Thursday, 31 March 2011

The Role of Geologists in Humanitarian Emergency Response

As reported on Monday, a review into the UK’s response to humanitarian emergencies has been conducted by Lord (Paddy) Ashdown and released yesterday. The review outlines ways in which the UK can improve its response to such emergencies, and anticipate such emergencies. Incorporating these into the core of DFID’s work is crucial – making sure their development work and humanitarian assistance are integrated. 

The report highlights seven threads to the approach needed to be adopted including:

1.   A more anticipatory approach – using science to aid in the prediction of and preparation for such emergencies. It is important to be preparing for disasters as well as reacting to them (including equipping at-risk governments/civil society with the means to act).

2.   Resilience – working with local people to strengthen the community’s capacity to be resilient to an event. This was highlighted as an area that needs to become much more central to DFIDs development activities. Resilience will mean the damage is less lasting and communities can recover more quickly.

The report cites an interesting example where Mozambique asked in 2006 for £2million pounds to invest in preparing for the impacts of floods – which it could not receive. Soon after, the international community had to spend £60million pounds responding to a flood season

3.   Improve the strategic, operational and political leadership of the international humanitarian system, including pushing for reform within the UN’s response procedures.

4.    Innovate to become more efficient and effective – using the best of new technologies and science, new processes and practices, and new ideas from those affected. More investment needs to happen in research and evidence.

5.   Increase transparency and accountability towards both donor and host country populations. More conversation needs to occur between donors and communities to ascertain exactly what they need, how they can be helped and who can help them. Vulnerable people can often be overlooked. On the flip side, measuring the impacts of resources is a key way to ensure accountability to donors.

6.   Create new humanitarian partnerships to allow DFID to better influence and work within an increasingly complex humanitarian system. The need for multilateral work in this area is crucial, and while DFID is commended for adopting this approach it suggests they should work to enable new partnerships with emerging nations, NGOs, faith groups etc

7.   Defend and strengthen the humanitarian space – humanitarian workers should be granted access and protection as they give assistance in areas affected by conflict. DFID should work with agencies that can access and help those in need and humanitarian aid should not be politicised.

Over the past couple of years we have witnessed some awful natural disasters that have required significant humanitarian assistance. Earthquakes have rocked developing countries such as Haiti, as well as more developed countries such as Chile, New Zealand and Japan. Floods have been catastrophic in Pakistan, and Australia, and large landslides and flooding have hit Brazil. The way in which the UK responds to such disasters – especially in developing countries where the effects disproportionately affect the population is very important. The UK is the second largest bilateral global humanitarian donor, although in terms of its percentage of GNI trails behind a number of countries.

The results of the Humanitarian Emergency Response Review are broadly welcomed. As developing countries are urbanising, vulnerability to disaster is in many ways increasing and steps need to be taken to ensure the international community’s response to disasters matures, as well as the anticipation of disasters and building of resilience develops.

Geologists have a very important role to play in the factors of anticipation, resilience and innovation.

ANTICIPATION: In disasters such as earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, floods, landslides etc – geologists study the science of how they occur and can use their skills to understand and recognise vulnerable areas. While prediction is not always possible, understanding of vulnerable areas, frequency and magnitude can be understood to a certain degree

For example: The study of palaeoseismology can provide information on the frequency of historical earthquakes and their magnitude. This information can help inform governments and civil societies to prepare. The UK for example knows to expect earthquakes up to approximately magnitude 6 following the M5.3-5.9 earthquake in the late 1500’s (although this size is extremely rare (See here for more info on UK Seismic Hazard). In Chile, they must prepare for earthquakes significantly bigger than this, at Magnitude 9 or greater.

Data for some hazardous areas can be significant, but often in developing countries the data is gathered at a much slower rate, and so is less sizeable, as governments can invest less in their own monitoring and evaluation programmes. Geologists can play a major role in building up knowledge of the mechanisms of hazards, their appearance in history and the likely impacts of the hazard.  

RESILIENCE: Building resilience to minimise the damage of the hazard is another area of humanitarian work that geologists can play a crucial role in. The education of communities to understand how hazards are triggered can help people recognise the warning signs for a number of hazards. Understanding the relationship between landslides and water can help communities construct simple drainage mechanisms, avoid the undercutting of slopes and ensure deforestation doesn’t occur on vulnerable slopes. Understanding the relationship between earthquakes and tsunami’s was not understood by many communities in the tragic 2004 Boxing Day tsunami in Indonesia, understanding the risk of a tsunami following an earthquake can give communities that vital extra time to move inland. Education can involve a community led, participatory approach in order to build a sustainable programme.

As well as education, improving physical structures can develop resilience. Geologists can play a major role in identifying which areas of the city are must vulnerable and how resilience methods can change from place to place. The types of buildings required to withstand earthquakes will differ from one rock-type to another for example.   

INNOVATION:  With regards to innovation, geologists are doing various pieces of research, and must do more, to improve the understanding and preparation for humanitarian emergencies. Geologists and other scientists must work closely with social scientists in order to develop and improve better risk assessments for developing countries – including the development of multi-hazard risk assessments. Research into the effects of global climate change at a local scale, and mitigating any risks, is fundamental research to be collated, as is how increased urbanisation will impact the consequences of disasters.

The response DFID gives to this review, and the speed at which they respond, will be very interesting. DFID must take seriously the importance of Disaster Risk Reduction, and the economic benefits of it, and ensure it is integrate into the core of its work. The crucial role that scientists can play in this sector must also be recognised further – not only in terms of health and agriculture – but also with regards to geology and engineering.