Friday 17 June 2016

Migration & Climate Change

The Fourth Academic Summit of UCL IRDR was held on the 16th June 2016, and the topic of focus was on mobility and climate change. While people have historically been moving about due to impacts on livelihoods due to changes in their local environment, the term “environmental migrants” was not coined till this millennium. Although “environmental migrants~ are used interchangeably with “climate refugees”, the conventional term of ‘refugee’ does not include those who flee their origins due to climate issues.

Evidence has linked climate change with a number of slow developing natural hazards such as drought and desertification, which are major causes of food shortages. Researchers think the most common cause of climate migration is the decrease in food safety in migrants’ local surroundings. With the increase of natural hazards, the number of migrants that have to move due to such climate changes will only be on the rise. As small islands are most impacted, such populations will most likely to have to leave their homes due to changes in the climate. IPCC claimed that ‘the single greatest impact of climate change could be migration’ (1990).

With the problems of the European refugee influx and other various natural disasters around the world, the humanitarian system is potentially at its breaking point where there is lack of capacity to respond to the increasing emergencies in the world. Humanitarian aid is required for those who move and also for those who do not. Those who were not able to move due to incapability adds a complex implication.

Although Hong Kong maybe relatively less susceptible to severe climate change effects where citizens have to migrate, it is nevertheless within the range of the “Pacific Ring of Fire”, hence might act as a destination for climate migrants. It may be effective to have more discussion locally to raise awareness towards such issues, and measures could be put in place in order to better deal with such matters if such events were to occur.

ECHO produces a daily map of significant humanitarian events around the world. On the 22nd June, a map of  refugees and internally displaced people by country of origin at end of 2015 was produced:

Friday 27 May 2016

Space Hazards

Most natural hazards originate from natural events within the Earth, and are more or less measurable and predictable. Space hazards, on the other hand, are a relatively new concept amongst the general population, but that does not mean they are a less threatening hazard. Space hazards come from space weather, which is defined by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) as:

Space weather includes any and all conditions and events on the sun, in the solar wind, in near-Earth space and in our upper atmosphere that can affect space-borne and ground-based technological systems and through these, human life and endeavor.”

Some of the more common forms of space hazard include solar flares, coronal mass ejections and energetic particles. These can lead to electricity interruptions, radio/telecommunications (especially high frequency communications), and GPS problems, and GPS usage (largely affecting air traffic).

While large impact events are spaced out in the decades, recent events such as the 1989 coronal mass ejection and the more recent 2003 “Halloween storms” impacted electricity provision from a few hours up to a few days in Canada and Sweden respectively. The impacts will increase with the increased dependence on electromagnetic usage and electricity. Stoppage of electricity will bring on an even wider range of impact of cascading risks. Health care systems are potentially at the risk themselves or may be required to support health care normal functioning in the wider community.

Issues around cascading risks are complex, can cause critical infrastructure and secondary emergencies, and are mostly associated with functional dependencies, such as in complex networks. Cascading risks often infer that there are vulnerabilities in infrastructure, and are rooted in society, policies and management.

With transitions towards an all-hazard approach, it may be useful for regional partnerships that can strengthen regional resilience against space hazards in order to minimize potential cascading risks when such an event occurs. South Korea and Japan, for example have well established space observatories and mature technology that study and systems to manage such events. It is also beneficial for students to be educated on such space hazards on top of the other more common meteorological, geophysical and hydrological hazards in order to raise overall awareness.

Sunday 22 May 2016

Understanding Risks Forum 2016

The Understanding Risks Forum 2016 was held on the 16-20th May in Venice, Italy. The 4th event in the series was well attended by 650 members from 100 countries, representing over 350 organisations. Participants had the same goal of better understanding of risks and how to better incorporate science and technology knowledge for policy and decision making at a higher level.

Themes emerged from some sessions I attended, some of which were, 1) an all-hazards approach must be employed when working with natural hazards due to cascading risks; 2) scientific knowledge must be useful, useable and used to benefit the wider populations; and 3) there should be a conversion of research focus from natural hazards to vulnerability, as natural hazards are inevitable, but human behaviour can be changed.

Much of the discussion was about on one hand producing scientific knowledge that is useful, usable and used by the wider community (such as policy makers), but also empowering local communities in areas of disaster preparedness so they would have better resilience. It was raised by many speakers that the traditionally perceived vulnerable groups, such as women and aboriginal communities, actually have a lot of knowledge in locally adapted disaster resilience measures that are often ignored by scientists. NGOs and scientists might go into a community and teach them ‘evidence-based’ methods of disaster preparedness but often forget that these natural hazards has been faced by such communities for decades, even centuries. A better approach is to learn from traditional values and practices and incorporating them to our research.

Disaster risk is constantly evolving due to changes in hazard, exposure, and vulnerability; these complex dynamics have led to an increase in disaster-losses over recent decades. Urbanization and population growth are among the key drivers of this risk increase. Decisions on urban design and land use planning all contribute to future levels of risk and resilience. [excerpt taken from here]

Hong Kong is a densely populated city where every decision of land use is closely monitored to reach maximum benefit for the community. Yet land use planning in Hong Kong rarely take into account building a sustainable environment that is resilient towards natural hazards. Hong Kong is a city blessed to not experience a lot of different kinds of natural hazards, but with such rapid changes, it is important to be prepared to minimize impact.

Friday 13 May 2016


I was fortunate enough to be invited to visit the Porton Down site of Public Health England (PHE) and was shown around the exercise planning facilities. PHE hosts for the Emergo Train System (ETS), which is used for education and training of command systems, hospital preparedness and surge capacity during emergency and disasters with simulation exercises. This training system was developed in Sweden and is used in over 30 countries. Through this system, hospitals are able to test their own capacity and management in face of scenarios addressing potentially serious events.

In a new programme developed by PHE, a network of hospitals can now be tested for surge capacity and partnership across major trauma hospitals using scenarios. So far this has been shown in exercises to be a useful system as hospital managers and colleagues can, under a safe and controlled environment, experience a complex event and better envision their roles. The communication and interactive nature of these exercises are thought to be the most valuable aspect. The realistic testing of management system allows managers to exercise knowledge in real life scenarios. All hazards can be assessed, and can adapt according to need.

In Hong Kong, where emergency incidents are not common, it is even more important to regularly test such management / triage systems of hospital in order to allow those involved in decision making during emergencies to have an up-to-date knowledge on how to run the response and be trained under realistic conditions.

Friday 6 May 2016

Habitat III (to be held in October 2016: Quito, Ecuador)

Habitat III, the United Nations Conference on Housing and Sustainable Urban Development will take place in less than half a year. It is considered as the new urban agenda, and realizes the goals of the Sendai Framework, the SDGs and COP21 in aspects of housing infrastructure in providing a sustainable living environment. The draft roadmap was published earlier in March this year.

Building on the experience of the two previous Habitat conferences, this is the first instance where more grassroot civil societies and local governments are involved, implementing a participatory approach as local actors would be the ones delivering these commitments. This is a huge leap as these stakeholders can promise their own commitments and form effective partnerships. The stress in ‘inclusion’ has also hopefully reduced inequity, where vulnerable groups are not only empowered, but also involved in decision making.

Hong Kong is a highly urbanised city, and although it cannot be generalised as such, urbanisation can be valuable for development. In Hong Kong, urbanisation affects environmental determinants such as increased vulnerabilities of living in dense high-rise properties, lack of public space, and issues of infectious diseases, all of which are predeposited to the economically less advantaged population. Hence it might be beneficial for Hong Kong to exercise this advantage to further improve on its infrastructure in sustainable living. Hong Kong should learn from other big cities with social inequalities as well, such as New York and London, and recognize that city neighbourhoods can be segregated as a spatial unit for targeted interventions.

Friday 29 April 2016

The Foundation for Science and Technology debate (held at The Royal Society, London, UK)

The Foundation for Science and Technology hosted a discussion on building effective and efficient infrastructure in the UK, in reference to the new National Infrastructure Delivery Plan 2016 to 2021. Good, secure infrastructure is one of the most basic components to a resilient and sustainable city. Having a set of stable infrastructure is an asset in face of any instances of interrupted system such as during conflict and in disasters.

During the discussion, Lord Adonis, Chair of National Infrastructure Commission, raised that one of the biggest hindrances to infrastructure developments in the UK proposed during the talk might be the political environment, where political movement might impede on the progress of infrastructure building. This is suggested to have caused the start / stop nature to a lot of projects. He also suggested that success to some infrastructure projects can be attributed to the serendipity of regional and national cross-party consensus.

Attention to the social impacts and long-term effects of the infrastructure should also be given to prevent unfortunate results. One highlighted example mentioned by Terry Morgan, chairman of Crossrail, was the training up of hundreds of apprentices to provide skills and increase their employment in the future. This example does not only concern with the direct results of the individual project, but also the long-term consequences.

While I am not very familiar to the problems faced by a lot of Hong Kong government’s infrastructural plans, the above issues can be considered in reflection in a Hong Kong context, and leaves a lot to desire in order to reach an ideal solution for building a comprehensive and resilient infrastructure.

Friday 22 April 2016

EnRiCH Meeting (in Ottawa)

I had the opportunity to listen via telephone conference to a presentation about a disaster that is very different from the natural disasters that I am more accustomed to learning about. The talk was given by Dr. Mélissa Généreux on the long-term public health consequences of the Lac Megantic Crash – a train wreck disaster and explosion – that occurred in Canada on July 2013.

From her talk and my further review of her publication, some of the identified causes that exacerbated the consequences of the disaster include the lack of a national framework for disaster management. Issues included a lack of data on toxic chemical levels for officials to refer to when determining evacuation of the local at risk community. There was also inadequate communication between different rescue parties and an apparent lack of information sharing that led to delay in evacuation.

Despite the differing nature of these events, the issues relating to natural disasters disaster management and their consequences seem to me to be very similar. In particular the longer term mental health impacts such as PTSD amongst the population at risk remains a common problem in my view.

Using this Canadian incident study to reflect on possible similar incidents that might occur In Hong Kong, I remember the impact of the 2012 Lamma Island ferry collision, where albeit a sufficiency of life jackets, the incident happened too rapidly for passengers to act. Despite the rapid response of rescue parties and abundance of rescue workers, casualty of the accident amounted to 39. A similar accident happened three years later at a similar area of shore, but luckily there was no casualty this time. However some passengers on-board admitted that there was distrust in the crew’s ability due to the previous incident.

If there had been a rescue plan that covers a comprehensive range of accidents, and publicly familiarized by the general population, perhaps the anxiety felt by victims and those affected can be minimized, and consequences of any future disasters can be curtailed.