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The science of mitigating natural disasters

17 December 2021

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The science of mitigating natural disasters

Reported by Ryan Francis, CSaP Policy Intern and Jessica Foster, CSaP Communications Coordinator

As part of CSaP’s seminar series on government data, science, and evidence, an academic from the University of Cambridge led a discussion on how science is used to generate effective warning systems in the face of impending natural disasters or environmental risks.

Dr Amy Donovan, University Assistant Professor in the Department of Geography and Fellow at Girton College, Cambridge, discussed her preliminary findings from interdisciplinary research in Europe and the Global South. Her talk included the nature of 'evidence', its interpretation, and the role of interdisciplinary knowledge in enhancing decision-making and communication when communities are environmentally under threat.

What is environmental risk?
An environmental risk assessment measures the likelihood and consequences of a potential natural hazard. Dr Donovan’s work centres around calculating these risks, mainly from volcano eruptions and climate-related hazards and communicating potential outcomes and risk mitigation methods to affected populations.

Dr Donovan began the session by classifying the different types of scientific evidence that can be used to inform hazard mitigation policy. She said, these types of evidence are (but not limited to): real-time data monitoring, numerical simulations, implied knowledge of experts, social and psychological research trials, and anecdotal stories of past events. Donovan suggested that physical sciences and quantitative evidence are used to calculate risks of potential hazards, whereas social sciences and qualitative evidence can enhance methods of risk communication and dissemination but are less well integrated. She strongly argued that both types of science are equally as important to protect vulnerable communities.

“You can’t very readily triangulate social data in a way that is as precise as physical data. But you can get a lot of very useful information from how people think about their world.”

Dr Donovan then began to explore the interdisciplinary challenges of handling different types of evidence, as ultimately, all evidence must be channelled into policy. Donovan explains that roundtable discussions and workshops between physical and social scientists are effective ways to ensure that the policy is balanced. However, in the Global North, she explained that cultural conditioning has placed a large and disproportionate focus on numbers and quantitative data.

Even when we have a policy, experts still must solve the puzzle of how to disseminate this information to achieve maximum levels of compliance. Donovan argued that historically, not enough research emphasis has been placed upon communicating risks to the public and communities as a dialogue. Interestingly, throughout her research, Donovan noticed that at a very fundamental level, some vulnerable communities (especially in the Global South), do not perceive volcanoes as impending risks—instead they think of a volcano as part of the community, the Earth, and the landscape that they love. She further explained that policies may not always be followed in communities facing economic hardship. For example, she argued that taking care of household needs ranks higher than buying a gas mask for many families - fulfilling basic everyday necessities trumps the willingness to mitigate against the 1% chance of a flood, landslide, or volcanic eruption.

“We asked a lot of scientists for their risk perception, they thought the community they worked with, almost all of them underestimated environmental risk.”

The discussion then opened to participants, where it was proposed impactful risk communication must also be partly based upon listening to communities. It was suggested that exchanging ideas and discussions with the public would help policymakers identify which policies would lead to the highest levels of compliance. This bi-lateral exchange ought to be a continuous process: trust must be built between experts and communities during times of natural dormancy and quiescence. The seminar therefore made clear that time and resources spent on building trust can lead to high levels of compliance, during a natural disaster or impending environmental hazard.

Image Credit: Yosh Ginsu on Unsplash

Dr Amy Donovan

Department of Geography, University of Cambridge

Jessica Foster

Centre for Science and Policy, University of Cambridge

Ryan Francis

Centre for Science and Policy, University of Cambridge