Strengthening societal responses to natural hazard events
18 January 2022
Our societies generally need to enhance their preparedness for extreme natural hazard events, such as large forest fires, extreme weather events and major floods. Crisis planning, an interdisciplinary study shows, is often based on time-honoured truths with weak scientific support.
“Most societies, not just Sweden, generally have difficulties planning for worst-case scenarios. The bigger, more complex and more unlikely an event is, the greater the risk we’ll be unprepared,” says Daniel Nohrstedt, Professor of Political Science at the University’s Department of Government. Together with colleagues at the interdisciplinary Centre of Natural Hazards and Disaster Science (CNDS), he led the study.
The researchers reviewed current knowledge underlying several of the United Nations’ recommended actions for countries to reduce disaster risk. One conclusion is that some of these actions are based on oversimplified or unfounded assertions and assumptions. Important knowledge is lacking in several key areas – risk awareness, preventive measures, damage assessments, how far extreme events trigger conflicts and refugee flows, and how to organise and coordinate emergency preparedness and disaster response, for example.
“The UN emphasises, for instance, that the whole of society must be involved and work together to mitigate disaster risks. Yet, we know that broad collaboration is quite complicated and hard to achieve in practice. Why is it that only certain actors engage in collaboration, when it is optimal for multiple agents to participate? Then there is the learning aspect. We expect disasters to be followed by nuanced reform efforts to enhance society’s preparedness for future disasters, but we do not actually know that much about how common such reforms are, or how to explain them. Why do some disasters result in important reforms while others do not? More research is needed here,” Nohrstedt says.
Extreme weather events
Preparing a society to cope with catastrophic natural hazard events is also costly. This may partly explain why political decision-makers sometimes do not prioritise the issue, especially if the likelihood of a disaster occurring is small or very remote in time. But weather events that are relatively uncommon today are expected to become more frequent and extreme in the future due to climate change, even in Sweden.
“That is what climate adaptation is all about: deciding what changes are required to reduce society’s vulnerability to climate change. These issues are often dominated by experts, and how to give them higher political priority is a key topic to discuss. It is not really complicated – essentially it is a matter of getting leaders of public and private organisations more actively engaged to broaden the scope of participation in preparedness and adaptation work. It is also important not to end up with a false sense of security. It is vital to have contingency plans and resources in place, but they also need to be updated regularly and supplemented with training and education.”
Not all countries, however, have the resources to effectively reduce the risks of extreme natural events having catastrophic impacts.
“Poverty is the most important problem. The most catastrophic disasters affect low-income countries the hardest and the human costs of disasters are unevenly distributed between poor and rich countries. The purpose of the UN declarations is to identify measures to effectively reduce impacts of disasters. More research is needed to enhance the understanding of risks and measures,” Nohrstedt concludes.
Daniel Nohrstedt et al., Disaster risk reduction and the limits of truisms: Improving the knowledge and practice interface, International Journal of Disaster Risk Reduction. DOI: 10.1016/j.ijdrr.2021.102661