In managing vulnerability to natural disasters, with case studies of volcanic disasters on non-industrialized islands


Recommendation I: Technology should play a prominent, positive role in managing vulnerability to volcanic disasters

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Recommendation I: Technology should play a prominent, positive role in managing vulnerability to volcanic disasters.

The case studies have demonstrated that technology can play a prominent, positive role in managing vulnerability to volcanic disasters, even though it does not always occur. Engineers, along with other sectors of society, should ensure that this potential is maximized. Volcanic disasters present fascinating, unique, and challenging problems, and technology has many, but not all, of the characteristics needed in a tool for coping with these disasters.


Recommendation II: Non-technological influences on vulnerability to volcanic disasters should be analyzed when designing technology in order to avoid incompatibility between society and technology.

Non-technological influences on vulnerability to volcanic disasters have a significant impact on the development and implementation of technology. When technological failures occur, the blame is often directed at the engineer, which erodes faith in the profession and in technology. As well, blaming the engineer distracts from the more relevant problem which is some form of incompatibility between society and technology. Resolving this incompatibility is complicated because the appropriate solution could involve modifying technology, modifying society, or both. Deciding which solution is appropriate and how to implement that solution is rarely the responsibility of only engineers. Nonetheless, engineers must always accept some responsibility for their work and for failures which arise from their work. By communicating and cooperating with their clients and with other sectors of society to understand and predict incompatibility between society and technology, the most appropriate solution can be implemented during the design phase, before a technological failure occurs.


Recommendation III: The impact of boundaries and scales should be considered in using technology to manage vulnerability to volcanic disasters.

The case studies have shown some of the potential impacts of the boundaries and scales discussed in Chapter 6 on the role of technology in managing vulnerability to volcanic disasters. The situation in Montserrat has also shown that a smaller spatial scale for a disaster does not necessarily imply a less severe local impact. Correlating impact with temporal scale is similarly challenging. A quick eruption such as Mount Pinatubo enables Filipinos to put the incident behind them immediately and to start the recovery quickly, yet a slower eruption such as Soufrière Hills provides time to adequately research the volcano, prepare scenarios, and judge and select alternatives. Boundaries, particularly the psychological ones, were prominent in both eruptions. Without considering boundaries and scales in the design of technology, there will be fewer successes in using the technology for managing vulnerability to volcanic disasters.


Recommendation IV: Cooperation amongst sectors of society is advantageous for managing vulnerability to volcanic disasters and should be used, but there are problems which should be identified and overcome.

International, cross-disciplinary, and cross-cultural teams are necessary for properly implementing technology to manage vulnerability to volcanic disasters. The variety of perspectives, especially ideas and thoughts from those who will be depending on the technology, is an important aspect in inducing the technology to function properly. Unfortunately, involving more sectors of society in decision-making and policy implementation permits more opportunities for conflict and misunderstandings. Being wary of and aware of problem issues such as technology transfer and communication difficulties enables anticipation of, and development of procedures for resolving, any difficulties. Therefore, the advantages of cooperation amongst sectors of society are present while the disadvantages are minimized.


Recommendation V: Society should maintain an awareness of its vulnerability to volcanic disasters.

Society often does not realize or wish to admit its vulnerability to natural disasters, and the case studies illustrate this problem for volcanoes. Neither Montserrat nor the Philippines investigated their vulnerability to their respective volcanoes. Section 12.3.5 alluded to the Caribbean attitude that “ignorance is bliss” with respect to natural disasters. Without confronting vulnerability, society cannot properly prevent vulnerability. Any technological or non-technological solutions to vulnerability must first ensure that the affected sectors of society understand and accept their own vulnerability.


13.3 Conclusions

The comparison between the two volcanic eruptions indicates the extent to which technology needs to be designed and applied while considering the context of its use; i.e., while considering the characteristics of the technology’s users, and situations or potential situations of use. Designing for one exact context is usually inappropriate for natural disasters, since precisely predicting all the characteristics of a natural disaster is not possible. Designing for all possible contexts is neither feasible nor necessary. Instead, a set of likely contexts and a set of unlikely contexts should be developed to determine the response of the design (the system) for a wide range of common and rare scenarios (loads).

Flexibility and adaptability will be necessary components of design solutions to ensure that differences in a natural disaster, such as the differences between the eruptions of Mount Pinatubo and Soufrière Hills, do not translate into markedly different performances of the technology. Creativity and innovation are necessary, along with extensive cooperation and communication throughout different sectors of society. The case studies of volcanic disasters on non-industrialized island nations demonstrate these needs, and also illustrate that success is not always forthcoming, with problems emanating from engineers, from other sectors of society, and from the interaction between them. Engineers and the other sectors of society, however, have the ability and the responsibility to accept and resolve these challenges.

Part II, the case studies of volcanic hazards on non-industrialized nations is now concluded. This thesis must still examine jointly the issues in Part I and Part II in order to synthesize the application of concepts and models (Part I) with the case studies (Part II). Chapter 8, the Interlude between the two parts, described the direction which the thesis would be taking in Part II, after having looked at the accomplishments in Part I. Chapter 14, the Finalé, describes the path along which this thesis meandered and the discoveries made, in order to fully explore and understand the role of technology in managing vulnerability to natural disasters.



14. Finalé

14.1 Review and Discussion

An introduction to the role of technology in managing vulnerability to natural disasters (Chapter 1) and a discussion of the terminology used (Chapter 2) scopes this thesis and indicates the tasks which it sets out to accomplish. A natural disaster is established as arising from the combination of a natural hazard, a characteristic of the environment, and vulnerability, a characteristic of society. Part I examines concepts and models which clarify the challenges in, advantages of, and disadvantages of using technology for managing vulnerability to natural disasters.

Since either natural hazards or vulnerability, or their combination in a natural disaster, can cause technology to fail, they both induce loads on technology and engineers must design technology while considering these types of loads. One of the most troublesome steps for an engineer is defining the design criteria which should be used to anticipate a system’s response to such loads (Chapter 4). Because both natural hazards and vulnerability are often difficult to understand and to predict, the design load input is difficult to predict and to select properly. Anticipating every potential design scenario is also challenging. The definitions for current design criteria are often based on past experiences, which is a form of reactive engineering rather than preventive engineering.

Although preventive engineering tends to be the best approach to engineering problems, natural hazard prevention cannot usually be completely effective and in many cases can have unexpected and deleterious consequences (Chapter 5). Therefore, the prevention of vulnerability is a more appropriate focus. An examination of non-technological influences on vulnerability (Chapter 3) and of spatiotemporal boundaries and scales, psychological boundaries, and technological boundaries (Chapter 6) illustrates important ideas which assist in preventing vulnerability to natural disasters. There are challenges in using technology to manage vulnerability to natural disasters, but with appropriate research and application techniques, these challenges can be overcome (Chapter 7).

An interlude (Chapter 8) evaluates the accomplishments of Part I and foreshadows Part II by espousing the need to put Part I’s theory into practice through the examination of case studies in Part II. The case studies are volcanic disasters on non-industrialized islands and are first presented with an explanation of volcanic disasters (Chapter 9) and the importance of volcanic disasters to non-industrialized islands (Chapter 10). Analyses of the eruption of Mount Pinatubo in the Philippines which started in 1991 (Chapter 11) and the eruption of Soufrière Hills in Montserrat which started in 1995 (Chapter 12) focus on the role of technology during these volcanic disasters. The case studies were completed with a comparison of the role of technology during both eruptions followed by recommendations and conclusions based on experience from the case studies (Chapter 13).

Parts I and II indicate that managing vulnerability to natural disasters is not simple. Even though technology advances and the appropriate use of technology is being promoted more frequently, the task is unlikely to become simpler. The world’s human population, and encroachment of that population into more vulnerable areas, are both increasing. Therefore, more people and a greater percentage of the population are becoming vulnerable to natural disasters. Furthermore, industrialization is increasing worldwide, often using techniques which permit infrastructure in areas where natural disasters had previously discouraged construction. Therefore, more property is becoming vulnerable to natural disasters. Additionally, some natural hazards, particularly hydrometeorological and microbiological hazards, appear to be becoming more severe and more frequent. Meanwhile, the potential magnitude of some of the rare geological, astronomical, and microbiological hazards could threaten the existence of society. While global calamities have a low probability of occurring, attempting to prepare for them has merits, not only because society might actually have to cope with a calamity, but also because the ideas and techniques can be applied to understanding and managing natural disasters of lesser magnitude which are more certain to occur soon.

The future of natural disasters, society, and technology has many uncertainties, most of which are unlikely to be resolved rapidly. As well, it is not possible to resolve all uncertainties. Society must therefore manage vulnerability to natural disasters, and engineers must develop and implement their technology, in the shadow of these uncertainties. Simultaneously, resolving the uncertainties--or, at least, defining their extent--are high priorities for natural disaster research. Some of the IDNDR’s activities are related to this aspect through expanding knowledge and generating awareness and interest in natural disaster issues.

The IDNDR is somewhat representative of the general tactics needed for society in order to properly manage vulnerability to natural disasters. As mentioned in section 1.1, “The objective of the Decade is to reduce, through concerted international action, especially in developing countries, the loss of life, property damage, and social and economic disruption caused by natural disasters”. The potential for increasing human casualties and property damage caused by natural disasters is discussed two paragraphs previously to this one, but including “social and economic disruption” in the IDNDR statement is an intriguing point which surfaces subtly throughout this thesis.

Natural hazards, which contribute extensively to society, are nevertheless often accused of disrupting and interfering with society. This viewpoint places the natural hazard as external to society--an approach accepted by this thesis, with qualifications. These qualifications function well for most of the thesis, but it is time to re-evaluate them. If society were to embrace natural hazards and the environment as intimate components of day-to-day life, then technology could be used to develop society within the environment rather than to entirely exclude the environment from society, as usually occurs. Engineers would be involved in ensuring the safety of the public from natural hazards, but would also ensure that the benefits from natural hazards are maximized and their detrimental impacts are minimized.

This approach to natural hazards would be different from the attitude witnessed today which is more inclined towards assuming that natural hazards are external to society and are of concern only when a natural disaster occurs. Many of the examples in Part I and the case studies in Part II demonstrate the extent to which this attitude influences natural disasters and the role of technology. An incomplete understanding and acceptance of natural hazards leads to natural disasters through misguided actions such as reliance on and subsequent misapplication of technology. A change from this attitude to a view of natural hazards as part of society would result in reduced vulnerability, improved reactions to natural hazards, and therefore less detrimental impacts of natural disasters.

The inherent diversity and scope of natural disasters requires society to interact closely with the environment while being flexible and adaptable. By accepting this attitude, rather than the standard, deliberate exclusion of the environment and its variations from society, there will be few natural disaster situations to which society cannot effectively respond with confidence. Even when a natural hazard manifests which has not previously been experienced locally, as occurred during the case studies of volcanic disasters on non-industrialized islands, society would be better equipped because many of the management principles and actions apply readily to diverse situations. The case studies in Part II were one specific type of natural disaster, yet the analysis (Chapter 13) extracted themes and ideas (section 13.2) which are applicable beyond volcanic disasters on non-industrialized nations, to other natural disasters in other locations (section 14.2).

The overall themes which have emerged from this thesis are summarized as recommendations in section 14.2, illustrating that engineers can contribute through appropriate development and application of technology, as discussed in this thesis. Technology has definite contributions to make, but also has the capability of worsening society’s vulnerability to natural disasters if developed or applied poorly. Engineers and society should cooperate to ensure that the role of technology in managing vulnerability to natural disasters is vulnerability reduction.


14.2 Overall Recommendations

Recommendation I: A flexible, holistic, and creative approach should be used for research and application of the role of technology in managing vulnerability to natural disasters.

This approach implies examining and considering non-technological influences on technology and on vulnerability along with the various boundaries and scales which impact the development and application of technology. As well, the main problem in engineering, which is identifying and selecting the design load, can be confronted and the inherent challenges can be overcome. Through innovative and adaptable solutions with a holistic viewpoint, engineers and the rest of society can develop and implement technological solutions which contribute beneficially to the management of vulnerability to natural disasters.


Recommendation II: The importance of understanding and living with natural hazards, rather than controlling them, should be emphasized. Vulnerability to natural disasters should be understood and controlled.

Society, through technological and non-technological measures, should seek to control society’s characteristics, such as vulnerability, rather than the environment’s activities, such as natural hazards. Part I establishes the difficulties and potential detrimental consequences of preventing natural hazards as well as the effectiveness of preventing vulnerability. The case studies in Part II illustrates the wisdom of this focus: even if society had desired to prevent these volcanic events, their magnitude was so great and their influence so widespread that it would not have been possible with currently available technology. The objective of preventing vulnerability to natural disasters should be paramount in natural disaster research and applications, and technology can play a definite role in assisting the fulfillment of this objective.


Recommendation III: The solutions for using technology for managing vulnerability to natural disasters should be as long-term, as global, and as interdisciplinary as feasible.

Preventive approaches, as discussed in Recommendation II, are important and sustainability should also be considered as a prominent criterion for accomplishing this recommendation. Since global repercussions can often result from local activity, and since local activity is often more effective and efficient than global activity, actions at all spatial scales should be implemented. The interdisciplinary component of this recommendation implies continual and effective communication amongst, and understanding the needs of, various sectors of society with respect to the use of technology. Such cooperation is not always the swiftest of operational mechanisms, but the long-term advantages tend to outweigh the short-term costs in the absence of a crisis. Realizing the significance of such tradeoffs will assist in producing worthwhile technological solutions for managing vulnerability to natural disasters.


Recommendation IV: Technology should be used to fulfill society’s objectives with respect to vulnerability and natural disasters without interfering with these objectives.

Engineers have the responsibility for and capability of developing and implementing technology. Technology has the ability to enormously assist society in managing its vulnerability to natural disasters. Since technology can be used positively while minimizing its negative impacts, engineers and society should ensure that this strategy is employed.


14.3 Conclusions

Technology, society, and the environment continually interact in a dynamic relationship which presents new challenges and opportunities. When difficulties for society--particularly damage--ensue, society responds by applying various tools, one of the most prominent of which is technology. Natural disasters are notable in their significant effect on society and the variety of approaches which are implemented for managing those effects. Despite the accomplishments of society in managing vulnerability to natural disasters and the many beneficial applications of technology, there are still many difficulties to overcome and many problems to admit and resolve. Society has travelled far, but a longer journey yet lies ahead.

Technology and engineers can help smooth the path for this journey. Nonetheless, technology is not a panacea for managing vulnerability to natural disasters. Despite the continually improving ability of engineers, technology on its own will never alleviate all of society’s concerns about vulnerability to natural disasters.

Society plays an essential role in the success of technology. The environment, through natural hazards, is neither an opponent nor an enemy with respect to natural disasters. Society, partly with technology, creates the natural disasters. Society, partly with technology, can also prevent many of these natural disasters. By acknowledging this responsibility and by undertaking to resolve difficulties, society will be taking a tentative, yet imperative, step forward in examining the role of technology in managing vulnerability to natural disasters.



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1    The ecological hierarchy (after Begon, Harper, and Townsend, 1990) is the series of levels--1. individual, 2. population, 3. community, 4. ecosystem, 5. biome, and 6. biosphere (planet)--which denote increasing levels of ecological interaction and generally increasing spatiotemporal scales of survival and influence farther up the hierarchy.

2    Dial-911 systems in some areas of the U.S.A. were being used so frequently that on February 19, 1997 the Federal Communications Commission in the U.S.A. permitted the 311 code to be used for non-emergency police-related calls, and also defined uses for other N11 codes. Despite attempts from American emergency services to reverse the ruling, because they believe that a single emergency number is important for consistency and simplicity, the dial-311 service has been implemented in Baltimore.

3    This influence has been implicated in the recent explosions of malaria, yellow fever, and dengue fever along with the emergence of other diseases, particularly those caused by filoviruses, arenaviruses, and arboviruses (e.g., see Culliton, 1990; Epstein, 1995; Gibbons, 1993; Real, 1996; Walsh et al., 1993).

4    All the responses listed here imply a failure of the system under the load. Other possibilities include no response, alteration of the system without failure, or alteration of the system under the load followed by a return to the original state (or to almost the original state). The possible responses listed in the table essentially describe potential losses from, or the threat to, the system by the load.


5    The importance of knowing limits and limitations of predictability manifests in relation to the fascinating worlds of quantum mechanics, chaos, and randomness. These topics are so vast as to preclude even a brief discussion, which would necessarily be too simplistic to be worthwhile. They are mentioned in this footnote simply to provide a frame of reference outside of natural disasters for predictability issues.

6    Non-linearity as an expectation rather than as an exception in nature is another characteristic revealed by explorations into chaos (see also the discussion in footnote 1 in section 4.4.1). Gleick (1987) writes “The mathematician Stanislaw Ulam remarked that to call the study of chaos ‘nonlinear science’ was like calling zoology ‘the study of nonelephant animals’” (p. 68).

7    This point is indicative of the dependency which society has on engineers, and the dependency which engineers have on society. As one sector of society, engineers should always be listening to, advising, and working with other sectors of society. The field of natural disasters draws on input from particularly disparate sectors of society (such as firefighters, psychologists, anthropologists, community leaders, doctors, and engineers) and the engineer must always be aware of the differences in background, training, and perspective amongst those who need and those who will be using the technology.

8    Ironically, despite “guaranteeing earthquake resistance”, Engineering Dimensions (1997, p. 14) states that Strasbourg’s parliament is in the third-safest category out of five on the French earthquake regulatory scale. Therefore, the parliament could actually have been constructed two categories safer.


9    The two types of walls promoted are a 15.2 cm (6”) moderately reinforced concrete wall and a 20.3 cm (8”) thick concrete masonry wall with reinforced and grouted cells. Their claim that “Studies show only [these] two types to be truly safe” is somewhat bizarre considering that thicker and more heavily reinforced walls would clearly provide more protection from windborne debris, albeit at increased aesthetic, environmental, and economic cost.

10 Although the IDNDR’s contribution is significantly more substantial than the contribution of this thesis.

11    Confusions with this definition of aerosols, which comes from physical chemistry, can arise because atmospheric physicists tend to refer to only solid suspensions in gas as aerosols, with respect to solar radiation scattering. Liquid aerosols are referred to as liquid dispersions in the atmosphere.

12    This section discusses hazards from force and energy, terms which are normally related as F•r = E; i.e., the dot product of the net force vector and the distance vector yields the energy scalar. To avoid being sidetracked by the issue of whether the force or the energy is the fundamental hazard, a straightforward term for hazards without mass is used.

13    Bridges, roads, and railways are wrecked by lahars, jökulhlaups, the force of an eruption, and the weight of settled ejecta, leading to disasters such as the express train derailment which killed 157 people on December 24, 1953 in New Zealand after a lahar from Ruapehu volcano swept away a bridge. In aviation, Tilling & Lipman (1993) write “more than 60 planes, mostly jumbo jets, have been damaged by [volcanoes, by flying through their ash clouds], and several planes experienced total power loss, necessitating emergency landings” (p. 277). These incidents fall in the realm of disasters of ambiguous origin which are not considered to be completely natural, as discussed in section 2.9.


14    While the B.C.E. system of dating events which occurred more than two thousand years ago demonstrates ethnocentricity, it is readily understood by this thesis’ audience and avoids awkward phrasing and clarifications needed with other systems. The A.D. system for dating events which occurred less than two thousand years ago is as ethnocentric as the B.C.E. system, but no substitute could be easily conveyed to and understood by this thesis’ audience.

15    The terminology used by IAVCEI (1990) has been altered in places to more fully reflect the meanings defined in Chapter 2 and used in this thesis.

16    The 1993 eruption of Galeras which killed six volcanologists (Table 9-3) occurred during a field trip to the volcano at a workshop for planning Decade Volcano activities there.

17    Chester (1993) provides a detailed but readable discussion of how plate tectonic theory explains island volcanoes, at both the boundaries and the interiors of tectonic plates.

18    Yunya was identified as a tropical depression on the evening of June 11th, reached Typhoon Category 3 (with 5 as the strongest) on June 14th, and dissipated as a tropical depression early on June 17th. The storm will be referred to as Typhoon Yunya in this thesis.

19    Sabos and check dams are synonyms.

20    Gabions are boulders covered in galvanized wire cage.

21    “Soufrière” is French for “sulphur mine”.


22    The British pound (UK£) was worth just over CAN$2 towards the end of the summer of 1997, but has risen steadily since then to approximately CAN$2.50 in June 1998.

23    Prior to 1995 there was a strong Montserratian connection with Antigua due to previous emigration from Montserrat, and Antiguans would not be averse to the remaining Montserratians settling there (Howe, 1997b).




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