Archive for the ‘Resilient Societies’ Category

Life is full of unexpected events and being prepared for them makes the difference between success and failure. This is true at any level: individual, local, or governmental. Responding to unexpected events successfully involves improving preparedness by, among other things, clarifying roles and responsibilities around management of risks.

Most research has focussed, so far, on management of risk at the local or governmental levels and very little has been dedicated to the individual level. If that is true at the response stage of an unwonted event, almost nothing has been done at the preparation stage.

Making individuals living antennas for the detection of an incoming event may be too ambitious, although there are examples of it. For instance, in Spain there is a network of volunteers that measure weather conditions throughout the territory and are a source of daily information to prevent climatic events. Creating such a network for any type of event could reinforce the resilience our society dealing with high impact events. Such living antennas could be trained to lead their neighbours in the early response to a high impact event. For such network to be effective, the components have to be deployed across the territory, making in-person training very expensive. E-learning could be the answer for training a vast number of living antenna volunteers to manage High Impact – Low Probability (HILP) events.

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An anthropogenic approach is needed when designing a system directed at diminishing the effects of an emergency, be it human made or natural. Most Early Warning Systems (EWS) have been designed by professionals and, in most cases, designed around a specific threat. Vulcanologists are worried about telluric movements, maritime scientists regard tsunamis as the biggest threat, and firefighters are concerned about the consequences of forest fires during the hot summers.

But there is a point of contact in all those EWS that is not involved in their design: people. People are at the center of any emergency and yet they are the forgotten link in any EWS system.

It is easy to involve people living on the slopes of Etna into participating in a EWS designed to save their lives. Etna is a live entity that constantly reminds the people living nearby that it can erupt anytime. It is more difficult to do the same with the two million people living in the vicinity of Vesuvius. The memory of its last activity is long forgotten. And what about making people aware in Barcelona that tsunamis exist in the Mediterranean and that they are just few centimeters above sea level?

The challenge then is to get the general public involved in being part of the EWS. To achieve that, e-learning and gaming in particular are tools that have to be explored; these have had positive results in other areas. A well-structured and simple e-learning system has to be devised to complement any EWS. The challenge is that it has to satisfy all kind of persons. It cannot be forgotten that the population is made up of old people with limited ICT skills, disabled people that have to be involved in their own survival, kids that have to be taken care of, and nerds who think they know better. The success of the EWS relies on the ability to cater for all those people at the same time.

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Most disasters or crisis-related emergencies involve a migration problem: the bigger the emergency, the bigger the number of displaced populations. Lately, Europe has been shielded from big emergencies involving huge population movements. The last such event originated in its territory dates to the Balkan Wars; that changed with the Ukrainian crisis, bringing in almost 4 million displaced persons. Those in-born crises do not take into account the on-going crisis and constant inflow of people originating in the East and South of the continent. Thousands if not millions of Middle East and Sub-Saharan individuals are ready to jump over the Mediterranean as soon as the autocrats governing the countries east of Europe or Northern Africa decide that their role as gate keepers is not worthwhile for them.

Focusing on the healthcare sector, Europe has been able to deal with the recent flow of Ukrainians mainly because those arriving had a relatively high standard of care in their country. But what would happen if the gate keepers opened the door for those trapped in Turkey or the southern shores of the Mediterranean?

So far the response, in a most peculiar if not plainly hypocritical way, has been to ignore their health needs and process their cases as expeditiously as possible, so as to make their return to their point of origin the main objective of the European policy. Ignoring the fact that they have migrated because their existence in their countries is unbearable and without any future does not make for good policy. Ignoring the fact that Europe is in the midst of a demographic crisis and a good flow of immigration and new blood could help to alleviate the crisis does not make for good policy. Ignoring the fact that all the available research suggests that migrants pay more in taxes than what they receive from the state does not make for good policy. It seems then, that the only policy guiding our policymakers is the appeasement of the far-right groups and their focus on immigration as the root of all evil.

But suppose we in Europe change gear and decide to incorporate the flow of immigration into our societies? One of the aspects that would have to be considered is their healthcare needs. Primary care, as the entrance to the healthcare system, would be where the pressure would most be felt. And primary care has been overcome by the Covid-19 pandemic, even more than hospitals and ICUs. My question is: have policymakers realized the importance of strengthening primary care? Even without the change in immigration policy, primary care needs a boost. Europe cannot attempt to survive without a strategy to absorb millions of newcomers and without a strategy to make a healthcare provision fitted for the future: an older population together with a younger migrant population.  

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There are multiple factors to consider when testing the level of resilience of a society in the event of a crisis. The well-known model of “prevention – preparedness – response – recover” for risk management summarizes the basic steps for an efficient answer to an unwanted event that puts in jeopardy the well being of a group or of an entire society.

Most people in the developed world have been fortunate not to have been faced with a war. Since WWII, Europeans and North Americans have not been involved in a war affecting their homes. But that placid world has been shaken since the start of the twenty first century by several high-impact events that have disrupted the well-being of large chunks of western society. First was the financial crisis of 2007-2008. With some countries still recovering from the damage, the Covid-19 pandemic struck in 2019, turning the world upside-down. And in the midst of recuperating from the effects of the pandemic, the Russian Federation decided to attack Ukraine, disrupting the energy market, fostering inflation and sending, yet again, many families below the poverty level.

Those three high-impact events have something in common that could serve as a model for well designed “preparedness” management. I have pointed out the common denominator of the three events: sending many families below the poverty level. That common denominator is present in many unwanted events; for instance, floods or earthquakes. When a big disruption occurs, some layers of society – mostly those at the bottom of the social pyramid – see their living standards directly affected. These are the ones which rely more heavily on public social and health provision.

We can see clearly that the socio-health sector is the one that has to come to the fore when a high-impact event occurs. Dimensioning the socio-health sector for “normal” times is not sufficient. Dimensioning the socio-health sector for early response, e.g. emergency response, is not sufficient. The socio-health sector has to be ready for medium-term action since the effect of a high-impact event is going to be prolonged in time. Many of the families who lost everything during the financial crisis have been in need of assistance for many years, and the same is true for those most affected by the pandemic or the inflation shock of today. Societies have to dimension their socio-health sector taking into account that, once the shock is absorbed by the early “response”, the “recovery” phase is a long undertaking, and for that reason, “preparation” has to be clearly and sufficiently dimensioned. If in doubt, see the effect of Covid-19 on primary health care, which two years later is still struggling to cope with the increased demand on its services and is now being asked to cope with a new demand caused by the wave of refugees from Ukraine.

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DG Home in general, and Mr. Philippe Quevauviller in particular, have been doing incredible work since 2014 through the Community of Users for Safe, Secure and Resilient Societies (CoU), the prequel to today’s Community for European Research and Innovation for Security (CERIS).

During the last week of March, CERIS sponsored a most interesting dual (in person and virtual) event involving stakeholders in the DRS community. For those who were unable to attend I encourage you to go to https://www.cmine.eu/page/ceris where you have access to recorded video streams and presentations.

DRS is a very hot topic. One can only record with horror how unprepared our societies were when faced with the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic. Unfortunately, Covid-19 is only one example of the lack of preparation of our societies when dealing with low probability/high impact events. Even if, hopefully, these events will have a lesser impact than Covid-19, I believe they are here to stay, and more so considering the effects of climate change. Floods, heat waves, snowstorms and other climate-related destructive events are forecast to increase in the near future. That is why CERIS work is so important.   

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It is a fact that in most cases, those living in a risk area know that they live in a dangerous place but that they assume that it will never materialize. Accordingly, they do not plan to move out. Be it near a volcano, – almost 2 million people live within the range of the Vesuvius, – or by the banks of German rivers that regularly overflow, most people don’t lose sleep over these risks.

It does not matter that authorities draft very detailed risk maps. People refuse to move for various reasons: sentimental, lack of alternatives, indifference to the risks, not believing in science, conspiracy theories, etc.

How to overcome that resistance to move to safer quarters? I think that the most important step is to bring science to civil society. Indifference, science negation, conspiracy theories and such, are bred in misinformation and lack of information. If risk maps were drawn together with representatives of the people living in the affected areas, then the scientific backing for designing an area as dangerous would be transmitted to the population. The will of the people will be always the driving factor for deciding to remain in a risky area or to leave. But at least, those remaining in dangerous places will take their decision based on the latest scientific findings.

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Landslides are normally triggered either by hydro-meteorological events or by earthquakes. Whatever the immediate cause, the vegetation cover of the affected area is going to determine the degree of devastation that the landslide will have. Factors such as “topography, geology, soils, hydrological conditions, landslide history and vegetation cover determine the response of a landslide-prone catchment to a specific trigger”[i].

Changes in the vegetation cover may be influenced by:

  • Climate change which might slowly but constantly alter it.
  • Extreme events -fire, wind, rain- which might result in rapid changes
  • Anthropogenic forces such as forest logging, changes in agricultural practices, and waste disposal with an immediate effect

Of the three factors, the third one is the one more clearly in the hands of individuals.

Policymakers and individuals, through their acts and inactions, affect how climate change evolves: positively or negatively. The problem, and probably the reason why “earth’s surface continues to significantly warm, with recent global temperatures being the hottest in the past 2,000-plus years”[ii], is that the solution has to be applied today in order to obtain a result in the mid to long term. Humans are not good at working today for a distant reward: at heart we are all kids.

But anthropogenic forces are different. The effect of deforestation is sensed immediately. A change in crops affects the soil in a matter of months. These actions are very near us: individuals are directly involved in them, policymakers can influence them, but the actors are you and me, our relatives and our neighbors. That being the case, what is preventing us from acting now in the right direction?   

[i] Papathoma-Koehle, M& Glade, T. The role of vegetation cover change in landslide hazard and risk. United Nations University, 2013

[ii] https://climate.nasa.gov/vital-signs/global-temperature/

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A sustainable and practical approach to integrating CCA and DRR appears to still be “in its infancy”[i] The 2019 document published by the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies points out how the challenge of addressing climate change adaptation (CCA) and disaster risk reduction (DRR) in a coordinated way is more a desideratum than a reality.

Let us start with climate change. The good news is the Nobel prize given to Syukuro Manabe of Princeton University, Klaus Hasselmann of the Max Planck Institute for Meteorology, and Giorgio Parisi of Sapienza University of Rome for their work on climate change. The award was very timely since COP26, the UN summit on climate change, will be held next month in Great Britain. It will certainly be an added incentive for governments and institutions to commit to real actions fighting climate change.

But I think those grandiose actions tend to be built on quicksand There is probably already enough legislation, at least in the developed world which is by far the biggest culprit of climate change, and surely a good number of pledges by big corporations aiming at reducing their carbon footprint. But I think that it is at the base of the pyramid where action should be taken. Consumers are the big culprits in climate change. Consumers are those who vote for that big, oversized car and that plastic-wrapped apple in the supermarket.

Let us move on to disaster risk reduction. I have written several times about the fact that the first first-responders are the people living in the area at risk. If those people keep dumping debris in the dried-up riverbed; if those same people keep razing forests and substituting them for yearly crops, then the effects of an otherwise slightly higher than usual rainfall can be devastating. I am sure that, again at least in the developed world, there is enough legislation today to prosecute those actions; I am not so sure about the actual prosecution of those actions by the authorities. The inaction is prompted by the fact that society condones those actions. Again, the legislation and its implementation are built on quicksand.

The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) and its annual climate change conference (COP), as well as the UN Office for Disaster Risk Reduction (UNDRR) as the custodian of the Sendai Framework, are all very good. They promote actions by governments and corporations to act in both areas. But those two areas are intertwingled, as the above-mentioned document “Literature Review on Aligning Climate Change Adaptation (CCA) and Disaster Risk Reduction (DRR)”i contends. My point is that where the connection is stronger is at the base: the citizen. Only with clear and strong action at citizen level, through education at the base, will we be able to simultaneously tackle climate change and disaster risk reduction effectively.

[i] Literature Review on Aligning Climate Change Adaptation (CCA) and Disaster Risk Reduction (DRR) http://repo.floodalliance.net/jspui/handle/44111/4100

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The Heat and Health Series published recently by The Lancet focuses on the devastating effects of heat on human beings. It is estimated that “54% of the global population [will be] exposed to more than 20 days of dangerous heat per year by 2100”. A strategy of disaster risk reduction (DRR) is needed because “Society must adapt in ways that not only enable it to survive, but thrive, in a much hotter future.”

Fighting heatwaves has brought up another example of the divide between rich and poor societies, as well as between rich and poor individuals within societies. Air conditioners are by far the preferred tool in fighting heat. But they are an expensive tool. Most vulnerable societies and people cannot have access to an environmentally cooled area, whether it is because they cannot afford it or because their living or working conditions make it impossible to cool the living/working environment. Think about the homeless or those working outdoors.

Another factor making air conditioning a tool that should be put on hold, is the environmental vicious circle created by its use. Most scientific literature recognizes that global warming is here to stay. Air conditioning runs on electricity, the production of which results in CO2 emissions contributing to global warming. A secondary effect is the anthropogenic waste heat they produce, contributing to the urban heat island effect.

A more long-term strategy for heat DRR should focus on the individual, coupled with permanent changes in urban planning. In the first centuries of the past millennium in southern Spain, Arabs put nature to work to cool the environment. Some of their ideas are being used in city planning today, introducing urban gardens and fountains to fight the heat island effect.

As for the individual, electric fans are more environmentally friendly than air conditioners, but above all, a good target communication strategy should be designed so as to reach the population more at risk. Workers laboring outside, such as those in agriculture or construction, have special needs. Not only access to water but also shelter and resting times. A strategy to match their needs and those of the employer can only be attained through a well-designed communication tool directed at employees and employers.

We should think more in long term changes to our DRR heat strategy, less air conditioning and more environmentally friendly solutions and communication.

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The second focal point of the TIEMS handbook, Training for rural communities in emergency management & emergency situations, states as an objective the need to “Raising the awareness on technical solutions involving computers, communication and information technology and social sciences to provide emergency and disaster managers with helpful decision support”.

After the recent floods in Germany and the Netherlands, it has been stated that the high incidence on the population may be due to overreliance on ICT technology for communication purposes. It is a fact that ICT relies on the existence of a functioning electrical network. What happens if the electrical flow is cut off? In those situations, the ICT system will go and, with it, internet and mobile communications.

I was living in Germany many years ago, so long ago that the Berlin Wall still existed. One Sunday afternoon sirens started to sound. I don’t know if sirens, used during WWII and after, are the answer. What I know is that we have to put in place a communication network that works even if the electricity goes, even if internet goes, even if mobile communication goes.

Probably, relying on people directly communicating to each other would be the best bet. It would be good to investigate the application of the concept of fractal social organizations to the design of a communication network based on people.

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