Improving Communications in Environmental Disasters: A conversation with the UN’s Margareta Wahlstrom

margareta_wahlstrom© 2013 Ann Goodman

At the National Council for Science and the Environment’s timely conference on Disasters and Environment, focusing on science, preparedness and resilience, in Washington, D.C. in mid-January, one of the most seasoned and sensible, yet cautionary voices was keynote speaker Margareta Wahlstrom, of the UN Office of Disaster Risk Reduction in Geneva.

One warning: Functional communications will be key to resilience in disasters, likely to accelerate in the future.

With the population growing two to three times more in most vulnerable areas of the world, largely coastal, we should now know, with the wealth of scientific and other data available, how to plan for the future, she said.

In planning for future resilience, she named three challenges:

1.Planning and developing resilience, especially for agricultural and urban issues.

2. Governance

3.Communications. “Research is rich, and the volume of information enormous–so it’s not as accessible to decision makers as it should be.”

After her keynote, Ms. Wahlstrom sat down with me to elaborate on her ideas, based on wide experience, on improving communications during environmental disasters, especially in an age of amplifying communications through electronic and wide-spreading social networking tools…

Q: What are the challenges in communicating about and during these disasters?

A: Wahlstrom: “There are two critical things about communication:

“First, the ease with which relevant, understandable, accessible information is available, mainly to decision makers. But people are also decision makers, each person is a decision maker [especially in a disaster].

“Also, there’s no redundancy in western culture, because of our mainly outdated electric infrastructure, so when the power goes out, we’re helpless. We’ve forgotten how to use battery radios.

“The message is: in the planning phase when you have to take decisions, the enormous wealth of information makes life more difficult; we don’t have processed information leading the [way] for action. The sheer volume overwhelms people.

“Secondly, the other thing in communications is trust. Citizens don’t trust their governments anymore. So the challenge is: in a crisis, the most valuable [thing] is trustworthy and authoritative information, ideally not your neighbor but your government.

“Many governments and authorities aren’t steady on their feet in communicating and trusting their public.But you create more panic by NOT giving information. A recent example was Japan in 2011.The communications gap created uncertainty and anger.  It was a difficult situation as the Government actually didn’t know enough [to communicate many things] in the start of the crisis regarding Fukushima. [many things]. But people weren’t well served by the lack of communication.

“Also what’s important is HOW you communicate, and it takes someone who carries weight to be effective.

Q: What do you think of social media and citizen communications in increasing environmental disasters?

A: Wahlstrom: “What is a very, very positive thing is self organizing communities—partly through communications–that mobilize to protect themselves.  Governments don’t necessarily count them in when planning—the use of social media and the ease with which you communicate. For instance, where is the water, when you don’t have easy access at home? All that communication is very positive.

“But also with social media, you get second guessing and speculation; it creates uncertainty, and governments are nervous.  There are pros and cons. It can create new risks.

“Let’s focus on using these communications means for self organizing communities.

“Also, early warning systems are developing, not just sending out the warning, but reverse, two-way communications, so people can share information—for instance, don’t worry, there’s no damage here. Social media can be a helpful form of communications in this.

“We expect people will be increasingly self organizing.  In many situations you need transport and heavy equipment.  There’s always a need for an organizing hub somewhere, and rules, regulations, standards to be [used and followed].

“Communications, trust, authoritative [information] is the critical part. People are linked in. So silence is the worst possible option.”

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