Monday, September 11, 2017

Grenfell Tower fire exposes the injustice of disasters

Jason von Meding, University of Newcastle; Giuseppe Forino, University of Newcastle; J.C. Gaillard, and Ksenia Chmutina, Loughborough University

Decades of gentrification in London and other European cities (including Paris, Barcelona, Rome and Istanbul) have enacted a form of social cleansing. This has pushed away low-income and marginal residents, divided the rich from the poor, and generated inequalities among citizens.

The Hammersmith area, where the Grenfell Tower is located, has been gentrified. This previously working-class area has been transformed into a vibrant middle-class neighbourhood. Just a few residential social housing tower blocks remain.

As a cosmetic measure, the Grenfell Tower was refurbished in 2014. The choice of cladding material that appeared to fuel the fire is now subject to scrutiny, but with no understanding of the social dimensions of the building’s design regulation and safety measures.

Repeated warnings from the Grenfell Tower residents that this was a disaster waiting to happen were ignored.

There has been an outpouring of grief and anger from the affected community and beyond and tensions remain high. While certain elements of the media rebuke those seeking to hold the ruling class accountable, it is important to emphasise a simple truth: disasters are socially – and politically – constructed.

Root causes of disaster

Disasters are often misunderstood as “natural”, or simply assumed to be extreme and tragic events.
This view draws on a century-old paradigm that puts the blame on rare and inescapable natural phenomena, an “act of God”, or technological breakdowns that lie beyond the everyday social fabric.
But there is nothing natural about disasters; disasters usually have root causes of vulnerability that we don’t speak about and that reflect the day-to-day make-up of society – inequality, poverty, political ideology, class and power relations.

These root causes are similar in London, New York, New Orleans, Port-au-Prince and Manila – a few of the world’s cities that have been stricken by major disasters in recent times.


The Grenfell Action Group couldn’t have been clearer in its warnings of disaster – this one is from November 2016. Grenfell Action Group

Disasters as experienced today are often rooted in the historical development of societies. The impacts of colonialism, slavery, military conquest and discrimination based on class, gender, race and religion are visible today.

Billions of people around the world, in both wealthy and less affluent countries, are at this moment suffering under structural injustices. As demonstrated at Grenfell Tower, this is a recipe for disaster.

Structural injustice creates vulnerability

This disaster is quite a shock to British society. Although the contributing sociopolitical drivers (while sometimes not explicitly discussed) are perhaps more visible on this occasion, having struck a centre of wealth and power in London, we need to recognise that injustice lies at the core of almost all disasters.

At the Grenfell Tower and around the world, the poor and the marginalised suffer the most from disasters.

This injustice is not an accident – it is by design. There is no disaster that kills everyone in a particular locality nor one that knocks down all buildings in a single place.

Normally the resources to overcome the impact of natural hazards are available locally. The privileged have access to these resources while those at the margin do not.

Vulnerability to hazards, and related disasters, therefore mirrors how power and resources are unequally shared within societies. More often than not disasters affect people not because of a lack of knowledge about disasters, but because this knowledge is not applied.

Political decisions also put lives at risk. MP Chi Onwurah summarised appropriately when she wrote:
The residents of Grenfell were poor in a rich neighbourhood. They were those the market rejected, a burden on a borough apparently determined the rich should not pay to lift the constraints of the poor.
The British political class has failed to adequately represent the interests of its most vulnerable citizens for decades. That people are consigned to live in such conditions in a wealthy country is at best a betrayal of the vulnerable by the state. Some would call it criminal. It is not only the Tories who must swallow this bitter pill.


Cities are battlegrounds

Cities tend to greatly magnify inequality. The Grenfell Tower disaster is a product of a deep societal divide in Britain, where wealth is increasingly concentrated among a small minority.

Gentrification is pushing already marginalised people out of sight and out of mind. This kind of urban development is a boon for housing market profiteers and supports the ruling class agenda, but neglects the needs of the most needy in society. Marginal people become resourceless, invisible to public policies, and disempowered in public life. This increases their vulnerability.

If cities are to reduce the risk of disasters like the Grenfell fire, we must focus on social justice in urban development. The benefits of development or redevelopment should prioritise the have-nots and provide dignity to people regardless of income or background. Cities that are able to provide opportunities for all citizens are also able to appreciate diversity rather than homogenisation.

The ConversationThe Grenfell Tower fire exposes the injustice of disaster, and this terrible moment must be learned from and acted upon. Pushing people to the margins and deeming them worthless is ultimately what causes them to perish.


Jason von Meding, Senior Lecturer in Disaster Risk Reduction, University of Newcastle; Giuseppe Forino, PhD Candidate in Disaster Management, University of Newcastle; J.C. Gaillard, Associate Professor, School of Environment, and Ksenia Chmutina, Lecturer in Sustainable and Resilient Urbanism, Loughborough University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Sacred Cows of Cancun (and some elephants in the room)

The Sendai Framework for DRR, like the SDGs and the Paris Agreement, represents a successful global negotiation leading to a commitment to address pressing issues for humanity. This week we gather at the Global Platform for Disaster Risk Reduction in Cancun to talk about the move from "commitment to action."

While we should appreciate the goals that are aspired to, and the intention behind them, it would be remiss of us to exclude the promoted strategies to achieve success from critique. Shouldn't we be willing to listen to and respond to criticisms, particularly with such vital outcomes at stake?

We have heard a lot about action this week. Have we really taken action though? Is it the right action? Private sector engagement. Innovation. Technology. Entrepreneurship. Growth. 

Certain assumptions and voluntary blind spots are required in order to promote this approach to "taking action" with little or no debate. Therefore I have put together the following (slightly tongue in cheek) list of issues that I feel a) are simply out of bounds in polite DRR conversation or b) we ignore for convenience.

Sacred Cows of Cancun
  1. Economic Growth - we are still attached to the idea that economic growth is essential. Should we measure success differently? Particularly when we consider 2.
  2. Limitless Consumption - we deny the reality of a finite planet and put all of our eggs in the "decoupling" basket.
Elephants in the Room
  1. Absolute Corporate Power - we have seen a great transfer of power to the private sector. Is this the world that we want to live in? We will see some gains through philanthropy perhaps, but is it worth it? 
  2. Neoliberalism is Failing - 2016 showed a dramatic loss of trust. The public can see that mooted solutions require magical thinking. The rise of reactionary politics is putting more people at risk.
  3. Usually, the Powerful Simply do Not Care - By and large, those in power demonstrate over and over that they do not care if people die, starve or suffer. This is not changing, as much as we might like it to.
We frame our collective action as a force to reduce the impacts of disaster; and more broadly to fight against poverty, hunger, inequality and climate change. But what if we are still not getting to the root causes? The structural injustices? Why are people poor, hungry, marginalised and vulnerable to disasters? 

We might approach these problems with the assumption that our solutions must honour the Sacred Cows and ignore the Elephants. We might double down on failed strategies because we are afraid of challenging the status quo. The academic community has become as inept as the political class at working for the common good, when it demands radical thinking. That cannot continue.

This week we should be having a frank discussion about the uncomfortable issues. Everything is NOT going great. We do NOT have it under control. Radical thinking IS required. 

We need to resist before it is too late. 

Friday, May 19, 2017

Christchurch, a Man Made Disaster?

In April this year, I was member of a group from UoN, looking at the impact on and recovery from the disasters of 2010 and 2011 that impacted Christchurch, New Zealand.

My interest was why a modern vibrant almost sister city, could be unexpectedly laid flat by a series of earthquakes, and how it handled the post-disaster recovery and reconstruction.

On the first morning, I stopped in my tracks outside my hotel viewing the desolate scene, my previous experience with hazards had been on TV.   I did feel numbed wondering what happened to the people who had worked in the invisible buildings.   They would still have their families, mortgages, ideals and aspirations but no workplace.

And that was my first handshake with Christchurch!   The people of Christchurch we met did not complain about losing their jobs, they did comment about: no community consultation; the Red Zone; the stressful insurance negotiations, and the inadequate settlements; the escalating cost of rebuilding, (where is a builder when you want one).

Christchurch had found “the eternal elixir of job creation”, it was called “post disaster building boom”.   It also unfortunately found “upper middle class poverty”.   Family, mid early forty’s; kids at Uni; good jobs; manageable debt, ---The DISASTER --- house deemed unsafe; alternative accommodation; office demolished, got job???; home site acquired unilaterally; home insurance under half expectations, takes 4 years; depression; anger; hopelessness; no assets; bank wants its money, takes insurance and government money; kids university fees???; divorce expensive; admittance to mental health facility.   The Newspapers continued to publish wellbeing surveys (the traumatised are the surveyed), all is well, Christchurch is rebounding.   Which is the truth?

Sorry for that side-track into Christchurch’s real world.   Back to our itinerary, the Anglican Cathedral, its carcass lies in the heart of Christchurch, having been struck a solid blow by the 2010 hazard, suffering a more severe blow through the bishop of Christchurch initiating and then staying demolition early in 2011, in the intervening years suffering an almost fatal blow by dereliction.   Whilst the bishop wants to pull this grand historic building down, the community and the government are fighting her decision in the courts.   Lets all hope that she is vanquished.

We then visited the beautiful Christchurch Art Gallery, reopened in December 2015 after a NZ $ 58 millions refit, including the implementation of a base loading mitigation facility.   A mitigation strategy against the impact of horizontal acceleration during an earthquake.   Unfortunately, it did not address the vertical acceleration that also impacts Christchurch during earthquakes.   Does that mean that the art gallery is half resilient?


Onward to The Exchange (EXCH), a great example of resiliency evolving from a community drop-in centre, a pleasure to visit and to experience such a successful resiliency program in action.

Then to Cultivate Urban Farm, ‘a saint in sheep’s clothing’, offering a sustainability program selling herbs and vegetables to local restaurants and collecting their green waste.   Its real objective, being to nurture and make better troubled youth by engendering self worth whilst they are employed in the gardens.   The unusual method of achieving this goal is to treat their charges as peers, with dignity, respect and purpose, strange isn’t it!

Onward to Resilient Organisations, an enterprise established on the extensive research by academics at Christchurch University into resiliency.   The resiliency referred to, being the resiliency of businesses to survive systemic hazards, a completely different definition of resiliency then we would use in the DRR context, but essential for sustainability.

Then The Lyttelton Project, a community organised and supported project with sustainability the driver of each individual program, we experienced their Saturday farmers market, our support and enthusiasm well demonstrated by the extra kilos we carried back to the bus (and not in carry bags).

Enter the Twilight Zone, in Christchurch called the Red Zone, I had never been in a ghost town, where there were no houses, or any other indication other than the drives across the footpath, that there were once over 8,000 homes in what was a major liquefaction area of Christchurch.   Everyone was somewhat suppressed after our stroll through “nowhere”, Christchurch.

A quick walk around the city area, showed construction, and also the lack of construction.   After six years I thought Christchurch would be a mini Dubai, with cranes everywhere.

My observations 

Was Christchurch a disaster waiting to happen, has it stopped: pre-disaster, irrefutable advice that mitigation was required was ignored; post-disaster, it ignored the community and their reconstruction, another disaster?   A man-made disaster?

Hazards: unpredictable in occurrence and scope; indiscriminate in the social structures they impact; do not adhere to their human assessed “return” periods; leave devastation in their wake; but they do not cause disasters.  

Humans: predictable in their pursuit of profit and self-interest; discriminate towards those who are vulnerable; respond rapidly after a hazard; leave confusion and desolation in their wake; and they do cause disasters.

Tuesday, April 4, 2017

Special Issue "The L'Aquila earthquake ten years on (2009-2019): impacts and state-of-the-art"

Dears,

I am very happy to share with you this call for paper for the Special issue "The L'Aquila earthquake ten years on (2009-2019): impacts and state-of-the-art", which will be edited by me, Giuseppe Forino (University of Newcastle, Australia, g.forino@gmail.com), together with Fabio Carnelli (University of Milan-Bicocca, Italy, fa.carnelli@gmail.com), and will be published on the journal Disaster Prevention and Management in December 2018.

Please feel free to contact us in case of interest and to distribute the call among your networks and peers.

Here the call for paper (also available on the journal website)

Introduction

Due to the recent occurrence of disruptive earthquakes in Italy (Emilia, 2012; Central Italy, 2016 and 2017) following the L’Aquila earthquake in 2009, both disaster scholars and social scientists (sociology, anthropology, geography) communities show a growing interest in understanding the medium and long term impacts of such earthquake and the related controversial recovery. Furthermore, in both national and international journals there is a growing interest on issues related to other Italian earthquakes. Nevertheless, while a number of publications exists about the short-term impacts of the earthquake in L’Aquila, evidences are still necessary for providing a clear understanding of the long terms impacts by the recovery and reconstruction management on local communities, their everyday life, and their surrounding environment. 

Accordingly, this special issue aims to add to the existing body of knowledge on the L’Aquila earthquake a socially-centred perspective able to investigate issues broadly related to impacts on, and response by, the socio-cultural systems and its functioning. Theoretical and methodological findings for disaster research are also welcome. The call aims to collect perspectives from, but not limited to, disaster studies, geography, anthropology, sociology, political ecology, environmental history, and urban studies.


Submissions on topics relating but not limited to;

Long-term reconstruction impacts
Politics and policy in disaster recovery
Political ecology of recovery
Culture, local knowledge and recovery
Social Vulnerability
Disaster governance
Emergency/recovery and socio-psychological aspects
Land-use and land-use conflicts
Space, place, and urban planning
Community and urban resilience
Social/spatial/environmental justice
Risk communication
Housing studies and political economy
Social movements and recovery
Folklore studies, religion and recovery
Methodological and epistemological issues in disaster research
Deadlines

Submission deadline; 31st December 2017
Expected Publication Date: December 2018
Submission Information

Special Issue submissions should be made through ScholarOne Manuscripts, the online submission and peer review system. Registration and access is available at http://mc.manuscriptcentral.com/dpm.

Thursday, March 30, 2017

Methodological Notes on Flood Risk Management Research


My PhD research topic is "Developing an integrated flood risk management framework for Vietnam" under the supervision of Dr Von Meding and Dr Kanjanabootra. I have utilised both quantitative and qualitative approaches, but mainly quantitative. In this post I will share some notes on three quantitative methodology approaches applied in my study.

1) Multi-Criteria Decision-Making (MCDM) methods

MCDM methods enable us to handle quantitative variables and help decision makers in solving flood management problems such as formulating their values and preferences, quantifying these priorities, and to apply them to decision-making processes. Many MCDM techniques are widely used in the field of flood risk management such as AHP, ANP, CP, ELECTREE, MAUT, PROMETHEE, TOPSIS, VIKOR and SAW. I applied two of these methods in my study; Technique for Order Preference by Similarity to the Ideal Solution (TOPSIS) developed by Hwang and Yoon (1981) and Analytic Hierarchy Process (AHP) proposed by Saaty (1988).

The application of AHP is still quite new in the field of disaster management and is gaining more and more attention in the field. It was used to evaluate the criteria and sub-criteria of flood risk components based on decision makers’ judgement in my study. Thankfully, the author of AHP, Professor Thomas L. Saaty, has provided a free software, Super Decisions (http://www.superdecisions.com/) to solve the complicated algorithm of the method. The result using this software looks like this:




TOPSIS is one of the most widely used MDCM methods in the field of flood risk management. I used the TOPSIS method to analyse flood risk across 63 provinces and eight regions in Vietnam using the national disaster database. The results from this evaluation tool provide additional information to support decision-making at a national scale. An example of the analysis is as follows:


2) GIS and MCDM

Geographic Information System (GIS) emerged during the 1960s through the work of Roger Tomlinson in Canada and has been widely used all over the world. GIS is considered a critical tool for spatial analysis and has been applied broadly to natural hazard risk assessment. The combination of flood risk assessment and GIS framework has been implemented in many recent studies at both local and global scale. Spatial flood risk assessments are useful tools for the identification of at-risk locations and the determination of at-risk components which are a necessary foundation to establish appropriate mitigation and adaptation measures. The integration of MCDM and GIS is applied in our study. This is an example of this application:


3) Machine learning (statistics) approach

Machine learning (ML) is the combination of classical statistics and computer science. Prediction is a major endeavour of ML, to answer questions of how to select relevant factors for prediction and how to build good predictive models. ML is divided into supervised and unsupervised learning. The difference is that the supervised learning has an outcome or target variable and the unsupervised one does not. The supervised learning includes such techniques, regression, decision tree, neural networks, k nearest neighbour, support vector machines, Bayesian learning, and random forests. The unsupervised learning includes such techniques, cluster analysis, principal component models and hidden Markov models. The applications of ML are increasingly popular in genetics, medical science, business and flood risk studies.

I applied regression models and tree-based methods of supervised ML in my study. The statistical R software is very powerful for ML implementation. The book “An Introduction to Statistical Learning” (available download at http://www-bcf.usc.edu/~gareth/ISL/) provides a simple explanation of many ML techniques. The authors of this book also provide many lectures with slides and videos (https://www.r-bloggers.com/in-depth-introduction-to-machine-learning-in-15-hours-of-expert-videos/) to illustrate all contents in the book, so it is very convenient to start learning ML (suitable for beginners like me). This is one of my applications using tree-based methods:



My PhD journey is going to finish at the end of this year. This is the most beautiful and meaningful journey in my life. When walking on this trip, I found some interesting ‘transportations’, including the three approaches that I shared in this post. I hope that it can prove useful for other researchers.

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