Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Thoughts on Disasters

I have been thinking a lot lately about disaster and more specifically about disaster reduction.

For many years I taught chemical safety to (mainly) engineers. There are of course many connections between safety and disaster reduction. But I think the most important of these is what I call "safety culture". That is getting people to be aware of the hazards around them. An example of this is that when I enter a laboratory I instinctively look for the location of fire extinguishers, exits, etc. Most people would not do that since they have not been "immersed" into a safety culture.

The same thing applies to disasters. People need to be aware of their surroundings and what hazards may be present, both local and regional. This includes the physical state, by which I mean the conditions of buildings, the location of buildings (for example, in a flood plain or too close to the sea), etc. It also includes the weather and how that affects hazards (such as flash floods).

A recent report by the UN's International Strategy for Disaster Reduction (ISDR), pointed out that very little has been done in the areas of land-use planning and building codes.

My experience with planning is that local people must be involved with the action. Otherwise big land owners, who usually do not live in the area, gain too big an influence. They are usually interested in building buildings to gain a profit. So, for example, they may build a hotel too close to the shore simply because they think that will bring in more tourists.

Similar things occur with building codes. Even though in this case it is often an enforcement problem. In other words, the regulations are there, but they are not followed. Here the influential owners simply can get away with not having to follow rules. For example, Thailand had a major fire at a department store owned by one of the richest and most powerful families in the country. Despite the law requiring it to by completely removed, the owner was allowed to use the burned out structure.

The other thing mentioned in the ISDR report is the use of early warning in the case of climatic hazards. My observation is that they weather departments (at least in tropical asia) are not very good at doing their real job. Yes, the may do a good job at collecting weather information and data, but when it gets to providing information to the public or other agencies they are very poor. I once heard a forecast that the weather would be "cool. cold in the North, and colder in the mountains" -- no temperatures were given. (For anybody living in temperate climates, 18 degrees C is considered cold in Thailand :-) )

The other thing related to weather is the understanding of the dangers that severe weather can create. Recently there was heavy rain in Southern Thailand in an area near a dam. Some tourists wanted to go to a cave located in a national park. They were warned by the park rangers, but the boat drivers who take tourist to the cave insisted on going. They were all trapped in the cave when the water started to rise. Most were drowned. The park rangers should have completely closed the cave (it was closed after the incident) and prevent the boat drivers from going.

So much of what I see happenning is relying too much on technology or on the wrong type of technology. For example, in response to the 2004 Asian tsunami the Thai government put up warning sirens on beaches (which I was told mostly don't work), but the government have done no action on planning or building standards. And this is exactly what the ISDR has shown to be the trend in most of the world.

Technology can give early warnings but if no action is then taken the warnings are meaningless. And much more work needs to be done on using technology to improve building standards. In Asia at least, some of all that economic growth needs to be channelled into improving disaster reduction.

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