UCL Institute for Risk and Disaster Reduction


Report on the UCL IRDR 8th Annual Conference

23 July 2018

Conference Theme: New Directions in Disaster Risk Reduction and Humanitarian Response

Keynote address at UCL IRDR 8th Annual Conference

By Professor David Alexander, conference convenor

The Institute for Risk and Disaster Reduction held its eighth annual conference on Wednesday, 20th June 2018 in the Darwin Lecture Theatre at UCL. The event was attended by more than 100 people, including students, academics, business leaders, public administrators and representatives of government, and academic visitors from overseas. A varied programme was complemented by informative lectures and lively discussions. There follows a report on each of the four sessions that comprised the conference.

Talks from the conference can be viewed on the IRDR Youtube Channel

Session 1: "New Frontiers of Risk: Space Weather and You"

Chair: Dr Robert Wicks, UCL IRDR and MSSL

This session was designed to present the basic issues associated with coronal mass ejections and 'space weather', including summaries of the current state of preparation, and then to engender a debate on the possible impacts of a major space weather event.

Professor Lucie M. Green, Royal Society University Research Fellow based at the UCL Mullard Space Science Laboratory, opened the session. She argued that space weather is an important aspect of the operation of our technology as it involves major changes in our near-Earth environment, particularly in the electromagnetic field. Sunspots indicate a very strong magnetic field, or coronal mass ejection. Magnetic fields lift up million-degree gas. As a result, Earth is not isolated in space, which is an energetic, dynamic environment. Charged particles give a dynamic magnetic field. Hence, the Earth is sitting literally in the atmosphere of the Sun. A coronal mass ejection (CME) takes 1-4 days to travel to the Earth. High-energy, very hot particles arrive in one hour. A solar flare gives a flash of light in the atmosphere. CMEs can lead to electricity interruptions, the possibility of cascading failures and charging of the surfaces of satellites, also to GNSS errors and concentrations of ionising radiation at aircraft cruising altitudes. Damage to spacecraft and aircraft electronics is possible. Flares can cause high-frequency communication problems. Atmospheric heating and ionospheric changes can cause issues for mobile telephony.

In October and November 2003 one scientific satellite was lost to a CME. In Sweden, 50,000 people lost access to electricity for one hour. With respect to GNSS, errors of greater than 50m in vertical position affected aircraft landings for an 11-15-hour period. Despite these statistics, there are uncertainties in forecasting. Reliable, suitable data are critical. Space weather has a global reach, with intensification towards high latitudes. We need to improve forecasting for operational purposes, but data are still limited. We want to have a European space weather monitor.

The next speaker was Mr Mark Gibbs, Head of Space Weather at the Met Office. Space weather is on the national risk register at medium-high risk. Scenarios for the repeat of a Carrington event in the UK suggest about 13 transformers would be damaged, two coastal nodes would experience disconnection, there would be short blackouts in urban areas, and about ten per cent of blackouts of satellites would last from hours to days. Rapid aging of satellites would take place. There would be a partial or complete loss of GNSS for one to three days. The Met Office Space Weather Operations (CMOSWOC) is one of three centres manned around the clock (the other two are in the United States. There are 14 trained forecasters. Models are run independently of those run by US partners.

The UK uses the same space weather severity scales as the USA, except that some of the language is changed. Solar disc analysis involves looking at sunspots. Forecasting gives a percentage probability of impact, and there are space weather briefings. The Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE) reports to the Cabinet Office Briefing Room (COBR), the UK Space Agency and the Met Office. Key satellites are DISCOVR and SOHO. The Carrington Event arrived in 19 hours: the fastest arrival time has been15 hours, and the faster the CME arrives, the more serious will be its effects.

The third speaker was Mr Ewan Haggerty, of the Spacecraft Management Authority at Airbus and SKYNET. Mr Haggerty discussed satellites with highly elliptical orbit, geostationary orbit, low-earth and medium-earth orbit. They interact with the plasmosphere, in which plasma is trapped. Field lines loop back to Earth, and there are inner and outer belts, respectively 1000-12,000 and 10,000-45,000 km in altitude. Low-earth orbit satellites operate at 200-2000 km, travelling at 7 km/sec. Orbital drag occurs at 400 km. An orbital boost is required due to solar activity, in order to keep the satellite up. A geomagnetic storm on 13-14 March 1989 led to spacecraft tracking problems, with 12 days of “lost satellite”. The inner radiation belt comes close to the Earth’s surface, creating the 'South Atlantic anomaly'. Medium-earth orbits include GPS and navigation satellites. These travel through the outer belt of protons and are built with shielding. The risk of collision is mathematically modelled. The Kessler syndrome involves a ring of debris would constrain us not to leave the Earth. In 2009 NASA conducted a Kessler syndrome simulation study. LEO, MEO and GEO are all affected by different particles.

Smaller, cheaper launches give a better payload per launch. They can be propelled by electricity rather than solid fuel. In a space weather event, the launch track and control signals could be interrupted, leading to asset damage, satellite loss, service interruptions and outages.

Dr Andrew Richards is a Severe Risk and Resilience Analyst with the UK National Electricity Grid. He described how, in 1989, a space weather storm knocked out the electricity distribution grid of Quebec Province for a day. The grid collapsed 90 seconds after the onset of the storm, which was of moderate size. The 1859 'Carrington event' involved a three-day problem for telegraph operators. The 1921 New York Railroad Space Weather Storm damaged equipment and caused fires to break out. The 1940 Easter Sunday Storm was the first to have power grid effects, while the 1989 Quebec storm was the first major storm of the electricity age. Two National Grid transformers were damaged. There was extreme difficulty in controlling the voltage. The 2003 Halloween Storm caused a blackout in Malmö, and transformers were damaged in South Africa.

Affected transformers are the size of a small family house. They cost £4 million each and last for 40-50 years. They take a long time to replace, hence there is a long lead time in order to build them, and weeks of planning are needed in order to transport them.

The National Risk Register suggests that a medium-to-large impact would have a recurrence interval of 1 in 20 to 1 in 2 years. An event with recurrence interval 1 in 200 to 1 in 2o years would affect the power grid. Regional blackouts are likely, and a national blackout is possible. Voltage disturbances and line tripping would occur due to the induced electrical field. On granite geology the electrons, which penetrate 1000 km into the Earth's crust, are pushed up through transformers. Very low resistance transmission lines carry a high voltage and would be subject to geomagnetically-induced currents. This is a global phenomenon. The power industry is only interested in the most extreme cases. If the north and south poles of a coronal mass ejection line up with the north and south poles of the Earth, they will repulse each other. If they are inverted, there will be energy transfer. The polarity of the field is thus critical.

Overall, the session on "Space Weather and You" provided a clear, comprehensive picture of what we know about the incidence and probable impacts of a major space weather event. It is not reassuring, but much can be done to prepare for the worst.


Session 2: "Disaster Futures"

The Disaster Futures session was convened by Dr Ilan Kelman (UCL IRDR and Institute for Global Health). Panellists included Dr Randolph Kent (Director Futures Project, Royal United Services Institute), Prof. Wellington Pinheiro dos Santos (Universidade Federal de Pernambuco, Brazil), Dr. Patty Kostkova (Senior Lecturer in Digital Health, UCL IRDR), Dr Christine Kenney (Joint Centre for Disaster Research), Prof. Tiago Massoni (Federal University of Campina Grande, Brazil), Prof. Thea Hilhorst (International Institute of Social Studies, Netherlands).

The session began with an inspirational presentation from Dr Kent on anticipating future crises. Dr Kent led by questioning whether current risk and humanitarian response systems are really effective or have we outgrown them due to the evolving nature of current crises which have changed so fundamentally that the processes in place are no longer fit for the future. With increased frequency, complex crises now merge into one another in ways that are not anticipated rather than occurring in isolation. Several future crises scenarios were offered by Dr Kent. In particular, one considered the potential displacement of millions of humans globally constantly moving in search of survival but whom also generate conflict as they try and penetrate different States. The second suggested one of the greatest risks and crisis areas anticipated by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) are bio engineered pandemics and finally the potential for global disaster caused by a crisis in cyber space should be high on the risk agenda. If these scenarios are not being seriously anticipated, how can an effective response can be prepared?

Dr Kent concluded by stating there is a need to be innovative in the humanitarian sector by exploring areas that we have never considered before. In order to have effective future response strategies, anticipated risk needs to be researched and measured in order to effectively map the consequences.

Prof. Thea Hilhorst then discussed the radical changes in the story aid is telling about itself that she has observed during the years she has supervised PhD candidates in the field of humanitarian aid. Until the turn of century there was a fairly grounded idea that exceptionality was seen as something separate from normality. Therefore there was a clear division of the in-crisis period that presented an immediate need for the delivery international interventions versus the period outside of a crisis. Prof. Hilhorst explored letting go of the idea that exceptionality is completely different from normality which in turn reshapes everything relating to humanitarianism and aid. Areas of high intensity conflicts such as the ongoing Syrian conflict still see the need for classic humanitarians although more and more resilience within communities is now being seen. Some 35% of natural hazards (classic crises) happen within a high intensity conflict therefore aid responses should be a blend of those delivering conflict aid and those delivering natural hazard aid. During conflict vulnerabilities increase and very often response capacity decrease. While focusing on conflict, it is interesting to note that within the first versions of the Sendai Framework there is no mention of conflict. Prof Hilhorst concluded by confirming that while we continue to work in silos either orientated towards disasters or conflict, the International Humanitarian Studies Association (IHSA) now forms a platform for the different disciplines that address humanitarian studies offering a venue where scholarly communities can meet and debate their different insights and understanding of humanitarian crises, in dialogue with policy actors and implementing agencies.

Prof. Tiago Massoni presented an insightful public health disaster case study beginning in 2014 with the first reported case of Zika virus carried by the Aedes mosquito in Brazil. Mild Zika virus symptoms in 2014 went almost unnoticed until children began to be born with microcephaly linked back to the Zika virus. As of 2017, there were 2,366 reported cases of Congenital Zika Syndrome. The significant human cost, extensive care required for those born with microcephaly and cost to the government in treatment leads this to be classified a disaster. Currently there is a concentration of reported cases in North East Brazil where environmental and social conditions support the spread of the disease. Focus for the rest of the session was placed on the importance of the Community Health Workers (CHW). CHW are funded through the government and tasked with visiting communities to detect and report mosquito infestation. In addition they deliver much needed health education within the poorest communities. As trusted members of the neighbourhood they have a positive impact on the education of those communities. The CHW are able to detect positive cases of the virus and have the ability to map the virus effectively. Challenges for the CHW include having no technology at an operational level to support basic elements of their work this is to lower the risk personal risk to CHW’s working within high crime rate, high poverty areas. Prof. Massoni concluded by suggesting cheap or low grade technology would assist in the gathering and sharing of vital data for future meaningful prediction and mapping of this disease. It was also imperative to maintain motivation amongst the CHW’s to ensure their work continued.

The final part of the session was delivered by Dr Christine Kenney discussing the Sendai Framework for disaster risk reduction. Dr Kenney examined Priority 2 of this framework, (strengthening disaster risk governance to manage disaster risk) and its notion of integrating all sectors, facilitating consultation to develop national and local frameworks for laws and policies that define roles and responsibilities and guide responses. Although synergies already exist, this priority within the Sendai Framework can be recognised as a form of collaborative governance which should be the future. Dr Kenney explored her native New Zealand as a context for how the Sendai Framework may work. Currently the New Zealand Government has a statutory obligation to consult and consider things that are important to Maori. Recent years have seen New Zealand face some major crises including in 2010 and 2011 the Christchurch earthquakes with a rebuild costing upwards of $40 billion and in 2016, the Kaikoura earthquake that was the single most complex seismic event in modern history where 23 faults ruptured along the length of New Zealand. One observation amongst the Maori was the communitarian response to these events with collective and multiple accountabilities. Maori are survivors and an example of resilience where they collectively act for the good of the entire community. Following a review of these events, a proposed structure moving forward will see Maori tribes engaging with local governments. However some pitfalls existing with this proposal highlighted by Dr Kenney are with geographical areas such as the Capital City where a range of Mauri stakeholders occupy the space so inevitably there will be issues of marginalisation of some stakeholder groups with privileging some over others. In conclusion Dr Kenney was clear that there is an appetite to share lessons learnt along the way through the design of this collaborative group to assist other institutions and regions that are looking to move forward in this direction.

Keynote address: “What is Aid For?”

by the Rt Hon. Baroness Frances D’Souza, CMG

The Rt Hon Baroness Frances D'Souza, CMG graduated in anthropology from UCL and obtained a DPhil in biological anthropology from the University of Oxford. From 1973 to 1977 she was a Ford Foundation Fellow at the Wellcome Institute of Reproductive Physiology. She lectured at the London School of Economics, Morley College and the City Lit Institute. From 1977 to 1983 she was a senior lecturer at Oxford Brookes University. Baroness D’Souza founded and directed the International Disaster Institute, based in London, and from 1978-1984 she was Editor of 'Disasters’, the senior journal in the field of disaster risk reduction. She has worked as an independent consultant for UNDP, UNICEF, the Ford Foundation, Operation Hunger (South Africa), FAO, Save the Children and the UK Overseas Development Administration. From 1989 to 1998 she directed the free speech organisation Article 19, and she went on to direct Redress, the anti-torture organisation. Appointed a Life Peer in 2004, she was Convenor of the Cross Benches for the period 2007-2011 and Lord Speaker from 2011 to 2016. Baroness D’Souza has written scientific, human rights and international development papers, articles and reports in the academic field and journalism. In 2016 she was awarded an honorary doctorate by the University of Hull.

Baroness D'Souza's talk addressed the question of how aid may help nations to function better. Considering the characteristics of failing states, what does aid currently do and what capability and potential does it have? Aid often bridges the gap between governments and people. In the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Afghanistan it has been extractive. It has frustrated entrepreneurial initiatives. One reason for this is that there is a fundamental misunderstanding of what actually causes poverty. If government provides infrastructure, most communities will be on the road to growth. In fact, roads are the single most important factor in stimulating growth. Government aid packages and investments should encourage entrepreneurism. We see the emergence of local democratic procedures and evidence-based research on the impact of development. Billions are spent in a hit-or-miss way. The relevance of aid should be assessed on the basis of what works. It is difficult to assess, but long-term evaluation is needed. The larger the development programme, the more difficult it is to predict its outcomes. Effective aid requires as much investment in developing relationships as it does in providing money.

The strategic focus has shifted away from helping the poorest to providing “what serves the national interest”. Under these conditions, impact evaluation is virtually impossible. There has been an alarming growth of a whole industry of private companies delivering aid. Haitian ambassador on aid: “they are surviving despite the aid.” Private sector companies do not invest in research. Long-term impact studies are deferred or defeated by unpredictability. Up to 90 per cent of investment has not reached its intended beneficiaries or served its intended purpose. Some 20 per cent will go to the United Nations, 20 per cent to head office, more to expatriate salaries, and so on.

In conclusion, smaller aid projects work where they support what already exists. The key factors are motivation, ownership and development of the projects in order to make them last. In a world of massive money transfer, bad aid has destructive effects. We need a new consensus on what multilateral aid organisations and institutions are there for. Unless we know what works, we flounder.


Dr Richard Bretton in Conversation with Julian O'Halloran on “Disaster and the Law”

'In conversation' is a session that gives the opportunity for a well-known professional journalist to interview a specialist with an interesting perspective on disaster risk reduction and thus generate a discussion on some of the major issues in the field.

The session commenced with Dr Richard Bretton’s biography where he described his journey, starting as a litigation solicitor specialising in occupational health and safety compliance in 1978, through to his studies in the field of geology and later in volcanology. The discussion then continued with an analysis of a number of key events where people lost their lives in natural disasters.

Dr Bretton examined these events from a lawyer’s perspective, focusing on the human factors that are perceived to have contributed to their outcome and, fundamentally, to the fatalities that occurred. There were a couple of key themes highlighted throughout this discussion. These included the requirements bestowed upon authorities through Human Rights laws to take appropriate measures to mitigate known risks, the right to life from natural hazards and points of negligence from authorities and field experts. These are not defined into a given set of rules but are open to judgement and have to do with the extent which authorities are perceived to have done everything reasonably practicable to mitigate risks and preserve life. This will also have to do with the extent and accuracy of information that is provided in relation to natural hazards and any other physical measures taken to mitigate risk and safeguard communities.

Dr Bretton explained that most enquiries will look at what happened. This is the examination of facts. Once these have been ascertained then a review of what should have happened will ensue. This is usually the point at which experts are required to provide evidence and will potentially determine a shift in the burden of proof. A comparison between what happened and what should have happened will then take place and where discrepancies are identified, a prosecution is likely to result.

Dr Bretton initiated an interesting discussion around the extent that experts, scientists and others should continue to provide information when they are unsure of the answers and when these are no longer supported by factual evidence. He argued that field experts should be able to say that they do not know the answers to questions when facts are no longer clear and that a complex process is created when they continue to speak beyond points of fact. Where this occurs there is a risk of turning a response into something that people simply want to hear. However, when people suffer loses (for example, of loved ones or property), they want someone to be held accountable and seek punishment or retribution. Where misleading statements have been made on the basis of simply providing a response beyond points of fact, then accountabilities will be sought. This was very much the case in L’Aquila where following the earthquake, the Italian government brought criminal proceedings against seven members of the Italian National Commission for the Forecast and Prevention of Major Risks (NCFPMR) comprising 6 scientists and one ex-government official who were accused of providing inconsistent and misleading advice in the 6 days leading up to the main earthquake.

It was stated that the overall impression that was given by the NCFPMR was that communities were safe to return to their homes and that there was not going to be a further earthquake. Subsequent evidence demonstrated that it is likely that some 300 people would have acted differently if more accurate information has been provided and would potentially have survived.

Dr Bretton pointed out that L’Aquila is not a unique case. He referred to a similar event that occurred in Chile where, following an 8.8 Richter earthquake in 2010, the Chilean Navy failed to provide early warning of a tsunami that crashed into the Juan Fernández islands in the Pacific Ocean, killing at least eight people and leaving another eight missing. It was stated that early warning would have allowed residents of the local fishing villages’ time to move to higher ground and subsequently survive the massive wave. The Chilean Navy admitted that they had made errors and were sued to for damages amounting to many thousands of U.S. dollars.

Similarly, in Monserrat in 1997, a pyroclastic flow following a volcanic eruption that killed 19 people was an event of much controversy. Though residents were indeed removed from their homes and exclusions zones put in place, many failed to leave, which resulted in them dying. There is fine balance here that needs to be examined; In the case of Monserrat, even though measures were taken by the local authorities, these might not have been appropriate as many people failed to leave their homes fearing that they would have nowhere else to go.

Questions then arise as to whether enough was actually done to facilitate the needs of the local people in order to effectively mitigate the risk. The verdict following a two month enquiry found that all the deaths were caused by the volcanic eruption, but said in nine cases the failure of both the local and UK authorities to find alternative land for displaced farmers contributed.

Further to the above, comment was made to a phreatic eruption that occurred on Mount Ontake in Japan in 2014, that killed 63 people, mainly hikers, saw families suing the local prefecture and meteorological service on the grounds of not providing early enough, or sufficient, warning to restrict public access to the Mountain. Dr Bretton argued that though accurate predictions were highly unlikely, the fundamental principles determining the adequacy of measures will need to be proven against whether the measures taken to mitigate risks and preserve life were appropriate and whether more could have been done. Similar was the case following the mudslides in 1999 and 2000 in Russia where the court recognised that there is an international standard for protecting people against natural hazards for which regional governments did nothing about. As such, the requirement bestowed upon authorities by human rights laws introduces a difficult challenge to overcome where duties are imposed under these regulations and where one must demonstrate that every possible measure was taken to mitigate known risks.

Following on from these examples, Dr Bretton stated that it is commonly believed that most risks would be regulated at a national level and that 10 years ago it would be presumed that international legislation had nothing to do with regional events. However, a Chemical factory incident in Bhopal, India, in 1984 that led to 3500 fatalities saw persistent struggles by the people of India for over a decade and a half for justice. Despite this disaster being man-made, the long and difficult battles paid off and demonstrated that, indeed, International legislation has a role to play in regional events and that the human rights stipulated therein recognise no boundaries or borders.

A question was later asked regarding Dr Bretton’s perception of human errors in the Grenfell fire tragedy. Though Dr Bretton was reluctant to provide an opinion, simply due to the ongoing investigation process that has not yet provided definitive conclusions, he did make comment on the questions that would need to be examined such as; what is the legal regime in which this fire could occur? Does fire safety legislation apply and what shortfalls can be identified? Was the legal regime holistically adequate? Who were the key players in the Grenfell tragedy? He further stated that it is likely that there are reasonable grounds to hold both the council and the managing agent responsible for corporate manslaughter.

From the audience, Professor David Alexander then pointed out that, in his experience, issues contributing the L’Aquila case were also as a result of corruption and the arrogance that comes out of corruption. He identified that much of the legal process will depend on root causes but asked Dr Bretton to what extent legal processes can, in fact, identify root causes? Dr Bretton responded that law should be used in a proactive way and that the best way for creating resilience is through normal sectoral laws around land use, property rights, building codes, legal processes of accountability, anti-corruption campaigns and so on. Lastly, in his closing comments, Dr Bretton stated that the provision of information is critical in order to allow for informed decision making, or informed consent. He further stated that we have not worked out what the outcome of hazard communication is and though there are considerable difficulties in anticipating how, for example, a volcano that has been dormant for 200 years will react, there are other hazards and risks that acquire greater responsibility as they are more visible and not dealt with. He finally added that money is not spent on prevention which will significantly impact on the way risk and disaster reduction is subsequently managed.