Recent disasters and ISO Standards

Issue 28 – June 2011

This article was written by Kevin Knight and is summarised with his permission. Knight is a founding member of the Standards Australia/Standards New Zealand Joint Technical Committee OB/7 'Risk management' and Chair of the ISO project committee ISO/PC 262 'Risk management'. He led the working group that developed ISO 31000:2009 Risk management – Principles and guidance and the revision of ISO Guide 73:2009 Risk management – Vocabulary.

The first quarter of 2011 has seen some terrible disasters along the eastern coast of the Pacific Ocean: floods and cyclones in Australia, an earthquake in New Zealand, and the earthquake and subsequent tsunami and nuclear disaster in Japan.

Standards are featuring strongly in the reviews and enquiries that have commenced following these events. These include, notably, Standards developed over the years by ISO and national Standards bodies, which are part of the ISO network, and updates and revisions to these Standards prompted by the lessons learned from these disasters.

These Standards have provided a high level of safety and security for the countries that have implemented them. The glaring exception, of course, is defence against tsunamis and, given their ferocity, I wonder what one can do, just as how does one deal with volcanic eruptions? Sometimes, the human race has to admit that it is not in total control and never will be in some cases.

Australia, Japan, and New Zealand have a long history of involvement in the development of Standards to assist their populations in meeting the challenges of natural disasters.

Floods and cyclonic conditions, along with bush fires, are a regular feature of the Australian environment. Whereas society used to wait for an event and then repair the damage, today, there is a proactive application of Standards. The result is a more resilient social fabric. While disasters still occur, the damage to structures is generally less severe and, therefore, the community resumes life more quickly than previously.


A driver behind this approach has been the adoption of a risk management approach based on ISO 31000 to emergency and disaster management to ensure community resilience.

A risk management approach to living with earthquakes has been adopted in Japan and New Zealand with particular emphasis on the development of building Standards that can provide protection to occupants.

The most recent series of earthquakes in the region has shown the benefit of these Standards, especially in Tokyo, as well as in other parts of Japan.

A crucial point is how societies deal with the question of disasters, especially when it comes to retrospective application of Standards. The Christchurch, New Zealand, and the Japanese experience have shown that buildings erected to the very latest Standards survived largely intact or at least protected all those within them. Of the structures that failed, some were built to earlier Standards but could not withstand the intensity of the earthquake, while others, despite attempts having been made to strengthen them after earlier disasters, also failed. Quite obviously, Standards developers still have challenges to meet in designing structures that can withstand all types of earthquake.

This highlights a very real challenge to society – is it willing to make Standards retrospective and, if it does, who pays and how much? This is certainly applicable to the Australian experience of floods and cyclones at the beginning of 2011.

Another challenge for society and for Standards writers is how, or if, we deal with protecting peoples' lives from tsunamis and volcanic eruptions. I pose the question because I do not see us ever being able to 'control' such events.


However, by applying sound risk management, I do believe that we can put in place processes that would enable potential victims to be saved. This could include better warning systems, and the development of evacuation programmes and their regular testing to ensure that they are fully understood and that people know what to do when the alarm is raised.

Admittedly, given the suddenness of tsunamis, even careful planning might have little chance of real success.

The other challenge is, of course, the desire of people to live beside the sea or rivers. This is already being acknowledged in Japan. For example, Professor Shigeki Sakai, of Iwate University, has said: 'It is always suggested that we relocate towns to the hills after a tsunami but, in reality, people never accept the idea of moving the whole community up the hill. As time goes by, people gradually come back to the plain for the convenience. You may wonder why the people would choose to come back, but that's the nature of the Japanese people.'

The same situation exists in Australia with people living by rivers and the seaside – the desirability of these locations outweighs the danger of inundation, just as those living in bushfire areas still move back and plant trees.

To sum up, the challenges, as I see them, are the following:

  • How do we get the politicians and community leaders to seriously address the risk of flood, cyclone, and earthquake to their communities on an ongoing basis?
  • To what extent do we, or can we make new Standards retrospective in key danger zones?
  • To what extent can we make people live in safer areas?
  • Who pays for them to be relocated?
  • What do we do with those who want to go back to their original districts?

One solution is for an effective application of ISO 31000, Risk management Principles and guidance, to the initial planning and preparation phase to help society address the effect of uncertainty on the achievement of disaster recovery plans and plans related to the development of areas subject to natural, predictable disasters, as well as the unstoppable disasters of tsunamis and volcanic eruption.

Standards are still often perceived as being solely related to engineering problems. It is high time that business, governmental, and societal leaders saw the potential of Standards, not only for engineering, but also for guidance and good practice, to save lives and the economic fabric of our societies.

Failure to address risk management is not so much an engineering failure – but rather a failure of leadership.

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