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Disaster Studies experts are calling on government and disaster management agencies to make use of available technology in order to strategically and effectively monitor disaster zones and make life saving decisions before disasters occur.
This sentiment emerged at a forum on Strategic Approaches to Disaster Preparedness, which was convened by Minister of Information, Senator Burchell Whiteman at Jamaica House last week.
At the forum, Rafi Ahmad of the Unit for Disaster Studies and the Mona Informatix Limited, at the University of the West Indies (UWI) Mona, implored government agencies and officials to employ the use of vulnerability risk mapping in order to strategically locate and monitor potential disaster zones.
“Prepare vulnerability risk maps to prevent property and life risks. We have data but the challenge is to bring all of that to work for us. We need more real time data,” Mr. Ahmad urged.
In his presentation on ‘Natural Hazards Risks,’ Mr. Ahmad noted that it was imperative that policy makers fully understood the true nature of natural hazards.”Development of land for settlement or clearing for agriculture alters the natural layout of the land, rerouting drainage or preventing it altogether, resulting in flooding or landslides unless such development is properly planned and managed,” he explained.
He added that it was necessary for disaster managers to plan for the pre, during and post hazard scenarios, knowing where at risk areas and emergency facilities were, as well as evacuation routes. He said disaster managers should also coordinate activities during the event and properly manage relief operations, assess damage and prepare for the next hazard event.
“Communities should be encouraged to develop their own management plans involving indigenous knowledge specific to the local condition,” he further noted. Pointing specifically to the use of state of the art equipment in disaster risk management, Mr. Ahmad informed that many government agencies already had access to Geographic Information Systems (GIS).
However he noted, outside of Kingston where half of the country’s population was located, other parts of the country lacked the detailed scientific data necessary to produce a detailed analysis of hazard risks.
“Regional studies have been carried out in certain places for their risk from a particular hazard impact however these places do not have the data needed for a multi-hazard composite model, that is their risk from multiple hazard impacts,” he outlined. Continuing he explained that with vulnerability mapping of the country evacuation routes could be determined “on the fly” for particularly affected areas, plotting the nearest route to a shelter, the capacity of that shelter and alternate routes if the primary route was blocked or alternate shelters, if the nearest shelter was full or was itself affected by the hazard impact.
Mr. Ahmad noted that ‘the ‘Big Picture’ or solution however was in the linkage of all agencies involved in disaster management in order to gain access to available data and expand the use of technology such as vulnerability mapping.
“With data and information being critical for such a system to operate it is essential for all agencies with a stake in disaster management to have access to the data and be able to use it properly for their decision making activities. No Cabinet portfolio is exempt from risks from natural hazards,” he emphasized.
More pointedly he noted, “a coordinated effort from the government in providing and sharing data is crucial and having government personnel work with each other on this effort”.
In his response, Senator Whiteman informed that agencies were being encouraged to work together in order to avoid duplication and a waste of resources and that the Planning Institute of Jamaica (PIOJ) was committed to producing the recommended vulnerability maps.
Meanwhile, Minister of Land and Environment, Dean Peart, called on Director General of the PIOJ, Dr Wesley Hughes, to put together a team to work with the UWI’s Disaster Studies Unit and their available data and create a ‘disaster action plan’.
The UWI Disaster Studies Unit has in the meantime committed itself to providing “intellectual resources to tackle the problem [Disaster Preparedness and Management] with highly qualified researchers in atmospheric physics, structural and engineering geology, civil engineering, planning and computer modelling”.