By Eelco Dykstra
Imagine the following.
An earthquake measuring 7.3 on the Richter scale struck Haiti on 12 January 2010, causing catastrophic damage to Port-au-Prince, Jacmel and other settlements in the region, with numerous powerful aftershocks. It has been reported that there are up to 200.000 dead, 250.000 people wounded and more than 3 million people directly affected. Up to one million people are in need of shelter throughout the country and there are up to 600.000 internally displaced people, 235.000 people have left Port-au-Prince and up to one million people could leave cities for the rural areas, putting pressure on already vulnerable communities there. Haiti, a country where some 1.8 million people were “food insecure” prior to the earthquake, in a country where close to 60% of the population live in rural areas and 70% live on less than USD 2 a day. In Haiti, decades of political instability had helped to weaken government institutions and the state’s ability to provide basic public services prior to the earthquake, and the damage caused by the earthquake has paralysed the state’s ability to respond actively to the relief effort, thereby aggravating the situation.
Was this preventable?
Perhaps not the earthquake itself but many of the pre-impact risks and post-impact consequences described above, yes.
Was this predictable?
Yes, without a doubt. The question never was whether something like this would happen, but when.
So, who is to blame?
No one is. Earthquakes are generally considered to be an ‘act-of-God’ and who is to blame God? Surprisingly perhaps, it is not the earthquake that kills people but the buildings do.
So how about the builders and the guardians of building earthquake-resistant dwellings such as the government and the solicitors in charge of drawing up the contracts? Experience from the past reveals that the guilt is pushed around but no one is held accountable.
So what is the problem?
For some reason, we – as a human race – seem unable to learn the lessons from the past. The earthquake in Haiti is by no means the first example. While we know the areas of the greatest problems (e.g. planning, critical infrastructure, resource mobilization, information, communication, coordination, etc.) and what to do (e.g. unified command, logistics, psychological counseling, etc.) it seems that we are so response-oriented that we are always too late.
The problem with risk management is that we tend to think in only two ways.
First, we can wait until something happens and then take action. This is what we traditionally did and do – wait for the fire alarm, extinguish the fire and wait for the next one.
Secondly, we calculate risk but generally do this on the basis of information from the past; this kind of risk assessment works therefore only with problems we already know. We present this information in the form of graphs and tables, call it science and bore everyone to death. And that is probably the reason that the information gleaned from lessons learned in the past is not being used.
Plenty; when sticking to the response phase one can quickly mention things such as early-warning systems, pre-positioning of resources, community emergency response teams, resilient critical infrastructure – and an international community which plans, prepares, responds and implements with a concentrated effort instead of with a million disparate voices and organizations.
Yes, let us think in a different way and study what the consequences of future events will be. When we use scenario-based approaches to risk and crisis management we can do that. And let us involve everyone, not just the scientists, and make these scenarios into gripping stories.
The European Commission has now agreed to provide EUR 137 million for short-term needs and at least EUR 200 million for the medium and longer term, with Member States providing an additional EUR 92 million.
Why not use a fraction of this money to set up a European Centre-of-Excellence with two primary functions?
First, the Centre would collect all the lessons learned from past events – within and outside of Europe.
Second, the Centre would act as catalyzing agency to ensure that these lessons will not be ignored but disseminated and implemented before the next disaster strikes.
Imagine that we, as a human race, no longer wait until something happens before we spring into action.
Imagine that we, as a human race, no longer calculate risks on the basis of historical data.
Imagine that we actually plan our actions today because we study the consequences in the future.
Imagine a scenario-based approach to risk and crisis management.
Eelco H. Dykstra, M.D. (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Director International, the International Katrina Project Inc. (IKP – www.stormovereurope.org)
The IKP is a US-EU-International cooperative program that uses reality-fiction scenarios to describe the events and consequences when a super-storm paralyzes the critical infrastructure in eleven European countries. From 2010-2013, the IKP will use these scenarios to collect, analyze and disseminate large numbers of conclusions with corresponding recommendations from a large network of participating entities.