A human-centred understanding of disaster risk

While being covered by multi-hazard early warning systems (MHEWS) is critical to mitigating the losses of lives and livelihoods in the face of a disaster, to progress towards the goal to “leave no one behind”, it is equally critical to ensure that these systems and the policies that govern them are designed with and for the individuals and communities they are intended to serve.

An effective MHEWS needs to be end to end, people-centred (as well as nature-centred) and consider all components of a warning system – systematically, from risk knowledge to the implementation of preventive and preparedness actions to reduce risks and protect exposed populations – whose design considers all the complexities that different groups may have in order to implement protective measures and early action against the potential disastrous impacts of different hazards.

The many coastal vulnerable communities across the Caribbean small island developing States are increasingly exposed to extreme climatic events, which are becoming more intense, unpredictable and frequent due to climate change. 

A human-centred risk perception study 

To ensure that MHEWS consider the needs of their users and communities and can adequately address them, UNDRR conducted a study in 2022, in collaboration with the University of the West Indies, the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, national Red Cross Societies, national and local disaster offices, and with financial support from the Climate Risk and Early Warning Systems initiative. The study was performed in four Caribbean communities – Tobago, Trinidad and Tobago; Arnos Vale, St. Lucia; Bequia, St. Vincent and the Grenadines; and Portland, Jamaica – to better understand the human sociocultural factors (such as trust on institutions, risk perceptions, migrant status and language) that may present barriers to not taking, or not being able to take, early action in the face of a disaster. 

The purpose of the study was to increase understanding of the risk and early warning systems perceptions of institutions and communities and facilitate increased engagement of MHEWS stakeholders and practitioners, including private sector entities and groups mobilizing women, persons with disabilities and youth. The study also aimed to strengthen the effectiveness of MHEWS by identifying the gaps in perceptions between policymakers and community users of MHEWS.

The study supports recommendations for risk perception studies based on gap analyses conducted for several Caribbean countries, which found that in many instances “When warnings are issued some people do not take heed for various reasons, such as affinity and invincibility”. This study therefore delved deeper to understand the human factors and perceptions that promote or hinder responses to warnings. 

A total of 143 persons participated in the study, with 58 per cent representing authorities and 42 per cent representing the community. Of the total participants, 43 per cent were men and 57 per cent were women. These participants, along with a mix of community members and policymakers at the national and local levels were brought together for in-person workshops facilitated by local (in the case of Tobago, the Tobago Emergency Management Agency, and in the case of Jamaica, the Portland Disaster Coordinator) and national disaster risk management offices, national Red Cross Societies and the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies. 

The study’s methodology adapted the Resilience Performance Scorecard by Khazai (2018) and asked participants a series of questions based on five parameters: 

  1. Awareness and advocacy – measuring awareness of hazards and disasters in their community or their country (e.g. through participation in events).
  2. Social capacity – measuring access to warning information via basic services and social networks and the impact this has on people’s capacity to respond to the warnings. 
  3. Legal and institutional arrangements – measuring a community’s trust and confidence in authorities with respect to forecasting and the impact this has on how people respond and act when warnings are issued. 
  4. Early warning systems infrastructure – measuring a community’s understanding that the infrastructure for early warnings is sufficient (e.g. via sirens, social media and traditional media). 
  5. Emergency response and preparedness capability – measuring the capability of a community to take prompt and protective action when they have received warnings (e.g. how many people in your community have an emergency preparedness bag).

People-centred early warning systems 

Trust is critical to effective risk communication. Where communities feel they are not receiving or able to understand or trust the warnings being disseminated, they are less likely to take action in the face of a hazard. 

Spaces for dialogue, such as those created in the development of this study, are critical sites for building dialogue, trust and connection between policymakers and communities. 

The workshops demonstrated that meaningful and sustainable community engagement allows communities to share their voices and experiences. It helped communities better understand the role of policymakers and the processes as well as the limitations of their roles and knowledge, and how they can create partnerships to better engage or transmit information throughout the community. 

Traditional and local knowledge that has been developed and tested within a community over generations can be a source of knowledge when it comes to disaster risk management. Part of this knowledge comes from observing changes in nature such as the rapid fall in sea level as the ocean retreats, exposing fish and rocks on the sea bottom.

The workshops also highlighted the experience of some of the more vulnerable parts of the community. For instance, the study highlighted the need for warnings to meet different segments of society, including the need for translations to meet non-native language speakers (such as migrants or tourism, etc.).

While the full results and report are still being finalized, preliminary recommendations will work towards integrating these human-centred risk insights into policy as well as strengthening disaster risk knowledge; strengthening institutional architecture through community, private sector, media and NGO partnerships; strengthening community integration mechanisms, addressing underlying socioeconomic factors that limit capacities; improving infrastructural capacity; improving the understandability of warnings; promoting impact-based forecasting and enhancing feedback. We must measure and monitor how effective warnings are and strengthen the governance framework for MHEWS. 

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Themes Early warning
Country and region Americas
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