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Dr Servel Miller presenting Emergency Assembly Point signs to Martina Medley, Parish Disaster Coordinator, St Thomas Parish Council in Jamaica.

Dr Servel Miller is the Natural Hazard Management Programme Leader at the University, and is also Programme Leader for the new Flood Risk Assessment, Modelling and Engineering (FRAME) MSc course within the Department of Geography and International Development at the University of Chester.

He has been working with community planners, policy makers, experts, and local community groups in the Caribbean to help make their communities more hazard-resilient, through better resilience planning and disaster risk reduction training.

With the support of the Mines and Geology Division in the Jamaican Ministry of Transport and Mining, Dr Miller recently organised the second international conference on disaster and risk reduction in the Caribbean. The conference was funded by UK Research and Innovation through the Global Challenges Research Fund. With talks from international and national experts, the conference focussed particularly on the use of innovative technologies to reduce the risk posed by natural hazards to society, as well as the importance of insurance.

Increasingly, the impact of climate-related disasters is more severely felt in developing countries. The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations (2017) describes the Caribbean region as comprising ‘fragile states’ most at risk of disasters, having the potential to destroy progress made in development over the last 30 years. This conference aimed to go some way to addressing the urgent need for more interdisciplinary research, to characterise and understand the contributing factors and processes leading to disaster risk in the Caribbean.

In the developed world, one of the most effective ways to recover from disaster is through the use of ‘risk transfer’ mechanism, of which insurance is one of the most sustainable disaster risk reduction tools. Although there is wide-scale evidence that this is the case, the Caribbean regions have some of the lowest ‘take-up’ rates. This conference explored opportunities that insurance provides, the benefits to society as a whole, and also the barriers to accessing fair and economically suitable insurance.

Dr Miller said: “Disaster risk reduction is everyone's business. It involves every part of society, every part of government, and every part of the professional and private sector.”

He emphasised the importance of insurance to help in the event of natural disasters:

“Unfortunately, in countries like Jamaica, for example, a middle income country, the take-up of insurance is not that great. It’s around 10 to 14 per cent and, as such, recovery is challenging. This is down to a combination of reasons. These include the mistrust of insurance companies by homeowners and businesses, due to difficulties in the past in settling claims after hazardous events. As such, insurance companies need to do more to address these concerns and be more transparent in their practices. The cost of home and business insurance premiums is just not affordable for most Jamaican residents and as such, they would rather take the risk, hoping a disaster won’t strike, than taking out insurance cover. This is where insurance companies and governments in the Caribbean need to work much closer together to ensure insurance is better accessible and affordable to all - akin to aspects of the ‘Flood Re’ concept adopted in the UK.

“It is in the (Jamaican) government’s interest to support the insurance companies. The government needs to invest significantly more in: research; infrastructure development, such as more coastal and river defences; upgrading of urban drainage systems; hillside protection mechanisms; and strengthening emergency response capabilities. In so doing, it will reduce the risk posed to society and give insurance companies the confidence to offer more affordable and competitive premiums.”

He continued: “Insurance is an invaluable risk transfer tool. In the longer term, it helps to reduce the pressure on government resources when a disaster strikes. These are resources that government can better spend improving social services, schools and healthcare to reduce social vulnerability and, ultimately, reduce the risk of a huge loss when disaster strikes. As such, it was great that so many people from a range of disciplines and backgrounds attended the conference in Jamaica. It is only through a more cooperative, collective effort that the threat posed by natural phenomena, like earthquakes and floods, can be significantly reduced.”

Dr Miller added: “The themes explored in the conference are very timely. Emerging technologies, for example drone mapping and Virtual Reality, have the potential to be viable and effective tools in proving a better understanding of risk and how to respond. This, in turn, helps to build a society more resilient to disasters.”

The value of using technologies to reduce risk  is already evident through, for example, the work of the University of Chester in using drones to map the threat landslides posed to hillside communities in Eastern Jamaica; the work of UWI’s (The University of the West Indies) Geography and Geology Department in the use of citizen science and social media in reducing flood hazards; and the work of the Mines and Geology division in the Jamaican Ministry of Transport and Mining in storm surge modelling.

Dr Miller said: “However, the applications of these emerging techniques need to be more widespread through Caribbean countries and it is imperative that government invest more in disaster risk reduction research.

“Numerous studies have shown that for every dollar spend in disaster risk reduction work up to eight dollars will be saved in the long-term. Disaster risk reduction in the Caribbean is everyone’s business. It is only through a collaborative effort involving all stakeholders (government, insurance companies, developers, planners, communities, homeowners, academia, emergency services etc) that effective risk reduction will occur in the Caribbean.”

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