Wednesday, 18 March 2009

Society's Resilience in Withstanding Disaster

Figure 1. Configuration of problems and systems in future disaster risk reduction.

al-wad' ash-shadh (Arabic: a perplexing predicament)

This set of notes is intended as a discussion primer with respect to four questions, which will be considered one by one.

1. In terms of defensive measures, what action should we be taking to reduce vulnerability or prepare responses?

"Court disaster long enough, and it will accept your proposal." (Mason Cooley)

An objective assessment of the relative seriousness of hazards and threats is long overdue. However, because it requires the ability to estimate the impact of future events, the task is not easy. Futurology is at the mercy of changes in society and global trends in economy, strategic stability and international risks.

Vulnerability is the propensity to suffer harm (damage, casualties, loss of income or revenue, loss of function, and so on). In essence it is a holistic phenomenon, but for the purposes of analysis it can be broken down into components: physical, social, economic, cultural, etc. In analogy to the way in which friction is an inherent phenomenon that materialises when it is mobilised by the application of a force, so vulnerability is inherent and responds to the appearance of a hazard. The larger the hazard, the greater is the vulnerability.

Resilience is a concept that is derived by analogy from rheology, the science of materials behaviour. It signifies the ability of society to absorb and resist the shocks and pressures caused by disaster or crisis. Resilience may be an inherent property or it can be created.

Is resilience the opposite, or reciprocal, of vulnerability? Does any initiative that increases resilience automatically reduce vulnerability, or are the linkages more sophisticated?

What is the greatest threat that we face? (and who exactly are 'we'?). In terms of the world economic system, the leading candidates are as follows:-

* A global pandemic of H5N1 influenza (not spread by birds), composed of repeated, virulent waves of infection to which vaccines will be made available too late to help the majority of the people at risk. The main effects of the pandemic would probably be felt over a two-year period. The impact on healthcare, communications, travel, commerce, entertainment, tourism, and basic services would be profound in the extreme.

* A major radioactive contamination of a highly populated area, especially if the locality is also a node of international importance for communications, commerce and travel. Nuclear terrorism, the use of a nuclear bomb, or meltdown of a reactor with radiation plume release are all potential sources of hazard.

* Coordinated, terrorist attacks on critical infrastructure using an innovative strategy (whatever it may be) and leading to severe curtailment of world economic activity as a result of the combined effects of damage, precautionary (and hence restrictive) measures and public anxiety (leading to lack of investment).

* A major volcanic eruption at least as great as that of Tambora, 1815, or Krakatau, 1883 (in Indonesia), the two worst eruptions of historical times. Climatic effects could be severe over a four-year period, with major impacts on the production of food. A modern instance of something like the Krakatau eruption would produce water wave and shockwave effects that would be far worse than those of the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami.

* A major earthquake could generate significant effects. The greatest risks are found in Tehran, Istanbul and Tokyo. Scenarios for the last of these predict $3,000 billion in losses and domino effects on world capital markets.

* Rather less likely to create change is a 'superstorm' that travels across one of the main concentrations of population and commercial activities, devastating it.

Taken together, these hazards are about equally divided between civil defence and civil protection concerns. The difference lies in the means of organisation and participation. Civil defence is usually a 'top-down' system co-ordinated nationally; civil protection may be harmonised from above, but is a locally-based, 'bottom-up' system (Alexander 2002). The former is appropriate to counter-terrorism activities and the latter to most other forms of incident or disaster. It is essential to maintain the right balance, despite the difficulty of determining which event or events will be dominant in the future. It should be noted that, no matter how large the area affected, all disasters are local events, because the local area is inevitably the theatre of relief operations.

In Europe, excessive concentration on counter-terrorism activities could leave the continent open to a fiasco similar to the impact of Hurricane Katrina on the United States in 2005, in which the structures, organisation and resources were poorly adapted to cope with the impact of a major natural disaster.

In summary, we may ask whether measures designed to reduce vulnerability automatically create resilience, and do measures designed to create resilience automatically reduce vulnerability? Furthermore, what should the relationship be between civil defence and civil protection systems: which should predominate and under what circumstances? And what sort of event is likely to catalyse radical change?

2. To what extent should risk-avoidance take precedence over normal life?

"A reasonable man adopts himself to the world.
An unreasonable man persists in trying to adapt
the world to himself. Therefore, all progress depends
upon the unreasonable man." (George Bernard Shaw)

Modern western societies are becoming increasingly intolerant of risk, yet risk aversion is expensive, inefficient and usually irrational. Already, there are many cases in which risk avoidance (or risk minimisation) is normal life, whether it be a deliberate choice or something that is imposed by rules and regulations. Hence, the provision of security accounted for 7-8 per cent of the cost of running airports ten years ago but the figure has now risen to 36-38 per cent.

The increasing complexity of western society has led to a form of abnegation of responsibility for personal risk management. Whereas 60 years ago people were accustomed to fending for themselves, they now depend on networks of organisations and services to a greater extent than ever before. Disaster thus becomes a form of 'betrayal by the authorities' (Horlick-Jones 1995), who failed to provide the necessary security or safety.

The development of the global market economy has exported risk to places that are ill-equipped to reduce it. In a certain light, international terrorism can be seen as an attempt to repatriate risk to some of the places it came from (cf. Wisner 2003).

Culture is an elusive phenomenon that is difficult to analyse and characterise but is nevertheless a fundamental ingredient of emergency preparedness and disaster risk reduction. Work with culture and it will facilitate operations; work against it and it will block initiatives. Culture can be changed, but the process tends to be slow, laborious, expensive and inefficient. Nonetheless, it is essential. The challenge of the 21st century is to create a culture in which people will take more responsibility for their own safety and risk management. The process is becoming too complex and substantial to be left entirely to the experts.

In synthesis, human life has always adapted itself to risk and there is no reason why it should cease to do so now. Indeed, greater adaptation to risk could be considered to be a means of ensuring greater contact with normality despite the forms of social isolation created by modern technology. The fundamental question concerns what form the adaptation should take. It must blend judicious use of welfare with 'informed consent' on personal and public assumption of risks.

The risk agenda needs to be reorientated towards a more objective assessment of the relative importance of different hazards and threats, one that is not dependent on the priorities of particular factions, parties and interest groups.

3. Should we reconsider the value of sophisticated technology?

"It has become appallingly obvious that our technology
has exceeded our humanity." (Albert Einstein)

"The first rule of any technology used in a business
is that automation applied to an efficient operation
will magnify the efficiency. The second is that
automation applied to an inefficient operation will
magnify the inefficiency."
(Bill Gates)

"The system of nature, of which man is a part,
tends to be self-balancing, self-adjusting, self-cleansing.
Not so with technology."
(E.F. Schumacher)

In brief, the problems with technology in relation to disasters are as follows. First, disasters and emergencies are essentially social problems and they require solutions that are derived socially. Secondly, no technology is infallible and hence its malfunctioning could become the source of disaster in its own right. Hence, cultural values that see technology as the ultimate solution to problems are capable of creating vulnerability. Finally, technology can too easily be an end rather than a means. The benefits of technological projects designed to reduce disaster need to be assessed critically and with detachment, especially as they increasingly tend to be expensive and to consume many resources. The use of technology in a disaster area should be determined by the salience of problems that need solutions, and not vice versa.

In synthesis, more effort should be made to quell the tendency to seek technological solutions for social problems. Distinct dangers are associated with the application of ever more sophisticated technology in complex situations of disaster and risk, for complexity can be self-multiplying. Augustus Caesar (63 BC--AD 14) said that the more complex a problem is, the simpler should be the solution.

Current plans for the development of technology should only be approved if their social implications and benefits are clear, and their potential complicating effects and vulnerabilities are known and can be dealt with.

4. Is greater international cooperation needed?

"...cooperation, which is the thing we must strive for today,
begins where competition leaves off." (Franklin D. Roosevelt)

The great geographical variety of political systems, administrative structures, cultures and hazards rules out the creation of a single emergency preparedness system at either the world or the continental scale. However, this should not inhibit international co-operation.

Nevertheless, international standards, treaties and protocols tend to be weighed down by the solid mass of consensus that nations struggle to achieve when creating such instruments. Behind the negotiations there is a reluctance to commit resources to dealing with events that are considered hypothetical, or at least not within the purview of current legislative terms.

The international relief system is highly inefficient. Resources are sent around the world to major disaster areas and many of them arrive too late or are inappropriate. Despite decades of fine-tuning of the system, this is still true, especially concerning international search-and-rescue.

Despite decades of wisdom about shifting the balance from reacting to disasters to preparing for and preventing them, the lion's share of the resources are still committed to the clean-up, not to prior preparation. Moreover, the level of preparedness varies considerably from place to place. In the end, these are problems that can only be solved by greater international collaboration, but what form should it take?

The solutions should start from the proposition that there is no inherent reason why rich countries should have one system of disaster risk reduction and poor countries another. Organisation is not necessarily an expensive commodity and information is decreasing in price. Information technology can be relatively cheap and has proved to be versatile, portable and adaptable to diverse environments and cultures.

Co-operation needs to change its focus, or at least its emphasis, from reacting to events to new ways of implanting organisation and technology in new environments. We know very well where the world's future disaster areas are going to be. These are the places where the international community must foster innovation and cultural change--with all due local sensitivity--in terms of the adaptation of proven universal methods of disaster risk reduction to existing local capacities.

Major international programmes are needed for the transfer of knowledge, organisation and technology to the local level in places that lack capacity.


"I feel like a fugitive from the law of averages." (Bill Mauldin)

"Ah, my boy, if you spot a crowd coming down
the road, go the other way and see if they've
dropped anything." (Eric L. Jones)

I believe that sooner or later a major event will lead to a global change in attitudes towards disaster risk reduction. The first section of these notes contains some speculation about what sort of event it could be, although the picture is anything but clear. In the early 21st century capital has subsumed labour and recent history offers little indication that high death tolls could be the distinguishing feature of such an event (Alexander 2000, Ch. 2). Instead, the event that induces change would have to upset the world financial system to the extent that radical solutions become the only way of protecting it. At present, disasters represent accelerated forms of consumption of goods (Jones 2003). They are thus situations of profit and loss. A catalytic disaster would have to tip the balance so decisively in favour of loss that radical action would become essential. It is not clear which sort of event will be first to achieve that change, nor which will be the primary system by which it is confronted (Figure 1).


Alexander, D.E. 2000. Confronting Catastrophe: New Perspectives on Natural Disasters. Terra Publishing, Harpenden, U.K., and Oxford University Press, New York, 282 pp.

Alexander, D. 2002. From civil defence to civil protection--and back again. Disaster Prevention and Management 11(3): 209-213.

Horlick-Jones, T. 1995. Modern disasters as outrage and betrayal. International Journal of Mass Emergencies and Disasters 13(3): 305-315.

Jones, E.L. 2003. The European Miracle: Environments, Economies and Geopolitics in the History of Europe and Asia (3rd edn). Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.

Quarantelli, E.L. 1997. Problematical aspects of the information/ communication revolution for disaster planning and research: ten non-technical issues and questions. Disaster Prevention and Management 6(2): 94-106.

Wisner, B. 2003. Changes in capitalism and global shifts in the distribution of hazard and vulnerability. In M. Pelling (ed.) Natural Disasters and Development in a Globalizing World. Routledge, London: 43-56.