Reflection on Disaster Risk Management from the Science, Technology, and Society Perspective

DOI 10.22430/21457778.1011



Science, technology, and society (STS) studies from different standpoints are no longer as scarce and exclusive as they were a few years ago, when in the 1960s, and after the devastating experience of World War II, Governments started to become increasingly interested and involved in the design of economic and social policies (Sarthou, 2018). In fact, we should celebrate the fact that all citizens—experts and, particularly, non-experts—have increasing opportunities to form a serious judgement based on challenging questions arising from observation of their own political, economic, and similar contexts and, —in the interest of this text— the visible ethical implications STS studies have on every component of the environment which, as we know, includes not only physical and natural systems but also social ones. Indeed, one of the environmental aspects whose analysis, in my opinion, should be enriched from the STS perspective is disaster risk management (DRM). This is especially true in Colombia where, in the last decades, major disasters, such as mass movements, floods, wildfires, etc., have tested the country’s capacity to manage uncertainty and prevent the negative impacts of anthropic interventions, due to the inappropriate use of physical resources or the inadequate application of new technologies, among other factors.

Colombia is internationally renowned as a leading country in terms of environmental policy. The Executive Order 2811 issued on December 18, 1974 (Decreto 2811 del 18 de diciembre) which established the National Code of Renewable Natural Resources and Environmental Protection (Código Nacional de Recursos Naturales Renovables y de Protección al Medio Ambiente), instructed that everyone —State and individuals— should participate in the management and preservation of natural resources, since they are of public use and social interest. Later, the Ministry of the Environment, the regional autonomous corporations and the scientific institutes were created by Act 99 of 1993 (Ley 99 del 22 de diciembre). It also strengthened many institutions and implemented the necessary protocols to improve the environmental information system. These two I point out as the most important platforms, although the legislation is more far-reaching, because they constitute the foundation for Act 1523 of 2012, «by which the national policy on disaster risk management is adopted and the national system of disaster risk management is established» (Congreso de Colombia, 2012). Such Law reflects the complexity of studying the environment and the importance of DRM because its main goal is to reduce and, hopefully, prevent the loss of vulnerable human —and animal— lives and the protection of their assets, social infrastructure, and livelihoods. Therefore, ensuring territorial security and improving the quality of life of populations and communities at risk, as established by Act 1523 (Congreso de Colombia, 2012), is certainly not a minor task. By this we mean that DRM involves sound planning of the territory in all its dimensions: health, economy, politics, education, culture. What we are talking about is development.

In this sense, there is much evidence of how various national political institutions, especially during the first twenty years of the 21st century, have been developing programs and policies to arouse interest and promote positive attitudes towards science and technology in order to create a solid scientific culture (Polino & Cortassa, 2016). What then could be more relevant to STS studies than DRM? Regulations dealing with risk knowledge and reduction and disaster management are substantial tools that mobilize all the entities and resources of a society in a territory. Calderón and Frey (2017) state that

Risk begins to be analyzed as a product of particular social processes directly or indirectly influenced by the development model of each society. Therefore, the identification of social vulnerability begins to be an essential part of risk analysis, where poverty, social inequality, illiteracy, corruption and the structure of Government are social variables which must be taken into account to build territorial resilience and adaptation, concepts now being associated with phenomena such as climate change (p. 242).

Risk reduction and disaster management depend on risk awareness, especially among communities, because it is a substantial element and starting point for assertive decision-making processes to solve their problems. This is achieved to the extent that everyone assumes ownership and accountability for their role and understands the consequences of the actions they take or fail to take. The solution to these problems may come from different areas, whether technological or political, but clearly there is a need to improve information systems among technicians, decision makers and the public. The STS perspective finds full potential in DRM when there is a recognition that

people and their well-being must be the focus of public action. Territories, the material goods they produce and the productive processes that support them are, in turn, subject to potential risks and must be constituted as essential means for the purpose of public policy (UNGRD-IEMP, 2017).

No resources should be spared in the study of DRM. It is the understanding of the causes of a society's vulnerability and the related consequences, including ethical considerations, that will ensure that effective management measures are taken to address the needs and improve the living conditions of communities in order to reduce risk. Communities, in turn, have the right not only to know, but also to be part of the decision-making process in DRM, and therefore the capacity to strengthen attitudes and practices for the management of their contexts must be incorporated. In my opinion, to proceed as the Sendai framework (2015) suggests is to give DRM the STS approach it needs: States should take actions to empower local authorities and communities in recognizing and making decisions regarding Disaster Risk Management as a catalyst for sustainable development. Another principle to consider is the understanding of risk in all its dimensions of vulnerability, capacity and the exposure of people and their assets. To ensure that the decisions taken are inclusive, this knowledge must consider the combination of technical knowledge of risks with traditional knowledge and knowledge of the particular characteristics of the territory together with the existence of different population groups.


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