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Volcanoes and People: Partnerships for the SDGs

Volcanic risk cannot be fully understood without the perspectives of those who experience it. Jenni Barclay and colleagues report on efforts to work with communities to understand and reduce risk, as part of the STREVA Project

Words by Jenni Barclay and colleagues
1 March 2023

Tungurahua, an active stratovolcano, rises above the small thermal springs town of Baños de Agua Santa (elevation 1,820m, population 14,653) in Ecuador (Image Credit: Hjvannes, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

The primary aim of the Strengthening Resilience in Volcanic Areas (STREVA; www.streva.ac.uk) project, an interdisciplinary project funded by the UK Natural Environment and the Economic and Social Research Council between 2012 and 2019, was to understand and reduce volcanic risk. Our experience as partners in this project across UK universities and monitoring agencies in Ecuador, Colombia and the Eastern Caribbean has shown that volcanic risk cannot be fully understood without the perspectives of those who experience it, as well as those who have to respond during crises. Here we share the lessons we have learned about our process of understanding risk together, and the value that partnerships bring to reducing future risk.

Imperative for change

During the past decade, the costs of impacts following disasters have increased by 400%, even though around 50% of disaster impacts can be foreseen with varying degrees of confidence (UNDRR, 2022). The United Nations 2015–2030 Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction (SFDRR) enshrines concrete actions for the international community to protect development gains from the deleterious impacts of disaster. 

Geoscientists have much to offer in addressing these actions: there is a clear focus in the SFDRR on improving early-warning systems and understanding the hazards – we can do better than predicting 50% of impacts. Another critical challenge is to avoid creating new risks, while identifying and reducing existing risk sources.

This is easy to say, but more complex to enact. We live on a dynamic planet consisting of complex interconnected systems, and the soothing rhythm of the seasons is being increasingly disrupted by ‘unprecedented’ hydrometeorological events that compound vulnerabilities and the effects of other hazardous events. 

The whisper for radical transformation in disaster risk reduction is turning into a cry, and the imperative for change is growing. We need to consider the systemic nature of disaster risk and prioritise change that offers the most benefit to those with the greatest vulnerabilities, while acknowledging that ready gains can still come from improved hazard knowledge and monitoring. Simply put, as geoscientists we cannot prioritise transformation without understanding and addressing risk as lived by those affected by it. Without improved collective progress in tackling disaster risk – and soon – we are pulling at the very roots of sustainable development.

Volcanic settings

Disaster risk reduction, applied to volcanic settings, serves as a valuable case study for these challenges. Volcanic eruptions themselves are never singular; they are sites of multi-hazard generation, including ash, lava flows, bombs, pyroclastic density currents and lahars. 

These create multiple impacts, from trashed infrastructure, compromised health and disrupted water supplies, to scorched vegetation and agriculture. The hazards vary wildly across spatial and temporal scales, interacting with other local hazards such as rain, earthquakes and unstable ground. Most importantly these are mediated and amplified by vulnerabilities both existing and new: for example, communities can be too impoverished to prepare for volcanic eruptions or too distracted by other challenges to prioritise action. 

Funding for hazard analysis and fully functioning monitoring systems is not a given in many countries

Volcanic hazard analysis offers insights into likely scenarios in the event of an eruption, and monitoring systems detect early signs of ‘unrest’ or escalation at potentially active volcanoes. Despite this value, funding for hazard analysis and fully functioning monitoring systems is not a given in many countries. Support to better understand vulnerabilities and community priorities can trail behind that. The extended timescales of volcanic quiescence can curb enthusiasms for the long-term value of these measures. Without contextualisation and broader understanding, the fact that hazard messages have been shared in a timely manner is no guarantee they will be understood or acted on by people or their parliaments. 

A quiet revolution in volcanology in the past few decades has demonstrated the need for and value of understanding and making these connections, both in the drama of an eruption and during periods of quiescence, by embedding volcanic preparedness within the context of other challenges to livelihoods. Thus, the STREVA Project set out to use recent examples of eruptions to further understand volcanic risk, and the key drivers of vulnerabilities as that risk shifted over the lifecycle of an eruption. 

To understand that systemically demanded the involvement of many partners, which felt complicated and difficult at times. In the end, we discovered that it was the partnerships themselves, and the process of sharing, that uncovered the most insights into volcanic risk and how to arrest its propagation in a crisis. 

Members of the St Vincent National Emergency Management Organisation describe community vulnerabilities during a STREVA workshop (Image: Jenni Barclay)

Forensic approach

The STREVA Project began with a scoping phase, which provided us with an excellent start. Our focus was on the analysis and reduction of volcanic risk, but as a team we decided to also concentrate on the hazards associated with lahars and the remote sensing of unrest and eruptions. This created some exciting new science (which we have reported on elsewhere). For monitoring agencies, these insights present both current challenges and new opportunities for improving monitoring and hazard analysis.

We also took a ‘forensic’ approach to understanding the drivers of risk. That is, we sought to understand how risk was created via the dynamic interaction between spatial and temporal variations of volcanic activity and pre-existing social and physical vulnerabilities. Specifically, we looked at past eruptions from four volcanoes: the ‘twinned’ Soufrières of La Soufrière Volcano, St Vincent and Soufrière Hills Volcano on Montserrat, Tungurahua in Ecuador, and Nevado del Ruiz in Colombia. Each setting presents different eruptive and social and cultural contexts to examine.

We started with the premise that experience of these eruptions is as important a dataset as the numerical records left behind by hazard analysis and monitoring data, so began in each setting with workshops. These were intensive in-country evidence-gathering exercises that brought together STREVA researchers with in-country scientists, local decision makers, emergency managers and citizens. Our consequent research programme investigated the aspects uncovered at those workshops. We found that in every setting the eruptions had exerted a strong influence on livelihood trajectories in the longer term, tending to exacerbate pre-existing inequalities. The success and effectiveness of communication processes is a key feature in adaptation and recovery across all settings. 

Interdisciplinary fieldwork is a fantastic way to share knowledge. STREVA partners on a drone-ash-community scoping trip to Cotopaxi in Ecuador (Image: STREVA)

Lived experience

In the first instance, we were surprised at the force for risk reduction that was unleashed by celebrating and sharing lived experiences of eruptions. By trying to push beyond a quick ‘look-listen’ and creating opportunities for both sharing and discussion, we not only generated important insights for our analysis, but these conversations created valuable tools for communication and enhanced preparedness for us. 

Across most settings, a critical feature was the important and attritional impacts of living with volcanic ash. We had not identified ash as a critical focus during our scoping phase, but it became clear that the systemic nature of volcanic ash impacts affects crisis response and also community recovery, both physically and mentally. These insights drove us to explore new ways to think about modelling volcanic ash.

Our emphasis on putting research into action during STREVA allowed us to produce many ‘unconventional’ research outputs

A third feature of our forensic work was the clear importance of the long-term compounding drivers of vulnerability, such as uneven access to education or weakened infrastructure, in enacting mitigations. These long-term drivers contributed to the creation of risk by the marginalisation of particular groups, tensions around land use and accessibility during crises, and the compounding impacts from multiple hazards intersecting with recovery. This pushed our ‘forensic’ analysis back further in historical time than we had anticipated – particularly in the Caribbean – and we also explored such historical drivers in Ecuador and Colombia in later projects. 

While working in wide partnerships offers positive values to projects of this nature, it isn’t easy, and the process of knowledge generation and exchange is necessarily slow and complex. Too often we only emphasise the ‘success’ and it is important to lift the lid on that both for fellow geoscientists and funders of research.

Community, filmmakers and researchers sharing knowledge in Colombia (Image: Anna Hicks)

Valuing communities’ input

There is an enduring tension implicit in projects where research is conducted in one country but funded by another. Project researchers collaborating with local scientists will tap into their partnerships and relationships to achieve results without necessarily being able to share in the funding. Further, the insights we gained from working with communities also meant that we were ‘extracting’ information from them, so it was important to value their time and expertise too.

We tried to tackle this by being open and communicative, and showing we valued one another’s time (in addition to saying we did). We didn’t always get that right; if not it was better to share that and correct it. There is nothing worse than the silent embarrassment of a misplaced initiative that no-one thinks is worth the time!

Our emphasis on putting research into action during STREVA allowed us to produce many ‘unconventional’ research outputs (such as films, artwork and mobile exhibits; www.streva.ac.uk/outputs). These also served as representations to communities of their involvement, adding value for them.

Although we argue that understanding risk in a systemic, implicitly interdisciplinary way is important, there is also much work to be done on tackling ‘disciplinary’ dimensions of risk.

STREVA partners with local school children during the ‘Forensic Workshop’ in Colombia (Image: Gloria Patricia Cortes, SGC)

A wider scope

Along the way, we learned that we could separate different areas out and still allow researchers to feel part of a wider context. We would liked to have reserved funds to come together again as a team at the end of the project, especially to share learning between settings.

We were lucky to have a research project that initially lasted for five years, and which we extended to seven years through various add-on funding opportunities that emerged from the project. Time is the most precious ‘commodity’ for research projects and partnerships of this nature. Whatever time you think you need initially, double it (if you can). Funders and grant reviewers please note!

Although STREVA worked well in the communities we studied, it has fallen to subsequent research projects and our partners to enact broader changes to practice and policy. Perhaps we did not have enough time to do that, but an important lesson to take away from this is the importance of valuing every researcher, their perspectives and potential for leadership. To embed enduring lessons or encourage transformative change, the future leaders involved in the original project will be that change if they valued the lessons they learned from their involvement!

The power of partnerships 

This article is dedicated to the power of partnership in enacting research that aims to enhance global sustainable development. We describe perspectives from a project that was rooted in active research, where we rolled our sleeves up and worked together in the field. Here are our key conclusions: 

  • Build in time to reflect and adapt.
  • Projects of this nature, where research focus can shift as perspectives are shared and propagated, requires clarity of purpose at the outset and continuous communication as the project adapts.
  • There should be shared responsibilities and benefits to being in the project for everyone. If that is not true, try to fix it. 
  • Not everyone needs to be involved in all aspects of an interdisciplinary project. 
  • If you want to understand community perspectives on a problem, you need to respect that involvement. Create time and resource to do that in your proposal.

Although projects like these can be rollercoaster rides, the perspective on risk and how volcanic hazards are situated within complex ecosystems of risks, pressures and opportunities, has made us reassess how we think about volcanoes and the impacts of their eruptions.


Jenni Barclay, STREVA PI, University of East Anglia, UK

Gloria Patricia Cortes, Project Partner, Servicio Geológico Colombiano, Colombia

Patty Mothes, Project Partner, Instituto Geofísico, Escuela Politécnica Nacional, Ecuador

Richie Robertson, Project Partner, Seismic Research Centre, University of the West Indies, Trinidad and Tobago, West Indies

Anna Hicks, Post-Doctoral Research Associate and Knowledge Exchange Fellow, British Geological Survey, UK

Further reading

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