seconds for pedestrians to scoot across, while at another designated crossing place they are afforded no protection at all against the streams of roaring traffic. At my university a problem with vibrating equipment caused bouts of deafness and nausea, and for various reasons it was two years before something was done about it. We then discovered that our dilapidated teaching rooms were lined with asbestos and the university was not aware of its presence. For none of this was I ever required to fill in a risk assessment form.

According to the set procedure for funded travel, I need to assess the risks of being in Japan. In cities a car cannot even cross a pavement without the presence of one or two uniformed characters waving flags to alert passers-by. For crossing roads, Japanese urban designers afford pedestrians the same status as traffic, with ample margins of time, wide crossings and perfect signage. I was once in a coffee bar in Japan when there was a magnitude 6.8 earthquake. Elsewhere it might have caused major devastation; in Sendai, people in the coffee bar did not even stop reading their newspapers.

A colleague who intended to do fieldwork in Turkey was required to produce a personal evacuation plan to be used if there were a major earthquake. Clearly, such a plan would be immediately invalidated by disruption to normal transportation schedules. Now if a repeat of the 1923 Kanto earthquake were to occur while I happened to be in Tokyo, I doubt very much whether the risk assessment would help me. I would have to resort to awareness and common sense.

Despite these musings, risk assessment is, of course, not useless. The problem is that procedural rigidity constrains us to use methods for harmless travel that are the same as those that apply to dangerous experiments and surgical operations. No doubt if I were travelling in eastern Ukraine or Yemen I would dedicate myself more willingly to considering the risks, but not for places where risk assessment effectively cannot help.

The possible solution to this state of affairs would be to divide risk assessment into two. For genuinely risky enterprises the approach would be technical and scientific. The odds of a mishap would be calculated and, where possible, reduced. For un-risky work, a different approach is needed. In this case, the principal value of risk assessment is to ensure, as far as possible, that the university is not sued. Perhaps, then, we should leave it to the lawyers to fill in the forms.

If, gentle reader, this diatribe should strike you as being mere petty complaining, please consider the wider implications, those beyond the shadow of lawsuits and injuries (however faint that shadow may be). Our principal motivation for being academics is to exercise our creativity. However, before collecting data we need data protection registration, ethical approval, deposition of itineraries, risk assessments and more. As we all know, similar bureaucratic loads apply to teaching. The effect of all this form-filling-in is to sap our creativity. Colleagues complain to me that they lack the energy to do real academic work after a day of grappling with poorly designed software intended to collect information that no one really wants, or dealing with procedures that merely add another layer of complexity to what was once a simple, refreshingly human activity.

We watch with alarm at the way bureaucracy grows unstoppably in our universities, how processes that are ostensibly designed "to make our work easier" are instead piling on the burden. And, of course, no one in the university has ever conducted a risk assessment of the impact of the bureaucracy!