The relevance of soft infrastructure in disaster management and risk reduction.

Author:Ullberg, Susann Baez

The increasing frequency and severity of both natural and technological disasters in the world, especially but not exclusively in urban areas, put cities at the centre of discussion among practitioners and scholars alike, raising fundamental questions about nature and society, about development and technology. Disasters make evident the lack of sustainability of many societies and signal varying degrees of development failures. Scientific and political debates are underway about how climate variability impacts meteorological and even geophysical hazards, acting as an accelerator or even multiplier of risk and insecurity, exacerbating vulnerabilities already underway due to social, economic and political changes at a global level. Everyone is urged to take action, but many are the challenges to achieving this.

One problem is the gap in communication, knowledge and interaction between the authorities heading disaster risk reduction (DRR) and recovery efforts and community members. Even with the current resilience paradigm and approaches such as 'Whole-of-the-Nation' in the United States of America or 'Whole-of-Society' in Sweden, which advocate network governance and collaboration between societal actors (Lindberg and Sundelius, 2012), this gap prevails. At the same time, individual citizens and local communities are increasingly expected by authorities to assume DRR responsibilities in the name of 'local resilience'. In the Netherlands, humorous commercials seek to encourage citizens to think ahead and be prepared, for example by embracing push technology such as NL Alert, (1) a cell phone-based alert system that allows the authorities to inform people in the direct vicinity of a particular emergency. In Sweden, authorities undertake information campaigns through virtual platforms such as Din Sakerhet, (2) where citizens can take part in checklists for everything from reducing the risk of slipping in harsh winter weather to instructions on how to prepare for a worst-case scenario. Public information tools alert us to put together a survival kit to get through the first three days after disaster strikes. Hence, despite a discourse promoting the inclusion of people in planning for preparedness and reducing risk, community members are seldom truly empowered to bear this responsibility, nor are existing local social capital and cultural knowledge always considered legitimate and accepted by authorities.

Although every disaster can be experienced as an extraordinary and unique event by those living through it--an event to be collectively remembered--they are at the same time a product of history and the consequences of larger social, economic, political and environmental processes. In hazard-prone regions, local knowledge about hazards and how to cope with them is generally based on collective memory and history. Where disasters are recurrent phenomena, people have learned from experience to read the signs of risk and assess its severity, and have developed a repertoire of responses. For example, the inhabitants of the Indonesian island of Simelue famously survived the 2004 tsunami by quickly moving to the highest geographical point. Although there had not...

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