Resilience and prediction of hazards

Next months, these posts focus on the challenges of Earthlings of to bring humane cities closer. These posts represent the main findings of my e-book Humane cities. Always humane. Smart if helpful, updates and supplements included. The English version of this book can be downloaded for free here and the Dutch version here

In my last post, I elaborated on resilience. Resilience has two sides. At the one hand it has to do with policy aimed at anticipation and mitigation hazards. At the other hand, it refers to the capacity of both government and citizens to deal with their impact.

Anticipating hazards

The most difficult problem in anticipating hazards is knowing what hazard to anticipate. This is difficult, given the long list of chronic stressors and acute shocks that can affect a city. Emergency plans should focus not only on the most likely disasters, but on all conceivable ones. Listing possible threats is not that difficult: plane crashes, terrorists blowing up a dam or shooting visitors during a football match, previously unknown massive and violent protests, outbreak of a hitherto unknown deadly disease, an attack by a foreign power or, if you want, aliens, et cetera.

It is impossible to make separate plans for all these threats. The preparation should take place on a more abstract level. For example, what to do if roads are impassable, many people have died, there is no electricity, water and gas, an evacuation must take place within a few hours, et cetera. Agreements must be made in advance about outside assistance, and which means of communication can be used permanently.  

Citizens should be involved in these activities. Otherwise, they will become dependent on government initiatives, which will not come as the command center is destroyed.  Citizens should be trained in self-management complementary – or in case of emergency – to replace official actions.

Anticipating hazards is easier if some types of hazards are a recurring phenomenon, such as flooding. Activities include installing early warning systems, preparing emergency services, providing scenarios for the evacuation of the elderly and the sick, allocating places for temporary housing, gathering tents, organizing access to food, drinking water and to medical care. The faster and more accurate the prediction is, the better the preparations can be.

Flood Concern creates map-based visualizations of places where floods can hit hardest, up to five days before an approaching storm using artificial intelligence. These are simulations in the form of time-lapses of how the water will rise, at what speed and in which direction.  These maps also indicate which parts of the infrastructure will flooded or wash away, and how mitigation efforts – from sand backs to opening locks – will turn out. With this data, emergency services can determine which roads are still accessible, and plan evacuation routes accordingly. 

Dealing with impact

If accurate forecasts are available, the government, together with citizens, can implement previously designed and trained plans to mitigate the effects of the flooding. However, anybody must stay vigilant to respond to unexpected changes in the anticipated course of events. 

One of the most dramatic cases to discuss is the massive earthquake that devasted all of Haiti on January 12, 2010, claiming 316,000 lives, injuring another 300.000 and displacing more than 1.5 million people. The earthquake was just the beginning:  In the following years other devasting natural disasters caused thousands of new deaths, engraved famine, and a deadly cholera epidemic, wiping out ongoing efforts to rebuild the country. Until now, millions of Haitians are still in need of humanitarian aid and many still live in camps without proper sanitation and drinking water. To date, the international community has raised € 8 billion in aid. What it was used for is unclear, in spite of a large number of helping hands. It seems that the rebuilding of the country is mainly due to the inhabitants themselves, who started rebuilding their primitive huts again and again by using the remains of their previous emergency shelters. The government infrastructure was destroyed by the dictatorial regimes of father and son Duvalier and led, among other things, to the depart of most residents with some education. So the country had done nothing to prepare for a possible disaster, and there was no policy to cope with its consequences.

It is evident that dealing with the impact of hazards depends from te degree of anticipation. Otherwise, full reliance on social capital is the only hope.

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