During the final week of August 2012 I had the opportunity to attend and volunteer at the 4th International Disaster and Risk Conference in Davos, Switzerland. This report summarises the conference and my experiences there. At the end of the report are links to the conference program, papers and presentations which I would encourage the reader to peruse.
Global Risk Forum Davos
The International Disaster Risk Conference is organised by the Global Risk Forum, Davos (GRF). GRF is a foundation established in 2008 (although the first IDRC was held in 2006) to promote the sharing and implementation of practical knowledge on disaster risk reduction. It accomplishes its mission through three pillars:
- International Disaster and Risk Conferences(biennial IDRC Davos conferences, and regional conferences, Harbin in 2007 and Chengdu in 2009). GRF also partners in the organisation of other conferences including:
- The 2012 One Health Summit. (One Health is a global platform to develop an integrative approach linking human, animal and environmental health, agriculture and food safety and security)
- The 2013 United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification 2nd Scientific Conference
- Risk Academywhich focuses on continuing education and knowledge transfer and includes activities such as workshops, education & knowledge transfer, research and development and the publication of two journals
- The International Journal of Disaster Risk Reduction, which was launched at the conference, will publish high quality peer-reviewed papers covering a broad range of DRR topics.
- Planet@Risk, is an e-journal that in addition to publishing scientific articles seeks to improve access and distribution of ‘grey literature’. ‘Grey literature’ is material that is not generally published or peer-reviewed and may be difficult to access or assess quality. It includes government and NGO reports, case studies and reviews.
- Platform for Networks (know-how exchange) – An online networking platform for disaster risk professionals (currently being upgraded).
More than 900 participants from 100 different countries attended the conference. There was a wide range of organisations represented including UN agencies, World Bank and bilateral donors, INGOs, governments and government organisations, the International Federation of the Red Cross and Red Crescent and national societies, the private and insurance sector and numerous universities, institutes and other research organisations.
I was disappointed that there weren’t more practitioners, in particular government practitioners, present at the conference, however from my conversations with the organising team I learnt the IDRC has one of the largest proportions of practitioners of any international generalist DRR conference.
In an enormous program featuring 11 plenary sessions, 2 keynotes and over 50 parallel sessions and workshops each participant would have taken away a different impression of the key themes of the conference. Nevertheless, these are my impressions:
The connection between agriculture, security and disaster risk is being increasingly recognised. Not only is agriculture a key sector at risk from weather and climate related hazards it directly contributes to the resilience of communities and countries. IDRC 2012 had a special focus on agriculture which included a plenary session and the strong participation of the Food and Agriculture Organisation and the Syngenta Foundation.
Inclusion of More Fields in Disaster Risk Management
As disaster management has matured as a field it has brought more and more disciplines under its umbrella. This was clearly evidenced from the large number of social scientists (including sociologists, anthropologists and theologians) with interest in disaster management participating in the plenary sessions. This demonstrates the paradigm shift that has taken place in disaster management from a focus on hazards to a focus on society.
One poster presentation even examined the nascent field of the neuroscience of risk perception and how this could inform disaster risk reduction policies and programs.
Intersection of Religion and Disaster Management
As mentioned above a number of the speakers were theologians (albeit with a focus on disaster management). I saw a number of presentations which looked at religion too.
One that stood out (the presenter certainly got the lion’s share of questions at the end of the session) was on the influence of religion on post-tsunami reconstruction in Sri Lanka. The research looked at how multiple dimensions of community resilience (material, social, spiritual) varied across Buddhist, Muslim and Christian communities. The roles of the different religious traditions and practises in rebuilding were examined, especially which traditions supported and which hindered disaster recovery. One issue noted was the limited collaboration between different religious NGOs, in particular interfaith collaboration, which has consequences on how disaster relief can be implemented where multiple religious NGOs are involved.
Environment, Ecosystems, Sustainability and DRR
With 5 parallel sessions and 1 plenary session devoted to environmental and ecological issues, this is clearly a topic of great interest. Importantly much of the current research is not just looking at the ecosystem as an element at risk but how ecosystems and society interact to increase or reduce vulnerability.
One of the organisations involved was the Rachel Carson Center which researches a range of environment and society areas including investigating the socio-ecological factors which create natural disaster risk.
An additional 4 sessions were devoted to climate change adaptation issues. Some of the presenters lamented that in many places climate change adaptation is still treated separately to disaster risk reduction and argued for a much greater emphasis on integrated approaches.
Learning and Knowledge Sharing
In addition to being a learning and knowledge sharing exercise in itself many presentations, workshops and sessions highlighted new or existing knowledge sharing exercises. In particular, the benefits of city to city learning in the Resilient Cities campaign and similar collaborative initiatives were highlighted in a number of presentations.
In addition to the very full formal program there were also many opportunities for informal networking. These are in my opinion very important aspects of conferences allowing the participants to make contacts and share ideas stimulated by the formal program.
Tasks included assisting the the set-up and pack up, registration, IT support, roving microphones for the plenary sessions, assisting session chairs, social media, assisting at the conference information booth and other miscellaneous tasks. I primarily assisted with IT support, uploading presentations to conference computers and the website as well as preparing social media content.
Conference volunteering can be an affordable way to attend and a good way to meet and network with other, mainly young, professionals and students. However one’s ability to attend sessions depends highly on the number of volunteers and your assignment.
Overall the conference offered much information and excellent networking opportunities, with volunteering an excellent way to take advantage of this. I would recommend anyone to attend this conference in the future, no matter the discipline you are engaged in.
Finally, one of the great things about IDRC 2012 is that so much of the content from the conference is available online. Check out the short abstracts and presentations, plenary sessions and red chair statements. You can also send in to receive the extended abstracts as well!