Disaster management and flood protection is a prominent theme this year at the 2nd Asia-Pacific Water Summit in Chiang Mai. My main interest here is in disaster management and flood mitigation and there are many concurrent technical sessions under the same sub-theme including: “Flood Disaster Mitigation and Management” organized by Thai Council of Engineers and “Community participatory approach to flood emergency response, Thailand case” organized by ONWFMP.
I found that there is a large gap between the groups who prefer “structural” solutions to disaster management and those who prefer “non- structural” solutions. Structural solutions include engineered solutions such as redesigning buildings and designing physical barriers to disaster events to reduce damage. Non-structural solutions include social solutions such as early warning, evacuation planning, and emergency response preparedness.
As you know, structural groups, which are often comprised of engineers insist that only structural solutions can surely prevent countries from economic loss and can contribute to the development of the nation. On the other hand, non-structural groups often warn, “Don’t trust engineering solutions because they sometime don’t work. Early warnings, quick evacuations and emergency response are easy investments.” It is really funny that I found the totally different solutions are discussed in the rooms side by side separated by only one thin wall. Which solution is more important? This question will cause endless discussion.
The term “resilience” has recently been introduced to disaster management dialogue. As far as I know, the word has become popular after the declaration of the Hyogo Frame Work for Action on World Conference for Disaster Reduction in Hyogo, Japan on 2005. The word resilience implies that people should accept damage from a disaster and have plans in place for recovery. The moderator of the technical session, who was involved in the draft of the declaration before, said that he regrets the introduction of the term “resilience” in disaster management discussions because the word has been often abused by decision makers and leaders as a means of reducing investments on disaster prevention projects for lack of budget. As you know, warning, evacuation and emergency response can help save lives, however, it cannot protect our precious properties and physical assets. For structural groups, non-structural solutions are not investments at all. Investments should contribute to development and reduce future expenditures.
I want to raise another dilemma on the discussion. There may be another other reason other than the limitation of budgets that leaders tend to choose non-structural solutions over structural solutions. When a natural disaster occurs in a country, emergency action will be taken immediately. The disaster will create a critical situation for citizens. If immediate help is provided by governments, citizens will feel large appreciation for the leaders and never forget it. This may contribute to an increase in support of the country’s leader.
Alternatively, structural solutions can protect peoples lives and property, but these solutions are often opposed by stakeholders and third parties. Of course, projects need a long time and are expensive. If construction is eventually completed with great difficulties after long term efforts, citizens will probably show their appreciation once though, it will not last so long. Forgetting is human nature. Furthermore, foreign funds and aid for emergency response may come as a grant, which will not hurt the nation’s budget at all. Immediate emergency response after a disaster through non-structural solutions is a popular “investment” to get high support without any financial expense. If you are the leader of a nation, which solution will you take: high support with little cost or many opposition movements with huge costs?