Author: Mhari Gordon

Warnings for displaced people

Source(s): UCL Warning Research Centre
Woman, displaced from war in Yemen, collecting fire wood

The occurrence of a natural hazard, such as a cyclone or landslide, near or in an inhabited area has the potential to disturb livelihood, infrastructure, societal practices and functioning, and ecosystems (Ahmed et al., 2019; Hyvärinen and Vos, 2015). Although natural hazards may spatially reach all members of a population within an area, such impacts are neither felt nor distributed evenly throughout society. Depending on the existing resources and techniques of the affected society to respond to a natural hazard occurrence, the impacts have the potential to be disastrous (Kelman, 2022). By definition, a disaster is when a population experiences disruptions, damages, and losses that occur as a consequence of the impact of a hazard, which is usually considered to have ‘great’ or ‘catastrophic’ effects (Wisner, Gaillard, and Kelman, 2012). Early warning and action have been shown to be one of the most effective ways to reduce impact, loss, and damage from natural hazards and potential disasters (WMO, 2022).

Individuals and communities who are displaced by the impact of conflict situations, such as internally displaced persons (IDPs) and refugees, are often found to be marginalised within their host communities (Pollock et al., 2019). This marginalisation will transpire in different forms depending on the context such as physical separation, in the likes of refugee camps, or less obvious forms, in the likes of (informal) urban settlements, but also bound by the socio-political-economic policies created by the host government for these individuals (Van Den Hoek, Wrathall, and Friedrich, 2021). Marginalised populations have been presumed to be highly vulnerable to disasters (Lejano, Rahman, and Kabir, 2020). Here, vulnerability is understood as the physical, social, economic, political, and environmental characteristics of a community which may be impacted by a hazard and influence their ability to cope and respond (Ahmed et al., 2021). However, refugees’ vulnerabilities are likely to differ from marginalised ‘local’ populations (Zaman et al., 2020); as the host government’s policies for access to knowledge, communication, and education, as well as resources and facilities (i.e., cyclone shelters), will largely influence the displaced population’s vulnerability to hazard risks. To date, there has been relatively little disaster risk reduction (DRR) research which considers displaced populations, including internally displaced persons, refugees, and other migrants (Zaman et al., 2020).

Risk Communication and Warnings

Literature from disasters in urban and rural contexts, as well as climate change studies, show that risk perception and disaster experience affect an individual’s interpretation of risk information and action on mitigation hazard risk (Acosta et al., 2016; Bempah and Øyhus, 2017; Wulandari, Sagala, and Coffey, 2016). Thereby, unpacking the narratives of a population’s perception, experience, and action of risks is important to be able to design appropriate mitigation strategies and communication plans. Failures resulting in catastrophic loss and damage are unfortunately present, because of poor planning and response to hazards, such as the 2008 Hurricane Katerina in New Orleans. This has become a staple example of contradictory and unclear communication and information dissemination as well as deep socio-economic inequalities, which led to unequally distributed, and likely avoidable, loss and damage within New Orleans communities (Hanson-Easey et al., 2018). Yet, there are examples of successful mitigation of disastrous impacts from natural hazard occurrences. For example, cyclone-related mortality has declined from hundreds of thousands of deaths in the early 1970s to a few thousand in the late 2000s in Bangladesh with the implementation of early warning systems, awareness campaigns, cyclone shelters, and nature-based solutions have been implemented (Haque et al., 2012). The effectiveness of appropriate communication and warnings has recently received greater societal attention, with the announcement on the 23rd of March 2022 from the United Nations and World Meteorological Organization:

“Within the next five years, everyone on Earth should be protected by early warning systems against increasingly extreme weather and climate change, according to an ambitious new United Nations target… We must boost the power of prediction for everyone and build their capacity to act. On this World Meteorological Day, let us recognize the value of early warnings and early action as critical tools to reduce disaster risk and support climate adaptation.” (WMO, 2022).

However, more research is needed into how warnings and communication plans can be made accessible to all members of society. For plans to be effective, the people who are at risk of the impacts of a hazard or a disaster need to be the focal point.

Local-focused Warnings

Since the 2010s, there has been a notable trend in DRR, climate change, and humanitarian discourses that there is strong advocacy for the focus on the ‘local level’ for matters of disaster planning and response (Hyvärinen and Vos, 2015). This push for a ‘specific context-based’ focus is also reflected in the United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction’s (UNDRR) Sendai Framework, and is included in one of the Priorities of Action:

 “To ensure the use of traditional, indigenous and local knowledge and practices, as appropriate, to complement scientific knowledge in disaster risk assessment and the development and implementation of policies, strategies, plans and programmes” (UNDRR, 2015: 14).

The terms traditional, indigenous, and local are frequently cited in documentation (policy, research, academia, etc), however, there is a lack of clarity on the defining characteristics of these terms. Yet, findings often indicate that the likes of ‘risk perceptions’, ‘disaster knowledge’ or ‘mitigation action’ differ depending on the label (traditional, indigenous, local, migrate, etc) that is allocated to a specific group of people. For example, Ahmed’s (2021) research on landslide vulnerability in Bangladesh findings indicated that the urbanised hillside communities (local) and the Rohingya refugees (refugee) residing in and around the Kutupalong camps had higher vulnerabilities to landslide risk than the tribal communities (indigenous). The difference in vulnerabilities was attributed to tribal communities’ “unique history, traditional knowledge, cultural heritage and lifestyle” (Ahmed, 2021: 1707). Interestingly, the local and refugee communities were both found to be more vulnerable to landslide risk, but these were in different ways. Given that there are close to one million Rohingya refugees living predominantly in Cox’s Bazar District (Ahmed, 2021), understanding their specific vulnerabilities and best forms of warnings against natural hazards requires further research.

Moving Forwards

Further research should focus on how displaced communities are affected, within the context of the host community’s vulnerability, by the societal impacts of natural hazard occurrences. Also, how their risk perceptions, knowledge, and experiences, as well as vulnerabilities, may differ from the local communities. This will enable displaced populations to be accounted for and included in the appropriate design of effective warnings against hazards, thereby pushing the agenda forwards to meet the Sendai Framework Target G, and the UN and WMO objective that everyone has access to early warning and action within the next five years.

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