Monday, February 27, 2017

DRECB-SEA project activities in Manila a great success

From November 23th-25th 2016, a consortium of researchers from 5 countries, led by the University of Newcastle and funded by the Australia-ASEAN Council, collaborated to host a series of activities in Manila. The events coincided with the 70th anniversary celebration of diplomatic relations between Australia and the Philippines and allowed the AAC board and Australian Embassy to participate in project activities.

Over 200 participants attended a much anticipated Symposium, entitled "Building Resilience through Synergies in Education" on the 23rd, hosted by the University of Philippines, School of Urban and Regional Planning. AAC board member Professor Alice Woodhead was among the keynote speakers on a day that featured three expert discussion panels; on Disaster Education; Disaster Governance; and Disaster Research and Innovation.

The DRECB team launched its new website and the DRR curriculum mapping tool that is under development. There were lively debates between panelists and public participants with respect to key concern in DRR education, research and governance.

In addition to the Symposium event, the DRECB team held a DRR curriculum mapping workshop drawing 30 representatives of different stakeholder groups on the 24th November. Participants worked in groups including practitioners, educators and community actors to analyse and reflect on the Sendai Framework mapping that the project has undertaken. The results of these workshops will be forthcoming in 2017.

The project team wrapped up the week's activities with a visit to Valenzuela City on the 25th, meeting with community leaders, disaster risk reduction practitioners and emergency responders. Special thanks to the UP-SURP organising team and in particular Professor Mario Delos Reyes and Dr Mark Morales for their leadership in making all of these events possible.

Tuesday, February 7, 2017

The hidden genocide of Rohingyas in Myanmar: raising voices from villages and camps in the Rakhine State.

This is a piece I have originally published in Italian for Eastonline, an Italian magazine of global news and geopolitics. While it does not talk about risk or disaster issues, we perfectly know ethnic and religious discrimination dramatically increases risk vulnerability, together with the marginalization in social, economic, and cultural life of a country. Rohingyas are among the most vulnerable people in the world, and we should continue to talk about them. All pictures and interviews are mine (December 2016).

Over one million of Rohingyas, a Burmese Muslim group living since centuries in Myanmar, suffer from 1948 (year of independence from the British crown) of discrimination and political delegitimization. Since decades, all the alternated governments -including that of the criticized Aung San Suu Kyi, a former Nobel Prize for Peace- shouldered by the armed forces and Buddhist monks, have considered Rohingyas as illegal Bengali immigrants from Bangladesh. These governments have perpetrated a "hidden genocide" through the systematic violation of citizenship and mobility rights, mass killings, arbitrary arrests, rapes, destruction and confiscation of villages. The reasons are not exclusively religious, also residing in the grabbing of Rohingyas’land to promote economic and industrial revitalization of the country, and in the need of a militarily control on the Rakhine State, in which the largest part of Rohingyas live.

After the assaults and violence by the Buddhist population in 2012, the Rohingyas fled their villages. Currently, 120,000Rohingyas live in 36 camps IDPs (Internally Displaced Persons), while 280,000 still live into villages. Rohingyas experience lack of food, water, and medical assistance. Several national and international NGOs provide humanitarian assistance to IDPs camps and villages around Sittwe (the capital of Rakhine), such as the Sittwe Program and Development Organization, who delivers food to 900 families (about 4,000 people) on behalf of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. Arkar, 24, from Yangon, is the coordinator of this NGO and brings me in the area where Rohingyas are confined, located 20-minutes driving far from Sittwe (according to request by the NGO, the names of people and   of the NGO have been changed, while the names of villages have been omitted).

A rusty bar, always raised and patrolled by a visibly annoyed military, separates the Rohingya from the Burmese "normality". Beyond the bar, the main road continues straightforward. Military areas alternate to the woodland, separated from peeling walls. Some people are busy in repairing and painting the walls, others in paving the road mixing lime and placing stones. These are temporary jobs at cheap price, very slowly performed by men and women of all ages (but also children) that - Arkar says- are both Burmese and Rohingya. Together with the small trade in the villages, these jobs are among the few opportunities for these two groups to interact. From the main road, trails unpaved or covered by cobblestones reach after kilometers the villages and IDP camps, from which the Rohingya cannot get out. Those who live in the villages may move from there for visiting someone or buy something, but they are not allowed to walk on the main road. To get out from the villages they need to rent scooter-taxis and vans, often with unsustainable costs. Those living in the camps face an even more difficult condition: to enter (and exit) they must pass through two military checkpoints. At the first one, they must deliver a bribe.

Kyaw is 23 years old. The village where he lived with his parents, who ran a small shop of medicines, was destroyed in 2012. They had to escape from their place and came to the village where we meet. Recovered for days in the village where they received water and rice and sheltered at the side of a house, they took a while to rebuild a new, albeit poor, house. As everyone, Kyaw does not have a job, but since few months he is the supervisor of the food deliver by the Arkar’s NGO in the area. Kyaw has the bright face of those who would rock the world but the melancholic and innocent eyes of those who cannot because they are forced to have nothing. His story is similar to many. As Soe, 46, who until 2012 was a milk producer and owned a house with an adjoining pasture for his cattle. The Burmese government confiscated the house and the land, accusing him of not being the owner, despite all the submitted documentation attested the contrary. Being forced to sell animals, Soe found recovery in the IDP camp. At his best of knowledge, on his land there are now some government buildings.

Houses are made of bamboo, wood and makeshift materials. In the camps, most of these houses were built by NGOs. Soils are predominantly sandy and dry and do not allow productive or profitable agriculture. Rickety geese and chickens, few scrawny cows or goats rummage in the dust. In some villages, people sell meat and vegetables, or there are some poor refreshment facilities; customers are those few people who can afford it, or some military patrolling around. There is no electricity. There is no water, which is supplied by NGOs in plastic containers or rudimentary wells. In some camps, some bathrooms have been arranged: a row of wooden cubbyholes with a hole in the center. Numbered, one for each family.

The Arkar’s NGO also provides basic medical care, through a mobile clinic and a space for supporting pregnant women, but it does not cover overnight. To exit the camp, for visits or hospitalization in Sittwe hospitals, there are many difficulties. The applicant must be authorized by the government, which usually takes time for a decision; therefore, in urgent cases it is unlikely that the government will accept the request promptly. Also, applicants and families have to bribe the military to exit from camps. Furthermore, many Rohingyas do not trust about Sittwe's hospitals. They know they are unpopular among Burmese and are afraid -as it happened- that the treatment is purposely superficial or inadequate. Two young women tell me of having swelling, loss of sensitivity, and severe pain in their knees. They have difficulties in walking, and are supported by two people even walking for a few meters. Their faces are suffering. Despite the advice by the clinic, they did not go to the hospital; one of the two, having pain for over six months, says that they would rather die in Sittwe. Despite the efforts, humanitarian aids are insufficient to meet the needs of the population. The scarcity of food and water, and the poor hygienic conditions, lead to high mortality rates, especially for children. An elderly woman says that about 500 children under five years died dead in the area since 2012, 200 of which below a year, mainly for diarrhoea.

Rohingya’s faces appear to be hopeless. A man delivered a letter to me, handwritten, in which he talks about the discrimination by the Government and their suffering. He asks a redemption for his people, talks about the support by the NGO, and please doing everything possible to witness the plight of the Rohingya. To which, probably, it just remains to die.

Thursday, November 17, 2016

What Causes Disasters?

When you picture a disaster, what comes to mind? The Asian Tsunami? The Haitian Earthquake? Hurricane Katrina? What about the Syrian Civil War? Is it a disaster? Most people think of disasters in terms of the natural hazards that act as the trigger; earthquakes, cyclones, floods and tsunamis are some of the most widely perceived hazards. The prevalence of this outlook produces a myth of disasters as natural occurrences. This masks the fact that disasters occur due to complex social, political and economic choices and circumstances.

Certain cities, countries and regions are undeniably more exposed to natural hazards than others. Residents of New Zealand and Japan understand and accept the likelihood of earthquakes impacting on their lives, just as residents of the Philippines and Caribbean island nations understand and accept the likelihood of destructive typhoons/cyclones. In many cases, relocation away from a hazard is not a possibility.

However, not every individual or community or nation that faces a high likelihood of natural hazards occurring due to location is equally affected. Impact is determined by factors other than the strength or the frequency of the hazard.

Since the Industrial Revolution we have witnessed significant changes in every aspect of our society. Much is made of the "progress" of the human race since then. However, as much as the wealth and health generated has allowed our species to flourish, more people have been the victims of this progress than have been beneficiaries. Billions of people today suffer from hunger, thirst, poverty, discrimination, conflict and other injustice, often stemming directly from the "progress" of others.

Disasters are simply inevitable in this world of deep injustice, where the majority have been left behind (and in many cases left worse off) as the privileged few have moved ahead.

We can analyse people that have been left behind at different levels. Certain countries benefited greatly from colonisation and more recently, globalization. In both cases, the majority are left to serve the minority from a position of powerlessness. This translates into a widening divide between the rich and the poor. Rising inequality is not only a growing issue between countries, but between communities and classes in most nations. At the scale of the individual, personal characteristics and circumstances are key.

Right now, in 2016, it feels as though we are hurtling towards catastrophic collapse. From the refusal to take real action on climate change (and in many cases outright denial of the problem) to the power-grab by reactionary political elements, strengthened by public discontent with the neoliberal status quo. Rhetoric is becoming more divisive, more hateful, more intolerant.

Our finely tuned ecosystems are breaking down. The "progress" of the human race has resulted in great losses for all other life on earth. Our coral reefs are dying. Our oceans are being emptied. Our forests and jungles are being destroyed. Almost all agricultural diversity is being lost. Species are becoming extinct at 1000 times the background rate (without our influence). We treat everything (living and otherwise) on earth as a resource to be exploited for profit.

We are in the middle of a mass extinction and we carry on as if things have never been better. Hubris. Blissful ignorance. Dangerous delusion.

When I started on my research journey in this field, I wrongly assumed that the best I could do was discover how to manage disasters more efficiently, competently and sensitively. Of course, I quickly realised that this approach is based on a highly reactive ideology that does not offer real hope for reducing losses in the future, particularly in a world changing in the way that it is. To commit to only managing disasters seems to assume that we cannot do more.

My view is that we need to advocate for an approach based on a deeper understanding of and concern for the reasons why disasters happen, why people are vulnerable in the first place and what the human and non-human impacts of disasters are.

We must respond to the needs of our planet and all forms of life on it. We should not accept disasters as natural, or associated losses as an inevitable outcome. A disaster risk reduction approach is committed to addressing the socially constructed root causes of disasters. Scholarship in this field asserts that pre-existing vulnerability is always the main predictor of disaster impact, and efforts to reduce risk begin invariably with root causes rather than symptoms.

By finding ways to help people become less vulnerable, and opposing the political, economic and social norms that hold them back, it is still possible to envisage a world with less disasters.

Tuesday, November 1, 2016

Scientific Evidence: Generated today, ignored tomorrow

by Jason von Meding and Giuseppe Forino

Habitat III (The United Nations Conference on Housing and Sustainable Urban Development) in Quito, Ecuador, took place from 17-20 October. It brought together over 35,000 participants to discuss sustainability, inclusiveness, and resilience in cities. While the text was adopted at the UN General Assembly in September, Habitat III shifted the focus on to implementation.

Source: UN Habitat
Cities are very much a central theme of the 21st Century. In the next 30 years, explosive growth will occur, particularly in developing world’s urban centres. Our major problems, from climate change to increasing inequality can be addressed most rapidly by understanding and harnessing this trend. On the other hand, rapid growth in cities on the current trajectory will simply exacerbate the exploitation, marginalisation and deep rooted vulnerability that the most at risk sections of society face.

This largely unplanned growth of urban areas places limits on efforts to reduce risk, while creating additional problems with which future residents must contend. Habitat III is the latest UN-led conference that touts inclusivity of stakeholders, empowerment of minorities and a global consensus. The University of Newcastle is eager to be heard as part of the highly visible UN platform, participating in both the World Conference on Disaster Risk Reduction and Habitat III.

At each global forum the latest research is presented and the evidence is drawn upon to chart a path forward. The question is, what happens after the photo-op, the press release, the new framework, the policy paper?

Role of Science in Providing Input and Shaping Awareness in Society

In the case of the ‘New Urban Agenda’, the scientific community continues to build upon the knowledge base in diverse disciplinary areas, contributing to our understanding of every aspect of urbanisation. We learn more and more about the problems we may face and the solutions that human innovation may offer.

What is also clear is that without considerable political will at the very top level, structural social and economic problems will persist and worsen. Meanwhile, the environmental impact of accelerating growth in urban areas is likely to be dire. Without a clear and feasible mitigation strategy, it could be catastrophic.

The scientific community is at the forefront of identifying and helping us understand important issues in society that must be responded to. We cannot ignore the impact of economic and political decisions on the most vulnerable, even when pursued for the greater good of building ‘resilient cities'; for example through gentrification; land grabbing, displacement and genocide; growth of unplanned settlements without tenure, health or safety issues; environmental degradation.

Besides telling us what the problems are, science should champion progressive change. We have become accustomed to celebrating new technologies, better policy recommendations and more efficient management process and frameworks to follow. In the meantime, risk among the most vulnerable multiplies and we avoid the uncomfortable truth that our solutions do not help everyone. We try to depoliticise disasters.

There are numerous barriers that prevent the scientific community from achieving maximum impact in society. Research funding often comes with strings attached. Universities and research institutes - consciously or not - play the neoliberal game and scholars are herded towards projects that have a financial imperative. Research much fit with the government agenda.

The relationship between science and the media is often unhealthy. This can be as much about scholars under pressure to perform as about journalists looking for a story. The 24-hour media cycle and now a truly global platform means that the unique and sensational sells.

The scientific community often fails to communicate its ideas clearly to the public. In some areas of research, virtually nothing is understood by the public and in others, widely held myths are not challenged often enough to be displaced. In the absence of a simple explanation, anyone can write almost anything they like and sound informed.

Has Science been Stifled by the ‘International Community’?

All of us read and use policy documents produced and promoted by international organizations for disaster risk reduction, sustainable development and climate change agendas. We know that often their contents and outcomes can be widely criticised, they are nevertheless useful as a background to develop our ideas.

While 2015 was marked by significant global agreements in Sendai, New York and Paris, very little was demanded in terms of accountability for the failures of previous agreements to curb our excesses, slow environmental destruction and protect the most vulnerable. Of course, there are many success stories of the previous decades, but to continually focus on these alone is somewhat disingenuous. Who is responsible for failures in implementation? Of course, most negotiators are able to say, ‘the previous government!’

Each of the ultimately non-binding pacts is highly aspirational and difficult to implement, with much left open for interpretation. Often they leave a sense of vagueness and incompleteness, failing to address the systemic root causes of today’s problems, choosing rather to rely on a particular kind of science which limits analysis at the present without understanding how communities, places and society evolve through their particular history in their capabilities, trajectories, and disadvantages.

A watering down of each agenda at the negotiation table was a far cry from where each dialogue began, often with the close input of the scientific community. In the end, it is not necessarily scientific evidence that shapes the final document but the agenda of national negotiators (and of course their corporate partners).

We end up wondering whether the knowledge being generated for these events really does anything beyond legitimising the status quo? If our calls for radical change in economic and development imperatives are ignored or compromised, it is difficult to see how our diligent engagement actually prevents in any way the continued marginalization of already disempowered people around the world, by the economic system that is backed by the UN itself.

Implementation and Political Will

Why are the best and most revolutionary ideas ‘not feasible’ when it comes to implementation? Often it is because a powerful interest would be left worse off. In global negotiations, much has been said about the lobbying power of the United States to veto any proposal. This was certainly the case in 2015, when much of the fine tuning was done by the US teams.

In addition, we observe a narrow scope of acceptable policy and practice. Rarely do bureaucrats discuss root causes of poverty, or hunger, or disaster risk, much less ways to solve such pressing issues. We are told to believe in the ‘invisible hand’. We are sold PPP’s and re-insurance and free trade agreements.

The most celebrated science at these forums does not rock the boat. Rather, it aligns perfectly with a religiously neoliberal worldview, and the government bodies, NGOs, philanthropic organisations and (sometimes discretely) the corporations that call themselves the ‘international community.’ Furthermore, science that cannot be monetised is sadly not a high priority. This is leading to an increasingly corporatised UN conference circuit.

In the implementation of the agreements on climate change, sustainable development disaster risk reduction and cities, there is little pressure to implement progressive change because what that looks like is not widely understood. The public often do not know whether their leaders are taking action based on evidence or not. They do not understand the science, the historical context or the hidden agendas. The media is generally committed only to reinforcing pre-conceptions among its viewers, listeners and readers. This destructive cycle fosters both ignorance and misunderstanding about science.

We cannot blame only the lobby groups and the private interests and the powerful states for the lack of real change. We must reflect on the failure of the scientific community to force the hand of politicians through watertight evidence, communicated not only at UN conferences but to the public in a way that they can understand. Some scientists are not asking the right questions, but many are and do not communicate effectively. Politicians more often than not bow to public pressure, and one way that we can stimulate transformation is through knowledge. Only under intense pressure will there ever be any ‘political will’ to change.

Sunday, October 30, 2016

What’s new in Italy? Some notes on this October seismic swarm

Before starting: 
While I was writing today this piece about the Italian earthquake on 26th October, a new earthquake occurred in the same areas (Preci, Norcia, Ussita, Arquata del Tronto). Much information is yet to be confirmed. Some important pieces of cultural heritage, such as the Basilica of San Benedetto in Norcia, have collapsed. Places affected by the previous earthquakes in August and few days ago have been hit as well. The magnitude has to be confirmed at 6.5-6.6. It seems that some villages are isolated and at least three people have been rescued under collapsed buildings. No reported victims. All to be confirmed and updated in the next hours.

The seismic swarm on 26th October

A seismic swarm occurred on the 26th October in the Valnerina area (Umbria region) and in part of the Macerata province (Marche region). The list of affected places is long, including: Visso, Ussita, Camerino, Cingoli, Matelica, Norcia, San Severino Marche, Tolentino, Castelsantangelo sul Nera. These areas are just a few kilometres far away from Amatrice, Accumoli and Arquata del Tronto, hit on 24th August by an earthquake which caused 291 deaths, hundreds of injured and thousands of evacuees. The environment is similar: settlements with centuries (in some cases one millennium) of history placed on, or perched upon, hills and mountains in the astonishing landscapes of Central Apennines. The social structure is similar, with villages usually host to a few hundred inhabitants with an elderly demography. The loss of centuries of settlements, history, cultural heritage, and human-environment relationships represents again an unfathomable loss for Italy and the world.

The collapsed Basilica of San Benedetto, Norcia, this morning. Source: Twitter
While damage has been severe, there was just one reported victim (a 73 years old man due to heart attack); few were severely injured, and rescues from collapsed buildings were not necessary. This appears to be because when the first quake of 5.4M occurred, people that were already worried after the earthquake in August were able to evacuate to safer areas, so they were safe when the strongest swarm of 5.9M occurred. The earthquake was felt in Rome, where people left their houses going into the streets; in L’Aquila, which is still recovering (and will do for decades) from the earthquake in 2009; as well as in Amatrice and closer areas, where other buildings collapsed. Approximately 4000 people have evacuated, in addition to the other 3500 evacuees after the earthquake on 24th August.

It would appear that the destruction of settlements is a sufficient, but not necessary condition, to draw attention by politics, media and general audience (but I have to admit, also by scholars). The smell of victims’ blood is necessary, together with the dust on the face of rescuers awake for 48 hours (better if helped by some rescuers dogs) in order to bring politicians in the affected areas doing portraits of themselves while hugging affected people, or press and television doing interviews or filming ruins, better with a heartbreaking soundtrack on the background. Easily touching our intimate nature as voyeurs, these kind of story are something widely and rapidly shared. Conversely, a part of two initial and “emotional” days, politics, media, and press very poorly covered this October event. Being not at a catastrophic level, it can therefore be declassified as a routine into Italian life and institutions. However, this earthquake is important like any other Italian earthquake. It serves to confirm the usual trends, to reject common and established narratives given, and to add hidden perspectives which are now urgent, as very briefly presented below.

A damaged building in Visso (Macerata province), 26th October 2016. Source: RT

Confirming the perennial emergency

When a disaster happens (flood or earthquake, does not matter) in Italy, we should always wonder what has been done in the past. For example, it is acknowledged that these areas have a great exposure to seismic hazards. Seismologists recognized that seismic faults are very active in these months, so preparedness is an important phase to be understood. Therefore, efforts should have been done immediately at least for improving preparedness among communities and institutions, for updating and sharing (when present) emergency plans, for assessing their usefulness, for improving the collaboration between City Councils and communities and between different levels of government. For the longer term, critical conditions in terms of buildings and slope stability (there have been some landslides) should have been monitored, assessed, and solutions implemented. However, it seems we live in a perennial emergency, whether an earthquake, a flood, or an induced “waste crisis”. Discussions start just after an emergency, Twitter becomes inundated of hashtags, the news occupy pages of media and of political talks for two weeks, the “state of emergency” is proclaimed for years deviating from normal administrative and transparent operations; then, all sink into oblivion until the next tragedy. Great part of politics and media stopped talking about Amatrice and other areas after three weeks, leaving those places alone and the affected communities with lasting physical and social disruption.

New bottles, old wine: confirming same problems

When an earthquake happens in Italy, the immediate reaction is to point the finger to the protection of cultural heritage. In my previous intervention on this blog after the earthquake in August, I tried to explain why reducing seismic risk is not just a question of safeguarding cultural heritage, but recalls questions of political commitment, risk perception, necessity of clearer focus by institutions, collaboration with local communities, and improvement of the everyday life of these places with jobs, basic and public services, transport, environmental protection. In this way, it is time to draw attention to the astonishing problem Italy has in terms of safety in public buildings.


Some hospitals have been evacuated few days ago, as in Cingoli, Matelica, Tolentino, and Norcia. Meanwhile, some patients from some Extended Care Units have been moved to other units. In 2009, in L’Aquila, the San Salvatore hospital, opened since 2000, was severely damaged and patients were evacuated. The same happened in some hospitals in Emilia. This serves to confirm the shameful conditions of the public healthcare system.

Students’ accommodations

Among the others, the historical centre of Camerino has been evacuated. Camerino is a small town of around 7000 people hosting one of the oldest universities in Europe (since 1366), and thousands of students from around Italy. Within the historical centre, most of the students lived in rented apartments, therefore leading to ask how owners prevent harm to students which often move into town with a low/nil perception of risk and sometime have to cope with financial constraints. Questions also arise about whether a public institution such as a university (University of Camerino in this case, but we can easily extend to most of the Italian universities) cares about the quality of the accommodations and the related wellbeing provided for their students, which also largely contribute to the local economy. In this case, we have to remember that one of the students’ accommodations provided by the University of L’Aquila, a post-war multi-floor building so-called Casa dello Studente, collapsed in 2009, and 8 students perished. Again, nothing new in this case.

Schools and university buildings

A damage assessment in the area is ongoing for school buildings, and schools’ operations are suspended. This is a very sensitive issue, as in past earthquakes several schools and university buildings sustained severe damages. Recalling recent episodes, in the Abruzzi region after the L'Aquila earthquake dozens of schools were considered unsafe for occupancy and moved into temporary school shelters called MUSPs (Moduli ad Uso Scolastico Provvisorio), still on the ground and hosting thousands of students. Also the University of L’Aquila buildings were severely damaged and operated for years out of temporary solutions such as industrial hangars. In Emilia and Lombardy regions, in 2012, dozens of schools were severely damaged. In Molise (31st October 2002, rightly 14 years ago), 28 out of the total 30 victims were in San Giuliano di Puglia (1000 inhabitants), where the rooftop of the primary school collapsed because of the earthquake killing 27 kids and one teacher. Last August, a wing of the primary school in Amatrice collapsed, among the others.

The collapsed school in Amatrice. Source
While some overlaps existing between cultural heritage and public buildings exists in Italy, we should therefore include in our discussions also which kind of public services are provided, and how.

Rejecting the mantra of a generalizable reconstruction model

Some of the aforementioned villages (e.g., Visso, Ussita, Preci, Camerino, Castelsantangelo sul Nera) were already affected by the earthquake in Umbria and Marche regions on September 1997, which left 11 victims and severe damages to important cultural heritage such as the Basilica of San Francis in Assisi, one of the most important sites for catholic religion and pilgrims. Therefore, important questions arise relating to whether these collapsed buildings benefited of reconstruction funds after 1997; who assessed and monitored the reconstruction process; how it has been done; and, therefore, how reconstruction funds allocated to “build back better” were really used.

A serious investigation must eventually reject the toxic narrative of the post-disaster reconstruction in Umbria and Marche (1997) regions as a successful and exportable “model” to be applied in other affected areas. The mantra of a generic -and generalizable- reconstruction model is still in fact a commonly accepted discourse in Italy (but not limited to it). Particularly, after the earthquake in Amatrice, the Prime Minister Matteo Renzi appointed the former President of the Emilia-Romagna Region, Vasco Errani, as Commissario per la Ricostruzione, a sort of Director appointed for managing the reconstruction process. Renzi choose Vasco Errani as he was called for the same appointment after the earthquake in Emilia-Romagna in May 2012. Strong criticisms remain on his outcomes in the region (Pitzalis, 2016), while some (like me) consider this appointment as purely an opportunity to give political office to a party member. Nevertheless, the Italian government justified this appointment, claiming that Errani was successful and effective in managing reconstruction and therefore is the “right man” for exporting the “Emilia reconstruction model” in Amatrice and surrounding areas. However, longstanding evidences from scientific literature report that reconstruction models never find application, and when these models are forcibly implemented in an affected area can contribute to worsen the existing conditions (Lizarralde et al., 2010).

In Italy, the complexity of politics and of governance structures strongly affects the reconstruction process, which therefore depends on a vast range of factors, such as the “political use” of earthquake and reconstruction by central governments (as during the Berlusconi mandate after L’Aquila earthquake, 2009); the role assigned to regional governments (after the earthquakes in Friuli, 1976; Umbria and Marche, 1997; and Emilia, 2012); the relations between central and regional governments (after the earthquakes in Friuli, 1976; and Molise, 2002), between politics and science (again in L’Aquila, see for example Alexander, 2014), and between politics and powerful corrupted elites (as after the Campania and Basilicata earthquake, 1980). It is also worthwhile noting that contextual factors at the local level are decisive in addressing reconstruction and its timeframe, such as the characteristics of the built environment (not just of cultural heritage, but also of post-war and recent buildings); the capacity of the affected communities to claim and enforce their will and rights; the skills, knowledge, and capacities by local institutions (e.g., Mayor and City Councils) in managing emergency, disasters, and related risk reduction. All these variables strictly interact and shape governance, resource management, interactions. All have to be evaluated case by case, Municipality by Municipality, sometime neighbourhood by neighbourhood, and therefore do not allow to generalize the successfulness -or not- of a post-earthquake reconstruction.

Adding something new: an “emerging” problem in prisons’ safety?

An emerging problem is related to prisons and should require immediate attention not just in Italy, and came on my mind after reading this article, unfortunately in Italian. The earthquake severely damaged the prison of Camerino. Detainees were moved to Rome, while three correction officers were injured. This represents a very sensitive issue as it proves how a social system contributes to the creation of individual and collective vulnerabilities, as detainees have not freedom of movement and are constrained into their cells in case of danger or when a hazard occurs. It also represents an institutional vulnerability as the governance structure of the prison system in Italy did not go through deep reflections on how to ensure safety for detainees requiring assistance in case of hazards. This is not the first time, as for example some prisons were evacuated after the earthquake in Emilia. 

Furthermore, a very interesting witness is that of an ex-detainee in Poggioreale, the prison of Naples. He told that during the earthquake in 1980 (still the strongest and costliest earthquake in Southern Europe since 1980, 3000 victims in total, 53 victims in Naples due to a collapsed building), detainees were left into their cells as “trapped mice” while all the panicked guards left the structure. Of course, this occured 36 years ago; however, the issue of seismic risk for prison never emerged in Italy and only recently have some contributions been provided into literature (Gaillard and Navizet, 2012). The problem seems to be that no specific guidelines exist and all is left to the prison director, who has to provide safety measures for personnel and detainees, simultaneously minimizing the flight risk. Therefore, the option of opening cells is often impracticable.

It is certainly worth questioning the usefulness of jail detention for some kinds of crimes. In any case, detainees have the right to know the risks of the place and of the building, and to be put in conditions that keep them safe. Italian prisons have longstanding problems of overcrowding and of lack of basic human rights in terms of healthcare, hygiene, privacy, gender and sex disparities. The context, therefore, already reproduces vulnerability per se, for example in terms of mental health or heat- or vector-related illness. In this way, the issue of seismic risk may appear as naïve; however, it is necessary that a reflection starts now and involves decision-makers, military and civil personnel, and detainees in understanding risks and enacting adequate preparedness measures.


While the earthquake on 26th October luckily reported just one victim, it confirmed existing problems in the built environment, including the quality of public buildings. It also rejects the existence of a generic reconstruction model to be applied without considering very context-specific and local variables. It may also add a perspective, such as that of addressing the seismic risk reduction as a right of detainees, which have been underrated by now, but should find more space in scientific and public debate. Once again, these issues have to be discussed and stressed in "peace time", and not following the (genuine, but very often rhetorical) emotional mood  on social media or the political propaganda in the aftermath of a disaster. These issues have to be part of our everyday life, and should be improved through the individual and community everyday life, particularly of those which our social system make vulnerable, for a vast range of reasons.   

PS; I have to thank very much those Italian scholars with which I exchange ideas, impressions, and news about disasters and risks in Italy.  


Alexander, D. E. (2014). Communicating earthquake risk to the public: the trial of the “L’Aquila Seven”. Natural Hazards, 72(2), 1159-1173.

Gaillard, J. C., & Navizet, F. (2012). Prisons, prisoners and disaster. International Journal of Disaster Risk Reduction, 1, 33-43.

Lizarralde, G., Johnson, C., & Davidson, C. (Eds.). (2009). Rebuilding after disasters: From emergency to sustainability. Routledge.

Pitzalis, S., 2016, Politiche del disastro. Poteri e contropoteri nel terremoto emiliano, Ombre Corte.

Monday, October 24, 2016

Flood Disaster in Central Vietnam: The Need to Involve Experts

by Chinh Luu and Jason von Meding

From 12-15 October, 2016, Central Vietnam faced an all too common occurance - disastrous flooding. While meteorologists are not surprised by the intense 2016 monsoon season due to the El Niño phenomenon and warmer Pacific water temperatures, the impacted provinces from Ha Tinh to Thua Thien Hue are some of the most vulnerable in Vietnam. As is often the case, the root causes of this disaster have been overlooked.

In some areas in Quang Binh, total rainfall reached over 900mm in 3 days. Torrential rain led to rivers overflowing their banks. Flooding in mountainous areas caused landslides and across the region, roads were destroyed and residential areas were devastated. 

Ho Chi Minh Trail underwater (Source:
According to a report by the Department of Natural Disaster Prevention and Control (national level), the main impact of the floods included 34 deaths, over 100,000 flooded properties, over 300,000 animals killed and widespread damage to roads, agricultural land, canals, dykes and embankments. 

Boating through Phong Nha (Photograph by Mi Xu)
The severe consequences in terms of loss of lives and property in Ha Tinh and Quang Binh province cause us to look at preparedness and response from the national level to the local level (province, district and commune). What we find is that both those responsible for disaster management and those affected by disasters adopt a largely passive approach. 

Institutional framework for disaster management in Vietnam
The institutional framework for disaster management in Vietnam shows that the public administration apparatus is entirely responsible for disaster related activities and that expert scholars and scientists are not involved in decision-making committees. 

The approach of the Vietnamese government is almost entirely reactive. If we want to really understand the impact of a disaster, we must reject the idea that it is a natural event, or the notion that it has no political drivers. In this case, the lack of a proactive approach has all but ensured widespread death and destruction. 

Flood risk management approaches
In the aftermath of such destructive flooding, provincial and district officials have all laid blamed on the flood discharge of a small hydropower project. This has been reported widely in the media. 

We have a situation where the heads of committees and those with decision-making power either do not understand the cause of flooding, or are deliberately misleading the public. Either way, the current working of committees is clearly not effective for protecting people and property. Decision-makers do not possess expertise in disaster management, let alone disaster risk reduction. They are government officials with little accountability.

In May 2014 the Law on Natural Disaster Prevention and Control of Vietnam stipulated that disaster management activities must include prevention, response and remediation of consequences. However, after each event of this nature (which occurs every year and in many localities), we are left with fresh questions as to the effectiveness of the legal, organisational and operational framework. 

Action plans are prepared annually at each level. However, these are primarily administrative documents. They are prepared based on the flood risk management experience of staff working within the political system. 

It is important to note the positive force with which all levels of government in Vietnam are mobilized in a disaster context, working with communities rapidly and in solidarity. This speaks to a strong existing community capacity. However, the presence of the public administration apparatus in flood risk management activities is just not enough. 

We call for the involvement of expert researchers and scientists in the flood risk management steering committee, shifting the focus to more proactive approaches, including mitigation and preparedness. Decisions must be made based on a combination of the latest scientific knowledge and a deep sensitivity to the local context. A solution to reduce risk in Central Vietnam must go beyond a technical fix; it must be economic, social, political and environmental. 

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Change, or the Same Old Thing?

Sometimes it appears that nothing is changing. The rich and powerful continue to find new ways to subjugate, oppress, control and generally get what they want. The injustice that we observe all around us can be overwhelming, a feeling enhanced by a rapid dissemination of information that is unique to our time. War, disease and greed are timeless. So too, though, are kindness, compassion and love. 

We may wonder, therefore, whether the age that we live in is really any different and to what degree we should be genuinely concerned for the future of humanity. In my writing, I argue repeatedly that we must reject the social/economic/political status quo. This is a status quo that has generated great wealth and has overseen remarkable progress in science, the arts and every aspect of society. If we are to advocate for a departure from it, we have a responsibility both to diagnose the problem and suggest a treatment.

Given this context, there are 5 key reasons that I believe that today is indeed different to any other time in history. This is why I think that we must consider radical alternatives if we are to protect life, health and human rights in the future.

1. Society/culture
- We are seeing a rise in nationalism and tribalism in politics. In more and more countries, society is driven by materialism, the quest for possessions. Externally, this manifests in displays of dominance and greed. Our education systems are producing robots rather than thinkers, lending their support to questionable societal and governmental objectives. A nuclear war is a distinct possibility, as the U.S. and allies further militarise and position themselves against Russia and China.

2. Environmental damage - We are in the middle of a mass extinction event, the so-called ‘Holocene extinction’. Last time this happened, the dinosaurs and most everything else died within 3 human lifetimes. We are losing species now at an alarming rate, and this is before we even consider the impact of ecological tipping-points due to climate change.

3. Consumption - Consider this; the global middle class is projected to grow to 3.2 billion by 2020 and 4.9 billion by 2030. Our planet is currently coming apart at the seams as it is and imagine the impact if most people consumed like the average middle-class Westerner, which appears to be the objective.

4. A Global Cabal of the Powerful - We rely on whistleblowers, hackers and activists to bring truth, while the mainstream media promotes and protects the status quo, collaborating and conspiring with the corporations, billionaires, politicians and other powerful individuals and collectives that profit from the established order of things.

5. Corporate Dominance - Since the industrial revolution, we have seen a continuous effort to privatise profit to generate wealth for a select few that hold power and influence. At the same time, any negative impact (social, environmental, economic) is shifted onto the public. Nothing is sacred, everything is subject to privatisation. Political lobbying and corruption has destroyed any pretence of governance in the interests of the people. National governments are run as corporate enterprises.

Today we face new challenges, or exacerbated conditions that demand immediate attention. We do not have time to wait and see what happens; we must act on the evidence that is before us. There are powerful forces that will oppose any radical ideas for change. They will divide us in any way possible. They will ridicule us as naive 'purists'. They will manufacture consent for their agenda.

We must organise for a fight.
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