Communicating volcano risk

Shooting one of the films

20 July 2016 by Tom Marshall

Researchers have created films aimed at reducing volcanic risk in societies threatened by eruptions.

The researchers on the NERC-ESRC-funded Strengthening Resilience in Volcanic Areas (STREVA) project have been working with communities near six volcanoes in Colombia, Ecuador and the Caribbean - volcanoes that are still active and pose a risk to people living nearby.

One set of films were made around the Colombian volcano of Nevado del Ruiz, which killed around 25,000 people when it erupted in 1985 - among the deadliest volcanic disasters of the twentieth century. Most of the victims lived in the town of Armero, around 50km from the volcano, and were killed by lahars - fast-moving volcanic mudflows that were generated when the eruption melted glaciers on the volcano, burying the town under metres of mud and debris.

The team have spent several years collaborating with local partners: the Servicio Geologico Colombiano, the University of Manizales, Red Cross, the UNGRD (National Unit for Disaster Risk Management) and local community representatives, in an effort to understand more about both the physical dynamics of eruptions and the social dynamics of at-risk communities.

This research informed the films. The team wanted to address the challenge of maintaining the social memory of 1985 by involving local people. They had two goals: to raise awareness of the volcano and the threat it poses, and to find out if the process of making the films, and the final product, empowered people to take action to reduce their risk. To do this, they documented oral histories of the events of 1985, recording survivors' memories and telling the stories of their lives since then.

Filming at a volcano

They've just returned from Colombia, where they held public screenings of the films at schools and community centres in five at-risk areas. More than 700 people attended.

Interviews and focus groups before and after the screenings aimed to assess the films' impact on people's knowledge of the volcano and on how they might act in a crisis. The results are still being analysed, but a lot of the early feedback was positive. "It's been amazing to see how the films have affected people," says Dr Anna Hicks, a volcanologist with the STREVA project. "One of the strengths of the films was that the audience could see people from their own communities - in many cases people they knew well, but who they'd never spoken to about the eruption in 1985. Hearing the stories of people they could identify with made it a far more engaging experience for them."

While the films' main goal was to increase awareness of the volcano's existence and the kinds of danger it can produce, Hicks says many people who saw them have already started to go further and talk about how they could protect themselves more effectively.

Watch the first of the STREVA project's videos about life in the shadow of Nevado del Ruiz:

Subtitles (closed captions) are available once the video is playing.

You can watch the films on the STREVA channel on YouTube - external link. The channel also hosts films made by the STREVA team to support volcanic risk reduction efforts in St Vincent. The STREVA researchers worked alongside production company Lambda Films - external link to create the videos.