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Archive for the ‘Resilient Societies’ Category

I have been wondering what the connection between people, especially old people, and a resilient society could be.

What is more resilient than an old person? They have demonstrated their resilience through the years. An 80 or 90 year old European has gone through at least one war, if not several if he or she is from one of those unfortunate countries (the Balkans, Ukraine, …) which have suffered also their own national wars.

And yet, when devising processes for a resilient society, we do not look to those generations that have proved to be resilient. What have they done to survive in such an unwelcome surrounding?

My answer is simple: adaptation.

I had a teacher in high school who provided an easy explanation for the difference between democracy and dictatorship. Dictatorship is like a concrete wall; it withstands high winds but if the wind grows strong enough it collapses and disappears. Democracy is like a wall made up of a sheet of paper; it bents with the wind and, when the wind does not blow anymore, it falls back in place. That is adaptation.

Going back to how to design for old age or for resilient societies, I think we should look at the same characteristic: adaptation. We will survive if we can adapt ourselves and our society to a changing world, be it new technologies or climate change.

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A few weeks ago, in September 2019, Spain’s south-east was hit by a coldfront, flooding several villages and cities along the Segura basin. The images of devastation were breath-taking. One of the areas that suffered the most damage was the San Javier-Los Alcázares villages in El Mar Menor.

By no means was it an unexpected event. The Spanish Meteorological Agency had warned of the possible devastating effect of the coldfront. Was the damage due to the fact that the area is not considered floodable?

Directive 2007/60/EC of the European Parliament and of the Council, of 23 October 2007, on the assessment and management of flood risks states in Article 7.5 that “Member States shall ensure that flood risk management plans are completed and published by 22 December 2015”. Spain in general, and the Confederación Hidrógráfica del Segura (entity in charge of the management of the basin) in particular, has complied with the provision of the article and, in March of 2014, issued the flood risk maps.

Let’s have a look at the one for the area in question in which the red marks mean more floodable areas:

And know have a look at Google maps of the area:

Just notice that the red on the first picture coincides almost exactly with the built-up areas of the villages of San Javier and Los Alcázares. So, the area was clearly floodable.

Maybe this event has been an isolated one and that is why nothing has been done to prevent flooding. Wrong again! In 2016 there was also extensive flooding in the area and six historical floods have been reported in the area according to the flood risk maps.

So, why has nothing been done? Why do residential buildings exist in an area that is floodable and that has gone through extensive damage several times in recent years? It may not be due to climate change but, whatever the underlying reason, the fact is that Spain is going through a period of more heat waves and more flooding. And, sadly, the fact is that nothing has been done and nothing is being done.

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Either because it is mandatory or out of the realization that a disaster, natural or manmade, can put the soundest enterprise out of business, almost all big companies have a Business Continuity Plan (BCP) for proper Disaster Risk Management (DRM). Is it the same for SMEs? I am afraid it is not the case.

I have written before about how individuals should take control of their own safety. This post is an extension of the need for SMEs to be an active part of a disaster resilient society.

So far, I haven’t been able to identify too many actions directed at helping SMEs implement actions enabling them to be prepared for a disaster. As a matter of fact, according to a paper by Juan Pablo Sarmiento et al of the University of Florida (USA), only 14,1% of business with fewer than 100 employees had a BCP in place (2013). The recent flooding in south-east Spain, one of the vegetable gardens of Europe, has shown that only 37% of the 50,000 damaged hectares have something as simple as an insurance policy, let alone a BCP.

Are we going to do anything about it? If we look at the last issue of the H2020 WP in Security, this is something that has not even been contemplated, except for cybersecurity risks. Do we assume that SMEs are not an important part of society? This is not the case. According to Eurostat, SMEs provide 66,3% of the employment in EU28, approximately 137 million people. Imagine if we could get 137 million people involved in a resilient society? Imagine if we could get 99,8% of the total number of enterprises involved in a resilient society?

Maybe it is worth a try.

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Most people in the developed world rely on the authorities for most of their basic needs, be it daily needs, such as healthcare, or emergency response, such as forest fires.

Healthcare professionals are intent that we, as individuals, take a more active attitude in preserving our health. Obviously, those most interested in preserving our health is we ourselves.

Is it the same when we face emergencies? Do we take responsibility for acting as knowledgeable first-responders in case of an emergency? I want to underline KNOWLEDGABLE; I am not talking about acting for the sake of acting. Most of those impromptu UNKNOWLEDGEABLE actions are nothing more than running around like headless chickens, making noise without any contribution to ameliorating the consequences of the event.

This is the gordian knot of emergency prevention and response: should citizens be the first first-responders in case of an emergency? Taking control of our lives seems to be a good winning strategy; consequently I would say that citizens should be able to respond efficiently in case of an emergency. They are in the front line of the incident. If they know how to behave, critical time can be gained with a prompt and efficient response before professionals arrive.

Furthermore, a knowledgeable citizenry is essential in the prevention stage. Forest fires could be prevented if people take responsibility for keeping forests clean, clearing up plastic bags, glass bottles, underbrush and so forth.

Assuming, as I and most people do, that informed citizens should be a goal in our societies, why is it that in developed countries -with the possible exception of Japan- authorities have been neglecting actions to train citizens in emergency prevention and response? I don’t have the answer, but something should be done soon if we don´t want to hear again “our response emergency protocols should be re-evaluated”.

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Dealing with the unexpected is always difficult. It is difficult for the individual, and it is more difficult for society. Faced with the unexpected, predicting how people behave becomes almost impossible.

Imagine a building on fire. A lot of individuals will shout out the window for help, making the situation more problematic. Others will run to save their relatives, endangering more lives. Some individuals will even try to be heroes, but with out the proper training and equipment they will end joining the body count. Hopefully, some of the individuals will stay calm, close all windows and doors, and wait for the fire department to arrive; these will be the ones who will, most probably, survive. There is another group of individuals, those who will have their minute of glory in the evening news, reporting on all the things that they haven’t seen and spreading false information or, if you prefer, “fake news”.

How can we make a mass of people behave in a rational way? How can we be certain that people, when faced with the unexpected, will react in a way that will not cause more harm?

I can only think of one solution, and it is something that has been tried for centuries: teaching people how to behave. In other words: prevention. Certainly, prevention has been on the menu for a long time and, still, few people act rationally. We must conclude that the way we are trying to bring prevention to people is not the correct way or, alternatively, we are not reaching most individuals.

Since public authorities and NGOs spend quite a few euros on prevention campaigns, let’s not assume they do not know what they are doing. As a matter of fact, there are quite a few examples of very good media campaigns. We are going to focus on the second cause: not reaching most people. We have reached a level of information about almost anything that, to say the least, is overwhelming. But most of the time we must look for the information, the information does not come to us. The information is there but we will seek it out only if we are aware of our needs.

Take earthquakes: Unless we live in certain areas of the world, no one will seek information about how to behave in case of an earthquake. The result is that in San Francisco only very strong earthquakes cause human casualties, but a mild earthquake in south-eastern Spain in 2011 caused 9 deaths and 324 injured. Why? Because we, as a society, have failed to reach out to every individual in the region.

Reaching out to each individual and transmitting proper behavior in case of an unexpected situation should be the main objective of Civil Protection (Civil Defense in some countries). It means making effective use of the risk maps that most countries have; identifying the most vulnerable individuals within the area; and reaching out to those individuals and the population at large so that they know how to behave in case of emergency. No small task, but until we devise an effective system to accomplish that, every time there is an incident, there will be talk about “we should update our protocols for emergency response” and real prevention will be, again, forgotten.

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