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2011 UCL Institute for Risk and Disaster Reduction Annual Conference

4 August 2011

In celebration of its first year of operation, the UCL IRDR held its annual conference on 22 June 2011. The event drew together a varied and dynamic audience from across UCL and its external partners and associates to report on, explore and inform research in risk and disaster reduction through thought provoking lectures, panel sessions and discussions. The IRDR aimed to produce a conference that would be truly multi-disciplinary, bringing together natural and social scientists, engineers and architects, doctors and lawyers, researchers and practitioners, financial analysts and humanitarian and development practitioners and policy-makers. The conference focused on four of the themes that the IRDR had worked on over the past year: Risk and Uncertainty for Natural Hazards; Issues in Water Risk and Security; Communicating Disasters; Extreme Events and Health Protection. The IRDR Annual General Meeting was also held and the whole day was rounded off with an evening networking reception. Well over 100 people registered for the event. There follows a brief report that summarises each session of the day and the Director’s Report and financial summary for the Annual General Meeting may be found here. The intention is to build the IRDR conference into the must-attend annual event for all those interested in risk and disaster reduction.

List of presenters

Adriana Allen (UCL)
William Burgess (UCL)
Frank Furedi (University of Kent)
Paul Kaye (Aon Benfield)
Christopher Kilburn (UCL)
John McCloskey (University of Ulster)
Francis McDonagh (Catholic Agency for Overseas Development)
Sobona Mtisi (Overseas Development Institute)
Virginia Murray (Health Protection Agency)
Dave Tappin (British Geological Survey and UCL)
Beth Walker (China Dialogue)

Risk and Uncertainty for Natural Hazards
Chair: Gerald Roberts (Birkbeck)

The first session of the morning got underway with a dynamic keynote presentation by Professor John McCloskey (University of Ulster) in his talk Identification of Earthquake Hazard Hotspots by Long-Term Stress Modelling, which used examples from Indonesia and Chile. John’s talk highlighted the central role of the estimation of uncertainty in the communication of warnings about earthquake and tsunami threats. In particular his talk emphasised the importance of the slip distribution in earthquakes in determining the actual hazard an earthquake poses. Numerical simulations by several independent groups have shown, for example, that earthquakes of the same magnitude produce order of magnitude differences in tsunami height depending on the locations of the areas of high slip; this underlines the fundamental uncertainty in the outcome of tsunami simulations as the basis for preparedness planning. John’s talk had two main conclusions. Firstly, the strong dependence of the outcome of a forecast earthquake on the, probably unknowable, distribution of slip renders the earthquake forecasting problem even more difficult than was previously thought. But secondly, he argued that this does not mean that science does not have a very positive role in the preparedness process. Many tens of thousands of people died in India and Sri Lanka as a result of the 2004 tsunami, but many of these lives should have been saved by the application of simple uncontested science. The short term challenge, he argued, is to make sure that what we do know, including a realistic assessment of its uncertainty, must be used now to ensure there is no repeat of the 2004 experience.  He described the work being done in Padang, Indonesia, where some 1 million people are using science to prepare themselves for an expected future megathrust earthquake. In this context, John emphasised the need to ensure that scientific messages are communicated effectively and sensitively in different social, cultural, economic and political contexts. He suggested that recent events in Japan, Haiti and Indonesia justified the use of worst-case scenario planning. His final message was that although it might never be possible to predict when earthquakes will occur, effort must be spent on identifying the locations where a large fraction of devastating events will occur on known faults over the next decade and beyond.

Keeping to the theme of seismic hazards, Professor Dave Tappin (British Geological Survey and UCL) reflected on the recent March 2011 Tohoku earthquake and tsunami in Japan. Dave had recently returned from two field visits to Japan and his presentation built on the one he gave on 22 March at the IRDR Discussion Meeting on the Honshu Earthquake and Tsunami (http://www.ucl.ac.uk/rdr/irdr/publications/japan-eq-seminar). Dave acknowledged that Japan is probably the best-prepared country in the world for natural disasters and emphasised that a good tsunami education programme and clearly defined evacuation routes had helped save many lives. However, the magnitudes of both the earthquake and the tsunami had been underestimated and consequently these had not been fully factored in to disaster planning and preparedness in parts of the devastated area of northern Honshu. Dave stressed that the location and magnitude of the Tohoku earthquake could have been better anticipated by utilising global earthquake evidence rather than a reliance on local Japanese events over relatively short time periods. The talk concluded by making the important point that there will always be uncertainty, but that it is the human condition (how people think), as much as the technology and science, which should dictate planning for and responding to disasters.

Picking up on the last point of the previous talk, Dr Christopher Kilburn (UCL) used the design and delivery of volcanic eruption forecasts to stress that both physical and social uncertainties must be evaluated together. He gave the example of emergency planning for pyroclastic flows around Vesuvius, in southern Italy. Pyroclastic flows are currents of volcanic gas and fine fragments of magma that travel over the ground at hurricane speeds and temperatures of about 500ºC. Although there is uncertainty in the size, range and direction of pyroclastic flows, their lethal impacts are well known. A greater uncertainty is in how local populations and politicians respond to the hazard maps that outline zones with different exposure to pyroclastic flows. For example, to those living near hazard boundaries, uncertainty exists about how the boundaries are defined. Christopher finished by stating that no emergency plan is perfect and it is normally better to have an emergency plan with some imperfections rather than no plan at all. He also cautioned that, for an emergency plan to be successful, there is a requirement to understand the needs of those receiving hazard information and for explaining the hazard maps in a clear and straightforward manner, because inconsistencies in the information provided can lead to uncertainty and undermine trust. 

Paul Kaye (Aon Benfield) gave the final presentation of the session by investigating risk and uncertainty from the perspective of catastrophe models used in insurance. These models are mathematical tools used throughout the industry to quantify potential losses. They comprise four components, which are hazard (event generation and intensity), exposure (risk characterisation and policy conditions), vulnerability (damage) and financial (insured loss). Numerous models are available and there is a level of uncertainty in all of them. Paul noted that the use of results from models in insurance focuses on aleatory uncertainty, which comes from the variability in the modelling process itself. He concluded by stating that insurers struggle to know what to do with epistemic uncertainty, which relates to incomplete knowledge, and posed the questions of how does/should this uncertainty influence decision making and how does/should it impact risk appetite, articulation and use.

Issues in Water Risk and Security
Chair: Dr Randolph Kent (Humanitarian Futures Programme)

The session on water focused on risk and security issues in the Developing South and was run in collaboration with the UCL Environment Institute. Five panellists commenced proceedings by giving brief overviews and these were followed by an open discussion.

Dr Sobona Mtisi (Overseas Development Institute) presented on water and socio-economic development in the context of climate change. His main message was that it is naïve to simply focus on issues of too much or too little water with changing climate because social, economic, political and institutional factors play such a key role in water resource management and mismanagement in international development. Adriana Allen (UCL) developed this message by examining urban water poverty. Lack of access to water in cities is rarely a result of an absolute scarcity of water. Most cities have access to sufficient water resources to meet the basic needs of all residents, but in rapidly growing cities infrastructure provision has not kept up with the pace of settlement, leaving the poorest people without reliable and affordable access to safe, clean water. For this reason, it is important to consider urban water poverty as distinct from water scarcity and to draw attention to the need for political, social, economic and institutional change to improve urban water provision. Adriana finished by calling for greater consideration of water sovereignty, and also stated that with the backdrop of climate change, providing adequate water supply to growing urban populations will be one of the greatest challenges of this century.

Francis McDonagh (Catholic Agency for Overseas Development) then focussed the issue of water stress and climate change on to Bolivia. Water stress in the Andes is being driven by climate change to a degree, but development is also a huge contributing factor and often overshadowed by the focus on climate variation. Bolivia is rich in natural resources and its economy depends on their exploitation, which requires substantial use of water. However, this form of development conflicts with indigenous heritage and practice, which advocate the ownership and control of natural resources through living in solidarity with nature. The responsible management of water resources lies at the heart of this alternative development model. On the Bolivian Altiplano water stress is being compounded by the retreat of Andean glaciers, the rapid development of urban centres and the exploitation of natural resources such as metals. Francis concluded that in order to better understand the complexity of this region and to responsibly inform development policy and practice requires the integration of indigenous knowledge and approaches with those of Western academic research.

Many of the issues explored by Francis resonated with those of Beth Walker (China Dialogue), who provided an overview of water security in the huge Hindu Kush–Himalaya region, the waters from which support 20 percent of the world’s population. There is great concern in this region over the future of meltwater as glaciers retreat, but this is just one potential crisis driver as not enough is known about water in this region, water planning is poor and there are huge transboundary issues for rivers flowing through more than one country, particularly exemplified by dam building and water diversion systems. Beth called for greater collaboration between countries, sectors and disciplines in order to manage water more responsibly.

The last overview by Dr William Burgess (UCL) reminded us of the often forgotten issue of water quality—water security is about having enough water of the right quality. His focus on arsenic and fluoride in groundwater made several key points: that because groundwater is not visible it is poorly understood and respected, and yet 75 percent of the world’s population depends on this source of water; that arsenic and fluoride are overwhelmingly the biggest naturally occurring threats to human health and tens of millions of people are at risk of arsenicosis and fluorosis; arsenic and fluoride hotspots occur mainly in Asia and South America; the ability to predict where arsenic and fluoride will pose a threat needs improving, but presents a huge challenge owing to the high spatial variability exhibited by these components of groundwater. Willy concluded that mitigation responses require improved conceptual understanding of the environmental processes governing arsenic and fluoride behaviour and distribution.

In his summary of the session, Randolph advocated that more attention should focus on several issues that had emerged during the presentations and discussion, and these were:

  • Need a much better understanding of the availability of water and misuse of water resources.
  • New perspectives are needed on water justice and sovereignty.
  • Clearer definition of, and interaction between, stakeholders who are properly equipped to understand water resources and their management.
  • Greater science–policy-maker dialogue is required.
  • What does the future hold and who is really getting to grips with key issues around water risk and security over the next few decades?

Randolph then invited the panellists to express their final views, and these were:

  • Researchers have a responsibility to objectively analyse the water situation (the perfect versus the possible).
  • There is a pressing need to remove the simplistic North/South divide on water issues.
  • The North needs to look objectively at how it manages water and it should not simply project its solutions and methods of management on to the South.
  • Improve water access, allocation and treatment, but understand the infrastructure constraints in developing public water supplies. In many cases simple water collection and local distribution networks would bring huge benefit.
  • Water scarcity makes good business.
  • The political economy of water must be considered within the context of climate change.
  • Develop new ways of thinking about defining water sovereignty and how it is measured.
  • Better analysis and information on traditional water management practices, which needs to be shared globally.
  • Raise awareness of groundwater quantity, quality and flow. If we knew more about groundwater we would take greater care of it.


Communicating Disasters
Chair: Professor Graham Hart (UCL)

The keynote lecture of the conference was delivered by Professor Frank Furedi (University of Kent), who gave a spirited account of his thoughts on Communicating Disasters: The Cultural Script of a 21st Century Pandemic. Frank eloquently explored the cultural developments that influence the construction of contemporary risk consciousness, particularly the way that risk and uncertainty are managed by contemporary cultures. He considered the interaction between risk consciousness and perceptions of fear, trust relations and social capital in contemporary society. In doing this, he stated that through the precautionary approach there is a fixation on worst-case scenarios and that communication of risk is all too often built around a language engendering fear. In the context of earlier sessions of the conference, Frank stated that robust knowledge and science are required to provide a meaningful context for the risk posed by pandemics, improving understanding and reducing the uncertainty associated with this potential threat. He remarked, however, that science and knowledge have both become undervalued in this regard.   

In Frank’s view, scientific experts, commentators and the news media represent epidemics of infectious disease in one or more of six terms:

  • Pandemics, having rarely been referred to in past accounts of epidemic disease, are now described as normal, regularly occurring and inevitable.
  • Viruses are seen as particularly virulent, and have taken over as a new species of threat.
  • Viruses are often cast as a threat to the very existence of humankind, particularly since the advent of AIDS.
  • Contemporary public health infrastructures are said to be unable to cope with the scale of these threats.
  • Pandemics arise as a function of human frailty, arrogance and greed; this is humanity sinning not against God, but against nature.
  • Viral pandemics are not simply a health problem, but they also constitute a threat to national and international security.

Extreme Events and Health Protection
Chair: Dr Stephen Edwards (UCL)

The final session of the day was a lively presentation and discussion led by Professor Virginia Murray around the work she does as the Head of the Extreme Events and Health Protection Section at the Health Protection Agency. The Section acts as a focal point for the Agency's Centre for Radiation, Chemicals and Environmental Hazards in its local, national and international environmental health protection work.  The Section collates relevant information from within the Agency, as well as from national and international partners, and provides appropriate up-to-date evidence based information to support the development of planning for extreme weather events or other natural hazards (including floods, droughts, temperature extremes, earthquakes and volcanic ash clouds) that have the potential to negatively impact human health. The planning considers preparedness, response, recovery and adaptation to extreme events, all of which must work together in building resilience. Throughout the session Virginia emphasised the to need to build effective collaborations through partnerships, in particular those that train the next generations of professionals who will have to manage extreme events. In this regard it was pleasing to hear her state that the UCL IRDR is exactly the type of entity that is required to encourage, develop and sustain such partnerships.

Key Messages

The conference was a great success and achieved its primary aim of bringing together a wide range of experts from a number of sectors and academic disciplines at a single event to consider risk and disaster reduction. Through presentations and discussions several key messages emerged, which are not new, but highlight that not enough is happening in certain areas. These messages were:

  • Proper and sustained dialogue between disciplines and sectors involved in risk and disaster reduction is needed.
  • Inter-sector and inter-disciplinary collaborations are essential, particularly to undertake new research and generate new knowledge, which must then be shared widely and effectively.
  • There must be greater understanding of uncertainty and how it is communicated for risk mitigation and disaster impact reduction.
  • The effective communication of scientific messages must be sensitive to social, cultural, economic, political and institutional contexts.
  • Greater North–South sharing of knowledge and practice must be facilitated.
  • A more integrated understanding of the “human” and “natural” drivers of uncertainty, risk and disasters is required to increase the effectiveness of risk and disaster reduction strategies.
  • More emphasis must be placed on understanding the risk and disaster landscape of the future in order to build greater resilience in the face of growing population, greater development, resource depletion and climate change.