Natural hazards are naturally occurringphenomena caused by a slow or rapid onset of events which can be geophysical,hydrological, climatological, or biological and have the potential to causeharm to populations and property. Technological hazard on the other hand, areevents caused by humans and occur in or close to human settlements. This caninclude, but is not limited to pollution, accidents, famine and industrialaccidents. Natural hazards tendto be more devastating in terms of loss of life and environmental damage, andalso have the potential to produce technological hazards. With both, theconsequences depend both on the magnitude of the event and on factors such aspopulation density, disaster-prevention measures and emergency planning. People are often more concerned withtechnological hazards than natural ones. They see these as ‘acts of man’ wherethe danger was known and they have a party to blame, whereas natural hazardsare viewed as ‘acts of god’ which are out of our control and blameless (White1945).
Risk is often seen as the probabilityof an adverse event and magnitude of its consequences. All concepts of riskhave one thing in common, a distinction between reality and possibility.Experts typically define risk in terms of annual moralities; reality. And thepublic almost always include other factors in their definition such ascatastrophic potential, equity, effects on future generations controllabilityand involuntariness; possibility.
People respond to a risk or hazard in waysconsistent with their perception of that risk – it is their perception thatinfluences behaviour or action (Mileti, 1993). Understanding this perception iscrucial for hazard preparedness, and can be a problem as residents of at-riskareas often have misconstrued beliefs about the hazard agent and its impacts,they are unaware of adjustments, and may have incorrect beliefs about theeffectiveness of said adjustments (Lindell and Perry, 1993) Reasons for this can be outlined inKasperson et al’s, ‘Social Amplification of Risk’ (1988). There is a dominantperception amongst lay people that we experience risk more today than we everhave before because of a modernised world, something which is not necessarilytrue. Information systems may be a cause ofamplifying risk in two ways. By intensifying or weakening signals that are partof the information that individuals and social groups receive about risk.
Andsecondly, by filtering the multitude of signals with respect to the attributesof the risk and their importance. Conceptions arise through someones directpersonal experience of risk or information about risk which is then sharedthrough an array of stations. As the consequences of technological risks areless known, people derive a lot of source information from news and mediasources which tend to emphasise and only report on mishaps and threats whichoccur rather than illustrate the likelihood of such a threat (Slovic, 1987).Information is also transmitted through social groups, amongst families andfriends and these perceptions are transferred with them (Short). Other examplesare risk management institutions, public agenices, and social organisations.
Amplification can occur as a result of processing this information, attachingsocial values to it, formulating behaviour intentions to tolerate the risk ortake actions against it and finally interacting with one’s peers to understandor validate these signals. Following this, there are several behaviouralresponses which can occur, political and social pressures, social disorder,changes in risk monitoring and regulations and increased liability. Hazardsinteract with social, cultural, institutional and psychological processes insuch a way that they may amplify public responses to risk.
As such, behaviouralpatterns generate secondary social or economic consequences. An example of a technological hazardcan be seen in the Fukushima nuclear power plant in Japan. After anearthquake in March 2011, the active reactors automatically shut down theirsustained fission reactions. It was unknown at the time that the tsunami haddisabled emergency generators which would have provided the cooling systemneeded to cool the reactors. As a result, there were three nuclear meltdowns,hydrogen-air explosions and the release of radioactive material.
It was foundthat the causes were foreseeable and basic safety requirements were not met.This was the most significant nuclear incident since Chernobyl in 1986 and onlythe second disaster to be classified at a level 7.There have been no fatalities linked tothe radiation and the World Health Organisation reported that there was noincrease in miscarriages, stillbirths or physical or mental disorders in babiesborn after the accident. However, it was projected that around 130-640 peoplein the decades ahead will have cancer deaths linked to the incident. These are ‘unknown’ risks which people do not know the outcomes of andare subsequently more afraid of.
This was also a highly publicised disasterwhere the fault was at the hands of the power plant due to the lack of safetyprecautions. This makes the public mistrust those in authorities positions dueto neglect, and instead, they the attach to reported views from media andsocial sources.Of course, the support for nuclear powerdecreased from 36% to 23% (Huang, 2013). There are concerns with safety, wastemanagement and mistrust of the industry (mack, 2013) An example of a natural hazard isHurricane Katrina, a category 4 storm which took place in 2005. The storm hitthe south-east coast of the U.S., specifically Louisiana and Mississippi.
Theworst affected area was New Orleans as it lies below sea level. Despite anevacuation order, many stayed in the city and some of the poorer populationwere seeking refuge at the Superdome stadium. This relates back to behaviouralattitudes towards risk. Because it is a ‘known’ risk, they rely heavily ondisaster response and preparedness to keep them safe. The decision to stay wasa socially initiated one, whereas leaving would have been in line with theinformed protocol, where perhaps there is a sense of distrust.
People oftenrefuse to evacuate as it is inconvenient or they don’t deem it necessary havinglived there their whole lives and not experienced anything of the sort. It wasextremely destructive and one of the costliest natural disasters and one of thefive most deadly in the history of the country. At least 1,245 died, 1 millionwere made homeless and there were up to $108bn in property damage. Public perception ofhazards, and the influence of various pressure groups can be impactful on therisk potential.
Often, the perceived risk is often very far removed from thereality. For example, the number of fatalities from natural hazards faroutweighs those from major industrial hazards by 95% of the total between1985-96. In order to overcome this, some work must be done on better riskcommunication so the public have a greater awareness of what they are facedwith. Perceptions are inherently harmful when it comes to risk management andso better communication makes policy in risk reduction easier to conduct andprotects populations.
By employing the three risk communication strategies, Ibelieve the social amplification of risk can be overcome. Top-down riskcommunication can provide the hard facts and figures on which bottom-up communicationcan elaborate. This means addressing the issue locally and providing a morepersonal and persuasive form of information transfer.