Following the Japanese earthquake, the Philippines government have announced plans to explore the use of complexity science in better understanding disaster vulnerability and risk.
The effort is to be taken forward by the Congressional Commission on Science Technology and Engineering, in collaboration with the Philippine Disaster Science Management Center.
Senator Edgardo Angara, Chair of Congressional Commission was quoted in a press release making a clear connection between the Japanese earthquake and this new initiative. He said that the tragedy served as another wake up call for the Philippines to invest in the science of disaster management and preparedness. The Senator also said that this will be taken forward as an international collaboration with Japan, Taiwan and others.
A particular inspiration for this work has been the OECD’s report from the 2009 global science forum, which highlighted resilience and vulnerability to extreme events as areas that could benefit from the application of complexity science (Click here for more on the report).
This is the latest example of a growing trend to apply complexity science in disasters, as noted in a previous Aid on the Edge of Chaos post. Complexity-inspired approaches are increasingly being put forward as alternatives to the ‘classic’ ways of analysing and understanding disasters. Indeed, one of the studies quoted in that earlier post suggested that:
…complexity theory is highly relevant for disaster studies because it provides the entry point to describe disasters as the interactions between sub-systems of nature and society or hazard and vulnerability… Disasters caused by natural hazards result from the complex interactions of nature and society…”
One grim example focused on Manila itself:
Consider the following three ingredients: a mega-city in a poor, Pacific rim nation; seasonal monsoon rains; a huge garbage dump. Mix these ingredients in the following way: move impoverished people to the dump, where they build shanty towns and scavenge for a living in the mountain of garbage; saturate the dump with changing monsoon rain patterns; collapse the weakened slopes of garbage and send debris flows to inundate the shanty towns. That particular disaster, which took place outside of Manila in July 2000… was not inherent in any of the three ingredients of that tragedy; it emerged from their interaction’ (Sarewitz and Pielke, 2001 cited in Ramalingam et al, 2008, emphasis added).
More recently Wired magazine ran a fascinating account of an attempt to understand the catastrophic interconnections between hurricanes, deforestation and the 2010 Haiti earthquake (available here). The following is an excerpt from this excellent write-up:
…cause and effect in Earth systems is distinctly nonlinear. Inputs and outputs may not be proportional: a cause with ever-so-slightly different parameters than the previous instance might result in a wildly different effect. Additionally, systems and their component sub-systems interact to produce feedback loops that can either amplify or stabilize resulting effects. Feedbacks blur the line of what is cause and what is effect…”
There is much for this important initiative to consider going forward, not least how the scientists involved will work to get international aid agencies – often insensitive to history, context and dynamics of change – to take account of the emerging findings.
More on this important new initiative to follow soon.