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Keys to natural disaster management

Leire Labaka, Professor of the Chair Catastrophes of the Aon Foundation at Tecnun-School of Engineering of the University of Navarre.

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Leire Labaka, professor of the Chair Catastrophes of the Aon Foundation at Tecnun-School of Engineering of the University of Navarra PHOTO: Communication Service
13/10/20 10:01 Communication Service

This year more than ever we have seen how natural disasters can influence social, economic and political stability around the world. These events, which more often than not occur unexpectedly, are whipping our day-to-day lives to the very limits of our well-being. Few had foreseen that the biggest threat of 2020 would be a pandemic of such magnitude. Most countries and cities did not consider it among the most likely and vulnerable risks. Surely the current lifestyle, the high population density in urban environments and international mobility have further aggravated its effects leading to other crises such as the crisis in the health system, the economic crisis, political instability, the crisis at Education and in general to a global social crisis that may even have more social impact than the pandemic itself. 

Although all the media focus has been concentrated on the management and impact of COVID-19, it has not been the only disaster that has occurred in 2020. The fires in Australia and Chernobyl, the recent Alex storm that mainly affected France and Italy, the locust plague in East Central Africa and the floods in different parts of the world, among others, show that our planet is still very vulnerable to these events.

But 2020 was no exception. Economic impacts from natural disasters recorded during 2019 reached $232 billion, representing the fourth year in history with the highest figure after 2017, 2011 and 2016. This shows that they are having an increasing impact on our lives.

It is therefore necessary that we adopt measures that allow us to anticipate and prepare ourselves to face these disasters in the best possible way. Bearing in mind that these events are very difficult or even impossible to prevent, we have to develop mechanisms that alert us of their possible occurrence, as well as resilient capacities to be able to adapt to any status and know how to make decisions that allow us to reduce the impact and recover as soon as possible. 

In order to adequately manage natural disasters, it is essential to take into account 6 principles. The first is that decisions are made by experts, since they are the ones who know the problem and the solution, as well as the consequences and impacts that each of the measures implemented in the response and recovery of the disaster may have. 

On the other hand, the collaboration of all social agents involved in disaster management is necessary. In this way we ensure collaboration mechanisms between agents at different levels (local, regional and national) and from different sectors such as land use planning, critical infrastructures, the public health system, Education, environmental protection or social welfare. For all this, it is essential to create environments of public-private collaboration and with the presence of society that facilitates the acquisition of resources and facilities as well as the knowledge developed in private companies and the information that citizens can provide. 

The third principle would be the holistic vision of the problem, that is, not to reduce it to a sector or to a city or region in isolation. The world is global and the problems affect globally. And when making decisions, we need to manage the disaster from its complexity, evaluating the indirect impacts that decisions may have on other sectors as well as on other cities, regions or even nations. 

Leadership and communication are vital to build trust with citizens and to ensure that they understand, support and implement the measures in place. Constant vigilance and awareness-raising are also important. There must be measures and indicators that allow early identification of the problem and greater awareness on the part of the authorities and society. This could help us to achieve a more proactive attitude in disaster management and increase the level of involvement of all actors to respond better. 

The sixth principle would be citizen empowerment. Citizens must feel that they are part of the problem but also part of the solution and that their participation in the response and recovery is essential. 

Natural disasters have an increasing impact on our lives as we become more and more dependent on the proper functioning of our system. The complex interrelationships that exist between all systems mean that a natural disaster quickly spreads to all sectors of society. It may even spread to other regions or nations immediately. 

Therefore, we need to take care of our planet and be responsible with the environment and its deterioration, reducing our impact as much as possible. Let us act responsibly and be resilient in order to successfully face disasters that may occur in the future.

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