global theme – planning for natural disasters beyond prior experience

A recent article in World Politics Review discusses the recent growth in ocean surface temperature in the Eastern Pacific. This suggests a continuation of El Nino conditions, with the potential onset of severe natural disasters across a number of South American countries. These natural disasters will expose the vulnerability of different parts of the community system such as food production; public health and safety; infrastructure and the response capability of emergency management organisations. Vulnerability is a complex issue influenced by a range of factors including the strength (weakness) of the economy and political (in)stability in each country.

Rodney Martinez, the Director of the International Centre for El Niño Research based in Ecuador, believes that this El Niño is only about half over, adding that the situation is complicated by the fact that January to March are the hottest months in the Southern Hemisphere and that 2015 was the hottest year on Earth ever recorded. “This is a unique situation that we have never experienced before”.

There is a global theme emerging here, echoed in Australia, of having to plan for natural disasters which are beyond our prior experience, and of having to introduce fundamental changes to the manner in which we prepare for such events (eg land-use zoning in the US and local government funding in the UK).

Planning for natural disasters which are beyond prior experience is no easy matter. The process will be exploratory, ie while there are broad guidelines available for decision-making in complex, non-deterministic systems under uncertainty, there is no fool-proof recipe for dealing with all uncertainties associated with all emergencies in all contexts. Process options include the use of exploratory scenarios aimed at constructing complex plausible futures (ie with interacting political, financial, technological, social and climatic drivers) which are outside the limits of participant’s experience; which seek to identify the differential vulnerability of the range of sectors relevant to the particular context (emergency response and health services; transport, water, power and communication systems; the aged and infirm etc); and which identify generic adaptive response strategies (ie strategies which appear robust across a number of the scenarios) which can be implemented when the current response capability of a given sector(s), and indeed the system as a whole, is overwhelmed.

In addition to defining strategies for cases where sectoral response capability is overwhelmed, these exercises contribute to the growth in awareness, readiness and thinking capacity of key staff.  This enables them to better respond to unanticipated situations, even when they are outside those developed in the scenarios, as they are likely to be.

Not an easy task. Has to be done.

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