On the morning of August 29 2005, one of the deadliest Atlantic hurricanes hit the US Gulf Coast. With sustained winds of up to 140 mph, Hurricane Katrina killed over 1,800 people and caused $160 billion worth of damage.
The government at the time was criticised for its slow response, particularly its failure to involve local communities in decisions about preparing for and responding to the disaster. Almost 15 years to the day, another major storm bore down on the region. Half a million people in Texas and Louisiana evacuated to escape Hurricane Laura’s “unsurvivable” storm surge and, at the time of writing, and at least six people have been killed.
I study natural disasters in order to better understand how to save lives. One of the most important strategies for reducing the risk to everyone in a community is to engage with local people at every stage of decision making.
Communities in disaster-prone regions have developed strategies over generations for dealing with extreme weather. They’re more likely to spot the warning seasons early and know how best to respond.
The impacts of natural disasters can have a lasting effect on the lives of those in affected regions too, as anyone who has lived in New Orleans over the last two decades could tell you. It’s vital the input of these communities is taken into consideration if there is to be lasting trust in the institutions that organise disaster preparation and relief efforts.
Some of my research has compared how academic experts and people living in disaster-prone areas think differently about these events. While experts studying natural disasters tend to focus on intense but infrequent events like tsunamis, there are communities around the world which have adapted to milder but more common problems like flooding.
We wanted to visit communities in both the UK and Japan, to compare how their community leaders and engineers developed counter measures to protect their local areas. These were categorised as “soft” countermeasures, like evacuation plans and early warning systems, and as “hard” solutions, such as flood defences and embankments.
Communities facing high-impact but low-frequency disasters, like tsunamis in Japan, tend to have strategies that prevent or reduce the scale of the damage with hard engineering, such as sea walls. For communities subject to low-impact but high-frequency hazards like flooding, such as those we studied in the UK, adaptation is what characterises most countermeasures, including community networks that keep vulnerable people alert to any threat.
The Joukumachi community in Hita City of Oita Prefecture, Japan was affected by torrential rain in 2017 and 2018. Though government measures were slowly enacted, with some residents evacuated to shelters and higher ground, it was interventions by local residents that allowed the community to recognise the risks early and respond quickly.
Most notably, local people people used handmade rain gauges with loudspeakers that could broadcast alerts to monitor the approaching danger. This early warning system helped people prepare before the government could launch a response.
Preparing for the future
But what makes an effective response to future disasters? Our research in Sturmer, a flood-prone village in Essex, England, showed that dedicated community organising is the best defence.
Sturmer was swamped with heavy rainfall in 2001 and 2014, causing floods that wreaked a lot of damage. But these events paled in comparison to the catastrophic storm surges that devastated the region in 1953. As climate change threatens more severe rain storms in the future, the community has developed its own ways to stay prepared.
Following the floods in 2014, a flood action group was formed in the village. The group is led by members of the community and it communicates flood risk through meetings, magazines and flyers. To keep local residents aware of flood alerts, some in the group are responsible for constantly checking the daily weather forecast, as well as flood depth gauges deployed in the stream. When flooding seems imminent, the houses most at risk are provided with portable flood gates that can be deployed as and when they’re needed.
This ongoing, bottom-up approach looks very different to a reactive disaster response led by central government agencies – which are often based far away. Even the best examples of top-down management are unlikely to possess the breadth of experience and local knowledge that makes communities so effective at preparing for natural disasters.
Central governments must learn from them and ask how best they can aid relief and recovery, rather than try and impose a one-size-fits-all approach.
Investors and asset managers are increasingly taking action to advance their transition to a low carbon, climate resilient economy and prepare for the financial impacts of climate change. Such is the case, for example, of Macquarie Group Limited, a multinational independent investment bank and financial services company headquartered in Sydney, Australia. As part of their continued efforts to align to the recommendations of the Task Force on Climate-related Financial Disclosures (TCFD), Macquarie conducted heat-mapping and climate scenario analysis on physical and transition risks in its holdings. The bank has released a new report reflecting on its progress to date against the four pillars of the TCFD (governance, strategy, risk management, and metrics).
Acclimatise deployed its HeatMapR toolkit to help Macquarie undertake a high-level analysis of physical
climate risks on its global
equity and lending portfolios against two climate scenarios. The heatmapping exercise used 1.5°C and 4°C warming scenarios*, representing good practice by selecting a high and
low-risk scenario. The HeatMapR tool pulled climate hazards data for three time
horizons, namely 2020, 2030 and 2050. A wide range of hazards were analysed in
the exercise, including chronic climate change variables (e.g. temperature,
precipitation, sea level rise) and extreme weather events such as bushfires. The results of these analyses were presented as a set of summary heatmaps, and a similar exercise for
transition risk was conducted alongside Acclimatise’s physical heatmapping
As noted in Macquarie’s report, the Acclimatise HeatMapR outputs provide
a strategic tool to identify potential areas of their holdings where more
detailed analysis is needed; heatmapping can also be used to guide further
analysis and investment decision making. The findings of the heatmapping exercise for
physical climate risks show that most severe impacts are expected to occur
after 2050, but also that climate vulnerabilities are different across sectors
and sub-sectors and in particularly are highly dependent on the country of
Thorough its climate risk heatmapping and scenario analysis, Macquarie determined that physical and transition risks present in its holdings were not considered to be material. Reasons for this include the fact that the firm has a sufficiently diverse portfolio, and the their exposures to counterparties at risk are short term, as compared to the time scenarios examined. Finally, the exercises revelated that Macquarie has limited lending exposure to risky sectors.
Over the course
of 2020 and beyond, Macquarie will
continue implementing its guidelines on climate risk governance and continue to
refine and embed climate change considerations within its existing risk
management frameworks. In particular, it aims to continue refining scenario
analysis and to further integrate these exercises into their existing risk
procedures and stress testing. In addition, it also aims to assess the
resilience of its business premises to physical climate risks in the coming
Indigenous peoples know a lot about disaster risk. They have learned to read the signs in the sea, the skies and wildlife to predict hazards. Direct experience with disasters has taught many communities the duration, location, time, frequency, intensity, predictability, onset and possible behaviour of the hazards linked to these events. Traditional knowledge for disaster risk reduction lies in the accumulated experience that comes with the close relationship of indigenous communities to their environment, formed through successive trials and errors over generations.
Take the case of Moken, a tribe of nomads living in the southern seas of Thailand and Myanmar. They spend at least eight months a year at sea, bartering fish and shells for rice and fuel. They tell the ‘legend of the seven waves’, which serves to perpetuate traditional knowledge of tsunamis. When the tsunami struck the coast of Thailand on 26 December 2004, they drew on this knowledge to warn tourists and others of the oncoming wave. Similarly, the local knowledge of the indigenous tribes of Andaman Islands taught them that if the sea starts to recede, then they should also recede. This knowledge was instrumental in saving their lives, while many tourists drowned as they moved towards the receding sea.
In the Kutch region of Gujarat, I came across local knowledge on the prediction of drought based on the direction of winds. Farmers change their cropping pattern according to their predictions, based on this knowledge.
Originating from within the community, such a knowledge is passed on informally through narratives that remain in the collective conscience of the communities. The story of the Japanese village of Hiromura, struck by an earthquake in 1854 provided valuable lessons that continue to guide new generations of Japanese. A villager noticed that the well had run dry and alerted the village leader. Shortly after, a devastating earthquake struck. The leader realised that a tsunami would strike the coast and guided the villagers to higher ground. Following this event, the villagers built an embankment that has protected the village ever since, including when the Showa Nankai earthquake triggered a four-metre tsunami; the area protected by the embankment was undamaged. Japanese government continues to use this story to spread awareness of the need for preparedness against tsunamis.
Traditional technologies and construction practices
Likewise, traditional technologies and construction practices often reflect adaptations to the environmental conditions, to manage local hazards using local materials. There are many examples of survival of traditional buildings during disasters caused by earthquakes, floods, cyclones and other hazards thanks to the traditional knowledge embedded in them. During the 2001 Gujarat earthquake, typical bhunga dwellings of the local Banni tribe in the Kutch region in India survived remarkably well because of their design and construction technology, while many new constructions collapsed.
Indigenous social, economic and institutional coping skills and capacities are also inherent part of the traditional knowledge systems. In every society, there are various internal social structures that help individuals and families through difficult periods. These coping mechanisms become collective instruments for organizing action on behalf of victims for disaster mitigation, preparedness, response and recovery. Following the 2015 earthquake in Nepal, local communities came together to volunteer to save traditional windows from their damaged houses, repair small shrines and community buildings (Guthis) and restart rituals and festivals such as Macchendranath Yatra., even though the communities had lost their shelter and livelihoods.
Similarly, the 2011 tsunami in Japan almost completely swept away the Shizugawa town in Minamisanriku cho. However, the main hall of the local Kaminoyama Hachimangu Shrine survived the disaster due to its location on higher ground. The shrine, through its priest, acted as the local anchor for affected communities. People got together for psychosocial support and to share community views on recovery and reconstruction. Reinstatement of rituals, festivals and crafts within a few weeks of the disaster served as the means for mutual support among community members.
Considerable research and publications exist on traditional knowledge for disaster risk reduction. However, there are much fewer practical examples that demonstrate to policy makers and practitioners the needs and perceptions of the people and how to harness this knowledge in the present social, economic and institutional context. Traditional knowledge has always evolved in response to change. Experimentation and innovation are critical to ensure its continuity and relevance in present context. For example, during the 2001 Gujarat earthquake reconstruction, traditional artisans participated in developing innovative solutions for constructing vernacular Bhunga structures by replacing bamboo used in traditional wattle and daub structures with steel wires as the former was getting harder to find than before. In Japan, effective use of traditional social networks and management systems are common for fire prevention, including maintenance of water hydrants, regular monitoring and awareness raising.
New guidance under development
The Sendai Framework calls for governments to employ a people-centred approach and engage directly with indigenous peoples in the design and implementation of policies, plans and standards, and to use traditional, indigenous and local knowledge and practices to complement scientific knowledge in disaster risk assessments. To provide practical guidance to countries and practitioners, UNDRR in collaboration with ICCROM is developing a Words into Action guide on ‘using traditional knowledge for disaster risk reduction’. The guidance will focus on identifying, documenting and adapting traditional knowledge for the development of polices, programmes and innovative projects.
The world has a lot to learn from indigenous peoples. Let us make sure we make full use of traditional knowledge to mitigate, adapt, prepare and respond to disaster risks.
New Clark City (NCC), an upcoming mixed-use township managed by the Bases Conversion and Development Authority (BCDA), is being developed with the vision of becoming a leading example of an environmentally sustainable, smart, and disaster-resilient city.
To realize this ambition, efficient and sustainable use of water resources is key. To this end, a Water Resources Study was prepared with the main objective of assessing groundwater and surface water availability within and near NCC.
The study, conducted by the Geoscience Foundation Inc. for BCDA, will feed into resource planning that will ensure there is sufficient water to serve NCC, which has an area of approximately 9,450 hectares and is located about 120 kilometers (km) north of Manila.
Sustainability is at the heart of the study. It proposes that NCC makes use of groundwater, surface water, and other water sources like reservoirs, wastewater recycling, and rainwater harvesting, to avoid resource depletion. The use of surface water, in particular, will ensure that deep aquifers are not exhausted, and resources can be sustainably maintained.
The study, supported by the Urban Climate Change Resilience Trust Fund (UCCRTF), is linked to the ADB Transaction Advisory Services of the Office of Public-Private Partnership for NCC, which looks at the structuring and tendering of infrastructure packages. In 2017 to 2018, UCCRTF financed – through the request of BCDA – the review of the NCC master plan, conduct of the River Study and recommendations, and the development of the Resilience Framework.
Climate change is also a major consideration in the study, as climate projections indicate a 10% increase in precipitation levels during rainy season and a 10% decrease during the dry season by 2036. Enough water should be stored in water tanks and reservoirs during the rainy season so that this can be used in the summer or dry season.
The two major rivers of NCC
The two major rivers in the NCC are the Cutcut and Bangot Rivers. The Bangot River is situated at the northern edge of NCC and is a tributary of the O’Donnell River. The confluence with the O’Donnell River is located about 1 km north from the Philippine Army Camp. To ensure the sustainable use of the Bangot and Cutcut Rivers, a water resources monitoring program will be established through the installation of depth gauge meters that will track changes in the river flows.
Based on the study, the water quality for the two rivers were found to be satisfactory and well within the prescribed limits even for Class AA water quality guidelines for drinking water supply. However, primary treatment, including disinfection, is required for the water to be distributed for drinking. Once this is developed, these rivers can produce about 32 million liters per day, which is sufficient for a medium-sized city.
Water rights for the two rivers were also applied with the National Water Resources Board on behalf of BCDA and are awaiting deliberations. The results of the study were incorporated into the “NCC 50-year Water Resources Masterplan”, the roadmap for NCC’s resilient water supply system. The plan is seen to be financially viable and is expected to yield economic benefits through increased water usage efficiency and greater equity in access to water, without comprising environmental sustainability and ensuring water availability for future usage.
Presenting the study to stakeholders
On water reuse, the study indicated that this will only be suitable for non-potable uses such as for agriculture, aquifer recharge, aquaculture, firefighting, flushing of toilets, industrial cooling, parks and golf course watering, formation of wetlands for wildlife habitats, and recreational impoundments. As an alternative water source, the O’Donnell River is also being considered in case the use of Bangot River is not feasible. This will form part of the water development plan for NCC’s main water source in future phases.
As for wastewater management, the study recognizes that constructed wetlands and ponds through a series of bio-retention and bio-remediation systems will help reduce and control the amount of pollutants – such as fertilizers, pesticides, and sediment – that enter the waterways from open space run-off. A centralized sewerage treatment plant is being planned for NCC, and it will service the main development areas covering the National Government Administrative Center and the area handled by real estate firm Filinvest Land. However, given that the construction of the plant may take up to three years, the use of modular treatment plants, which can be immediately installed and can easily be expanded, will be considered as an interim solution.
Further review, vetting, and discussions with BCDA need to be made to align the recommendations with the NCC master plan given that there are ongoing developments in the area. Specifically, BCDA, locators, and water concessionaire need to discuss and establish projections that will shape the longer-term water policies and water infrastructure projects in the NCC.
Key nations have announced US$ 4.8 million in funding for the delivery of early warning systems and services to reduce loss of life from severe weather events in the Pacific region. The announcement was made 10 June 2020 during the 11th Steering Committee Meeting of the Climate Risk & Early Warning Systems (CREWS) initiative by its Member States, the governments of Australia, Canada, France, Germany, Luxembourg, Netherlands, Switzerland and the United Kingdom.
The CREWS initiative was established in 2015 at the United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP21) as a financial mechanism to save lives and livelihoods through the expansion of early warning systems and services in Least Developed Countries and Small Island Developing States. Its three Implementing Partners are the World Meteorological Organization, the World Bank Group / Global Facility for Disaster Reduction and Recovery and the United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction.
Filipe Lucio of WMO indicated at the meeting that the funds would allow the island countries in the region to detect, monitor and forecast severe high-impact weather events. Additional services to be developed include access to longer-term seasonal predictions and operational early warning and response plans that ensure the most vulnerable people in the communities receive warnings.
CREWS Member States also approved the allocation of funds to support countries to monitor the effectiveness of their national early warning systems. Additionally, the preparations of another US$ 4 million project, covering the South West Indian Ocean that includes the countries of Comoros, Madagascar, Mauritius, Mozambique and Seychelles was initiated for funding in the near future.
To date, the CREWS Trust Fund has delivered over US$ 43 million in project funding and mobilized an additional US$ 270 million from public funds of other development partners – realizing accelerated life-saving action and maximized finance effectiveness.
In 2019, CREWS support was scaled up to 44 least developed countries and small island developing states. Through this work, more than 10 million people in some of the world’s most vulnerable communities now have access to better early warning services.
In Afghanistan, 3D printers are being used to build automatic weather stations, bringing early warning services to rural communities.
In Burkina Faso, more than 1,100 rural farmers received 130 weather forecasts in 2019, broadcast via local radio stations.
In Fiji, nearly one million people now have advance flash flood warnings, creating increased security and saving lives.
In Niger, more than 600 women were trained in early warning services and have now created women-led WhatsApp groups to amplify advance warnings throughout their communities.
Across the Caribbean, national emergency management offices, national hydromet offices, national gender bureaux, sectorial ministries, and non-governmental groups including women organizations are now working together to bridge the gender divide in access to early warning systems.
Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta fumed at construction delays on the Lamu Port-South Sudan-Ethiopia Transport Corridor in 2019 – a US$22 billion (£18 billion) transport network that includes a 32-berth port, highways, railways and pipelines. But these delays, caused by financing gaps, afforded fishers, pastoral farmers and conservationists time to challenge the project in court, and push for amended plans that better protect local habitats and migratory routes used by people, livestock and wildlife.
While major road and rail projects often break up wilderness and grazing lands, a sudden pause in construction can offer a lifeline to people fighting to protect these areas.
Lockdown restrictions and the uncertainty caused by COVID-19 have made sourcing labour and materials more difficult, increasing construction costs. The result is that infrastructure building has slowed globally, creating a unique opportunity to redesign road and rail projects around the world so that they benefit the people and environments they share the landscape with.
Barriers to travel
Dozens of new roads, railways and pipelines are under construction in sub-Saharan Africa due to a surge in investment in recent years. Although they are promised to bolster economic growth, our research shows that many of these new mega-highways and high-speed rail lines were approved without meaningful consultation between planners and local people. As a result, they tend to become new barriers that are difficult and dangerous to traverse, forcing people to travel long distances to reach safe crossing points.
In dry regions, this can make it difficult to reach vital water sources. Amid farmland and forests, construction can push people from their land or force them to travel further to reach it. Deforestation usually comes before construction too, which encourages people to migrate further into woodland, building new settlements that drive more forest clearing.
Poorly designed roads and rail lines can take a heavy toll on human and animal life. During our research between 2017 and 2019, we found too few safe crossing points, inadequate signage and lax speed enforcement along new highways and railways in Kenya and Tanzania, resulting in numerous road accidents.
Conservationists are particularly worried by growing roadkill sightings along a new highway in northern Kenya. Endemic and endangered species like the Grevy’s zebra are often killed in collisions with cars and lorries after wandering onto roads that now criss-cross their range. As one pastoral farmer living alongside the new highway exclaimed
How many animals have died? Uncountable.
Fortunately, there are lots of proven strategies for preventing transport projects from fragmenting habitats, such as building passages across new highways and railways that migratory species can use. Repairing environmental damage caused by construction, by filling in quarries that produce construction materials, for example, can also help restore grazing land for livestock and wildlife.
The Mongu-Kalabo road constructed over the Barotse floodplain in western Zambia shows these ideas in action. Completed in 2016, the road was built with 26 bridges over the floodplains and regular culverts between bridges, allowing water and wildlife to move across the floodplain without impeding road traffic and trade, even during seasonal floods.
The road was also planned with local cultures in mind. Wetland livelihoods, such as fishing and floodplain farming, aren’t affected by the road since the regular movement of fish and water remains largely undisturbed. By maintaining these flows across the floodplain, cultural traditions have been protected. The annual Kuomboka ceremony that takes place at the end of the rainy season can continue, when the Litunda (king of the Lozi people) moves from his compound in the Barotse floodplain to higher ground.
There is no single blueprint for building roads and railways that allow humans and nature to thrive. Wherever construction is planned, public participation is vital. Gathering the knowledge local people have of their environment can improve the design of these projects, but this insight cannot come from rushed consultations or impact assessments conducted from a distance. Only meaningful and ongoing engagement with local communities and environmental authorities will do.
Major infrastructure investment will likely be key to pulling the global economy out of recession. The opportunity to mould upcoming projects won’t last forever, so let’s ensure any new road and rail project is designed with respect to the rights of people and nature.
On the International Day of Biological Diversity, IIED hosted a multi-stakeholder webinar on how to work with nature to mitigate and adapt to climate change and halt biodiversity loss. IIED senior researcher Xiaoting Hou Jones chaired the event, and here she shares some highlights from the discussions.
One key message from the webinar was the urgent need to tackle climate change and biodiversity loss together.
Alex White, team leader for International Climate and Strategy at the UK Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA), summed up the urgent need. He said: “We need to develop approaches that reflect the complexity and scale of the challenges and work for climate, nature and people. Nature-based solutions (NbS) are part of the solution.”
This resonates strongly with the increasing global support from scientists, governments, private sector and civil society for integrated solutions such as NbS for climate change.
The discussions also pointed to the multiple social, environmental, and economic benefits provided by NbS to climate change. A wide range of stakeholders, especially vulnerable local communities, can enjoy the benefits of NbS, making these solutions more attractive than their grey infrastructure counterparts.
Innovative financing to get money where it matters is one of the most important building blocks for NbS. Chip Cunliffe, sustainable development director for multinational insurance company AXA XL, highlighted the need for blended finance from public and private sectors. He said: “It is key that we start to build the right narrative that highlights the values of natural capital to engage possible investors and try to drive down existing barriers for financing NbS at scale.”
Alliance partners are piloting innovative finance products to fund NbS at scale. These include blue carbon credits; resilience credits that allow companies to invest in restoration and conservation to reduce climate risks; corporate bonds where corporates can borrow money to manage and maintain natural capital while providing benefits for biodiversity and local communities; and insurance products that explicitly integrate natural capital and incentivise working with nature to mitigate climate risks.
Participants also shared other financing models and emphasised the importance of finance reaching local communities, which are bearing the brunt of climate change impacts and are key for implementing NbS. Examples include: educating consumers and creating demand for diverse eco-friendly products, leveraging forest carbon market to support local communities to sustainably manage forests in Tanzania, and utilising lottery funds to mobilise local communities to implement NbS in the city of Bath in England.
Click on the word cloud above to expand it. We asked participants to pick up to three words that capture the most important building blocks for translating global ambitions for nature-based solutions for climate change into effective local actions (Image: IIED)
Indigenous peoples and local communities in the driving seat
Indigenous communities around the world have been working with nature to adapt to changes for hundreds of years and are effective stewards of biodiversity and natural carbon sinks such as forests. Musonda Kapena, CEO of the Zambia National Forest Commodities Association (ZNFCA), said indigenous knowledge systems can provide useful lessons on how to effectively design and implement NbS. ZNFCA has been working with traditional leaders in Zambia to mobilise communities at landscape scale to sustainably produce a wide variety of forest and agriculture products.
ZNFCA is one of many forest farm producer organisations around the world supported by the Forest and Farm Facility, a partnership between FAO, IUCN, IIED and Agricord. Producers’ organisations such as ZNFCA can mobilise 1.5 million smallholder producers at scale, to drive a paradigm shift away from large-scale monoculture production systems that are vulnerable to climate change.
In supporting local communities working with nature to build more resilient local economy, these locally placed organisations can also support its members to respond and recover from COVID-19 and climate-related risks.
Webinar participants highlighted the importance of building local capacity to access finance, communicate and share knowledge in ways that capture benefits that matter to local communities, and to ensure secure land and natural resource use rights for indigenous peoples and local communities. Participants shared examples of how they work with local communities to champion NbS around the world, including in Scotland, Mali, Bermuda and Latin America.
Increasing global ambitions to build back better from COVID-19
Many participants pointed out that the COVID-19 pandemic has brought sharp focus on societal vulnerability to systemic and multidimensional risks such as climate change and biodiversity loss. To build back a more resilient society, governments need to ensure global recovery responses tackle climate change, biodiversity loss and protect the most vulnerable.
Sarah Nelson, head of policy oversight in the international environmental conventions team in DEFRA, highlighted the UK government’s efforts to increase the focus on the interlinkages of nature and climate and push for global ambitions for a green recovery. She said: “Nature will be one of the key themes for COP26 hosted by the UK government. The UK government recognises to achieve success either on tackling climate change or biodiversity loss, we have to tackle both simultaneously.”
Nelson, who is leading on UK government’s nature theme for the next UN climate summit, said it recognises the important role NbS can play in building back better from COVID-19 (paywalled article). She said that in the lead-up to COP26, the UK aims to develop a ‘nature action pledge’, enabling countries to pledge concrete actions on nature and climate, providing a clear bridge between climate and biodiversity conventions.
Another immediate opportunity to increase global ambitions on NbS is the post-2020 biodiversity framework, currently being negotiated by parties to the UN Convention on Biological Diversity. Speakers called for close engagement with local communities and the finance sector in developing the framework and ensuring effective implementation mechanisms that can mobilise actions to achieve targets.
“We all need to act!” urged Musonda. As participants from all over the world representing private sector, NGO, communities, government and academia shared inspiring examples and called for close collaboration across sectors and countries, I left the webinar feeling hopeful and inspired for a future where integrated solutions like NbS is the norm rather than the exception.
This article was originally posted on the IIED website. It has been reposted with permission.
All these far exceeded the recent Cyclone Amphan’s total of 26 deaths so far. Understanding the generally declining death toll offers lessons on how the rest of the world could prepare better for such events. Part of it is forecasting, warning, and evacuation.
But another part is local action, which we research. Much of this science is participatory, directed by the people who are vulnerable in order to balance and meld local and external ideas and approaches.
From vulnerability to resilience
Cyclone Amphan made landfall in Bangladesh on May 20 2020. It inundated over 4,000 sq km of land and destroyed homes, polders (low-lying areas of land surrounded by dikes or levees), embankments, roads, electricity poles, mobile phone towers, bridges and culverts, with the exact costs still being tallied. Many agricultural fields and fish farms were overwhelmed by the saltwater storm surge.
The low death toll can be largely attributed to Bangladesh’s long-term efforts to reduce vulnerabilities, including at the local level, which is always the key in preventing disasters. In 1970, the country had only 42 cyclone shelters, whereas now over 12,000 functionally active cyclone shelters dot the coastline, serving nearly 5 million people.
A diverse system of warning messages tailored to local needs keeps people informed about evacuation, ranging from social media to people on bicycles with megaphones. Training in school means that the announcements are trusted and the population knows how to react and why.
Bangladesh has invested in constructing numerous polders to reduce the force of storm surges, although water retention has sometimes damaged agriculture and infrastructure. Local leaders, organisations, and authorities collaborate to implement tidal river management and nature-based approaches such as mangroves. This helps to deal with storm surge and rainfall, as well as reduced freshwater due to India’s Farakka Barrage, built across the Ganges River to keep the water in India since the 1970s.
We assessed one local programme funded and supported by the British and Swedish Red Cross for implementation by the Bangladesh Red Crescent. This “Vulnerability to Resilience” programme ran between 2013 and 2016 in the coastal villages of Pashurbunia and Nowapara in Kalapara Upazila in Patuakhali district.
This was the first time that people there had been involved in such resilience-building work. They installed flood-resistant tubewells, raised latrines above expected flood levels, trained for improved hygiene and first aid, distributed safety equipment, improved local early warning and evacuation systems, and were trained as local volunteers to continue these activities.
Diverse and alternative livelihood opportunities were also promoted. Household-level businesses and shops were encouraged, alongside local markets for the products.
This included people growing and selling garden vegetables and rice, producing crafts through quilting and sewing, rearing cattle for milk and beef, and investing in ducks, chickens, and aquaculture for fish. If any one of these livelihoods is interrupted or ruined, then people would still have options for earning income.
These initiatives are clearly not about cyclones only and move far beyond forecasting, warning, and evacuation. They improve livelihoods, living conditions, community interaction, health, and safety irrespective of a storm. Our calculations immediately after the programme demonstrated that every dollar invested in the programme produced a quick payback of almost five times that amount through enhanced income and local activities.
The real test, though, remains what happens during a hazard. Three weeks after the programme ended, Cyclone Roanu ripped through the south coast of Bangladesh on May 21, 2016. Pashurbunia and Nowapara reported successful warning and evacuation, no casualties, livelihoods with limited interruption, and a water supply and latrines that functioned afterwards.
Similar success is now repeated with Amphan. Despite the cyclone’s devastation, the people are alive and are returning home to rebuild. In Pashurbunia and Nowapara, seven kilometres of polder length were destroyed while the villages and agricultural lands were inundated.
The local population is repairing the damaged polders, houses, and latrines while restoring the drinking water supply and resuming their livelihoods. This is mainly through self-help, without much external assistance so far. It is not easy, but much better than before.
“A lightness in the way we hold thoughts gives us room to learn, to shift perspective, and to keep a rigorous humility in confusion”, Nora Bateson
Complexity vexes the traditional problem-solving model, which separates problems into singularly defined parts and solves the symptoms. The COVID-19 pandemic or the climate and ecological crises are pressuring policymakers to try new approaches to meet today’s challenges. But none of these “wicked problems” can be understood with reductionist approaches alone.
In other words, the deliberate simplification of a problem and its causes – by removing it from its contexts – renders the understanding and ensuing policy responses or solution either incomplete or obsolete. The issues raised by the COVID-19 pandemic are wrapped in contextual interdependencies that require an entirely different approach in assessment and action.
Most current scientific research tools and methodologies pull “subjects” from their contexts to derive detailed, specialized, quantifiable information. We need a wider practice of science to also use information derived from interrelationships and interdependencies within and across systems. For now, the cultural habit of de-contextualizing information, or reductionism, is the standardized, authorized and empirical norm.
To make more appropriate assessments of risks – arising out of multi-causal circumstances – we need observations that can address this complexity. The decisions on what actions to take, by whom and with what resources, are decisions based upon information about the situation or event. If that information cannot hold the appropriate complexity, these decisions will rely on inadequate knowledge, resulting in greater loss and damage – economic, human and ecological.
Risk creation and its realization in complex systems do not remain in one sector at one time. Yet current institutional structures mitigate these complex issues by attending only to what is within their specific jurisdiction. Health crises remain in the realm of health ministries, while economic issues are under the separate attention of ministries of finance or employment. Likewise, ecological risks overlapping with cultural or political risks are still, in most cases, considered in parallel within the ministry of environment. Yet, as evidenced by the COVID-19 pandemic, we must research and better understand the relational interdependence of these phenomena.
We need research bridges and increased communication across societal systems. This is particularly true of public service systems. Lack of communication and contextual perspective (among systems such as education, health, transportation and communication) can increase community-level vulnerability during complex, dynamic systemic risk events. Connection and increased contact between such sectors will make communities more robust and resilient to long-term risks and sudden onset emergencies. The development of relational information approaches can cultivate the relationships among sectors. This strengthens inter-system interaction and collaboration, both within and across countries.
‘Relational information’ describes how parts of a complex system (for example, members of a family, organisms in an ocean reef system, departments of an organization or institutions in a society) come together to give vitality to that system.
Relational information describes the interplay and vital relationships of the parts of a system in context. Other information will describe only the parts. For example, to understand a family, it is not enough to understand each family member. You must also understand the relationships between each of them. This is the relational information. This relational information (also known as ‘warm data’) helps to better understand interdependencies and improve responses to issues located in relational ways to each other within complex systems.
This is particularly important in understanding the realisation of a complex systemic risk such as the COVID-19 pandemic. Because such an event includes multiple systemic risks across many living systems and contexts – in health, ecological, economic, and education systems and many more. Attempting to suppress complexity (or de-contextualizing) gives specific information that can generate mistakes. In contrast, relational information gives a more coherent understanding of the complex nature of the systems.
Systemic consequences (and consequences of consequences) are easily disconnected from their networks of causation. In so doing, the importance of the relationships among contexts can disappear. Context includes the relational processes that come together to produce a given situation. In fact, most complex situations or systems are ‘transcontextual’, meaning there is more than one context in play. Transcontextual, relational information brings together multiple forms of observation, from multiple perspectives.
In recognition that information comes in many forms, a relational information lab (or warm data lab) brings together on-the-ground “wisdom” from locals, art and culture, personal stories and the voices of many generations in a series of transcontextual conversations and exchanges. The task of generating relational information is not only to incorporate details and data points, but also to highlight relationships among the details as well, at many scales simultaneously.
Around the world, researchers, governments, and public service professionals already use contextual or relational information in the form of warm data. This is particularly helpful to assess complex situations and identify preventive approaches or responses to complex community (or health) crises requiring expertise that spans a breadth of contextual conditions.
When applied to specific local contexts and fields, scenarios using warm data can be useful to involve local stakeholders and decision makers in a transdisciplinary environment – a collaborative laboratory or “collaboratory”. The approach allows the production of alternative futures that are robust to all the relevant uncertainties and complexities. A set of scenario exercises can help to identify stakeholder preferences, motivations, scale-specific trends and drivers, and most importantly, add the local contexts needed for the modelling exercises to formulate appropriate, timely and proportionate policy responses and solutions.
Changing patterns of interaction at local levels using transcontextual knowledge processes
The natural extension of the above process is bridge-building across systems, across silos. This is a step towards forming collaborative decision-making bodies at local levels. This can bring together people from different, but interdependent fields to explore and energize or regenerate local community vitality. As these community groups form and exchange knowledge, new communication patterns begin to emerge, linking otherwise separated sectors of experience.
The place-based solutions that emerge from the collaborative development of contextual warm data lend themselves to self-organizing around actions that are co-created, with local ownership of data, risks and solutions. By providing context, warm data is a metashift that generates connection, communication and action. It unlocks new ways to address complexity through a systemic perspective, not a siloed perspective. Drawing from collective intelligence and engaging in mutual learning can quickly increase local capacity to deal with even the most complex, dynamic systemic risk challenges
When human interaction occurs in this way, across contexts, the interdependency becomes plain. For example, food cannot be separated from economic, nor even political, systems. Neither can it be separated from culture, nor health, nor identity. The solutions in complex systems lie in the recognition of a collective response. No single response is enough to address a complex problem like the COVID-19 pandemic.
Warm data is the overlap across systems and is produced by groups of people, either in-person or online, with enquiry practised in crossing contextual frames, sense-making and finding patterns. The lens of contextual enquiry and transcontextual research not only brings disciplines together but also many other forms of knowledge – including the place-based wisdom of local practitioners, as well as cultural and indigenous sensitivities.
We need structures and approaches that can bring forward relational information that presents the contextual interlinking of the potential impacts of disasters such as the COVID-19 pandemic as they are felt at the individual level within wider global contexts.
When superficial solutions are implemented to provide answers to problems in complex systems, the problems proliferate. Developing the capability for transcontextual understanding and decision-making from a systemic perspective is far more effective. The benefits are then felt across multiple sectors simultaneously, including at municipal and national levels of government.
The next and final article in this series (#8 of 8) introduces the United Nations response to the need for improved understanding and management of the systemic nature of risk incorporating collective intelligence and relational information. The Global Risk Assessment Framework (GRAF) aims to work across all scales and all typologies of risk. Including complex, systemic risk events such as the COVID-19 pandemic. It is in service of the needs of people across the world to engage with complex systems. And to support them to make better decisions both in the short- and the long-term.
“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed people can change the world. Indeed it is the only thing that ever has.”, Margaret Mead
Risk is a human construct. It is created in language and meaning to describe the felt or feared volatility and uncertainty of human life. In other words, it describes the experience of complexity and of complex systemic effects. Humans in many societies have become accustomed and attached to the illusion of control that the construct of risk has given us. But as the COVID-19 pandemic develops, it becomes clear that the effects of interdependent, globally connected systems and vulnerabilities may be beyond accurate human measurement or effective management. We must acknowledge the limits of that illusion and the limits of present systems of governance and organization of human knowledge.
This requires a new paradigm for understanding and living with uncertainty and complexity. One that activates the power of human, social and contextual intelligence, and where possible, leverages it through appropriately designed artificial intelligence. This is at the core of systemic risk governance.
Developing the capability for contextual understanding and decision-making is a far more effective way of dealing with uncertainty and complexity than the present reliance on extrinsic frames of reference and categorical technical expertise, siloed into disciplines. In part, such capability is built using a lifelong learning approach to grow an aware, internalized ability to notice the relevance of context and the role of self, and in doing so, to recognize and anticipate interdependencies and nonlinear effects. That is demonstrably not wide-spread across populations affected by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Human decision-making is emotional, not rational. It is thus more successfully activated by mental models based on meaning attached to values and beliefs. Over time, the use of narrative and meaning to negotiate the changing relationship between identity and context has proven to be an effective mechanism to build resilience and to enable rapid sensing, understanding and sensemaking. In this way, collective intelligence becomes possible as an essential precondition for collective responsibility. Collaboration with and through that intelligence holds the key to building systemic resilience to challenging, complex and dynamic risk events such as the COVID-19 pandemic.
‘Collective intelligence’ is the powerful combination of human intelligence, artificial or machine intelligence and processing capacity.
Building resilience is necessary to reduce risks and prevent disasters, and when necessary, adequately respond. Resilience requires:
Planning and preparation based on assessments to avoid or minimize risk creation and reduce the existing stock of risk;
The development of capacity to restore functions in the face of disruptions; and,
The capacity to adapt and change after a shock.
By addressing these complex systems challenges, every individual, organization or group involved in resilience building could thrive by tapping into a “bigger mind” through collective intelligence. This could be by drawing on the brain power of other people with diverse cultural experience, age, education or occupation and gender, combined with the processing power of machines.
While needed for processing big data about the functioning of complex systems, machine learning and artificial intelligence do not help people to solve more complex coordination and governance problems – like physical distancing – that need trust between people. They cannot decide on how people want to live human lives, for example in densely populated cities. This is a complex human dynamic problem, solvable only by humans making decisions and taking action.
Truly global collective intelligence is a long way short of being able to solve global problems. It is now important to assemble new combinations of tools that can help the world think and act at pace, as well as at the scale commensurate with the complex problems we are currently facing, including the COVID-19 pandemic and the climate and ecological crises.
In too many fields, the most important data and knowledge remain flawed, fragmented or closed. They lack the context and organization required for them to be accessible and useful for decisions. As yet, no-one has the means or capacity to bring them all together into a universal, pluralistic data ecosystem, let alone into a dynamic three-dimensional topographical map of risk through time.
The critical interdependence among human health and well-being, ecology and technology is highly complex. The complexity lies both in the dynamic nature of connections and in responses in time and space. To effectively manage and govern a complex risk event like the COVID-19 pandemic, we need an improved understanding of human–ecological–technological system interactions. This is starting to be achieved in some fields through the application of new types of sophisticated multi-layered computer modelling.
Thanks to this revolution in systems modelling, it is now possible to begin modelling the interlinkages and interdependencies among the economic (values), societal (health, welfare and productivity) and environmental impacts of decisions and investments driven by the live interactions between weather, Earth crust shifts, soils, land, and ocean ecology and human activity. Geodata at many scales support this approach to better understand the interactive nature of the drivers of risk and for long-term risk reduction. But its practical application remains limited for complex, systemic risk events. As evidenced by the COVID-19 pandemic, this needs to change, and change quickly.
Technology-based solutions to coordination problems need to be combined with human-based solutions, made by or involving humans for solutions at a human scale. Unlike machines, which need to operate with probabilities, humans – within a social network of trust – can make decisions under radical uncertainty by attaching values to decisions. This ability in healthy human beings is due to emotional responses to highly complex decision situations. In such situations there are no solutions from purely calculative and value-free accounting or analysis of costs and benefits.
Under conditions of extreme, systemic risk – such as the COVID-19 pandemic – humans can (and should) decide on changing deeply embedded values that define higher level rules, and shape attitude, choices and behaviour.
We are now living a critical time calling for fundamental reflections on the impacts and consequences of individual and collective choices, and the accountability for those impacts and consequences. Otherwise, societies may continue to create financial and economic wealth at the expense of human health and the declining ecological life support functions in a positive spiralling feedback loop. This will further create systemic risks with cascading effects making overarching economic, ecological and social systems increasingly susceptible to collapse.
The next article (#7 of 8) in this series discusses the challenges and opportunities of generating relational information to inform a systemic perspective. It explores how to help decision makers, including government officials, to be more sensitive to interdependencies and the dynamic nature of risks and to ultimately improve whole-of-society outcomes during and after complex systemic risk events, like the COVID-19 pandemic.