Why disaster warning and development go hand in hand

During extreme climatic events, people often choose to guard livestock rather than taking refuge Copyright: Flickr/ Oxfam International

Send to a friend

The details you provide on this page will not be used to send unsolicited email, and will not be sold to a 3rd party. See privacy policy.

To engage people in early action we must understand their experience, behaviour and constraints, says disaster policy expert Andrew Collins.

Disaster predictions have significant uncertainty that tends to undermine efforts to act on early warnings. In Bangladesh, for example, where there are extensive climatic hazards, people risk their lives by not taking refuge in a cyclone shelter, choosing instead to guard livestock or their homes.

Such risk-taking is repeated by poor people around the world, so early action must be linked to the wider development concerns that underpin their decisions. For many people in communities most at risk of disaster, this means a risk reduction culture that is embedded in poverty reduction efforts.

When people find a way to reduce their daily workload they free up time, energy and capacity for plans to cut the risk of hazards. Early action will follow when communities can take ownership of the design and implementation of early warning systems, and become motivated by how they can benefit.

What influences behaviour?

Beyond the availability of knowledge and technology, the effectiveness of early warning depends on the factors that drive individual and group behaviour.

People put greater trust in one another when precautions for a disaster need to be taken, and governments and relief services need to be aware of such trust at the individual and community level (e.g. in the workplace), to avoid working against it.

But the building of trust, and governments’ capacity to work with it are not simple processes. Perceptions and complex social relationships need to be understood to promote sustainable and effective early action.

The process of engaging communities depends on cultural factors that influence behaviour. They include beliefs in divine will ("Will I in any case survive if God wants it?"), pastoral traditions and individual personalities — people can take more risks by character or necessity.

Further, learning how to react effectively to warnings of an emergency can be both intuitive and experiential.

Though intuition is difficult to identify, it can be based on values emanating from a sense of trust or mistrust — a sense of ‘knowingness’.

On the other hand, experiential learning is when people recognise the signs of disaster and use past knowledge to take early risk reduction steps — for example, by relocating from the floodplain as tides, rivers and rainwater rise.

But major threats to life beyond seasonal trends are, by definition, unique and rare events for most people.

Young people, in particular, may never have experienced or witnessed such threats. And new and more complex extreme events involving economic collapse, civil disorder and climate change may be unknown to everyone, including disaster experts. The combined earthquake, tsunami and nuclear disaster in Japan in 2011 is one such complex, low-probability event.

Disaster management exercises with the public can, to some extent, compensate for the limitations of experiential learning. But we need to know more about how people learn and react to disaster risk, and how they take action at the right time in the right place.

The cognitive processes involved are rarely, if ever, considered. Some research looking at infectious disease risk reduction for cholera shows that fear, disgust and personal motivational values all play a part. We need to know how these natural reactions can be better applied to early engagement.

There is little research that provides more detailed evidence of why people change behaviour, and it is badly needed. One major question is about the governance structures that can allow people to better engage their own senses (experiential and other) in applying risk reduction measures.

Unlocking wider constraints

There are other factors, beyond learning, that can help people to engage with early warning, early action and sustainable recovery. These touch on the contexts and values of daily life that can be addressed by poverty reduction.

Environmental security is one example: it includes societal cohesion, economic and ecological stability — or simply no extra disaster risk.

From this perspective, behaviour for early action through early warning lies in one definition of culture — the "total of the inherited ideas, beliefs, values and knowledge which constitute the basis of social action" (from Collins Dictionary).

But this is not communicated within the traditional, ‘narrow’ ways of warning and informing. So a new form of disaster risk reduction is required: one that aligns with wider concerns, including changes in power structures, rights, responsibilities and wellbeing.

Efforts to understand early warning and early action behaviour will become more successful by exploring how disaster risk reduction relates to poverty reduction — which in this context means not just improvements in meeting basic needs, but more broadly the absence of constraints to sustainable development.

Many of the millions of people trapped by poverty are unable to make their lives less risky. Their access to education, healthcare and sustainable resources are essential to negotiating future hazards. In this sense, understanding decision-making behaviour in disaster settings is related to the presence (or not) of contextual constraints.

Furthermore, early warning systems need to move beyond community participation to ownership — meaning that early warning systems are managed locally, alongside and within government and local communities, and operate with decentralised planning and decision-making.

One country where this is being attempted is Mozambique, with the national programme to strengthen local risk management in areas affected by flood, drought and cyclone.

Channelling energies and motivations for improving wellbeing and reducing disaster risk is one way forward; this should include behavioural changes that reach all levels of personal and institutional governance. 

Andrew Collins is director of the Disaster and Development Centre (DDC), Northumbria University, United Kingdom. Andrew can be contacted at [email protected]


This article is part of a Spotlight on Improving early warning of disasters.