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Disasters by design: the need for actionable risk management

Written by Sarah Opitz-Stapleton

Image credit:Andreas Janke Image license:CC BY-SA 2.0

The ongoing heatwave in England and recent, devastating floods in western Germany are raising multiple questions in the media – about hazard warnings, why don’t some people listen, is this caused by climate change?

All of these are good questions, but it’s the first two I’d like to focus on. When trying to prevent a disaster, one of the key tools is hazard early warning. Warn people that something potentially dangerous is coming their way – a heatwave or a flood, for example. But when the event is over, and still people have died and are missing, houses are destroyed and other critical infrastructure damaged, the blame games often start. Did someone ‘fail’ to issue the warning? This is a significant topic in Germany right now.

What makes an effective early warning

The blame game doesn’t help to save lives or improve disaster preparedness. For an early warning to protect life and property, it needs to outline in clear and easy to understand language what the hazard is and its potential impacts, where will be affected, and most importantly feasible actions of what to do about it to protect oneself. This last element is missing in the current Amber heat warning in England, but is outlined in US extreme heat advisories.

For decades, disaster researchers (PDF) have been talking about the need for warnings to consider how target populations perceive what is dangerous, what sources of information they trust and whether or not the warning outlines protection measures most people actually have the means to take. People who have lived through a previous event will compare the warning to their experience, and decide if they believe the situation could be dangerous enough to warrant action. Others believe the message, but if the message is too precise and inaccurate – such as some of the flood warnings in Germany indicating that only areas 50 metres to the left and right of a river were in significant danger and a much wider area was impacted – they might not take into account uncertainties and therefore not take action. Language counts!

Multiple preparedness actions are needed

In the end, issuing a warning will not be enough to protect people alone. Multiple preparedness actions are needed in advance to make effective warnings. These actions have to include continued and sustained outreach to the public and using different language and media, to sensitise people about disaster risks so they are more likely to act when a warning is issued.

It includes providing people with actions they can take to reduce risk that don’t cost money and assistance to the poor for actions that do, like disaster preparedness kits. It requires regulations (and enforcement of these) around where people can build, and the thermal efficiencies and structural integrity of buildings. And it requires more nature-based solutions, such as wetland and floodplain restorations or urban green spaces.

Finally, all of these actions must start considering how climate change will impact hazard frequency and severity. Without these actions and others, we’ll continue to create disasters and we certainly won’t be prepared for the future.