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Being afraid effectively: Cross-cultural perspectives on disaster risk reduction

This article appears in:
Future and Focus, Humanitarian, Disaster and Emergency Management, Psychology

Fear is generally considered a negative emotion. But while fear can be sometimes irrational and keep you from chasing your dreams, it can also keep you safe and prevent you from putting yourself in danger and taking unmitigated risks.

In this professorial lecture, ‘Being Afraid Effectively: Cross-cultural perspectives on disaster risk reduction’, Professor Douglas Paton from the College of Health and Human Sciences at Charles Darwin University looks at how different cultures and communities approach disaster readiness, response and recovery. And how fear can be an effective and valuable human emotion in surviving and thriving in the face of a disaster.

Distaster Risk Reduction

Disaster risk reduction is a relatively recent term, involving the development of integrated approaches to understanding how people, hazards and environment play interdependent roles in everyday life and how we can develop more effective, comprehensive and enduring approaches to confront, reduce and manage disasters when they occur. 

It's a very comprehensive field, covering policy elements, strategic elements, institutional elements and, the area that I work in, how we operationalise those elements.

The strategic element is becoming increasingly important as many Governments around the world are acting on the need to be more proactive to develop much longer time frames. And nowhere is that more evident than in Kuroshio, Japan, where they are currently developing a 1,000 year strategic plan to accommodate the fact that they face long return period, but very severe, hazards like earthquakes and tsunamis.

Japan is currently developing a 1,000 year strategic plan

What can we do to develop peoples' capacity to confront a challenging event that might arise in the future? 

Over the past several decades, there has been immense investment of time, effort and resources to getting people information. The assumption in risk communication has been that if we give people really good information about what these hazards are and what they should do, they will take action; they will act to safeguard themselves and take the information at face value and use it. But the reality is that they do not. And in fact, giving people information can be spectacularly ineffective. 

An example of this is work from Auckland, New Zealand. Auckland is built on a volcanic field set under the city and every now and again it erupts, and you can't predict where; it's a bit of a lottery. The only thing you can guarantee is that it won't erupt at the same place twice.

In the case where people were given information over six years about volcanic hazards and what to do about it, 16% of people said they had an emergency kit, 20% of people said they checked their emergency kit every month, so we can only assume that 4% go into their cupboard every month and say "yep, I still don't have one".

Yet 92% of people accepted that there was a volcanic risk.

It would be great if we could just hire a cyclone for a weekend and find out what it's like, see what works, and then give it back

Community Engagement Theory

Learning from this project kick-started the theory I'm doing for disaster risk reduction and readiness which is the Community Engagement Theory. Most people will never experience a major natural hazard event in their life, even people that live in high-risk areas. It might be thousands of years before the next event, but it could be tomorrow - it's not clear. So the community engagement theory was developed to help understand how people make a decision about challenging events under conditions of uncertainty.

Uncertainty is important, because we can't check out things for ourselves. It would be great if we could just hire a cyclone for a weekend and find out what it's like, see what works, and then give it back. Touch wood, we don't have too many over the coming months.

But it means people are reliant on others with greater expertise to find out what these hazards are like, what they do and what they can do about them to increase their safety.

And that makes trust a very important concept in this area.

What's the theory? Skip ahead to 23:45 in the video above to find out.

CDU’s Professor Paton researches cross cultural theories of disaster readiness, response and recovery based on research in Australia (bushfire, flooding, tsunami), New Zealand (earthquake, volcanic, tsunami), Japan (earthquake, volcanic), Indonesia (volcanic, tsunami), Taiwan (earthquake, typhoon), Iran (earthquake) and Portugal (bushfire). The findings are used to develop community engagement and professional training programs for communities and for social services and emergency professions.

Are you also interested in making a difference? Find out more about studying Emergency and Disaster Management or Psychology at CDU.  



This article appears in:
Future and Focus, Humanitarian, Disaster and Emergency Management, Psychology

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