How do you make people run for their lives when disaster strikes?

by Jason Baguia | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Friday, 28 March 2014 00:01 GMT

Typhoon Haiyan survivors run toward a Philippine Air Force helicopter dropping food supplies in Tolosa, Leyte in central Philippines. November 21, 2013. REUTERS/Erik De Castro

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A country can have loads of information to help people flee from calamity, but how do you make them do so?

No, we're not trees, but it seems many of us human beings can be as intransigent as deeply rooted trees when asked to leave our lands to steer clear of disaster.

A country can have loads of information to help people flee from calamity, but how do you make them do so? 

Finding the answer can be perplexing.

Nations and development organisations represented in Washington, D.C. for the World Bank Conference on Land and Poverty have been crafting disaster-resilience policies based on so-called geospatial data. 

That consists of digital maps and data banks which serve as guides to coping with disasters that are more frequent with crazier, crazier weather.

"Accurate maps and spatial data are essential tools in disaster response where better information saves lives," says Abbas Jha, a World Bank specialist on disaster management for East Asia and the Pacific.

So how should governments use these tools?

Before anything else, they need to be presented in a way that political leaders especially at the local level are certain they can act on.  Otherwise, Jha says, they will just do projects that they feel are more likely to get them reelected. 

Geospatial data, he adds, need to enable people to know for example what are the effects of flooding in Metro Manila and where the city should prioritize mitigation measures.

The next step is to convince people to use the information.

In Bangladesh, he says, doing that is as easy as asking a boy with a megaphone to go around the village before disaster strikes to tell people to evacuate their homes.

When storms Ondoy and Pepeng hit the Philippines in 2009, he says, at least 800 people died. Although hazard data was available, people just would not move.

When the storms changed paths and moved to Vietnam, the government there took a drastic step to move the immovable: It sent in soldiers to force evacuations.

What's complicating the situation is that people are moving into vulnerable areas, especially in many cities in China and South Asia.

"The biggest factor in disasters is the growth of people and assets in harm's way," Jha says. "Ïf you consider that much of the growth is going to be unplanned, there's your problem."

In Indonesia, the government has scaled up a disaster mapping program with the help of citizens who volunteer information. 

Jha, however, calls for quality control to make sure crowd-sourced data is reliable.

After all, it is easy to produce a lot of bad maps, says Ed Parsons, Google's geospatial technologist at the World Bank conference.

And more research is needed to establish what really makes people in the path of disasters run for their lives, Jha says.

Parsons agrees. "Sometimes we have to admit that the map is not the best way of communicating," he says.

When Haiyan targeted my home country, the Philippines late last year, the government used its geohazard mapping system to warn vulnerable residents against storm surges.

But the technology failed to save people. More than 6,000 perished. 

In a nation of at least 70 languages, the maps and the managers failed to do one crucial thing: tell people in their language that a "storm surge" consists of big waves that drown whole cities.

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