Category: Disaster Risk Reduction

Puerto Rico’s brutal way to hurricane recovery

Puerto Rico’s brutal way to hurricane recovery

By Lauren Lluveras, University of Texas at Austin

The United States had already seen its share of disasters, from back-to-back hurricanes that devastated Texas, Florida and the U.S. Virgin Islands to roaring wildfires in the West. Then, after battering the rest of the Caribbean, Hurricane Maria left the island of Puerto Rico facing a humanitarian crisis. About a dozen people died in the Sept. 21 storm and the island was plunged into darkness. Now, some 3.4 million Puerto Ricans – which is to say, 3.4 million American citizens – are confronting life without electricity, gas, cellular service and, in many cases, a home.

After a decade of fiscal decline and a May 2017 bankruptcy, Puerto Rico has become exceptionally vulnerable to disasters like Maria. As both a policy analyst and the daughter of Puerto Rican immigrants, I’m concerned about how austerity-related reforms are now threatening the survival of not just my family there but everyone on the island. Though food insecurity, poor health care and resource-starved public transit all predate the hurricane, the result of both damaging U.S. policy and deepening financial crisis, these three problems will dramatically complicate Puerto Rico’s recovery.

Food insecurity

Because Puerto Rico imports over 85 percent of its food, food security on the island has always been fragile. The U.S. territory has been rationing supplies since Hurricane Irma in early September, but according to Puerto Rico’s former secretary of agriculture, it may have just one month’s worth of food on hand.

Puerto Rico’s main port reopened Sept. 23, allowing 11 ships to begin arriving with aid and resources, including clean water and food. Even so, distributing supplies across the 3,515-square-mile island will prove difficult on roadways damaged by flooding, debris and downed power lines.

Puerto Rico’s food supply is also uncertain given that several islands from which it imports food, including the Dominican Republic, Dominica and St. Martin, were also hit hard. And if the island goes without power for up to six months, the shelf life of the meat, vegetables, fruit and other staples of the traditionally fresh Puerto Rican diet will be awfully short.

This is the U.S. territory’s second food shortage in recent years. When a Puerto Rico-bound cargo vessel, El Faro, sank during Hurricane Joaquin in 2015, residents spent months in strife as the government struggled to develop a plan that ensured everyone had enough to eat.

Prior to World War II, Puerto Rico actually had an agricultural economy, producing and exporting sugar cane, tobacco and citrus fruits. But, post-war industrialization and growing stigma around farm work led to a downturn. Today, the island can’t feed its populace or compete with developed countries’ agribusiness and cheap prices.

In response, Puerto Rico has made an effort to grow domestic food production, which has increased 24 percent in the past five years. But Maria’s winds and floodwaters demolished these gains in bananas, plantains, coffee, dairy and corn production. Roughly 80 percent of Puerto Rico’s crop value just vanished over night, a loss of approximately US$780 million.

Poor health care

Puerto Rico had poor health care before Hurricanes Irma and Maria, but the storms will exacerbate this desperate situation, too. Ravaged by austerity, hospitals and other health care facilities saw their budgets cut by 15 percent from 2011 to 2015. Countless public clinics across the island closed during the past year, while four hospitals have filed for bankruptcy.

The island is also short on health care professionals, with 72 percent of Puerto Rico’s 78 municipalities deemed “medically underserved.”

This deficient system will face grave challenges in providing medical care to Puerto Ricans injured during and after the storm. Serious cuts and broken bones are extremely common following hurricanes, as are heat-related and infectious illnesses.

Loss of power may also lead to the worsening of illnesses for residents with such chronic conditions as diabetes, heart disease, psychiatric disorders and HIV whose medications require refrigeration. My own abuela (grandmother), a diabetic who began having mild cardiac episodes last year, is one Puerto Rican among thousands in this situation.

These domestic barriers to medical care are magnified by the ongoing debate around health care in the U.S. Even though Puerto Rico residents are more likely to be poor, elderly and diagnosed with a chronic illness than the general population, caps to Medicaid reimbursements have forced several hospitals on the island to cut services, close wings, leave positions unfilled and reduce employee hours and pay.

In the wake of this natural disaster, experts expect Puerto Rico’s hospitals to be overburdened, especially in San Juan and other metropolitan areas, where most medical facilities are located. In recent days, Gov. Ricardo Roselló has resorted to retweeting information about which hospitals are open and receiving patients.

Transportation shortages

Many Puerto Ricans will not be able to reach help, though. Upwards of 45 percent of the population lives in poverty and an estimated 35,000 riders depend daily on public transit to get around.

With a limited budget, an aging infrastructure and too few vehicles to support the island’s population, however, the transit authority has been struggling to meet needs. The agency underwent austerity-related budget cuts in 2015, operating at a deficit until, finally, in May 2017, it filed for bankruptcy.

This history has complicated evacuation efforts. Locals were puzzled at the “leave or die” warnings sent to Isabela residents on Sept. 23 when a large crack in the Guajataca dam threatened to flood surrounding areas. How, exactly, were they supposed to leave? And how could they get out on roadways long since rendered impassable?

As rescue and recovery efforts continue, transportation shortages have effectively left many residents reachable only by helicopter.

People across the island are already suffering the consequences. One family – Irees Gonzalez Collazo, 74, and her two sisters, Carmen, 73, and Sara, 72, of Utaudo municipality – exemplifies the cascading effect of this tragedy. All three women had immobilizing health complications and, unable to evacuate, were killed on Sept. 24 when a mudslide buried the home where they rested.

An American humanitarian crisis

If the situation in Puerto Rico seems dire, that’s because it is. People on the island will face seemingly insurmountable problems in nearly every aspect of their lives for months to come.

The Trump administration, which has thus far demonstrated a notable lack of concern for the island, could provide some urgent disaster relief by responding Gov. Rosselló’s request for increased aid for law enforcement and transportation, among other basic needs.

The U.S. Congress could also play a role in the territory’s longer-term recovery. Increasing the island’s Medicaid funding, for example, would save lives in this critical time and free up some of the territory’s scarce funds for other purposes.

While FEMA picked up the pace of aid five days after the storm, few Puerto Ricans anticipate that they’ll see the kind of “historic” federal disaster relief sent to Texas and Florida after hurricanes Harvey and Irma.

The ConversationFortunately, Puerto Rico has a culture of resilience. Since the storm, residents have stepped up to help, feed and shelter one another. If the U.S. federal government won’t save Puerto Rico, we Puerto Ricans will.

Lauren Lluveras, Post Doctoral Fellow at the Institute for Urban Policy Research and Analysis, University of Texas at Austin
This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.
 Puerto Rico National Guard photo by Sgt. Jose Ahiram Diaz-Ramos: Puerto Rican residents walk in flooded streets in Condado, San Juan, Puerto Rico, Sept. 22, 2017, following Hurricane Maria.
From floods to disease, disaster risk rises in surging African cities

From floods to disease, disaster risk rises in surging African cities

By Laurie Goering, Thomas Reuters Foundation

Residents of Karonga, a lakeside city of about 60,000 in northern Malawi, face no shortage of risks. Flooding is an annual problem that’s worsening with climate change and poor maintenance of the channels that carry out the excess water. Only 17 percent of households have piped water, and half of people use water tainted with sewage, leading to cholera and other disease deaths. But the worst challenge facing the fast-growing city – which records everything from crocodile attack to sexual assault as regular problems – is that there’s no real city government.

Instead, the community operates under the authority of an outdated rural council that is “lacking in transparency and unable to cope with the complex nature of Karonga urban life”, according to a report by Urban Africa Risk Knowledge, a British aid-funded programme focused on helping fast-urbanising sub-Saharan Africa reduce its growing risks. “There are no systems present in small centres” like Karonga, said Mtafu Manda, a researcher with Malawi’s Mzuzu University and the lead author of the report. “Or if they exist, it is only on paper.”

Disaster risks are arguably rising faster in sub-Saharan Africa than anywhere else, said Arabella Fraser, a risk and resilience researcher at the London-based Overseas Development Institute (ODI). That’s in part the result of surging urban populations, a quickening pace of climate-related problems – such as flooding and drought – and an inability to beat back those risks because of poverty, poor data, lack of training and badly run government, she said at a discussion held at ODI on Thursday. But plenty of ideas are emerging about how growing African cities can cut their risks.

Among them: organise slum dwellers to improve the infrastructure or simply sort out which risks are the key ones, and focus on those first, experts at the discussion said. These days, “one of the most difficult jobs in the world is being an African mayor,” said Meggan Spires of the International Council for Local Environmental Initiatives (ICLEI), which is based in Cape Town. “The challenges are vast, complex and immediate, and many are day to day,” said Spires, who formerly worked on climate change issues for the South African city of Durban. Finding time to deal with demands to be proactive and work toward greater sustainability – in line with international agreements like the Sustainable Development Goals or the Paris Agreement on climate change – is a heavy burden, she said.

One thing that can help, she said, is ensuring that efforts to build urban resilience are not just short-term, donor-funded projects but are based on community demand and then built into city plans, often with innovative funding. Donors aiming to improve resilience in Africa need to “be humble and recognise that Africans know their cities best. We should listen to them rather than imposing solutions on them.”

Turning to the slums

One way to get effective change underway is to harness organisations of slum dwellers, who make up large parts of the population in many African cities, said David Satterthwaite, an urban specialist with the London-based International Institute for Environment and Development. About 18 slum dweller federations have formed in Africa, with about 15 of them collecting data door to door on everything from healthcare to schools, drainage to eviction threats.

Satterthwaite called it “an information base that provides a new possibility for local governments…to form, drive and implement new risk-reduction efforts.” One thing that’s clear from data already collected in cities such as Tanzania’s Dar es Salaam, for instance, is that health threats kill many more people each year than floods, even though residents see those as the biggest risk, he said. That means investments in things like sanitation systems and clean water may have the biggest payoff – though getting funding can be tough when donors focus on climate change adaptation or disaster risk reduction efforts, Satterthwaite said.

Manda, of Malawi, said keeping politics in mind is also key to making progress in Africa’s cities – and small cities have the toughest challenges of all, he said. Political leaders “don’t think about the small towns, partially because they don’t live there but also because they want to benefit from the chaos”, he said. “When there is a disaster, when they go there as some kind of saviour, they are seen to be very good,” he said. “And because of that, the risks in these small towns will escalate.”


Reporting by Laurie Goering @lauriegoering; editing by Lyndsay Griffiths. Credit: Zilient, an initiative of The Rockefeller Foundation, the Thomson Reuters Foundation, Blue State Digital and OnFrontiers. All rights reserved. Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, climate change, resilience, women’s rights, trafficking and property rights. Visit
Cover photo by Paul Saad (CC BY  NC-ND 2.0): Durban, South Africa.
What Freetown’s mudslide teaches us about urban climate resilience

What Freetown’s mudslide teaches us about urban climate resilience

By Caroline Fouvet

Floods can have large-scale and devastating consequences. The mudslide that happened in Freetown, Sierra Leone, several weeks ago is a striking example of urban devastation. Over 1,000 people lost their life after days of torrential rains collapsed a hillside in Regent, 15 miles east of Freetown. In August, Sierra Leone received as much rainfall as Canada does in a year. Exploring the causes of this tragedy provides a basis to grasp the challenges posed by rapid urbanisation and climate change.

Sierra Leone belongs to Sub-Saharan Africa, which is one of the world’s fastest urbanising regions, triggered by strong population growth, 2.2% per year in Sierra Leone, and rural flight. In their search for better infrastructure and economic opportunities, Sierra Leoneans converge toward Freetown, where they try to settle. Consequently, capital cities such as Freetown are quickly sprawling, at the expense of their inhabitants’ safety.

However, the capital’s expansion leads to more constructions, which are often illegal and built on hazardous land that is vulnerable to weather impacts. Deforestation is an exacerbating factor for landslide risk, since trees and forests have an important role in preventing them, “not only by reinforcing and drying soils but also in directly obstructing smaller slides and rock falls”, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization. Moreover, the population was not prepared to face a mudslide, that had previously never occurred at this location.

As climate change will compound extreme weather events, vulnerable urban areas are increasingly exposed. In developing countries, urban resilience and risk management measures are necessary to avoid wider socioeconomic inequalities. In Freetown for instance, wealthier residents can afford to move to higher altitudes while already economically deprived inhabitants are left exposed to the floods’ consequences.

Preparing cities to extreme weather events would enable to avoid large-scale catastrophes like the one that struck Freetown this summer. The Mayors’ Task Force on Climate Change suggests several leads on this issue, and highlights that local governments “play a vital role in financing and managing basic infrastructure”, and should mainstream risk reduction into  urban  management. Early warning and evacuation procedures for example should be implemented and could drastically lower the number of casualties.

 Cover photo by David Hond (CC BY 2.0): Aerial view of Freetown, Sierra Leone, a helicopter expedition to Lungii airport, over the Freetown Harbour.
Why social media apps should be in your disaster kit

Why social media apps should be in your disaster kit

By Daniel P. Aldrich, Northeastern University and Courtney M. Page, Northeastern University

With floodwaters at four feet and rising, a family in Houston, Texas abandoned their possessions and scrambled to their roof during Hurricane Harvey to sit with their pets and await rescue. Unable to reach first responders through 911 and with no one visible nearby, they used their cellphones to send out a call for help through a social media application called Nextdoor.

Within an hour a neighbor arrived in an empty canoe large enough to carry the family and their pets to safety. Thanks to a collaboration with Nextdoor, we learned of this and hundreds of similar rescues across Harvey’s path.

This story illustrates the power of systems like Nextdoor, an app designed to make communication between neighbors easy. Survivors in Houston have been using social media platforms such as Facebook, Nextdoor and Twitter to connect to rescuers, organize food and medical supplies, and find places for people to stay.

These stories support our findings showing that social ties can save lives during disasters. They demonstrate why social media platforms should have pride of place among our preparations for and initial assessments of disaster damage.

When first responders are out of reach

Everyone knows that they should have batteries and three days of water and food on hand as extreme weather events roll through. But in our view, friends and social media platforms reachable by phone are equally important, because they could be lifesavers.

Many people assume that standard emergency services – such as the 911 system, police, firefighters and FEMA – will rescue them from disasters. While these are critical services during normal times, they can become literally and figuratively swamped during major hurricanes and floods, as we saw in Houston during Harvey. Firefighters and police officers cannot respond to every phone call. In some cases, emergency call response centers have shut down or have become unreachable because of damaged communications systems.

In past disasters around the world, our research has shown that the actual first responders in the immediate aftermath have often been neighbors, family and friends. Under such conditions, social ties – the connections to our friends, family, neighbors and acquaintances – can save our lives, mitigate the damage from storms like Irma and Harvey and fast-track recovery.

Neighbors help each other find safety in the wake of Hurricane Harvey

People to lean on

We know from studies of many disasters around the world that tighter connections help vulnerable people get through what can be lethal conditions. Neighbors can be a first line of defense, as we saw in Houston when neighbors formed a human chain to block floodwaters while others guided a woman in labor to the bed of a dump truck (the only vehicle available) and delivered her to a local hospital.

While we are constantly bombarded with information from television, radio and newspapers – especially when a major storm is approaching – we tend to act on information that we trust. The governor of Florida has urged residents in Irma’s path to evacuate, but for many Floridians, hearing the same message from relatives or friends may be what triggers action.

After disasters end and recovery begins, social ties can help keep us anchored to a home or business. Victims may face long waits for insurance payouts, if they are lucky enough to have insurance, or have to make decisions about restoring homes and businesses in disaster areas. They also must confront the psychological challenge of returning to places associated with hurt and loss. Having a circle of friends and neighbors can make them more likely to return and mitigate some of the trauma they have experienced.

Apps prove their worth

Social media is a tremendous resource for harnessing social networks and putting them to work during and after disasters. Facebook and Nextdoor have both demonstrated their usefulness during recent catastrophes. A recent study found that following the 2014 Napa Valley earthquake, online engagement and utilization of social media platforms for good occurred in communities with higher levels of social cohesion. We believe that individuals who are socially active on the ground – volunteering, helping neighbors, giving blood – are similarly active through social media.

In Houston, members have used Nextdoor to share prayers and information on road closures, obtain medical care and protect homes from looting. Local agencies including the Harris and Houston County emergency management offices, Harris County Sheriff’s Office and Houston Police Department have used Nextdoor to post mandatory evacuation orders, links to flood maps, lists of open shelters, instructions on connecting with first responders for rescues if needed and calls for volunteers with boats to help individuals who are stranded.

Now Florida residents are using Nextdoor to encourage people to reach out to neighbors, especially the elderly and infirm, discuss evacuation plans and find stores that still have supplies. Nearly 50 agencies have used Nextdoor to share information on preparing for supply shortages, rain, storm surges and high winds.

On September 6, Facebook activated its Safety Check feature for Hurricane Irma, allowing its members in her path to indicate if they need help and enabling users to check on friends’ and relatives’ status. To use Safety Check, start here.

The ConversationIf you’re in the path of a hurricane, of course you should move to high ground, bring batteries and hunker down in a safe location with food and water. But don’t forget your phone, and consider using Nextdoor and Facebook through the storm and recovery. Even if you can’t see them, you’re surrounded by a community that cares.


Daniel P. Aldrich, Professor of Political Science, Public Policy and Urban Affairs and Director, Security and Resilience Program, Northeastern University and Courtney M. Page, Ph.D. Candidate, Northeastern University. This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.
Cover photo by Rami Al-zayat on Unsplash.
Floods spearhead disaster-related displacement worldwide

Floods spearhead disaster-related displacement worldwide

By Caroline Fouvet

In 2017, flooding has so far been the main disaster to cause large-scale displacement of populations. Cyclones, typhoons and torrential rains forced 4.5 million people out of their home, with over two million people having to flee as a direct result of devastating flood events. The situation spreads across the globe, as the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre (IDMC) presents in a list of affected countries that range from China to Peru and the United States. Usually, high human and economic costs are also main consequences of floods. Looking at the vulnerabilities and resulting challenges, it appears that flood-induced displacements are linked to various factors and raise new legal and health concerns.

First, the occurrence of seasonal weather events leading to floods, such as monsoons, depends on the location of some countries. This, at least partly, explains why almost half of the displacements due to natural disasters took place in East Asia according to IDMC. Developed countries in the northern hemisphere aren’t spared either by those phenomena, as the current hurricane season in the US is showing, but also back in 2005 when Katrina wreaked havoc.

In addition to seasonal events, the location of low-lying regions increases their vulnerability to flooding resulting from storm surges or overflowing rivers. In Peru for instance, where 293,000 were displaced this year following record rainfalls, about half a million people live in flood plains. This makes the population even more at-risk of being forced out of their dwelling.

As climate change makes extreme weather events even more powerful and wetter, people living in such areas are likely to be more exposed to flooding and, without increased resilience measures, to be permanently displaced.

IDMC, 2017:

Socioeconomic vulnerabilities also factor in when assessing a population’s risk of being displaced due to floods. High population density, inadequate infrastructure and lack of access to basic services put people in an even more precarious situation when flooding occurs. As poorest communities are often located in disaster-prone areas, given that they often cannot afford safer housing in more expensive zones, they are the main victims of floods and forced to relocate to similarly exposed places. Moreover, floods impact on vital economic sectors such as tourism, agriculture or fisheries and can pull out people from their place of residency as they lose their livelihoods. In Sri Lanka, the Food and Agriculture Organization already raised the alarm on this year’s flood impact on rice production, which is expected to drop by almost 40%.

As flooding pushes people far from their home, whether on a temporary or permanent basis, what are the implications and upcoming challenges to be faced? It seems that in a first time, new legal matters are to be considered since internally displaced people (IDP) currently do not benefit from an official status. The case of IDPs is often discussed in conflict situations but “disaster IDPs” also need a wider legal acknowledgement to guarantee their human rights and decent living conditions within the borders of their country.

Besides legal issues, the health of displaced people is likely to draw broader scrutiny as research shows that displacements provoked by natural disasters, in particular flooding, directly impacts mental health. According to a study, “housing is important to mental health and unsatisfactory living conditions could contribute to psychological stress and increase the likelihood of mental health disorders”. Early warning systems would alleviate the shock of flood-triggered displacements and have a positive impact on people’s long-term mental health.

Compounded by climate change, disasters resulting in large-scale flooding will continue to occurr regularly. Both developing and developed countries will be affected, thus amplifying internal population displacements. Addressing their vulnerabilities and the arising challenges could be a starting point to increase their resilience and face the consequences of environmental migration.

Cover photo by Dean Moriarty/Pixabay (public domain): Children rowing a boat through flooded streets in Thailand.
Europe prepares for increasingly large wildfires

Europe prepares for increasingly large wildfires

By Caroline Fouvet

The onset of summer correlates with increasingly large scale wildfires. In Europe, Spain and Portugal recently suffered from considerable blazes that took the lives of more than 60 people and devastated thousands of hectares. In the US, the situation is equally worrying as California is currently struggling with 14 simultaneous fires covering thousands of acres.

While summer wildfires are common in drought-stricken areas and under scorching temperatures, climate change is likely to compound the phenomenon and to bring it to a heightened level. A recent study by the universities of Idaho and Columbia points that anthropogenic climate change has contributed to doubling forest fire areas between 1984 and 2015 in the US, which accounts for the loss of an additional 4.2 million hectares.

Hot temperatures combined with droughts provide the perfect breeding ground for fires to spread, as they turn vegetation into kindling. The study’s authors also suggest that other climate-related phenomena could exacerbate the expansion of blazes such as more frequent lightning strikes, spread of tree pests and reduced spring soil moisture due to earlier snowmelt. The situation is similar in southern Europe where Spanish and Portuguese scientists link climate change effects to increased wildfire intensity. According to their estimates, forest fires could triple by 2075 as models predict a 2 to 3-degree temperature increase for summer months along with a 25%-decrease in precipitations.

Wildfires entail a strong societal cost, in addition to the immediate casualties and evacuation they provoke. Mobilising firefighters and airtankers requires authorities to allocate a large share of public money to this purpose. In 2015, the American federal government spent federal government alone spent more than $2.1 billion on firefighting.

Moreover, wildfires also have detrimental effects on people’s health since they increase particle matter in the air. In turn, air pollution contributes to respiratory diseases, cardiac issues, low birth rates and even premature deaths. Particles travel long distances and a localised wild fire can hence affect cities located far away.

Last but not least, climate-induced wild fires also exacerbate climate change as they release carbon in the air that adds up to the greenhouse gases (GHG) already present. The 2016 fires in Fort McMurray, Canada, released the equivalent of 5% of Canada’s annual GHG emissions. As such, the issue of wildfires illustrates that not only the industry, transportation and power sectors contribute to global warming, but that climate-induced phenomena can worsen the situation as well.

As increasingly hot summers are likely to become recurrent in the coming years, large-scale blazes and their far-reaching consequences will ensue. Enhanced preparedness such as effective fire proofing measures and forest management could then help to both adapt to and mitigate climate change.

The full study is available at PNAS Online, click here to read it.
Cover photo by US Bureau of Land Management (CC BY 2.0).
Using narratives to improve the communication and collaboration between climate change adaptation and disaster risk reduction

Using narratives to improve the communication and collaboration between climate change adaptation and disaster risk reduction

By Julia Bentz (Faculty of Sciences of the University of Lisbon), Ingrid Coninx (Wageningen Environmental Research), Gabriela Michalek (Helmholtz Centre for Environmental Research)


An initiative that supports coordination between climate change adaptation (CCA) and disaster risk reduction (DRR) across Europe, is using the power of narratives to help change the way people think about risk preparedness. The PLACARD project, part of the EU’s ‘Horizon 2020’ research and innovation programme has established a knowledge exchange platform and hopes to break down the barriers between the CCA and DRR communities of practice.

One major obstacle to collaboration between CCA and DRR is ineffective communication between the two communities. Efforts that can contribute to a better understanding and the definition of a common goal are needed to close this gap and engage the communities to work together. But how do we best communicate about disasters and adaptation to projected climate change impacts? What words, formats and techniques do we use to increase engagement, ownership and collaboration of institutions and communities that formerly worked separately?

Social psychology studies have shown that the way we frame things, the stories or narratives we tell, have a deep impact on our belief system and can create or hinder a community´s agency and collaboration. In the case of CCA and DRR, different stories have been told and consequently the two concepts have developed in separate ways. CCA research tends to start with an understanding of the medium and longer-term implications of future climate change and climate-driven extreme events. In contrast, DRR measures are often conceived on the basis of addressing existing risks and includes geological and technological hazards.

Despite the different approaches and framings, there exists the common interest between CCA and DRR to reduce negative impacts of climate change and disasters, on the natural environment, human society and economies by anticipating risks and uncertainties and addressing vulnerabilities. However, each field addresses this topic through different organisations and institutions, and with different time horizons, research methods, and policy frameworks. This can lead to poorly integrated strategies and duplicated research funding programs.

PLACARD seeks to address this fragmentation of CCA and DRR through establishing a coordination and knowledge exchange platform. This platform will help to encourage multi-stakeholder dialogues that address knowledge gaps and promote institutional collaboration.

One of the topics that gained special attention within PLACARD is using narratives that have the potential to bridge the perceived gap between CCA and DRR practice. Narratives, with their power to framing an issue and open space for new critical, theoretical and methodological ideas, can help to reshape adaptation practice. DRR narratives, are also being used to communicate disaster risks to different people, and can be a way to jointly develop effective solutions.

In a recent PLACARD stakeholder dialogue we learned that narratives should be positive, moving from risks to opportunities and solutions (“we care!” “we can make things better!”), need to go beyond siloed solutions for CCA and DRR (focusing solely on safety or resilience, for example) and should create connection to the priority issues of local communities, such as wellbeing and the local public space for citizens, or innovation opportunities for entrepreneurs.

The power of narratives is that, it allows us to envision a new future. By exploring the many possible futures, we can begin to take practical steps towards changing the present. If we feel that many people are joining the narrative, then we feel part of a community, and we feel empowered. So that is how stories can give directions to policy and practice. Stories create community.

Creating a sense of community is crucial. New narratives that depict positive futures are more engaging than the traditional catastrophe-framing found in so much climate change and disaster risk communications. Narratives that focus more on the opportunities of CCA and DRR help us to envision better where our society is going, bring the topic closer to us making it more urgent and urgent and therefore create engagement and ownership.


Relevant literature:

  • EFDRR (2013). How Does Europe Link DRR and CCA? (
  • Mitchell T., van Aalst M., Villanueva P.S. (2010). Assessing Progress on Integrating Disaster Risk Reduction and Climate Change Adaptation in Development Processes. Strengthening Climate Resilience Discussion. Paper 2, Institute of Development Studies 2010.
  • Paschen, J.-A. , Ison, R. (2014). Narrative research in climate change adaptation—Exploring a complementary paradigm for research and governance. Research Policy, 43 (6) 1083-1092.
  • Stoknes, P. E. (2015). What we think about when we try not to think about global warming – Toward a New Psychology of Climate Action, Chelsea Green Publishing.

Cover photo by Brandon Beach USACE (CC BY 2.0)
87% of case studies show that disaster risk reduction is good value for money

87% of case studies show that disaster risk reduction is good value for money

By Thomas Neumann & David Hugenbusch

A new synthesis assessment of available case studies has shown that 87% of them report that disaster risk reduction (DRR) measures make economic sense. The study, commissioned by Aktion Deutschland Hilft e.V., also shows that structural interventions (based on physical infrastructure) represented were less cost effective than non-structural measures, such as land use planning.

The cost-efficient nature of DRR is frequently acknowledged in scientific discourse and political statements. It is seen as a particularly effective way to limit damage and fatalities when compared to response and recovery. The estimation that every one USD invested in DRR saves seven USD in disaster response, allegedly coming from the World Bank, enjoys a certain celebrity status in this context. To this day this figure is repeatedly quoted in a DRR context. The source of this, however, remains unclear and the World Bank itself advises against using this ratio.

A substantial number of case studies are available that investigate the efficiency of a huge range DRR measures for all kinds of hazards. However, for two main reasons, it is only partially possible to draw general conclusions from them. Firstly, the case studies are usually highly contextual (with regards to the measure, hazards and geographical setting for example) which limits the transferability of the results. Secondly, the available data is intricate and uses widely differing methodologies. Consequently, there is a need for a comprehensive overview of existing case studies as well as a standardised methodological framework to allow for direct comparison between the case studies.

The study developed a structured synthesis of 117 available case studies to create generalised statements about the economic efficiency of DRR, both, over the whole study catalogue and specifically for different hazard types to allow for a comparison of DRR across a range of natural hazards. Structuring the case studies along a consistent methodological framework allows a comparison of the results and their assumptions across all case studies and allows us to draw general statements concerning the cost efficiency of disaster prevention measures. This framework may be used to conduct future cost-benefit analyses to enhance the significance of future case studies and underpin the value of DRR by applied research.

Main conclusions include:

  • DRR pays off – Based on 117 case studies, 102 report average cost-benefit ratios above the economic equilibrium. This is a powerful argument for future investments in disaster prevention.
  • Non-structural measures (those measures that are not based on engineered, physical infrastructure; however, they also include also include early warning systems which are also based on physical infrastructure even though the outcome is data) are on average more cost efficient than their structural counterparts – A greater proportion of structural measures fail to reach the economic equilibrium. Half of all structural measures (n=34) are either within their lower uncertainty margin or below the economic equilibrium. This result was significantly lower for the non-structural measures (n=3 out of a total of 32). We believe that non-structural measures are more flexible and robust in addressing future DRR uncertainties.
  • DRR prevention and preparedness strategies are equally efficient – Based on all 117 case studies no discernible trend preferring either prevention or preparedness measures is visible.
  • The lower the Human Development Index (HDI) of a country the higher the economic gain of DRR measures – On average there is a higher gain from DRR measures in countries with a low HDI compared to highly developed nations. This is a powerful argument for the expansion of DRR measures in world’s poorest countries. The significance of this result is enhanced if we consider that in the past, case studies utilised high discounting and assumed low durations of effect in these countries. However, countries with a low human development index are underrepresented in the case studies.

The results can be used to inform politicians, decision makers, donors, and IFIs about potential efficiency benefits of DRR.

Read the full study by clicking here.

Cover photo by Scott Catron (CC BY-SA 3.0)
Extreme wildfires to increase by up to 50%

Extreme wildfires to increase by up to 50%

By Tim Radford

The conditions for extreme and catastrophic wildfires could increase by 20% to 50% as the world warms and the climate changes, according to new research.

An analysis of 23 million wildfires between 2002 and 2013 has identified 478 of the worst – scientists call them “extreme wildfire events”.

“Extreme fire events are a global and natural phenomenon, particularly in forested areas that have pronounced dry seasons,” says David Bowman of the University of Tasmania in Hobart, Australia, who led the study with US colleagues.

Weather for wildfires

“With the exception of land clearance, the research found that extremely intense fires are associated with anomalous weather – such as droughts, winds or, in desert regions, following particularly wet seasons.

“Of the top 478 events, we identified 144 economically and socially disastrous extreme fire events that were concentrated in regions where humans have built into flammable forested landscapes, such as areas surrounding cities in southern Australia and western North America.”

The study of what the researchers call “pyrogeography”, in Nature Ecology and Evolution journal, comes as forest fires devastate Chile.

It follows a series of warnings of increased wildfire hazard as global temperatures rise in response to the ever greater levels of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, as a consequence of the increasing combustion of fossil fuels.

Fire poses a threat to the entire warming world. US authorities spent more than $2bn suppressing wildfires in 2015, but greater conflagrations are expected in the US west, and wildfire damage could eventually double, according to other studies.

But the hazard is not confined to the Americas. The researchers began their analysis to identify the range of conditions that turn a chance lightning bolt, or a carelessly discarded cigarette, into the kind of conflagration that kills people and destroys townships. And they found a pattern: in more than nine out of 10 cases, “anomalous” weather conditions made the hazard worse.

These could be high winds, high temperatures and drought, and, in desert regions, unusually high rainfall the preceding season that triggers greater growth and more fuel for the next fire.

“Climate change is causing fire seasons to start earlier and finish later, with an associated trend towards more extreme wildfire events in terms of their geographic extent and duration, intensity, severity, associated suppression costs, and loss of life and property,” the scientists write.

The sharpest increases will be on Australia’s east coast and in the Mediterranean basin, in particular Portugal, Spain, France, Greece and Turkey. Some of these landscapes are naturally adapted to fire. But in the US, a higher proportion of all fires became disasters for precisely identified reasons.

Fatal combination

“What makes a fire event a disaster in the US is when key factors combine – low-density housing amidst dense forests, the right climatic conditions and a lack of fire preparedness on the part of humans,” says co-author Crystal Kolden of the University of Idaho in the US.

“We can’t stop big, intense fires from happening here, and they are increasing under climate change. However, in the western US, we can reduce the potential for fire disasters by both reducing forest density and improving mitigation and preparedness through the development of fire-resilient communities.”

This article first appeared on the Climate News Network and has been republished here with permission. To see it in its natural habitat please click here.
Cover photo by Josh O’Connor – USFW (Public Domain)
Alaskan village hit by erosion and melting permafrost is denied request for disaster declaration

Alaskan village hit by erosion and melting permafrost is denied request for disaster declaration

By Elisa Jiménez Alonso

The Alaskan village Newtok is once again making news because they requested a federal disaster declaration to move away from their sinking and crumbling land. Had it been granted, it would have made the village’s relocation eligible for federal funding. Unfortunately, it wasn’t.

Newtok lies next to the river Ningliq, but the land on which the village was built upon is unsafe. The dangers of erosion had already been picked up in a 30-year-old river erosion assessment by Woodward-Clyde Consultants. Back then it was mostly the river eroding the land around Newtok. In the past decades, melting permafrost increasingly became a problem, too, because of climate change.

The 450 people of Newtok are well aware of the danger they’re facing, the older generations especially. They have seen the land around them change dramatically in the past decades. Interestingly, many Yup’ik people, which most of Newtok’s inhabitants belong to, used to be nomads moving between winter and summer camps. In the 1970s they were given the choice between settling down  so their children could go to school or having their children taken away by authorities. Now, the ground is crumbling away underneath their feet and they need to relocate, quickly.  But it is expensive: moving the key infrastructure alone could cost up to $130 million.

The funds they applied for are usually reserved for catastrophes, such as landslides or hurricanes. What the community is experiencing at the moment might not be as sudden as a hurricane, but ultimately the outcome isn’t all too different. According to engineers, the village will lose its current drinking water source and up to six homes by fall this year; the barge landing, landfill and sewage lagoon are already gone.

Federal disaster relief was not set up for slow onset events, however, other -more traditional- options turned out to be dead ends. When Newtok applied for a grant from the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development, they were turned down. Lawyers saw the Stafford Disaster Relief and Emergency Assistance Act as a last resort, although the request was unusual. Just before President Obama’s administration came to an end, the village was informed that a disaster declaration was not appropriate to address this situation

The existing system fails communities like Newtok, said Mike Walleri, the village’s attorney. “What this means as a practical matter is the village is going to have to wait until these homes are destroyed, rather than taking any preemptive disaster response,” he added.

Little to no options are left for the close-knit community of Newtok. If they do not get funds to resettle, the community will have to scatter across Alaska and move as far as 500 miles away to Anchorage. For now, however, they will appeal the decision, and in the longer term, they will keep trying to move the village piece by piece.

To learn more about Newtok, watch Al Jazeera America’s short documentary about the village from 2015:

Cover photo by Steve Jurvetson (CC by 2.0)