Interview with Sir David King

Over the past few decades, global scientific and technical coordination and cooperation have led to better understanding of hazards and their impacts and availability of operational warning capabilities. How critical is the role of the scientific and technical community in advancing disaster risk reduction and what more can be done?

The scientific and technical community has a very important role to play in all phases of disaster risk reduction from mitigation to preparedness and response and recovery. It can help with the vulnerability assessment and identifying steps that should be taken to minimize the risks; for example identifying land that is prone to flooding or that could be affected by an earthquake or a volcano, or in the identification of evacuation procedures which will minimize risk.

Sir David King
Sir David King, Chief Scientific Adviser to HM Government of the United Kingdom

Scientists can help educate citizens about the nature of the hazards they face and how to recognize and respond safely to them. As was made clear in the tsunami of 26 December 2004, it was the local knowledge of a handful of children and adults, which they had picked up at school or heard through generations of stories, which saved lives. For response and recovery, ongoing warnings of how the event is developing and what other types of factors may affect the response are essential.

There is a lot more that the scientific community can do besides the ongoing need for research to increase our knowledge and understanding of potentially hazardous events. Better integration and collaboration between different scientific disciplines to improve understanding of impacts and the links between different types of hazards is an area which needs development, such as the effects of weather situations on the spread of infectious disease.

There needs to be improvements in the monitoring of potentially hazardous events such as volcanoes, weather, climate change and the spread of infectious diseases.

As well as ongoing development and improvements to operational early warning systems and services, more expert peer review of scientific knowledge and understanding is required to provide a “consensus” view on hazards and to determine when the state of the science is ready to develop a useful warning capability.

In the report to the United Kingdom Government entitled The Role of Science in Physical Natural Hazard Assessment by the Natural Hazard Working Group, which you commissioned, the establishment of an International Science Panel for Natural Hazard Assessment was recommended. In your opinion, how can such a panel influence national disaster risk management policies most effectively?

An International Science Panel can provide a worldwide authoritative scientific view of potential global- or regional-scale hazards, e.g. potential for earthquakes in different regions. It would cross disciplines and involve many international scientists, to pool knowledge and expertise.

I would envisage that it would be able to provide an expert peer review of scientific knowledge of different types of hazard, leading to recommendations for particular areas of research and recommendations regarding how to utilize scientific knowledge to improve different phases of disaster-risk reduction (e.g. planning or development or improvement of warning systems).

The same report strongly supported the need for early warning systems for all hazards. How would you assess progress to date and the benefits of the multi-hazard early warning system approach?

I was pleased that the report was welcomed by many parties following its publication last June. The multi-hazard warning system has since been internationally endorsed with the G8 leaders, the United Nations and the international Group on Earth Observations all recognizing the need for such an approach.

I know the United Nations is developing the idea for a science panel which I have been consulted on and I am looking forward to seeing how this is integrated into the overall system.

Sir David King
Sir David was guest of honour at the World Meteorological Day 2006 celebrations at WMO Headquarters.
There are many elements of an early warning system which are independent of the type of hazard, for example the need to ensure appropriate links between relevant authorities and decision-makers and the need to have appropriate mechanisms in place to communicate warnings to the public and to increase their awareness of hazards. Different types of hazards often interact, e.g. a tropical cyclone causing a storm surge, or a flood leading to outbreak of disease. I have met Michel Jarraud several times now and know that WMO is continuing to develop its system for all hazards to include non-hydrometeorological hazards, such as emergencies arising from nuclear accidents, volcanic eruptions, airborne disease, forest and wildland fires and chemical accidents. I am sure he will keep up the momentum that we have started.

There has also been progress in developing the tsunami early warning systems in the Indian Ocean and other regions which is good news, considering the Asian tsunami was what prompted the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom to set up the Working Group.

While there has been significant progress in the technical aspects of hazard and risk analysis and early warnings, many challenges remain related to legislative, legal and organizational capacities and linkages. How can we overcome these challenges? What needs to be done at international and national levels?

The main challenge is ensuring that hazard and risk analysis and early warning systems are integrated into an overall disaster-risk reduction plan. Warning systems have to be integrated into people’s lives to make them accessible and easy to understand, and so does disaster risk reduction in the broader sense.

Globally, there needs to be an exchange of information by developing universal data formats, data-exchange agreements and agreeing global roles for organizations with the most developed capabilities.

Encouraging global and regional cooperation and coordinating approaches between development agencies and organizations is crucial for any early warning system to work. Regional cooperation needs to exist to ensure that regional developments tree up to, and support, coordinated global activities and that the global activities feed in to regional approaches.

Traditionally, activities in natural disaster risk reduction have focused on post-disaster emergency recovery and humanitarian response, both at national level and within the international donor community. How can science influence a shift to a culture of prevention effectively?

We need to improve awareness of the impacts of disasters, including the links between different hazards, and the socio-economic benefits of investing in disaster-risk reduction. The World Bank has determined that every dollar spent in preparing for a natural disaster saves seven in response.

At the World Conference on Disaster Reduction (Kobe, Japan, January 2005), there was a call for commitment from donors to increase the percentage of their funds allocated to disaster prevention, and a statement was made by the United Kingdom International Development Minister supporting this and committing the United Kingdom to this aim.

We must not forget that scientists can provide the education in order to raise awareness of the potential capabilities to warn of impending hazardous situations, and how to use scientific information and products for maximum benefit.

Recent scientific and technical developments related to observing networks, data-processing, forecasting and telecommunications, among others, have helped minimize the impacts of disasters. However, development, maintenance and durability of these capacities require long-term resource commitments at national and international levels. In a world of competing interests, what mechanisms can be used to ensure these capacities remain a long-term priority?

We have only to look back at the past 18 months to see what total destruction and devastation can occur from natural disasters. These events remind us of what we should be doing to minimize the effects of these hazards. In the first instance, the relevant national scientific and technical organizations such as National Meteorological and Hydrological Services (NMHSs) need to work with their own governments to make them aware of the benefits of investing in such mechanisms and capabilities, both in terms of disaster-risk reduction as well as on a day-to-day basis for other types of services and uses. The benefits of investing in such mechanisms and capabilities need to be clearly shown to donor agencies and organizations, to encourage them to support such activities.

We need to encourage global, regional and national cooperation to optimize such infrastructure and capabilities and share resources and capabilities.

National Meteorological and Hydrological Services contribute significantly to disaster-risk reduction through the issue of comprehensive information about hazards and early warnings. However, the role of these Services is not always fully recognized at the political level, while their resources and capabilities vary significantly from country to country. How can we optimize their contribution to disaster risk reduction?

National Meteorological and Hydrological Services must provide the best possible information, forecasts and warnings. For those NMHSs with less-developed capabilities, they could utilize the capabilities of another NMHS, either within the global system or within the same region.

More generally, these Services could improve their visibility both with the public via TV presentations and with relevant government and local authorities, including linking with disaster-management agencies or national disaster platforms. This would ensure that their capabilities and potential involvement in the national or community disaster plans is understood and is utilized to the best effect.


Sir David King among others
An exhibition of paintings by Swiss artist Hans Erni, entitled “Forces of Nature”, was opened by Sergei Ordzhonikidze, Director-General, United Nations Office at Geneva (left), on the occasion of World Meteorological Day 2006. Sir David is pictured here (second from right) with the artist (second from left) and Mr Michel Jarraud, Secretary-General, WMO.

In what ways do you consider WMO could further its contributions to disaster risk reduction?

As I said earlier, I am pleased WMO is continuing to take forward the disaster-risk reduction agenda, particularly developing its system to include non-hydrometeorological warning systems. However, there is always more we can be doing. I think there is room for WMO to cooperate even more closely with other United Nations agencies and international organizations in order to develop multi-agency collaboration. This would improve knowledge, develop operational capabilities and raise awareness of hazards and their impacts in the most efficient and effective way.

Other areas where WMO could contribute further could be encouraging multi-disciplinary collaboration on research and development. It could continue to raise awareness of the capabilities of the global network of NMHSs, and further encourage these to work together to make optimum use of these collective capabilities. Further training and education of less developed Services would also be very useful.









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