Public-Private Collaboration – Essential for Disaster Risk Reduction
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A few years ago, I worked with some ARISE-US members to carry out a survey of small businesses in post-Katrina New Orleans of disaster risk reduction (DRR) awareness. One theme stood out to me more than any other. The businesses that had lived through Katrina and survived well understood the need to be prepared and to have continuity plans. Those that were new since Katrina all tended to have the view that, to paraphrase, “well, government (city, state, federal…) will take care of things”.
While the experience after Katrina, of all disasters, should be enough to show anyone in the US that there are limits on what government can do, it does raise the question, of what could and should public and private sectors expect of one another? Following my earlier article on how DRR is a “team sport”, and how picking the right team “members” is essential, this article attempts to tease out areas where public private collaboration is desirable or essential for DRR.
Governments necessarily function as planners, convenors and instigators of DRR in their areas. But the New Orleans experience brings the old saw to mind about leading a horse to water but not being able to make it drink. Governments can emphasize, and provide support for, planning and preparedness as much they can. They can repeat these messages regularly and make the necessary knowledge as accessible as they can. But the business sector is called private enterprise for a reason: at some level, businesses have to respond on their own account. They have to think through what they will need, and they have to make the necessary preparations. This is as true of small and medium enterprises as it is of larger ones – but it tends to be the larger ones that understand it better!
At the same time, though, very few businesses can make themselves completely resilient on their own. Consider a business that has invested in fully protecting its facilities and operations, and in back-up power and water. The facilities have just survived a hurricane or an earthquake unscathed. But if the workers cannot get to work because of blocked roads or damaged bridges, or because they need to repair their homes, or if supplies cannot reach the business, it will still lose production, perhaps for weeks. Even proactive businesses need the government to step up and fill in what they cannot do for themselves, in this case repair the transportation system, and support workers in being able to get back to work.
Another factor that hinders what governments can do when planning DRR, or responding to disasters is that key infrastructure systems such as communications, energy and sometimes water will be in the hands of separate private sector entities, who may have other priorities. They may accordingly be unwilling to share information about their assets and processes. Observing the battles in some areas to get phone companies to improve the run-times for back-up generators on cellphone towers (as an example), it becomes clear that the resulting conflicts can directly impact the ability of government to manage a disaster and communicate what is required to the population. In some US states, legislation has been required to gain the necessary collaboration.
Generally, of course, private utilities have a strong incentive to collaborate with governments, to warn of additional risks from their systems, expedite emergency approvals, coordinate access to damaged assets and so on. That limits their liability; and it helps to expedite any repairs they may need to make, while improving crew and public safety. Far-sighted governments are starting to use digital twin technologies to log the locations and identities of all utility system assets (both under and above ground) and share this information with all infrastructure system owners. ARISE-US is working on a simple, free tool to allow cities to inventory their critical assets, in whatever infrastructure system they have, and log the interdependencies between these.
Governments cannot be expected to fund every aspect of disaster resilience (the huge payouts in many countries to blunt the impact of the COVID pandemic notwithstanding!). They can fund some items; they can seed or underwrite investments in resilience; and they can ensure equity in spending. But the growing role of public-private partnerships (PPPs), sustainability and disaster bonds, and the increasingly pro-active role of the insurance industry, indicates that the private sector sees an opportunity to participate by taking some of the financing load. And let’s not overlook the obvious: every dollar that a business spends on making itself more resilient is at the same time an investment in protecting the local economy and local livelihoods – something any government will welcome.
When disasters do happen, governments of whatever level rightly function as first responders, and coordinators of the total response effort. That is not to imply, however, that they have to execute that response entirely unsupported. Utilities will be responsible for restoring their services, but beyond that there will be contractors such as the companies that supply tanker planes, bulldozers and so on for fighting wildfires. Some companies also have their own firefighters.
Others step up their activities to support their communities in the run-up to, and aftermath of, disasters, much as Walmart and Home Depot do in hurricane prone areas. But governments could go further and copy the arrangement that is common in Japan, where they sign MOUs with companies in their areas that, in the event that a disaster is declared, each company will provide certain things depending on what it has to offer – warehouse space, trucks, a datacenter, pumps, and so on. This arrangement also exists in some places in the US but is by no means as common as it could be.
One area where businesses can help governments is by acting as communication channels with their workforce about DRR issues and preparations. We are seeing this in many businesses with respect to COVID messaging from public health authorities. However, the same principle could be applied to hurricane or earthquake awareness, as a natural adjunct of the preparations and communications that the business may be carrying out anyway as part of their continuity planning. Some people may be more predisposed to believe what their employer is telling them as opposed to government; others, probably more numerous, just need to hear any message multiple times, from several sources, before it is taken to heart!
And to close the loop from where this article started, businesses are of course run by individuals who may have the same issues as their workers. This might be an opportunity for Chambers of Commerce and other business organizations to help governments reach individual businesses, such as those in New Orleans, and persuade them of the need for disaster planning and show them how to go about it.
Neither government nor business “can do it all” when it comes to DRR. High quality collaboration between public and private sectors will become the hallmark of truly resilient cities and states as population grows and as the climate changes.
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