Risk is an unavoidable part of life, affecting all people without exception, irrespective of geographic or socioeconomic limits. Each choice we make as individuals and as a society involves specific, often unknown factors of risk, and full risk avoidance generally is impossible. The management of crises and disasters is a key tool when looking at these factors of risk [Coppola 2011, pp 139]. Disaster risk management plans, which are designed to effectively respond to crises and disasters, are developed by identifying local hazards, risks, vulnerabilities, and capacities. When these have been properly assessed planned interventions by the governments, corporations and communities to reduce disaster and crisis vulnerabilities can be put into place. At the same time, the involvement of local authorities can both minimise risks, and enhance a community’s ability to cope with the possible effects [Jha 2010, pp 457]. Major disasters always present us with surprises. Though we can plan for every possible eventuality, there is usually some evolving condition that deviates from expectations and challenges emergency managers to adjust their plans [Col 2007, pp 123]. This is where effective response management becomes critical.
Defining Crisis and Disaster in terms of Risk Management:
In looking at how best to manage crisis, disaster and risk, there is a need to first establish exactly what context crisis and disaster are assessed when looking at the most appropriate management techniques. Disasters are often the social consequences of a particular action (rather than being reactionary mechanisms). As a result the conceptual framework of disaster is often defined as neither one of conflict, nor of defence against external attacks, but is the result of the upsetting of human relations [Quarantelli 1998, pp 14]. Disasters are usually considered as natural phenomenon, and their consequences governed by the particular environmental and social composition of a given region. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, a crisis is more of a decisive moment – a time of ‘great difficulty such as a disaster or a catastrophe’. In this way a crisis marks a turning point that changes the destiny of an individual or a group, company or even a government. Crises produce conditions of instability in social, economic, political or international affairs leading to a decisive change – a stage in a sequence of events at which the trend of all future events, for better or for worse, is determined [Mukopadhay 2005, pp 1]. What both disasters and crisis have in common are that they are both concerned with the issue of risk. Unfortunately, even among risk managers, there still remains no single accepted definition of risk, with the most commonly used definition identifying risk as the product of likelihood and consequence [Coppola 2011, pp 28]. Disasters and crises occur when a risk (sometimes referred to as the hazard) is realised, and our understanding of these issues has changed markedly through history [Smith and Petley 2009, pp 4]. The comprehensive management of a crisis or a disaster is often based upon four very distinctive components – mitigation, preparedness, response, and recovery [Coppola 2011, pp 10].
Mitigation involves reducing or eliminating the likelihood or the consequence of a hazard. This involves trying to prevent a crisis or disaster from occurring, or at the very least reduce frequency of the event.
Preparedness involves equipping people who may be impacted by a disaster or who may be able to help those impacted with the tools to increase their chance of survival and to minimize their financial and other losses.
Response involves taking action to reduce or eliminate the impact of disasters that have occurred or are occurring.
Recovery involves returning victims lives back to a normal state following the impact of disaster consequences.
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I looking at whether local authorities are best placed to respond to crises and disaster, it is necessary to assess both the benefits and limitations of such action against the potential benefits and failures of central government control.
Evidence that Local Authorities are best placed to respond to crises and disaster:
When looking at the positives of using local authorities over central government, there is a need to look at the influence of personality bias, as the view people take over disaster or crisis management is often dependent upon their ability to control it. In this respect that communication between the relevant social actors is vital, and consideration needs to be given as to who is the best place to communicate this information. In this respect, one of the main negatives that are often levied against the idea of central government control is that many local communities often demonstrate a general sense of either mistrust or scepticism when dealing with risk issues. All too often there is a general sense of mistrust between the local communities at risk of a particular disaster or crisis, and the scientists and government officials trying to communicate that same risk. The implication for those who are communicating risk (whether in care, consensus, or crisis communication)is that a presentation of technical facts will not necessarily give most audiences the information that they want. There is a need to understand the audience’s feelings to make sure that information addressing those feelings is included in the risk message [Lundgren 2009, pp 17]. Sometimes, legitimate social anxiety can be misinterpreted by ‘experts’ as ignorance, irrationality, or naive expectations of minimal or zero risk. This only succeeds in morally denigrating the relevant public, which in turn exacerbates the public’s sense of being threatened by institutions that do not respect its identity, rationality, and legitimate standing within the issue at hand. This sense of isolation from central government can further expand the sense of risk, and create a negative cycle of polarization [Wynn 1992, pp 282].
In major disasters local communities often find themselves on their own for several hours or even days, managing a crisis or disaster without the assistance of national agencies. Though many people may consider this a problem facing underdeveloped countries, disasters and crises in developed countries such as the impact of Hurricane Katrina in the U.S have shown that this issue is not confined to those nations which may have more restricted national emergency services. To avoid the sorts of confusion seen during this episode may believe that local actors needs to move towards the forefront of applying new techniques to reduce disaster risk, and to minimise crisis impact. Local authority actors such as government elected officials, primary health care facilities, local police and emergency services need to familiarise themselves with the needs of local people. If it is expected that citizens will participate in the process of implementing adaptation policies, then it is vital to involve them in the process from the very beginning [Patt et. al 2007, pp 11]. A successful example of this was demonstrated in Zimbabwe in 2005 when a study showed that farming communities were more than five times as likely to change established practices when they participated in the process of formulating new policies and practices, compared to when the changes were developed by expert analysts, and communicated to the farmers via radio and other media [Patt et al 2007, pp 16].
One of the key points when looking at whether local authorities are better placed to respond to disasters and crises is how well these institutions deal with the needs to the local community, and how effective communication is between these stakeholders, and national governments – how to bring together bottom-up energy and innovation for disaster risk reduction with top-down legislative and policy support [Pelling and Wisner 2009, pp 48]. In looking at our earlier four-step process, it would seem logical that local authorities are best placed to identify the most effective responses to a given disaster or crisis, as they would surely be familiar with the needs of an individual community. The Mozambique Red Cross (CVM) initiated a project in community-based and local authority run disaster preparedness. This emphasised the importance of respecting local traditions and involving villages in crisis and disaster management to ensure that the management projects were more successful than previous central government methods. This was in response to the disastrous resettlement programme which was undertaken in the wake of the 2000 flooding. This resettlement programme was designed quickly and implemented by government ministries as a knee-jerk reaction to a very pressing need [Patt and Schroter 2007, pp 16]. The CVM idea arranged for a greater degree of emphasis on local authority involvement, and even arranged community meetings to describe the project and to recruit volunteers. The volunteers were trained to analyse potential hazards and identify ways of preparing the community to save lives and livelihoods by mapping resources, infrastructure and possible risk and hazards [Sudmeier-Rieux et al 2006, pp 25]. This has been a great success, suggesting that the future for crisis and disaster management in the region needs to increase focus on response from local authorities rather than central governments.
Response is not just a product of an event; it also needs to be incorporated into how a community prepares for an event – i.e. the level of preparedness. Local authorities must have the power to act early and decisively to prepare effectively for a potential crisis or disaster. In China, for example, although the national government has not delegated responsibility for earthquake prediction to the local levels, they have effectively delegated response tactics to local authorities, and include this idea when looking at a community’s preparedness. In China, the sheer size of the population seems to lend itself to micro-governance when dealing with disaster and crisis management. In Qinglong County, citizens were not only involved in the preparation, mitigation, and response phases, but also they were involved in the prediction of the earthquake. By building citizen participation into the monitoring for earthquake precursor signals, citizens were cognizant of the possibility of an earthquake and mentally ready to act quickly in order to avoid disaster. This was demonstrated during the 1976 earthquake when Qinglong County officials declared a countrywide alert based on data collected and analysed at the local level and Government officials were able to mobilize all citizens in just a few days [Col 2007, pp 121]. This has also been demonstrated in other nations. In1975, for example, California developed the citizens Emergency Response Team concept to help communities to organize and train for self-reliance until professional first responders are able to arrive on the scene of the disaster [Col 2007, pp 122].
The risk experiences of different groups can reflect a vast array of differences, such as the class structure of society and inequalities in the distribution of power and social influence between groups can have an influence of perception. A disaster or a crisis can occur over a national or even an international scale, and the needs of one community will obviously never be able to be fully incorporated into response tactics when constructed by a central government. Under these circumstances, it must surely fall to local authorities to try and take a lead in protecting their citizens, thus reflecting that, although all levels of government are generally involved in disaster management, the role and actions of local government are particularly critical [Col 2007, pp 114]. People are more likely to trust the opinions of their local representatives than of unknown officials or distant company spokespersons who have manifestly different agendas.
Evidence that Central Government is best placed to respond to crises and disaster:
When looking to compare local authorities and central governments in terms of their potential effectiveness when responding to crises and disasters, not all issues can be considered on national and local scales alone. This is particularly true given the globalisation of many of today’s current environmental issues such as global warming, water quality issues and atmospheric pollution – potential crises and disasters which cross international boundaries, and require regulation on a global scale. In terms of disasters and crisis, several times a year, the response requirements can exceed the disaster management abilities of a single nation. In these instances, the central governments of the affected countries call upon the resources of the international response community [Coppola 2011, pp 11]. An effective use of this was introduced in 2004 to deal with flooding in the Limpopo Basin. The ‘Sustainable Land Use Planning for Integrated Land and Water Management for Disaster Preparedness and Vulnerability Reduction in the Lower Limpopo Basin’ project incorporates that participation of the affected farmers in the process of assessing the risks to people in the floodplains, and developing land use plans [Patt and Schroter 2007, pp 16]. In this respect, we can see the obvious advantage of dealing with these sorts of issues via central government, who take responsibility for crisis and disaster response.
Local authority response, can also add time to an already time restrictive process. Communication between social actors is intrinsically limited by the primary process of self-confirmation by which individuals or communities try to maintain and develop their identities [Wynn 1992, pp 277] and involving local communities to a greater degree in the analysis and planning process can take significantly longer [Patt and Schroter 2007, pp 16]. Although the role of local and other sub national governments differ, the distributional functional responsibilities exist on a national level whether the government is unitary or federal.
Intergrating the Two
It should be considered that not all types of risk management have repercussions which may be felt in social or environmental terms. Economic impacts also need to be considered, and in this respect the interested stakeholders must also include those industry representatives for whom risk potentially exists. By establishing effective company and industrial interfaces with local authorities and communities (in terms of the potential programme impacts, conduct, values and any foreseeable problems), greater levels of acceptance can be leveraged to facilitate the activity goals and reduce the risk environment [Blyth 2008, pp 315].
As well as more effective linkages between local and central government, disaster and crisis management requires the involvement of local communities. It is perhaps the role of local authorities (which will have better communication avenues, and existing dialogue with local communities) to encourage local people to become more involved in developing crisis and disaster management plans and to form better relations with local and district administrators and regional Government.
For the emergency management function, the key government level is the one that has the relevant equipment and adequate management capacity while still being close to the ground and in the midst of the emergency incident.
Citizens must participate in all phases of preparation and execution of emergency management measures.
During Katrina, residents were confused by conflicting information, and many of the poorest and weakest, who were also the most vulnerable, waited for government services that arrived very late. In the aftermath of Katrina, there has been increased pressure to develop citizen capacity to handle a disaster. This is not the first time that the need for improved citizen participation has been recognized.
In the case of Huricane Katrina, national, state, and local officials argued publically about who was responsible for tasks and which organisation was responsible for delays and malfeasance as local authorities did not have any such power to act, or efficient response plan developed [Col 2007, pp 121].
Because of the differences in the makeup of difference communities and populations, risk acceptability with regards to crises and disaster management will never be truly universal. It is likely to change from place to place, from time to time, and from hazard to hazard. The issues associated with the risks of particular crises and disasters are political processes – complex social phenomena which cannot be explained by individual behaviour alone but rest on interactive, often unintentional effects among individuals, and their social and institutional groupings. As a result of this it falls to designated institutions to ensure that the needs of local communities are addressed by the resources of the nation. Better use of local authorities in determining the needs of their local populous is vital, as efficient management techniques require all parties to understand the needs of each other. There is a great need to understand the nature of trust in order to develop social and institutional processes for decision making that restore and maintain this vital but fragile quality [Slovic 1992, pp 152]. Acceptability is likely to change even within individual communities over time as the makeup of that community changes. It is these differences that make public participation and local-authority regulation in the disaster management process important [Coppola 2011, pp 168].
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