WE might not think the coronavirus pandemic has much in common with a natural disaster such as a volcanic eruption, wildfire or flood. But, says Professor Iain Stewart, the Scottish geologist and presenter once dubbed television’s “rock star”, there are parallels between the epidemic and things his current project is looking at with regards to natural disaster.

“Right now,” he says, “there is this question around when is the best time to bring in quarantine because you don’t want to desensitise people and then in a few weeks’ time, when it gets really bad, have them returning to bad habits.

“There’s a direct corollary in the way we deal with those kind of hazards like floods and volcanoes where they tend to be quite long-term, taking hours or days to come in and then lasting several weeks.”

Timing, he explains, is hugely important. “At what point do you tell people to leave? When do you inform a governor or a governing structure that we’re confident enough that now is the time?”

Stewart, who presented a host of documentary series about the workings of the planet, is currently communications lead on Tomorrow’s Cities, a pioneering £20 million research initiative run out of the University of Edinburgh. Next weeke, he is also due to carry out a short Scottish speaking tour about the project for the Royal Scottish Geographical Society, of which he is president. But since we are talking in the days before the delay phase of the UK coronavirus strategy has been announced, there’s a feeling of uncertainty.

Another thing this coronavirus epidemic shows us, he says, is the way small interconnections can have a huge impact, and systems can break down. “Because one thing can’t happen then another happens over here,” he points out. “That’s what disasters do all the time. They knock out one part and that then triggers something completely different – something financial or something social, either in another part of the city, part of the country or world.”

More than two billion people are exposed to floods, earthquakes, landslides, volcanoes and cyclones in cities of low-to-middle-income countries. And this figure is expected to double by 2050. It’s against this backdrop that the project is working on four cities – Istanbul, Quito, Kathmandu and Nairobi – each of which has what Stewart calls a different “dominant risk”, as well as various secondary ones.

For Quito the dominant risk is volcanoes, for Istanbul earthquakes, for Kathmandu it is floods though he says “it had an earthquake as well”. With Nairobi it’s fire.

Stewart, who is professor of geoscience communication at the University of Plymouth, describes the project as one in which “finally the earthquake and volcano people are working with psychologists and sociologists and anthropologists”.

Edinburgh, he observes, is “the hazard and disaster hub at the moment”, with both this initiative, run by the University of Edinburgh’s John McCloskey and also the British Geological Survey hazard team based here.

What the Tomorrow’s Cities project is doing is pioneering. How we prepare for and handle a natural disaster is not, after all, just about the science. It is, Stewart says, “about governance, political science, understanding corruption, one of the most fundamental aspects, the freedom of the press”.

One of Stewart’s big interests as the communications lead on the project is the way storytelling around a disaster, or potential disaster, can impact how we handle it. Again, this seems as relevant to the Covid-19 epidemic as it is to an earthquake or flood. Rather than statistics and figures, he says, experts need to find ways of talking about the risks and getting across information that will help secure people’s safety.

“Our science deals with uncertainties and probabilities,” he continues. “We’ve always assumed that if we could just explain these uncertainties and probabilities in layman’s terms then people will get it. It’s never really worked. Partly because they’re very complicated terms we work with.

“So there is now a move to have more of a storytelling narrative that tries to set out the storyline of an event, with its inherent complexities and uncertainties in there.”

This approach is more in tune with the way people think. “People, when they leave the house in the morning, they’ll glance up, make a decision about whether they’re going to take an umbrella or not” suggests Stewart.

“They’ll have a story that will explain why they took a certain decision. If you can understand how to convey stories and the importance of stories in how people pass on information, then the scientist can be much more effective in getting key messages across.”

It’s also about getting the right stories to the right people. “If we really want to reach out to those who are going to live or die, they’re in the communities. They’re not the kind of people who are going to public talks. And storytelling, whether it’s visual storytelling, theatre or music, is one way of getting to them.”

There is, he says, plenty of information around. “But I think we are still struggling to deal with behavioural change, how people react,” says Stewart.

“Still people quite rightly, in my view, don’t evacuate because they’re looking after an elderly relative or pet. Often the authorities have an evacuation plan but it assumes able-bodied people who can get to places and don’t have any other. I think across the board, we need a more joined-up, real-world approach to disasters.”

The UK is lucky enough not to be hit by the scale of natural disasters that assault these cities – though the floods of recent months have caused significant loss and pain.

When such floods do come, however, people react similarly to those in many other parts of the world.

Stewart says: “You find that people suddenly have to get rescued at the last minute and when you ask them, did you hear the warning, they say yes, I heard the warning 12 hours before, then I heard it four hours before, then I heard it an hour before and then half an hour before. Then you say why didn’t you leave? Because no one knocked on my door.”

In 2015, there was a new global framework for disaster risk reduction called Sendai. The message it sent out was, Stewart says: “We failed. People affected by disaster are on the rise. One of the reasons for this was this fixation with the techno fix engineering our way through these things by always using science and technology. The argument then was that we were going to try to give more capacity and responsibility to people – to communities themselves.”

Globally frequency of many natural disasters is going to increase, exacerbated by climate change. “With the geophysical disasters like earthquakes and volcanoes,” he says, “there’s no reason to think that the frequency will change. But with the floods and storms and wildfires and droughts – all of that will increase.”

At the same time as climate change is increasing the frequency of floods and storms, the world is set to have bigger numbers of people living in the cities exposed to them. Urban centres are expanding rapidly throughout the developing world, and much of the area expected to be urban by 2030 is yet to be built. Stewart describes this as “a background landscape of increasing risk, increasing vulnerability”.

“We’ve got these cities that are swelling in size because people are leaving the rural areas partly because of climate change. There are areas, ghettos of informal housing getting bigger and bigger. Services are all stretched. And then the layer that we’ve got on top is these occasional events of nature that sweep in to produce this cascading effect that then moves through the system.”

But there is a strong expectation that the planet is due a direct hit of a big earthquake on a big city. “We’ve not had one for a long time, and it’s just a matter of time. So we’ve got big earthquake threats in areas where there are 10-20 million people. The argument is, among sober analysts, that in the next decade or so we will be seeing a million deaths from natural disasters.

“These cities are places that if you look at it, appear to be just managing to hang in there. Things are working. Then you get an external shock and all hell breaks loose. And you realise these ties you thought were connected were completely disconnected.”

Preparing cities for such events – planning disaster risk out of them – is therefore key. To do it, though, they are not looking at what Stewart calls “highfalutin technical science”. It’s about studying past disasters and looking at where the problems really are.

“What we find after almost every disaster event is that there’s been malpractice somewhere and it’s not been called out.

“At the end of the day, it’s people that make decisions and it’s politicians in particular that take the critical decisions – if you’re not going to look at that, you’re going to miss it.”

Professor Iain Stewart is due to deliver the RSGS talk in Kirkcaldy on March 16, and Edinburgh and Glasgow on March 18