How can our universities help to mitigate disaster risk?

The destruction caused by the earthquake and its aftershocks that hit Türkiye and Syria in February has turned the spotlight on universities’ role in developing earthquake-safer construction practices, building disaster risk knowledge and research, promoting disaster education among academics, and developing disaster-resilient communities.

Professor Ahmed Attia, the head of faculty affairs in the faculty of medical technology at the University of Tripoli in Libya, told University World News the terrible loss of life and infrastructure in the latest earthquakes, relayed across the world by the international media, serves as a reminder of the importance of earthquake preparedness and the urgent need to identify and address vulnerabilities, especially in cities prone to seismic activity.

“These earthquakes send a wake-up call to universities to assume their responsibility towards society and the communities in which they are located,” Attia said.

Universities as leaders

Academic studies have previously highlighted the the lack of preparedness at universities in Türkiye. For example, a 2021 paper titled “Faculty members’ earthquake preparedness levels and their related factors: A cross-sectional study from a university in a high-risk earthquake zone in Turkey” concluded that earthquake preparedness levels among one university’s faculty members were insufficient and that the motivation of faculty members to prepare for earthquakes should be strengthened.

Hoda Baytiyeh, associate professor of educational technology at the American University of Beirut in Lebanon, said that universities in the Middle East and North Africa are not prepared for crises-related challenges, particularly earthquakes, but that universities, which should serve as reliable sources of information, could in fact lead communities during disasters.

“University students could be the leading body upon which to rely in future earthquake disaster response if disaster preparedness strategies were implemented and incorporated into academic programmes at public and private universities,” said Baytiyeh, who is the author of a study on social media tools for educational sustainability in conflict-affected areas.

“Universities should create an earthquake-resistant environment in terms of structural buildings. Moreover, these institutions should organise earthquake drills in the community (students, staff, professors and the neighbourhood population),” she said.

Baytiyeh said university administrations should have awareness plans and suggested that a mandatory one-credit course about emergency during disasters could be developed and offered as part of the general education curriculum.

“Inspiring and engaging local communities to participate in earthquake disaster reduction will be the first step to creating a society that is resilient against such hazards,” Baytiyeh said. “Universities should organise and train teams of student volunteers to help the community in times of disasters.”

Universities can also provide trustworthy information to the community about prospective hazards including awareness and preparedness and serve as relief hubs during response and recovery.

“Universities should be supported by the government and communities to play this important role,” Baytiyeh said.

Universities and government

The fact that the government of Türkiye is reported to have issued arrest warrants for more than 100 people involved in the contracts and construction of the collapsed structures acknowledges the government’s awareness of the role of unsafe construction in the quake’s high death toll.

Professor Farzin Shabani at the department of biological and environmental sciences of the College of Arts and Sciences at Qatar University, told University World News that he and Professor Mahyat Shafapour Tehrany from the Kandilli Observatory and Earthquake Research Institute of Bogazici University in Türkiye had jointly completed many risk assessment analyses on fire, flood, earthquake and climate change and had warned about the future and the possibility of damage to people, animals and the environment.

“But we never received any call, e-mail or interest from the governments, asking what they could potentially do to reduce the damages,” he said.

“But publications should not be the last thing, as the decision-makers never read any articles,” Shabani said.

“The academic community must present their outputs in a way that non-academic people (most of the government) understand.

“Thus, what happened in Türkiye, is both the government’s and the academic community’s fault,” Shabani said.

“These two must work with each other. Unfortunately, in most regions, there is a limited link between these two.”

Shabani said university faculties and postdocs should be closely involved in governmental and industrial projects and have a closer eye on the related projects’ progress and standards, but this would be impossible “until governments allocate enough funds to the university”.

Professor Irasema Alcántara-Ayala, former director of the Institute of Geography at the National Autonomous University of Mexico, said while universities should transfer and share earthquake-safer construction technology and best practices with societies, depending on context, transfer of knowledge depends not only on the universities but the government and real state institutions.

The lead author of an October 2022 book titled Disaster Risk, Alcántara-Ayala said “real transfer” into practices depends on the capacity of governments, at different scales, to outline legal frameworks and coordinate processes leading to actions to reinforce safe construction and especially the implementation of building codes with no exceptions.

Building knowledge to understand hazards

However, she said universities should work with communities at a local level to co-produce and apply knowledge.

“For example, safe self-construction manuals for earthquake-resistant [structures] should be produced [that will] share technical expertise with local communities, incorporating their experiences and local knowledge.”

Alcántara-Ayala said universities should focus on building knowledge to understand hazards, vulnerability and exposure, “which are the main ingredients of disaster risk”.

“All society should be part of this knowledge-building to ensure policy-makers and practitioners do their job correctly,” she said.

Alcántara-Ayala said: “Science and technology need to be better valued and financially supported to improve their engagement in the activities leading to earthquake-safer environments and to improve society as a whole.”

Integrated risk reduction

She said while universities have for years provided valuable insights and strategies to reduce vulnerability and exposure and have contributed to an understanding of hazard dynamics, unless integrated disaster risk reduction is incorporated into the diverse development processes, “the social construction of disaster risk will continue to increase, skyrocketing the occurrence and impact of disasters, and, therefore, societies will not be able to achieve a resilient state”.

Integrated disaster risk research requires the participation of all the relevant disaster risk reduction stakeholders, involves multiple scales, the application of inter- and transdisciplinary perspectives, multi-methodological approaches, and the creation of scientific and local expertise and wisdom to co-produce knowledge capable of solving problems in line with disaster risk reduction, she said.

Alcántara-Ayala said very often universities focus only on post-disaster perspectives. “In other words, what can be done after a disaster induced by an earthquake – or any other hazard – has occurred. This often also involves some information on what to do and how to behave during an earthquake.

“Nonetheless, it is necessary that the university communities and all society understand how disaster risk is constructed. Regardless of the hazard that triggers the disaster, we need to understand why disasters occur,” she said.

“Promoting this knowledge among academic and student communities of universities, decision-makers and all members of society is essential.”