World Disasters Report 2014: Culture and Risk

This year’s World Disasters Report focuses on culture. Culture is an important aspect of disaster management as it affects people’s world view and their decisions. This has implications for disaster risk reduction, not only for less developed countries, but also for more developed countries, particularly as climate change impacts are felt. Culture is something we cannot ignore and need to understand and work with if we are to be effective. The IFRC who published the report have put together a fantastic video explaining the report, shown below, which I highly recommend you watch. What follows are my main impressions and information taken from the report.

Culture benefits

There are many examples of where culture can help in disaster situations. Strong cultural bonds can provide a support network, comfort, sources of communication, and shared information and resources before and after a disaster. Cultural beliefs can help people explain why disasters occur: whether this is because of a higher power punishing the unfaithful, or an unfeeling higher power unknowingly causing damage. Examples of this are the 1692 earthquake that flattened Port Royal, Jamaica, which was seen as punishment for the bad behaviour there; and Namazu, the Japanese myth that a giant catfish lives beneath the islands of Japan, and thrashes about when restless, causing earthquakes. Providing a reasoning behind such devastating events can help people to mentally cope with the “why?” behind disasters.


Namazu, the giant catfish beneath Japan who causes earthquakes

Often, cultural tales provide lessons which are passed on through the generations to keep people safe. An example of this is the Moken, “sea people”, community in Myanmar and Thailand. The number of casualties in this culture demographic caused by the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami was very low when compared to other coastal communities. Their survival is attributed to their “legend of the seven waves”, which teaches them to run to the hills if water recedes on the shoreline.

Places of worship can become sanctuaries during a disaster (they are typically better built and safer) and a centre for gathering and providing support after the disaster. They can provide a platform for risk education and a route for delivering information and resources into communities. Working alongside these cultural hubs rather than in opposition will have much more successful outcomes in disaster risk reduction.

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Mosque still standing after Indian Ocean tsunami, 2004

Clash of culture

However, there are times with culture comes into conflict with disasters, with unfortunate results. Culture affects how people make decisions. Home location choices are typically made based on daily needs, such as distance to life sources (fishing, farming, urban workers), which could place people in areas unsafe and at risk from natural hazards. Examples of this are global: fishermen living on the coast in tsunami risk zones in the Pacific, building on unstable steep slopes susceptible to landsliding in La Paz because of access to work. The choice of location increases their vulnerability, and when a hazard hits, disaster typically ensues.

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Buildings precariously located on unstable hillslopes in La Paz

This can often be a problem in resistance to evacuation. Many people decide not to evacuate in the face of an oncoming disaster because the risk of leaving has more immediate impacts which they have more familiarity with, such as being unable to provide for their family, or a higher risk from looters taking limited possessions. Compared to the potential (seemingly unlikely) risk of death or injury if they stay, which they may have little experience with (particularly if hazards are rare on a human timeline in the region), people often choose not to evacuate.

Building back after a disaster has affected a community is also a source of conflict. Despite now having first-hand experience of the danger of, say, living on the coast to tsunamis, people will often wish to build back where they were living originally. Again, this is because they need and want to be near the sources, such as the ocean, for their livelihoods.

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Rebuilding back after Typhoon Haiyan

Culture can also clash with efforts to reduce disaster risk by attitudes of fatalism – “what will be will be”. This attitude is prominent in many cultures worldwide. The perception that nothing can be done makes people resistant to making changes to try to reduce the effect of something they see as natural and inevitable. An simple example of this is provided in the World Disasters Report of wearing a seat-belt. In the UK, this is a requirement of the law and it is highly unusual for someone not to wear a seat-belt. In other countries, it is still the law to wear one whilst driving, however, some people withing certain cultures resist wearing a seat-belt because they believe if they crash, it’s going to happen anyway, and so why bother wearing a seat-belt?

Lessons to move forward

From the World Disasters Report, we can see there are benefits to be gained from and clashes that people working in disaster management experience when coming into contact with certain cultures. One important thing I think to take away, is that we can use the benefits of cultural behaviours to aid our efforts, working with and alongside resident community cultures. It is also important to recognise that certain cultural behaviours will conflict with our efforts. The way around this is not to strive harder to persuade that we are “right”. There are many studies that show that people do not change their beviour based on information or knowledge. It is much more complex than that, rooted in our culture and belief structures, which determine what we value and how we make decisions.

There is a often a clear clash of priorities between disaster risk reduction agents and those trying to maintain a livelihood and survive. The first step to be able to develop this relationship and reduce the clash is to first understand the other’s point of view and values, not with the aim to change their minds, but with the aim to work with them to obtain a better outcome (less risk from disasters, reduced vulnerability etc), which benefits all parties. Unfortunately, there is a lack of studies, methods, and advice on how to proceed when beliefs are responsible for increasing vulnerability.

Perhaps the language and terminology we use needs to change: the narrative of making decisions based on a future potential hazards conflicts with daily efforts to survive. Would it be better to change the narrative to making decisions which will benefit livelihoods, reduce vulnerability, and reduce poverty, which also happen to coincide with disaster risk reduction? Let’s start talking about certain benefits that will matter to people at risk on a personal, daily basis, rather than a potential “less bad” situation when a disaster “might” strike in the future.


Schoolchildren planting mangrove seedlings to help mitigate the impact of climate change:

these will also provide environments for fish to live in, boosting the ecosystem,

and providing more resources for local fishermen’s livlihoods

Empowerment and Education Saves Lives: Tendenko in Kamaishi

The 11th March 2011 tsunami in Japan caused widespread devastation and human casualties. The losses as a result of the event will be felt through the generations. But there are always lessons we can learn from such a tragic occurrence. In a coastal community in the Iwate Prefecture, the majority of school-age children survived. The survival rate seems miraculous in the face of so much devastation. The survival of the children is attributed to a concept taught to them through an education scheme. The term is tendenko.


In Japan family bonds are very strong, which can become a problem during a disaster situation. During the 1896 Sanriku earthquake, family members tried to help each other but ended up failing to escape from the tsunami that destroyed the entire region. In the Taro District (then Tarocho) of Miyako, Iwate Prefecture, only 36 of the town’s 1,859 residents survived the Meiji era (1868-1912) catastrophe. Family bonds were causing people to delay evacuation after an earthquake because they were gathering to check family members were ok before evacuating. In a earthquake-tsunami situation, this is incredibly dangerous as every minute to get to higher ground to escape a tsunami counts. Since 2005, the Kamaishi city government has invited disaster management education experts to offer advice to combat this phenomenon.

“Tendenko is the wisdom based on trust within families. It has a very deep meaning.” – Prof. Katada

An education program for schoolchildren led by Professor Toshitaka Katada from Gunma University Graduate School has been run since 2005 in Kamaishi, Iwate Prefecture. Kamaishi schools conduct disaster drills to go uphill, teach tsunami velocity calculation methods in math class and discuss tsunami experiences during ethics lessons. The schools also encourage students to look for higher ground where they can evacuate on foot, and include evacuation routes in a disaster management map. Among the lessons’ important points was tendenko; a word coined from the city’s long history of repeatedly being hit by tsunami. The term means to “go uphill independently at the time of tsunami caring only for your own safety, not thinking of anyone else, even your family”. The term tendenko was one that had fallen from modern use. The idea is one of self-sufficiency and familial trust. Each member of the family must trust that the other members are evacuating to safety ahead of a tsunami. This stops people from trying to check on each other in geographically distant locations, and increases their chance and ability to escape the tsunami wave. The idea also fosters a sense of camaraderie and mutual aid for those evacuating in the same location.

“You might feel bad escaping tsunami alone. However, trying to confirm families’ safety and whereabouts is the most dangerous thing one can do in such a situation. It’s important that you mutually believe that ‘They must’ve evacuated somewhere,'” – Prof. Katada

The casualty toll for Kamaishi was more than 1,200 in total. Of the 2,900 primary and secondary school children in Kamaishi, only five children who were off sick from school or who had left early were confirmed dead as a result of the March 2011 tsunami. This is a phenomenal survival rate. Of the children’s parents, only 40 were killed, which suggests the message and lesson of tendenko had been passed from child to parent. School children were seen to be holding the hands of the younger students as they ran uphill to evacuate in advance of the tsunami. At one of the middle schools, the announcement system malfunctioned right after the earthquake and become unable to broadcast evacuation calls. However, students quickly left the building and gym as they had practiced and escaped uphill. Without the concept of tendenko, the schoolchildren would have been more at risk, stopping to gather outside school to be led by teachers, or returning home to wait for parent’s instructions. The loss could have been much greater in Kamaishi.

The case of Kamaishi during the March 2011 tsunami is one that teaches us the important role education can play in disaster risk reduction. Empowerment of people who are likely to be affected by disasters is key to survival. If they expect to be told what to do and where to go by official lines of communication during an event, it can lead to unnecessary casualties. In the immediate aftermath of a disaster, communication lines are very likely to be broken or unavailable. People who are key to helping or directing evacuation will also have been exposed to the disaster and may be unable to respond or fulfil their official role. In this case, it is vital that people know to take action, and know what that action is; this cuts down on the time spent making decisions in a stressful situation. The more self-reliant they are, the more likely they will be able to respond appropriately to the challenges they may face. This does not mean we need to act selfishly – helping others nearby to get to safety is a common occurrence in disasters (more on this in another blog post). Kamaishi and tendenko can be taken as a positive example of the benefits of education and empowerment in disasters.

“I’ve repeatedly told children in class that we might experience tsunami larger than ever expected. It’s almost a miracle that this many children were saved. I’m proud of the children for making [lifesaving] decisions on their own.” – Prof. Katada

The Unthinkable: Who Survives When A Disaster Strikes – And Why

I recently read Amanda Ripley’s book “The Unthinkable: Who Survives When A Disaster Strikes – And Why”. The book explores some of recent history’s disasters and human responses to them. Ripley investigates reports on the incidents, conducts interviews with those who survived the events, and consults leading brain scientists, trauma psychologists, and other disaster experts to try to untangle the common human responses to disasters, in an effort to learn from the past.

She finds that rapid response to disaster situations are rare, and often a result of pre-programming or preparation on the individual’s part. Ripley identifies three main stages of the “survival arc” we all go through in responding to mortal peril: denial, deliberation and the “decisive moment”. The three stages do not necessarily follow a “1-2-3 and it’s over” format; during a disaster situation a person is likely to go through various stages, doubling back and looping round as new challenges are faced. I will go into more detail about these stages in other blog posts, but here I will give a general overview of the main points.


1. Denial

This is the stage where the brain freezes, unable to come to terms with what it is experiencing; it is in shock. Ripley looks at the cases of the World Trade Centre and Katrina striking New Orleans. When the planes hit the Twin Towers, many people delayed evacuating, staying at their desk and calling relatives to find out what had happened. During Hurricane Katrina, many people did not evacuate (for a variety of reasons); this was often because they did not think it would be as devastating as it turned out to be. The brain tries to deny what is happening by either thinking “this can’t be happening to me” if the experience is new, or “this can’t be happening again” if they have had a similar experience. How long we delay depends largely on our perception of risk.

2. Deliberation

The deliberation phase generally comes after our brains have gotten over the initial shock, realising something bad is happening. However, at this stage, we do not know what to do about it and are unable to make a decision. Our cognitive thinking and reasoning are compromised at this stage by fear, meaning decisions are harder to make. Fear can be a huge stimulant in responding to disasters, giving a dump of adrenaline to be able to “flee” the source of danger. However, it also can have side effects which can hamper decisions, such as narrowing of vision/loss of hearing, or can even cause you to “freeze”.

3. The Decisive Moment

The third stage comes after the delay and deliberation – we accept we are in danger, a decision has been made and now we take action based on that decision. The exception to the rule is “panic”, which is relatively rare in disaster situations according to Rebecca Solnit’s “A Paradise Built In Hell”, despite what many Hollywood movies tend to portray. Ripley explores how panics start and what it feels like to be caught in one. She investigates examples of heroism as a response to disasters, and examines why some people perform heroic acts (the exception rather than the rule).


Finally, Ripley brings all the research and case studies together to explore what we can learn from these disasters and survivors’ experiences. They key point I took from this was preparation, especially planning contingencies, and practising increased the chances of survival. By practising escape procedures and evacuation protocols – by physically going through the motion when it is still safe – your survival rates increase. This gets rid of the deliberation phase of the survival arc – you do not need to make complex cost-benefit analysis decisions during the moment when your body and mind are being paralysed by fear. You have trained your body to respond (evacuate through designated route) to a stimulus (simulated disaster) previously, and so in response to a real stimulus (disaster), your body already pre-programmed to respond in kind.

The book was well-written and engaging. Whilst not dealing solely with natural hazard-related phenomena, the lessons learned from human responses to mortal peril are transferable. I would recommend this book not only to those in the disaster research/academic field, but also to those with a general interest in disasters/human behaviour. It was easy to read and interesting. Despite the topic (disasters are not exactly cheery), I did find myself enjoying it.