Forensic disaster investigations get underway

The new method could help protect communities Copyright: Flickr/808armada

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[BEIJING] One of the first countries to test a new approach to analysing natural disasters reported its initial findings at a major conference on disaster risk reduction in China last week (31 October–2 November).

Japan used the Forensic Investigations of Disaster (FORIN) methodology, developed by the Integrated Research on Disaster Risk (IRDR) programme to conduct a series of initial studies on the devastating earthquake and tsunami that occurred this year (11 March).

FORIN aims "to answer the question of why, when there is so much science related to hazards and risk, do [disaster] losses continue to rise," said Jane Rovins, executive director of IRDR, which hosted the Disaster Risk: Integrating Science and Practice conference.

FORIN sets out a framework for conducting a series of in-depth, international case studies on natural disasters aimed at identifying key factors and conditions that have limited, prevented or increased losses, both human and material, as well as investigating the use of existing scientific knowledge in disaster risk assessment and management.

According to its final methodology template, which was also presented at the conference, existing analyses of natural disasters have, in the majority of cases, failed to account for longer-term causes.

"After a major disaster event it often happens that an enquiry is made or new research undertaken into the causes and consequences," said the document. "When such investigations are conducted (and there have been many), they typically focus heavily on either the geophysical or atmospheric processes or the technological and structural aspects of the damage.

"Emergency preparedness and the disaster relief and rehabilitation response are also often examined. Sometimes an enquiry may extend to the effectiveness of existing policy and make recommendations for future policy improvements. These efforts rarely seem to probe very deeply into the more underlying and sometimes longer term causes of the disaster."

Investigations following the FORIN methodology will aim to search for "additional, wider and more fundamental explanations" such as "how and why decisions were made and management options chosen", it says. These could range from major policy decisions to smaller, everyday decisions, and cultural and social practices.

"The East Japan earthquake was a super-extensive compound disaster," Yoshiaki Kawata, dean of the faculty of safety science at Kansai University, Japan, told the conference. But, he added, "it was also a social disaster, with insufficient measures in place to easily respond [to the disaster] on a large scale".

He said the disaster must force the country to rethink its policies. Before it occurred, he said, Japan was ill-prepared for effective disaster response, with inappropriate urban planning and legislation, no warning systems in place, inadequate communication systems and a lack of knowledge on flood risk at both administration and population levels.

Feng Qiang, a researcher at the Center for Earth Observation and Digital Earth, at the Chinese Academy of Sciences, said: "FORIN is necessary for providing in-depth study of disasters".

He said that combining natural and social science to study disasters — an essential component of FORIN — could prove challenging. But he added: "I believe FORIN will play an important role in disaster research".

Rovins said that the plan is to apply FORIN to a variety of disasters around the world. "We are reaching out to partners to use the template and provide feedback. Once we have this information we will be able to create the case studies that others can learn from and utilise to better protect their communities from similar events."