Concept of an early warning system for risks

By Priya Chetty on November 9, 2011

Scientists involved in early warning, deal with risks. Safety is a common ideal but risk cannot be eliminated from our lives. Risk management involves the difficult task of reducing threats to life, property and the general environment. It may, however fail, because it is largely based on science and by definition science always involves risk.

Course of natural disasters in history

In the course of history, mankind has changed its attitude towards natural disasters. In ancient Greece each city had its gods protecting it [1]. Medieval Christians also understood natural catastrophes as God’s punishment. And as late as 1772 Sir William Hamilton, the famous British envoy to the court of Naples, pointed out on the basis of his observations of Vesuvius and Etna that the volcanic heat resembles hell fire and is meant to warn sinners [2].

The disastrous earthquake of Lisbon in 1755 [3], which was accompanied by a tsunami rushing into the Tejo river estuary with a ten meter wave, was a dramatic signal for change. Why is this kind of thing possible in the “best of all worlds” as described by Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz (1646-1716)[4] some decades before? Why should God punish this pious city with its 90 monasteries and over 40 churches and with its king, highly decorated by Pope Benedict XIV?

Population explosion

New difficulties were added by global population growth. By 1850, the population of the earth had reached its first billion. Adding the next million took only 100 years, the next 30 and the third and fourth only 11 years each [5]. And it reminds us of an early warning by Thomas Malthus. Exactly 200 years ago, in 1798, he stated in his “Essay on the principles of population [6],” that exponential growth has to be matched against with what would remain linear growth in agricultural production. Therefore starvation would be inevitable [7]. In Europe, emigration to other continents reduced the pressure. In Switzerland, for example, the population growth in the 16th century forced settlements to expand to the mountains and to use more alluvial plains which were prone to being flooded. Deforestation produced more damage by causing erosion, avalanches, mud-flows, landslides and river floods [8].

A solid factual basis is the foundation for any wise decision or agreement on environmental action. This is reflected in the twentieth United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP). The Governing Council’s decision to endorse environmental information, assessment and research, including environmental emergency response capacity and early warning, was one of the five UNEP priorities [9].

Predicting risks

Throughout history, risk analysis has been used informally in innumerable human situations. Risk has always been associated with decision-making, with something that has to be done, with the execution of an action that ranges from the most trivial to that of utmost important. The notion of risk has a per formative character. In all cases, an action must be chosen. The results of these actions are in the future and these imply uncertainty. The selection of a future action line of action implies possible adversity or contingency. Discussions regarding the risk touch the ground roots of society, knowledge, values, emotions and even its very existence. These include reflections on the nature of scientific knowledge, an understanding of the visions that substantiate different arguments and rationalization as to what we fear and as to the ways we should act. The ability to comprehend, despite uncertainties in the analysis of physical systems, is one of the circumstances that define whether a given model provides an adequate representation of the problem under consideration. This means moving from the concept of truth to the concept of control or management. This decreases the need to obtain true predictions of future scenario, with or without the estimation of uncertainties and encourage a move in favour of the control of future events, accepting the existence of unavoidable uncertainties. Thus, despite the fact that engineering science can make certain predictions about risk, such predictions will unavoidably be partial or incomplete. As a result, the emphasis should be placed on managing or handling security (Blockley, 1992)[10].

Awareness of risk to extreme natural events is not well established in the process of public and private investment decision making. Inadequate provision of disaster response and reconstruction funds before disasters often leads to ad hoc fund transfers, disrupting and postponing planned development activities. Such diversion of development funding postpones progress towards long-term economic and social improvement. While the precise scale, time or location of disaster events cannot be predicted, areas of hazard and vulnerability can be identified. Aggregate losses can be anticipated at the national level and provision can be made for extreme events [11].

Perceived risk

Perceived risk is related to a destination’s image (Lepp & Gibson, 2003). While destination image has been studied since the early 1970’s (Gunn, 1972; Hunt, 1975), in general the focus of this area of study has been on the cultural, natural, social, and infrastructural attributes of a destination [12]. Indeed, an extensive body of knowledge has been amassed (Tasci & Gartner, 2007), although as Gallarza et al. (2002) observed, there is a lack of consistency in both the conceptualization and ope-rationalization of destination image. Many destination image scales include items about risk factors as safety and politics. However, to date a related but separate body of literature has grown up around the topic of perceived risk and tourism, even though perception of risk is inherently related to image. Certainly, identifying factors that influence perceptions of risk are likely to contribute to a better understanding of the relationship between destination image and intention to travel. This has become more pertinent in recent years as issues of tourist safety and risk have become particularly prominent (So¨nmez & Graefe, 1998b), and a growing body of literature shows the negative impacts on travel and tourism accruing from a range of factors in, or around a destination (Coshall, 2003). This study follows the tradition of separating the mainstream destination image literature from perception of risk; although in the discussion and implications section a case is made for forging closer links between these two literature segments [13].

Assessment of risk

Despite efforts by social scientists undertaken since the mid-20th century (Kates,1971; White, 1942; White, 1973; Quarantelli, 1988), the risk of assessment seen from the perspective of disaster risk has only been treated fairly recently. Its systematic conception and analysis was practically assumed by experts and specialists in the natural sciences with studies regarding geo-dynamic, hydro meteorological and technological phenomena such as earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, mudslides, flooding and industrial accidents. In other words, emphasis was centered on the knowledge of hazards due to the existing investigative and academic basis and the efforts of those who first reflected on these issues (Cutter, 1994). It is important to point out here that this emphasis still remains, particularly in the highly developed countries, where due to their technological development people try to find out in greater detail the generating phenomena of the threats. This was an evident trend during the first years of the `International Decade for Natural Disaster Reduction’ declared by the United Nations (UN) General Assembly [14,15].

If what is intended is the estimation of risk, there is no doubt whatsoever that the study and evaluation of hazard is a very important step; however, in order to fulfill such an aim, it is equally important to study and analyse vulnerability. Due to this fact, various specialists subsequently promoted the study of physical vulnerability, which was essentially related to phenomena. This last aspect allowed amplification of the work in a more multidisciplinary environment due to the need for involving other professionals such as architects, engineers, economists and planners. In time, they found the consideration of hazard and vulnerability to be fundamental when considering standards for constructing buildings and infrastructure (Starr, 1969)[16][17]

During the last few years, a considerable number of scientists have renewed interest in the field, inspired by the yawning gaps that impede understanding of the problems of risk and the possibilities of real mitigation. The reading of vulnerability and risk by amongst others, geophysicists, hydrologists, engineers and planners can be a very different reading or representation than that of people in general, the exposed communities and the government  authorities in charge of the decision-making on reduction or mitigation of risk. That is the reason why it is currently accepted that there is a need for greater study of individual and collective perceptions of risk and for research on the cultural characteristics, development and organisation of the corporations that favour or impede prevention and mitigation. These aspects of fundamental importance in order to find efficient and effective means to achieve a reduction in the impact of disasters worldwide (Maskrey, 1994) [18,19].

Early warning system

A holistic approach of risk that is both consistent and coherent could guide decisions taken within a geographic area. It should be founded on a theoretic basis of complexity that takes into account not only geological and structural variables, but also those of an economic, social, political and cultural nature. An approach of this type could assess, in a more consistent manner, the non-linear relations of the contextual parameters and the effectiveness of management and to identify and prioritize factual and efficient measures for the adequate reduction of risk by authorities and communities, who are undoubtedly the fundamental actors in achieving a preventive attitude [20].

  1. Early Warning Systems for natural disaster reduction by Jochen Zschau, Andreas N. Kuppers.
  2. MARGARET DRABBLE and JENNY STRINGER. “Hamilton, Sir William.” The Concise Oxford Companion to English Literature. 2003. Retrieved July 21, 2010 from
  3. The Great Lisbon Earthquake and Tsunami of 1 November 1755 by George Pararas – Carayannis;
  5. History of economic thought – encyclopedia article – Citizendium.
  6. Essay: Outline the theories Malthus and Boserup on impacts of population
  7. Essay: Outline the theories Malthus and Boserup on impacts of population, AS_and_A_Level/Geography.
  8. Early warning systems for natural disaster reduction By Jochen Zschau, Andreas N. Küppers.
  9. UNEP Annual Report 1999 [English] By United Nations Environment Programme.
  10. “Vulnerability and Risk Management”- Mapping vulnerability: Disasters, development and people by Greg Bankoff, George Frerks, Dorothea Hillhorst.
  11. Managing disaster risk in Mexico: Market Incentives for Mitigation Investment, Part 611 By Alcira Kreimer, World Bank.
  12. Echtner & Ritchie, 1993; Gartner, 1993; Baloglu & McCleary, 1999; Beerli & Martin, 2004
  13. Perceptions of Risk and Travel Intentions: The Case of China and the Beijing Olympic Games Christine Xueqing ia; Heather J. Gibsonb; James J. Zhangb a School of Professional and Continuing Education, University of Hong Kong, b Department of Tourism, Recreation and Sport Management, University of Florida, USA.
  14. On 11 December 1987 at its 42nd session, the General Assembly of the United Nations designated the 1990’s as the International Decade for Natural Disaster Reduction (IDNDR). The basic idea behind this proclamation of the Decade was and still remains to be the unacceptable and rising levels of losses which disasters continue to incur on the one hand, and the existence, on the other hand, of a wealth of scientific and engineering know-how which could be effectively used to reduce losses resulting from disasters.
  16. “Mapping vulnerability: disasters, development, and people”  By Greg Bankoff, Georg Frerks, Dorothea Hilhorst.
  17. Starr C (1969): `Social benefit versus technological risk’, Science, 165, American Association for the Advancement of Science.
  18. “Mapping vulnerability: disasters, development, and people”  By Greg Bankoff, Georg Frerks, Dorothea Hilhorst.
  19. Maskrey, A (1994): `Communiad  y desastres en America Latina: Estrategias de intervencion’, in A Lavell(ed) Viviendo en Reisgo: Communidades Vulnerables y Prevencion de Desastres en America Latina, La RED, Tercer Mundo Efitores, Bogota.
  20. Omar D Cardona.


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