Assessments, Voices, Convergences, and Challenges: Academia, The State, and Civil Society

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By Jaime Campos, Associate Professor at the Department of Geophysics of the University of Chile. Program Director of the Risk and Disaster Reduction Program of the University of Chile.

Translated by Anthony Rauld

If we look back and consider all of the efforts that were made in our country—from 2010 onward—to deal with socionatural disasters, there are two elements worthy of analysis.

The first is that in the aftermath of the mega earthquake of February 27, 2010, a new type of discourse emerged quite strongly, a “new paradigm” with respect to socionatural disasters.  We began to use words like risk and management and/or its reduction, threats, vulnerabilities, resilience, etc.

The second is that a learning process, and the internalization of certain lessons, took place, not just for the central government—and the agencies that are focused directly on emergency management, but also for the academic world and for civil society.  For example, the early warning systems improved significantly, certain “administrative bottlenecks”, which slowed down the government’s capacity to act, were eliminated, and in the public and private spheres, certain initiatives were developed in relation to prevention, preparation, risk reduction, and also with respect to how to react to the emergency itself, and to the post disaster reconstruction scenario; in other words, to understand risk as a cycle.

Although these advances indicate a positive balance, many problems remain.

Both the risk and the threat, and the socionatural disaster itself, are pluridimensional, since they require an integral approach in the short, medium and long term, which includes exposure and vulnerability, both of which are characteristics that belong to the disaster itself, as well as to its management.  Unfortunately, despite the lessons learned, the present legislative initiatives that are being discussed with respect to these matters lack overall coherence, suffer from a systemic vision, and are focused primarily on how to respond when an emergency occurs.

We in the academic world recognize that we, for some time, have ceded protagonism with respect to certain “national issues”, which no doubt has reduced the level of discussion this debate warrants, and which Chile deserves.

 Moreover, We Analyze a Concrete Case

Ten tears ago, between January and July of 2007, a series of tremors (almost a thousand) were felt near Puerto Aysén, triggering significant concern in the population, and which led to demands for more socionatural risk management from local and national authorities.  The most serious event took place on April 21 of that year, with an earthquake that measured 6.2 on the Richter scale, which had its epicenter near Puerto Aysén, and which generated a massive rockslide that triggered a “fiord tsunami”—a series of waves and surges in the nearby coastal areas, which led to four deaths, six disappearances, and material damages totaling a hundred million dollars.

In this case, an important element—apart from the disaster itself—was the institutional crisis, political and in terms of legitimacy, which was unleashed due to the lack of coordination between local and national authorities in the attempt to deal with the emergency, which was made worse by the fact that the technical agencies in charge were unable to pass on their knowledge as actionable information.

In this context, the lack of clear and coherent guidelines on behalf of the local and national institutions progressively worsened the social and political tension in Aysén.  As the different authorities released contradicting explanations of the phenomena, generating mistrust in the official information being released, the news media—especially at the national level—minimized the gravity of the situation, and its impact on the local population, which contributed to social unrest, indifference, and abandonment, and eventually led to violent protests against the visiting authorities, only hours after the crucial earthquake of April 21.

What happened in Aysen in 2007? What wasn’t done?  What kind of system would efficiently reduce the risk of such socionatural disasters?

These are the types of questions that guide the Center for Interdisciplinary Research on Disaster Risk, CITRID, of the University of Chile.  It is an interdisciplinary space where, from a diverse array of disciplines, what is promoted is coordination, integration, development, and the dissemination of know-how and practices—not just purely scientific and technological—that can serve to deal efficiently with the requirements of the state and of society to deal with the management of socionatural disasters.

CITRID goes back to the end of 2013, when a group of academics from different faculty participated in organizing the Pacific Basin Universities Association’s Tenth Annual International Symposium on Multi-Risk, which was to take place the following year.

This team kept working and in 2016 formed CITRID of the University of Chile, which is composed of many different academics, with recognized experience and knowledge related to socionatural risk management.  Each one of them contributes from within their own discipline, including psychology, economics, engineering, seismology, geology, meteorology, climatology, computer science, medicine, legal studies, geography, anthropology, and architecture, among others.

The program aggressively promotes pedagogy and dissemination of knowledge and practices conducive to socionatural disaster risk reduction, including participation in open forums designed to connect the community with government agencies.  During this time, CITRID has led initiatives that generate spaces for dialogue and bring together the academic world, the state, and the public.

Today CITRID is working in collaboration with public institutions; we are organizing periodical conferences with ministries and services, and we are participating in regional instances, like the “100 Resilient Cities” Public-Private Council, which we were invited to participate in by the Metropolitan Region Intendancy.  We have developed numerous seminars on risk reduction and management and we have been consistently in dialogue with members of congress and with the Senate Commission on Future Challenges.

One of the initiatives that we are very satisfied with is the creation of a general education course for interdisciplinary students at our university, which is titled, “Socionatural Disaster Risk Management: A Critical and Integral Introduction to Chile’s Context”, which this year begins its third cycle.

 An Interdisciplinary Approach for a Vulnerable Country

In its work, CITRID takes on an interdisciplinary approach where different knowledges from different disciplines are integrated in order to focus on the reduction of socionatural risks in each phase: threat assessment, prevention, mitigation, response, recovery and reconstruction.  This is why we are talking about an integrative, holistic, and transversal approach.

This approach is fundamental for a country like Chile, which is highly vulnerable to the threat of natural disasters, and which has to be prepared for all kinds of circumstances.  Because of its geological characteristics, it is a territory where natural disasters occur constantly, and where they will continue to occur.  Earthquakes, tsunamis, flooding, drought, forest fires, landslides of all types, storm surges, and volcanic eruptions are all part of our history.

And going back to the Aysén case, a transdisciplinary approach would have enabled the situation to be handled in time, taking into consideration all of the risk reduction stages and all of the knowledge dimensions that are required.

The transdisciplinary approach looks at the world through a unified diversity, it doesn’t separate, although it highlights differences.  The transdisciplinary represents the efforts to achieve the most complete knowledge possible, in dialogue with a diversity of human beings.  That is why knowledge dialogue and complexity are inherent in the transdisciplinary attitude; the world is approached as a question and as an aspiration.  That way, the resilience that we hope to build in our country with respect to natural disasters can become a “characteristic” of the social system, which emerges only when we collectively become aware of the new paradigm of the risk cycle, and the aspects that determine it as a social construct.

This is the approach we are working on at CITRID and with which we pretend to contribute to the public policies of the country.

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