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The concepts of hazards and risks began in engineering when scientists were measuring the points at which materials would become sufficiently stressed by the pressures upon them that they would break. These concepts migrated into the environmental sciences to assess risk in the natural terrain, including the risks that human activities posed to the survival of animals (including fish in streams) and plants in the biosphere. From there, they moved to the social sciences, primarily in formal disaster discourses. With the realization that modern societies constantly faced risks cushioned in uncertainties within everyday life, the media popularized the concept of risk and its accoutrements, including mitigation, adaptation, and preventative measures, among the general populace. A crucial manifestation of this is the media’s accounts of the risks affecting different groups of people or places contracting Covid-19, which burst upon a somnambulant world in December 2019 in Wuhan, China. The World Health Organization (WHO) declared Covid-19 a pandemic on March 11, 2020. Politicians of diverse hues sought to reassure nervous inhabitants that they had followed robust, scientific advice on risks to facilitate “flattening the curve” by spreading the rate of infection in different communities over a longer period to reduce demand for public health services. Definitions of hazard, risk, vulnerability, and resilience evolved as they moved from the physical sciences into everyday life to reassure edgy populations that their social systems, especially the medical ones, could cope with the demands of disasters. While most countries have managed the risk Covid-19 posed to health services, this has been at a price that people found difficult to accept. Instead, as they reflected upon their experiences of being confronted with the deaths of many loved ones, especially among elders in care homes; adversities foisted upon the disease’s outcomes by existing social inequalities; and loss of associative freedoms, many questioned whether official mitigation strategies were commensurate with apparent risks. The public demanded an end to such inequities and questioned the bases on which politicians made their decisions. They also began to search for certainties in the social responses to risk in the hopes of building better futures as other institutions, schools, and businesses went into lockdown, and social relationships and people’s usual interactions with others ceased. For some, it seemed as if society were crumbling around them, and they wanted a better version of their world to replace the one devastated by Covid-19 (or other disasters). Key to this better version was a safer, fairer, more equitable and reliable future. Responses to the risks within Covid-19 scenarios are similar to responses to other disasters, including earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, wildfires, tsunamis, storms, extreme weather events, and climate change. The claims of “building back better” are examined through a resilience lens to determine whether such demands are realizable, and if not, what hinders their realization. Understanding such issues will facilitate identification of an agenda for future research into mitigation, adaptation, and preventative measures necessary to protect people and the planet Earth from the harm of subsequent disasters.

Article

James K. Mitchell

Megacity disaster risk governance is a burgeoning interdisciplinary field that seeks to encourage improved public decision-making about the safety and sustainability of the world’s largest urban centers in the face of environmental threats ranging from floods, storms, earthquakes, wildfires, and pandemics to the multihazard challenges posed by human-forced climate change. It is a youthful, lively, contested, ambitious and innovative endeavor that draws on research in three separate but overlapping areas of inquiry: disaster risks, megacities, and governance. Toward the end of the 20th century, each of these fields underwent major shifts in thinking that opened new possibilities for action. First, the human role in disaster risks came to the fore, giving increased attention to humans as agents of risk creation and providing increased scope for inputs from social sciences and humanities. Second, the scale, complexity, and political–economic salience of very large cities attained high visibility, leading to recognition that they are also sites of unprecedented risks, albeit with significant differences between rapidly growing poorer cities and slower growing affluent ones. Third, the concept of public decision-making expanded beyond its traditional association with actions of governments to include contributions from a wide range of nongovernmental groups that had not previously played prominent roles in public affairs. At least three new conceptions of megacity disaster risk governance emerged out of these developments. They include adaptive risk governance, smart city governance, and aesthetic governance. Adaptive risk governance focuses on capacities of at-risk communities to continuously adjust to dynamic uncertainties about future states of biophysical environments and human populations. It is learning-centered, collaborative, and nimble. Smart city governance seeks to harness the capabilities of new information and communication technologies, and their associated human institutions, to the increasingly automated tasks of risk anticipation and response. Aesthetic governance privileges the preferences of social, scientific, design, or political elites and power brokers in the formulation and execution of policies that bear on risks. No megacity has yet comprehensively or uniformly adopted any of these risk governance models, but many are experimenting with various permutations and hybrid variations that combine limited applications with more traditional administrative practices. Arrangements that are tailor-made to fit local circumstances are the norm. However, some version of adaptive risk governance seems to be the leading candidate for wider adoption, in large part because it recognizes the need to continuously accommodate new challenges as environments and societies change and interact in ways that are difficult to predict. Although inquiries are buoyant, there remain many unanswered questions and unaddressed topics. These include the differential vulnerability of societal functions that are served by megacities and appropriate responses thereto; the nature and biases of risk information transfers among different types of megacities; and appropriate ways of tackling ambiguities that attend decision-making in megacities. Institutions of megacity disaster risk governance will take time to evolve. Whether that process can be speeded up and applied in time to stave off the worst effects of the risks that lie ahead remains an open question.