UCL Institute for Risk & Disaster Reduction


IRDR annual conference 2012 report

6 August 2012

After the success of the inaugural IRDR annual conference in June 2011, the UCL IRDR held its second annual conference on 21 June 2012. The conference focussed on the themes of Assessing Risk, Communicating Risk, and Natural Hazards and Critical Infrastructure, which have been key themes for IRDR research for the past year. These themes were explored through thought provoking lectures, panel discussions, discussions, and poster presentations. The event drew together dynamic participants from varying disciplines across UCL, other UK universities, and non-academic sectors including policy makers, humanitarian aid organisations, insurance industry, nuclear industry, and the media. A key aim of the conference was to get these people from different disciplines and sectors to engage with each other and discuss issues, advances and future goals in disaster risk reduction. We believe that this aim was achieved, with presenters communicating in a way that engaged interest and provoked discussion from the diverse participants.

The IRDR Annual General Meeting was also held and the whole day was rounded off with an evening networking reception accompanied by poster presentations. The event was booked to capacity, with 150 registrants. There follows a brief report that summarises each session of the day and the Director’s Report for the Annual General Meeting may be found here. The IRDR annual conference has grown significantly since last year, but we intend to build it further in future years, so that it becomes the must-attend annual event for all those interested in risk and disaster reduction.

Panel Discussion on Communicating Risk

Panelists: Dr Gordon Woo (RMS), Mr John Tesh (Cabinet Office), Dr Carina Fearnley (Aberystwyth University), and Dr Helene Joffe (UCL)

Chaired and Summarised by Dr Rosanna Smith, Deputy Director of UCL IRDR

Gordon Woo, a catastrophe risk analyst, postulated that the principle challenge of risk communication is to transfer as much information and knowledge as possible to the population at large about the risks they are exposed to. He highlighted that within the field of natural hazards, especially earthquakes, scientists and authorities are reluctant to give any information at all, because the information they have is so uncertain, whilst for risks such as terrorism experts are willing to offer warnings despite similar or even greater levels of uncertainty. Meanwhile Helene Joffe, a reader in social and health psychology who specialises in public engagement with risks, countered that the nature of the message was more important than the amount of information given. She argued that many people are aware of the risks they are exposed to, but are unwilling or unable to take actions to reduce those risks. She thus argued that these messages must be comforting, and should endeavour to avoid scaremongering, overwhelming, or messages of disgust. Carina Fearnley, a lecturer in environmental hazards and expert on early warning systems for natural disasters, pointed out that we must be aware that people have increasing communication channels open to them, with an increasing proportion of the population owning mobile phones with internet access and social networking. This can result in a range of risk information reaching the population before official warnings are issued. She also warned that standardisation of warning systems was problematic, due to local and cultural differences, emphasising the importance of multilateral discussions of all local stakeholders, so that they can all better understand the risks they are exposed to and how the community and other stakeholders can and should respond to them. John Tesh, who is head of the capabilities team of the civil contingencies secretariat of the cabinet office, has particular responsibility for the National Risk Assessment and National Risk Register. He emphasised that the purpose of this National Risk Register was to prioritise activities to improve the Nation's resilience to disasters, whilst being careful not to be political or partisan. He promoted the 'bottom up' strategy, reflecting Fearnley's point on the importance of warning systems being optimised to their local community rather than standardised. He also wholeheartedly agreed with Woo's point on providing as much risk information as possible to those exposed to risks.

The language used in warnings and risk communication was also discussed. John Tesh and Carina Fearnley highlighted the importance of stakeholder engagement in developing warning systems, in order to overcome the different language usage of scientists in different fields, official warning bodies, and the public at large. Meanwhile, Helene Joffe highlighted the need to use pre-existing local belief systems when deciding how to deliver risk information and to consider the emotive response to the type of language used.

This topic led to several questions from the audience on the L'Aquila court case, where seismologists and civil contingencies officials were charged with manslaughter for failing to properly warn of the increased earthquake risk prior to the earthquake. Woo took this opportunity to reinforce his point that even when the science is uncertain, as in the L'Aquila case, scientists have a responsibility to pass on information about increased risk rather than offer unfounded assurances that the level of risk is unchanged.

Natural Hazards and Critical Infrastructure Session Summary

Speakers: Dr Katsu Goda (Bristol University), Dr Mark Offord (Sellafield Ltd.), Farnaz Arefian (UCL Development Planning Unit) and Prof. Virginia Murray (Health Protection Agency)

Chaired and Summarised by Dr Tiziana Rossetto, UCL EPICentre

This session consisted of four talks on different aspects of natural hazards and physical infrastructure by experts in different fields. This summary presents an overview of the general observations and lessons to be learned from the four presentations as a whole.

Prof. Murray nicely set up the holistic framework of risk as a juncture between hazard, vulnerability and exposure. Such a framework highlights the importance that vulnerabilities in societal and physical infrastructure have on overall risk, but also the opportunities that we have to mitigate risks through appropriate actions. Dr Goda stressed the interplay of physical and social structures in mitigation by stating in his presentation that engineering-based physical protection can help mitigate risks from tsunami but should not be relied on alone; the incorporation of evacuation plans and drills in the emergency management playing an equally important role. Farnaz Arefian also highlighted the importance of a good governance structure and long term vision in achieving sustainable and effective risk mitigation. Essentially there is no reason why we should not be able to “expect the unexpected”, as stated by Mark Offord, and incorporate measures of redundancy, segregation and diversity in infrastructure design, which are not necessary expensive.

So echoing Prof. Murray’s question, “what can we do now?”. From the talks, some suggestions are to:

  • learn from past disasters and evaluate the disaster management performance, recovery process and development strategies;
  • better report disasters and their effects;
  • consider the co-occurrence of multiple hazards, e.g. earthquakes and landslides;
  • try to understand the interdependency of networks and systems, so as to be better able to forsee the full consequences of future disasters, and mitigate against them;
  • consider local society and governance when planning a mitigation strategy, and engage with them

Powerpoint files of the presentations by Virginia Murray and Katsu Goda can be downloaded here (Murray) and here (Goda).

Keynote lecture on “Challenges in Reducing the Risks Posed by Natural Disasters”

by Professor Chris Whitty, Chief Scientific Advisor to the Department for International Development

Chaired and Summarised by Cassidy Johnson, UCL Development Planning Unit

Chris Whitty’s keynote lecture was essentially divided into two parts, in the first part he gave a brief overview about what we know about hazard science and in the second part he discussed how he views the choices, challenges and difficulties of responding the risks natural hazards and gave some insights into how DFID views taking action on these.

1. He posed three observations in the beginning:

-Where is the science not there, and where is it almost there? Where is money useful to get what is almost there to be there so that it is useful for policy-making?

-Organisation cultures are different. For example in policy terms a few days is enough to write a policy whereas in academic terms it takes a few months to do a piece of work. How do these organisational cultures work together to solve problems?

-Policy decisions are always about the rational allocation of resources and every option has opportunity costs.

2. What kinds of disasters can we predict?

- Earthquakes and volcanoes – We only know in broad terms about where they will be and the frequency. We cannot say specifically where or when an earthquake will happen in a way that is useful for policy. Although, we can determine vulnerability to earthquakes and volcanoes, i.e. which things are likely to fall down in an earthquake.

- Floods - we can predict with a degree of certainty where they will happen and the severity. We can know a few weeks ahead of time when a flood disaster is coming. However there is a problem with information. Those who know information and those who can use information are not the same. This is an example of where something can be done to improve the information gap.

- Droughts and famine – these are easy to predict one year ahead of time, by combining meteorological information and economic situation. Famines can be prevented by policy. Can make short, medium and long-term predictions.

- Infectious diseases – we cannot predict the start, but we can effectively curtail the spread.

- Manmade disasters – many but not covered here

- Long range forecasting –climate change will make many of these disasters more likely, as per IPCC Managing the Risks of Extreme Events and Disasters to Advance Climate Change Adaptation report (IPCC SREX). However IPCC assumes that Africa and Asia are going to stay the same, which is not the case. GDP growth rates are very high in most African countries. Africa is twice as rich now as it was ten years ago. Thus the range of options for these countries will be greater. The biggest predictor of ability to respond is individual and country wealth.

3. In reducing the impacts of natural events, the question is where can DFID make the greatest impacts?

- DFID has been investing in rice that is resilient to flood, drought and saline tolerant crops.

- DFID can invest in countermeasures for epidemics. In this area it is about the failure of application of existing knowledge, not lack of knowledge.

- Engineering has made great advances, for example in Bangladesh, cyclone shelters are saving thousands of lives.

- There is a critical role of social and economic sciences, i.e. looks at the differences in impacts between the Japan earthquake (2011) vs Haiti earthquake (2010). Behavioural as much as technological innovations are central to mitigating risk. The wealth of families and nations is also important; there is a strong interaction between wealth and ability to cope with things.

4. Choices, challenges and difficulties. In this part he identified his way of thinking through these things, and DIFD’s way of dealing with them.

It is important for policy to be able to identify the well-based predictions. This is important to know to decide what to put our money on.

When does risk become sufficient that we should take steps to mitigate it? We must look at likelihood of the event happening and impacts of this event and also look at the context. For example in Tanzania thousands of children are dying everyday from communicable diseases, so a specific hazard risk that kills 500 a year would be considered to be a low impact. Where you classify risk depends on where you stand.

Donors that are dependent on media for funding flow (ie USAID) the have the difficulty of getting money for the ‘crisis averted’.

Improving access to information immediately after disasters. We know there is a problem; there is a wall between those who know stuff and those who have a capacity to act. Some of this is because decisions are centralised within a country, but the effects of disasters are felt locally.

Resources for preparing for a disaster with a finite probability will come from other development goals where the benefits are certain. It is easy to say that it is easier to prevent a disaster than to deal with it afterwards, but sometimes this is incorrect. For example in some situations it is better to wait until the earthquake happens and deal with that rather than thinly spread out all the money to where there is earthquake risk.

There is a lack of expertise in interpreting or synthesising data from multiple sources and disciplines. Refers to John Beddington’s Report, the Use of Science in Humanitarian Emergencies and Disasters, June 2012 (SHED Report). SHED report proposes: a register of potentially relevant experts, the ability to convene expert groups after disasters, a forward-looking cross-government group that can assess all the risks people put forward and determine which we can do something about. DFID is acting on these.

What science should we prioritise? Humanitarian space has been under researched for many years. Economic and social research on how to mitigate the effects of hazards.

5. Concluding thoughts included the following points:

• Multiple disciplines have a role to play in predicting and mitigating the risk of natural disasters.

• Being rational about which risks to predict or mitigate against is not straightforward (without the benefit of hindsight).

• Structural barriers to information flow about risk exist at many levels, and no single intervention will overcome them.

• Improving socioeconomic status is the best defence against a natural disaster becoming a human catastrophe - but also changes risk perception.

6. Questions: There were a number of questions from the audience, which required Whitty to clarify his points on a number of issues.

Ben Wisner, Benfield hazard research centre: 1) says that growth rates in Africa are skewed by mineral and oil exports. This is a blessing and a curse. Inequality in income distribution in Africa should be mentioned. National wealth is not the same personal wealth. 2) Choices about where to invest depend on human rights issues and DRR is being used to justify land and water grabs. Whitty answers that most countries in Africa have seen increased living standards for the majority. On a moral level, human rights are important, and must take a utilitarian approach to the allocation of resources. Every life is equal.

David Alexander, IRDR: Takes issue that waiting for the next large disaster is the right thing to do. Small disasters outweigh the impacts of the large disaster. End product is a considerable breach of safety. Whitty answers that we must base discussion on the best logic based on greatest humanitarian impact and agrees with Alexander that we should tackle low-level problems, and governance.

Marcus Oxley, Global Network of Civil Society Organisations for Disaster Reduction also makes the point this it is the low-level disasters that need attention. Whitty agrees that building general resilience, systemic resilience is the best way to tackle problems.

Question about geoscience in international development. Whitty responds that DFID commissions large amounts of work on this and that geoscience is central to what they do and cannot judge the importance of this by the number of experts they have on their staff.

In Conversation on Uncertainty in Assessing Environmental Risks

Ms Claire Fox (Institute of Ideas) interviewed Prof Andy Stirling (University of Sussex)

By Dr Ben Lishman, UCL IRDR Research Fellow

The conference closed with a conversation between Andy Stirling (University of Sussex), and Claire Fox (Institute for Ideas), beginning with the theme of “Uncertainty in Assessing Environmental Risks”. The core of the discussion was that risk is complex, and that this complexity should be acknowledged. Behind every probability there lie assumptions, and specialists should state these assumptions alongside conclusions. Andy’s suggestion was that the specialists could be asked to provide a handful of answers, and explain their working for each, so that people using the information could see where it might apply and where it might fall. Both agreed that humility was important, and that “things are often consistent with the evidence without being uniquely consistent with the evidence”.  The science of risk can never be dissociated from its context.

A second theme of the discussion was that risks are frequently associated with opportunities. Claire suggested that our over-reaction to risk makes things worse, and that we should embrace the “heroism of engineering”. Germany is the counter-example, said Andy: the precautionary principle has opened up pro-technology opportunism there, and made them the industrial envy of Europe.   

A session that Claire billed as “the entertainment” proved thoroughly entertaining, but also illuminating and provocative on the broader sociological and philosophical framework in which we have to consider risk.

Posters on Assessing and Communicating Risk

Abstracts of the posters presented during this meeting can be downloaded here.

Key Messages from the Conference

The conference 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. With participants from such a broad range of disciplines and sectors, it was important for everyone to present their work and discuss the issues in a way that was meaningful, interesting and thought-provoking to all the delegates. Indeed, the issue of different stakeholders struggling to communicate due to different language use was raised in the risk communication session. However, during this conference all speakers and panellists made an effort to pitch their presentations and arguments in terms that could be understood by attendees from the full range of sectors and disciplines, avoiding all subject specific jargon. They achieved this whilst also engaging the audience with thought provoking topics. Key messages that emerged during the conference were:

  • Though there was general agreement that effective risk communication can reduce the impact of natural disasters, there was still much debate about what type of and how much risk information should be given in risk warnings.
  • Most risks are, by their very nature, highly uncertain. Scientists should therefore include information about this uncertainty when discussing risks.
  • Response plans for and resilience to natural disasters should be multi-layered and address multi-hazards.
  • Risk communication and disaster response plans should always be locally adapted in order to be effective within the local society and governance conditions.
  • With limited resources, it can be difficult to incorporate natural disaster resilience into policy and government funding, especially when the science seems to be so uncertain. Experts should therefore do more to advise how to prioritise resources to reduce the impacts of natural disasters, within the framework of the existing level of uncertainty and available resources.