Radix - Invitation to comment

Here, in this website, is a home for radical interpretations of disaster as it appears all over the world. The word "radical" is used in the sense of radix or "root", the root causes of vulnerability and what to do about it. The website is committed to a critical analysis of hazards and disasters, their meanings and their management. Readers/surfers are invited to participate/send comments related to this project. Please send material to either:

Ben Wisner, Environmental Studies Program, Oberlin College. Mailing address: 373 Edgemeer Place,
Oberlin, OH 44074, USA. Fax: 440-775-8898. (Resumé [long] [short])
Maureen Fordham. Northumbria University, School of the Built and Natural Environment, Newcastle upon Tyne, NE1 8ST,UK. (Resumé)

bd14519_1.gif (968 bytes) RADIX now has a mailing list, generously managed by Alberto Delgardo - thank you!  If you would like to send a message to the list, please send to:


We have set up this list in order to reserve the web site as a resource base for those who are studying these issues, for teachers and students, for activists, for practitioners. The list will offer a more interactive and spontaneous way of sharing brief news items, ideas, commentaries without the time lag involved in placing things on the web site.

Go to: Civil Protection - A New Discipline?; Anshu Sharma; Disaster Diplomacy; DesInventar Disaster Data Base; help or extend the RADIX project

Civil Protection - A New Discipline? by David E. Alexander

Why is there no chair of civil protection in any British university? The question may appear strange, or at least novel, but it is becoming ever more significant.

Recently, earthquakes, floods and landslides in Asia, Europe and Latin America have put the spotlight on emergency management. There are increasing signs that the usual mixture of amateurism, stop-gap measures, improvisation and excuses will not be tolerated in the future. It is time to apply our accumulated knowledge and skills more efficiently to the overwhelming practical problems that emergencies create. Efficiency requires training and education, which in turn demand strong leadership in the academic and professional worlds. Universities and colleges should help create a new interdisciplinary discipline" of disaster sciences, in which the connections between more traditional fields of knowledge are actively sought in the interests of applying the sciences: in short, a 'lateral' rather than a 'vertical' approach to knowledge is required.

Civil protection, or emergency preparedness as it is known in the United States, has grown over the last 25 years out of its parent field, civil defence, which underwent its greatest development during the Cold War as a response to the threat of a nuclear exchange. In the 1970s, rising concern about the impossibility of managing the civilian population in a nuclear attack, coupled with the increasing toll of natural and technological disasters, led more resources to be devoted to planning for civil emergencies such as floods, earthquakes, transportation crashes and hazardous materials spills.

This was a very necessary step: although death tolls in disaster have not increased substantially in recent decades (they tend to be erratic from year to year), costs have skyrocketed. The Munich Reinsurance Corporation, which monitors disasters throughout the world, estimates that the costs of damage, losses and clear-up operations have risen by a factor of 15.3 over the last half-century. They appear set to increase further, and perhaps even faster, in future decades.

Natural and technological disasters are also having an increasingly complex effect upon society. Rapid urbanization of areas at risk is common throughout the world, and is creating large groups of residents who have limited experience of the risks (for example of living on river floodplains) and inadequate knowledge of how to reduce them. It all begs for a more concerted and professional approach to preparedness, and thus for better trained emergency planners and managers.

In a recent study, the U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency's training wing concluded that emergency preparedness is not yet a profession. American emergency managers tend to be middle-aged, white males, usually with a military background. Planning for disaster is their second or third career and may be only part of their daily work. Their training will probably have been erratic and somewhat unsystematic and they are unlikely to have gone into the field with any intention of making a lifetime career in it. Almost none of them will have been to college or university to learn their skills.

The emergency planner and manager may have a different profile in other countries: for example, a larger proportion of women and young graduates take up the field in Italy, which has perhaps the greatest need for good management of emergencies of any country in Europe. Aware of the discrepancies, FEMA has so far encouraged 67 U.S. colleges and universities to develop training programmes in the field (27 others are considering doing so). The offerings vary from two-year diplomas to PhD programmes, but their most striking characteristic is lack of homogeneity. Distance learning is gaining ground rapidly, as it may be particularly appropriate to a field like this, in which many people in need of training already have full-time jobs.

Despite gradual improvement of the training situation, much of the world is dogged by poor emergency management and lack of prior planning for essentially predictable disasters. Each new crisis brings accusations of failure to save people from avoidable death or suffering. Rescuers are more often shown as untrained local people in tee-shirts and trainers than disciplined professionals in protective clothing.

There is little doubt that civil protection needs to become a fully-fledged discipline, with strong, detailed professional standards of world-wide applicability. Yet at present only one major standard exists. This is NFPA1600 of the U.S. National Fire Protection Association, a set of proprietary specifications largely aimed at business managers. As a universal blueprint it is incomplete, insufficiently comprehensive and lacking in detail.

The heart of the problem lies in the failure of research to connect with practice. By and large, emergency managers are 'doers' rather than 'thinkers'. Very few of them read academic research on disasters, which in any case tends to be arcane and riddled with unintelligible jargon. It is mainly written for other academics, not for people who work in the front line dealing with collapsed buildings, trapped victims and twisted wreckage.

Yet universities have many of the prerequisites for developing this field in a practical way. For example, most of them now have courses on management science. In response to demand from students, most have developed a vocational orientation. And over the years the difficult transition has been made from highly specialized courses to those which embrace a wide breadth of knowledge.

Breadth of knowledge is the key to civil protection. It requires graduates who are familiar with a wide variety of technical subjects--architecture, engineering, earth sciences, sociology, and so on--to the extent that they can communicate effectively with specialists in these fields and coordinate their activities both when disaster strikes (in "times of war", as they say in the business) and in daily work aimed at reducing risks to public safety (conversely known as "times of peace").

Courses on emergency management now exist at several British universities (Leicester and Coventry, for example). But we need a new professional figure to emerge: a breed of senior academic who is enough of a generalist to teach and direct courses that span the extraordinary breadth of this field, which encompasses parts of about 30 of the more traditional academic disciplines. It is possible: as evidence, several good textbooks exist and more are in preparation. Moreover, there is no reason why the field should lack respectability, as disaster studies can draw on half a century of the intensive development of theory in its constituent disciplines, especially geography and sociology.

A leader is needed in universities who can communicate equally effectively with academics, students and practitioners. In the end, there should be professional examinations for emergency managers, and vocational degree courses should be available to both new entrants to the field and people who already work in it.

In my experience, the best emergency managers are people who have both a firm academic background and a great deal of practical experience. Theory is the route map that enables them to navigate the chaotic world of the disaster aftermath. Practice has made them proficient in anticipating the unexpected, communicating with colleagues and dealing with stress.

The modern emergency manager has to be politically savvy. Policy is at the heart of disaster planning and the field needs people who can raise its profile with public officials and keep its concerns in the public view even in "times of peace" when preparations need to be made for the next disaster. It is currently tragic that too little symbiosis is occurring between the academic world of research and teaching, and the practical world of emergency managers, for the latter needs more kudos and the former ought to be able to help supply it.

In addition, it is now becoming fashionable--and is obviously prudent--for universities and colleges to have their own emergency plans. In the USA several such institutions have recently experienced serious floods, tornado strikes, riots or other disasters. Many more are at risk. As a result there is intense interest in campus disaster planning, and it would be as well for expertise to be available among the academic staff.

When disaster occurs, whether on a large or a small scale, people demand the best quality of emergency management. Obviously, they do not want substandard rescue and care. At present the field has a reputation for ad hoc organisation, based on occasional hand-outs from politicians, and it is distinguished by stop-gap solutions to enduring problems of public safety. We live in a world which still tackles disaster much more retroactively than proactively: it ameliorates the consequences but often shies away from tackling the causes. Yet if we had more articulate, knowledgeable, better trained emergency managers this would help raise the profile of the field and point out the glaring inadequacies of current approaches. Universities need to provide leadership here and perhaps that is why we need to establish civil protection in them.

David E. Alexander, PhD
Professor of Geography
University of Massachusetts at Amherst, USA
Editor-in-Chief, Environmental Management
Editor, Springer Book Series on Environmental Management
Current address:-
Borgo Sarchiani 19, 50026 San Casciano in Val di Pesa, Firenze, Italy
Tel: (+39) 055 822-9423 / (+39) 0333 432-8832
E-mails: catastrophe@tiscalinet.it / davida@geo.umass.edu

Anshu Sharma writes in the Natural Hazards and Disasters list:

In view of the powerful earthquake that hit Western India on Friday, we are running a Gujarat Earthquake Special at our site www.seedsindia.org, wherein we are airing an appeal for assistance, and providing situation updates and other information. Some of this material may also be of academic interest.

We request you to visit the site, and to pass this information to others who may be interested. We welcome suggestions to improve the content and utility of the site.

best wishes, Anshu Sharma

Disaster Diplomacy refers to the occurrence or threat of disaster facilitating cooperation amongst states in conflict. The Disaster Diplomacy website has been created to foster discussion on this issue, through examining case studies and applying the concept to all disaster management activities.

Disaster Diplomacy can be applied to:

1. improving disaster management activities when confronted with international political barriers; and
2. recognising the true role of disaster in international affairs.

Such discussion would go beyond the original definition of Disaster Diplomacy which was focussed on three case studies of natural disaster management plus a conceptual model to analyse them. The ideas and implementation could be further developed for, and take lessons from, other areas such as disasters and human rights or disasters and sustainable development, thereby being part of Radix’ radical interpretations of and solutions for disasters.
The goal is to determine how and when Disaster Diplomacy could bring about advantageous change. No one wishes for disaster, but the least we can do is to attempt to extract as many positive aspects as possible from a terrible situation. Disaster Diplomacy, should it turn out to be a viable route for change, is far better than what is often the usual inertia of disastrous diplomacy.

Ilan Kelman, The Martin Centre, University of Cambridge

DesInventar Disaster Data Base

Hello Everyone,

This is just a note to inform you that in El Salvador there is DesInventar team supporting the Comite Nacional de Emergencias ? COEN to build a detailed data base of the disaster effects, for each municipality in DesInventar system.

You can view some results at DesInventar website in the Link www.desinventar.org/terremoto

There is no english version yet, but we are working on that. Similar results can be reach in both sites: Cepredenac website (www.cepredenac.org) and Comision Nacional de Emergencias de El Salvador at www.coensv.50megs.com/mapas

I hope all of that will be useful for you!

Have a good day,

Cristina Rosales Climent
Coordinacion Proyecto DesInventar
Observatorio Sismologico del SurOccidente ? OSSO
Telefono: 572 3301661
Fax: 572 3313418
email: crosales@osso.univalle.edu.co
AA. 25928
Cali - Colombia

Invitations from Ben Wisner to help or extend the project:

Translation: Please be in touch with me if you can translate some or all of my review essay or other material (or the web site) into Spanish or another language.

Landslide hazard identification: be in touch if you have information or want to help.

Human rights: be in touch if you want to help promote a follow up to the IDNDR that would emphasize the human right to prevention or mitigation of natural hazard impacts.

Op-ed: can you write an op-ed or get information about the content of this web page into your local media? You could translate or use my op-ed (consulting with me first, please); you could write your own.

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Radix: the source or origin; the root
Quick look up at Dictionary.com

For questions regarding this website, contact: maureen.fordham@northumbria.ac.uk | This page was last updated on 08 April 2003