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close this bookA Research Agenda for Disaster and Emergency Management (Department of Humanitarian Affairs/United Nations Disaster Relief Office - Disaster Management Training Programme - United Nations Development Programme , 76 p.)
View the document(introduction...)
View the document1 Introduction
View the document2 Status of Research on Emergencies and Disasters in the Developing World
View the document3 Defining Disasters and Creating a Framework for Disaster Research
View the document4 Vulnerability and Risk Assessment
View the document5 Perception of Risk and Hazards
View the document6 Preparedness
View the document7 Mitigation
View the document8 Relief
View the document9 Recovery, Reconstruction and Development
View the document10 Displaced Persons
View the document11 Gender Issues and Children9
View the document12 Conclusions
View the documentAppendices
View the documentBibliography

5 Perception of Risk and Hazards

5.1 The nature and extensiveness of preparedness and mitigation measures are to a large extent dependent upon how people and governments perceive risks and hazards. The field of hazard perception has received some attention in the past, especially among North American geographers. However, much scope for further research exists. Indeed, much of the research that has been undertaken has focused upon how people perceive the physical characteristics of hazards rather than on their perception of how hazards affect them or their communities directly and indirectly, or how they perceive risk in the context of the options available to them. Moreover, perception studies have tended to focus at the individual or household level. Much less work has been undertaken on perception at the community, and even less at the gender, local, ethnic, regional and national government levels. There are also differences in perception manifesting themselves at cultural and social levels that need to better understood.

5.2 Hazard and risk perception will usually differ within any given population. The rich will perceive risks differently from the poor; peasants' perceptions will vary from those held by local-level administrators or landlords; urban perceptions may vary from perceptions held in rural areas; national government officials will perceive things differently from local community leaders or even local government officials. The significance of such differing perceptions of hazards and risks is that information flows will be constrained or distorted as they pass through various perception filters; attempts to articulate concerns will not be heard or be discounted; false senses of security may be engendered; and disaster management strategies may address the wrong issues or set inappropriate priorities. Moreover, perceptions among a given population may also change with time; people are much more sensitized to risks at times immediately following a disaster, and it is at such times that they are much more receptive to undertaking preparedness and mitigation measures. This is true both for affected populations, for administrators and government officials, and for the donor community.

5.3 A consequent research need is, therefore, the better understanding of what influences peoples' perceptions of risk. Such research must address the perceptions of risk at:

· the household level - where, presumably, such factors as economic well-being, education levels, previous experience with the hazard, access to institutionalized support networks (including hazard insurance), etc., will play a major role;

· the community level - where the extent to which the community has previously been required to respond to needs created by hazards will significantly determine its collective attitude to danger and degree of preparedness for hazard events;

· government/administrative level - where the quality of local and regional officials, as well as their motives (political or economic) for addressing hazard risks, and their willingness to listen and react to local populations' fears and concerns, are key variables. All too often, the articulation of concerns by vulnerable populations to higher authorities is impeded by disinterest, conflicting interests, or indifference by local authorities;

· cultural and social levels - where such variables as gender differences, folk beliefs, religious influences or pure fatalistic views play a major role in how people interpret and react to indicators of risk.

5.4 It has sometimes been argued that populations living in high risk areas evolve a distinctive hazard-adaptive sub-culture. Their daily routines, economic systems, social and/or political organizations, housing and systems of land-tenure are all adapted to their perceptions of risk. For example, it is frequently suggested that the perpetual threat of flood and river channel shifting within the floodplains of Bangladesh's major river systems has created a 'charland sub-culture' which is quite distinctive to that prevailing on the mainland, having adopted a unique set of adaptive coping strategies to the perennial flood threat.3 Similar sub-cultures may be found to exist alongside active volcanoes or in severe drought regions. An indepth study by anthropologists of such hazard-adapted sub-cultures, therefore, could identify more clearly the relationships between how people perceive risk and how they develop traditional and local-level mitigation strategies.

3 Examples from Bangladesh are cited throughout this report because a) the country exemplifies forcefully so many of the issues raised in the report, and b) the writer was part of a team which recently completed a study which addressed many of these issues in Bangladesh.

5.5 Disaster management strategies which have been undertaken in developing countries have invariably been capital intensive structural measures such as flood protection embankments or cyclone shelters. These may or may not deliver the level of protection which their planners intended to provide. On the other hand, they may also create false senses of security among populations at risk, resulting in their not taking traditional preparedness and hazard mitigation strategies as seriously as they might otherwise have done. Indeed, their perceptions of risk might be so radically altered so that all traditional mitigation strategies are abandoned. It has also been argued by some researchers that a similar false sense of security can be engendered by the perception that relief aid, both governmental and privately sponsored, will be readily and universally available following a disaster and thus the need to prepare for a potential disaster or to take mitigating actions is unnecessary. It is therefore recommended that the question of how disaster preparedness and mitigating interventions on the one hand, and the generally widespread availability of relief aid following a disaster on the other hand, create among populations at risk false perceptions of relative safety or of being adequately cared for if and when hazards do strike.