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Floods, fires, droughts and other natural hazards are a fact of life – but many communities refuse to recognise the risk.


Understanding this frustrating facet of human nature is key to dealing smartly with emergency situations.

People often fall victim to natural disasters because they do not perceive themselves as being susceptible to them.

Consider how some continue to overuse water in droughtstricken areas such as Nelson Mandela Bay, with an impending day zero, or residents who attempt to cross flooded plains or rivers by car or foot.

We also witnessed homeowners refusing to leave their houses in KwaZulu-Natal earlier this year, despite dangerous landslides nearby.

We set out to investigate why people behave this way, publishing the research in an article titled “Natural hazard insurance demand: a systematic review” in the Journal of Disaster Risk Management.

The science is clear: there is a perceived “distance to disaster”, which adversely affects how communities may respond in times of crisis.

Since hazards naturally occur, little can be done to prevent them — but people need to be able to cope and adapt to the reality of these dangers.

Disaster management teams have heavy responsibilities to forewarn, educate and physically assist those in danger, but the silent barrier hampering their efforts has received little attention: convincing an at-risk person of the true extent of their risk in relation to the following factors:

  • Time — could it occur now?
  • Fellow community members — could it affect me as it does others?
  • Geographical proximity — can it occur in my neighbourhood?

Our research shows that the framing of the message is as important as the actual message; more effort must be put into convincing a population of the probability of risk, which drives home the potentially short distance between safety and disaster.

Fact vs fiction

The fallacy of safety is a worrying trend, as captured in another study by the Research in Behavioural and Experimental Economics (RiBEE) team.

Respondents confidently said on potential natural disasters, saying that they did not believe a Day Zero would occur, for example, or that the burden of responsibility should only lie on the shoulders of those who would be impacted most.

Disasters could be avoided, or their magnitude reduced, if individuals simply understood the awareness messaging received and heeded it.

Generally, disaster management teams communicate preparedness messages before disasters occur, and the general assumption is that individuals will respond by making plans to safeguard themselves (using water sparingly, taking out insurance timeously, moving locations, and so on.).

But, there are inherent behavioural biases at play which might explain why some communities, seemingly irrationally, simply ignore warnings.

This perceived “distance” from disaster is classified into three key areas:

  • Spatial — hazards occurring far from one’s home lead to the perception that it could “never happen here”
  • Temporal — if previous disasters have been avoided, or survived, the perceived likelihood is that it could “never happen again”.
  • Social — some individuals believe bad events are more likely to affect those who are less smart, lucky or secure than they are. For example, person X may believe that his house is much stronger than person Y’s

These behavioural anomalies are important red flags and could be used as part of disaster management messaging policy, to dismantle psychological “distances” and empower

But, there are inherent behavioural biases which might explain why some communities simply ignore warnings citizens to actively respond in times of crisis.

Ultimately, understanding the science may limit the impact of hazards, put less strain on government resources, foster resilient and sustainable communities and save lives.

This article appeared in The Herald (South Africa) on 
12 September 2022 written by Professor Syden Mishi, associate professor and acting head of Mandela University’s Department of Economics, of which Farai Mushonga is a researcher responsible for report writing and field work co-ordination

Contact information
Professor Syden Mishi
Associate Professor and Acting Head of Department
Tel: 0415044607