Professor Helen James: Tackling disaster risk and recovery in the Asia Pacific

22nd October 2018

Honorary Professor Helen James quietly embodies what it is to have deep knowledge and connections in the Asia Pacific that make a vital difference to the lives of people in this region. She first arrived at ANU in the 1960s from far north Queensland with burning curiosity and a scholarship to do Oriental Studies.

Fast forward to 2018 and her decades of in-country experience and deep knowledge of the societies of Thailand, Myanmar and other Asian countries, and a chance meeting with Research School of Earth Sciences Director, Professor Stephen Eggins, led to her collaborating with Professor Phil Cummins and other colleagues from the Research School of Earth Sciences (RSES) and other ANU colleagues in organising an important international conference that strategically addresses the need to connect scientific research with the people who really need it.

Risk, Resilience and Reconstruction: Science and Governance for Effective Disaster Risk Reduction and Recovery in Australia and the Asia-Pacific represents an inclusive selection of a broad range of expertise from government, science, and the Asia-Pacific gathered from around the world.

Helen explains: ‘The Asia Pacific is where most of the large-scale disasters occur and it has many of the world’s developing countries too. The combination of poverty, poor governance, disasters and climate change mean that losses through the effects of disaster are amplified. This is the basis for my teaching and research.’

The conference is organised around conceptual bands according to Helen. ‘Sixteen panels are framed around a moving kaleidoscope of ideas that come together in terms of what is a disaster in scientific terms? What is disaster risk? How do people react? How do societies recover? How do governments go about the reconstruction process? It is extremely complex,’ she says.

The ANU has joined with the Association of Pacific Rim Universities to bring this event to reality. Over a considerable period of time, Helen has worked closely with DFAT which has sponsored three Pacific speakers to come to join the other international delegates.

‘What we are seeking to do is to connect science and governance, to bring the current scientific research into the hands of the people who need to use it. Whether it’s governments, disaster risk reduction organisations or people in communities in the region, the many different layers of policy engagement need to be applied for their benefit. That’s what we want to foster with the wider networks of people who are coming to the conference, and then extend these further.’

Helen points out that there is much that is needed now and in terms of addressing future risk. ‘It’s not just in our region, the benefits of this approach are global. When hurricanes sweep through the Caribbean and the US, human and societal losses are substantial. Many issues are similar, but many are different because the cultures and governance contexts are different, the legal underpinnings are different,’

She gives the example of Japan: an established democracy, wealthy, with well established disaster education system, practiced in disaster preparedness. ‘Yet none of that was sufficient to address the 2011 earthquake and tsunami and the associated nuclear reactor meltdown, or any of the numerous disasters which have hit Japan this year.’

‘The tragedy of the 2011 event is that the preparedness program had led to a sense of security that the structural measures would be sufficient to protect the towns and people along the Sendai Coast. In the event, it was the non-structural measures that saved lives.

‘You can do all the research and have all the public activities, but you have to make sure it gets down to grassroots, and you have to connect grassroots people and community leadership with their governments to make sure it’s actually understood and implemented,’ she emphasises.

‘As you can see with the recent disaster in Sulawesi there are huge gaps, between the technology and its application in society. In Sulawesi there was an early warning system but it wasn’t in use because the financial and human resources were lacking. Often there is a total disconnect between the science side and the governance side. That’s what we want to start bringing together.’

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