New disaster management focus for Auckland

21 June 2013

Demand for a new breed of disaster management expert in New Zealand has inspired the creation of both a masters degree and a Centre for Disaster Resilience, Recovery and Reconstruction at The University of Auckland.

The Centre for Disaster Resilience, Recovery and Reconstruction was set up this month, and the masters degree in Disaster Management will be offered by the Faculty of Engineering in 2014.

“Learning from recent disasters showed that a new breed of disaster management expert is needed who can understand the complexity of built environments, state-civil society relations, social capital and leadership,” says the Centre’s new co-director, Associate Professor Suzanne Wilkinson. “Finding those professionals still presents a challenge.”

This focus is unique in New Zealand because it specifically addresses complexities of the urban built environment and large scale disasters, and differs from other national and international courses with its unique mix of courses from different faculties.

“This Masters is a response to the demand from the disaster and emergency management industry for a postgraduate degree enabling a specialisation in disaster management topics including disaster resilience and disaster risk management that address the challenges posed by modern-day disasters”, says Dr Wilkinson from the Civil and Environmental Engineering department.

Discussions between members of the Faculties of Engineering and Science, Schools of Architecture and Planning Centres for Development Studies and Environmental Law (NZCEL), and the Department of Social and Community Health confirmed the need to develop a programme that draws from the multi-disciplinary content across faculties.

“The University of Auckland has developed a significant body of research in disaster management and is well positioned to offer a unique multi-disciplinary Masters programme,” says Dr Wilkinson. “The Masters will prepare students for careers and leadership roles in disaster management.”

The new degree is associated with the establishment of a Centre for Disaster Resilience, Recovery and Reconstruction in the Faculty of Engineering, in line with The University of Auckland’s goal of developing centres of excellence. The other co-director for the Centre is Dr Ljubica Mamula-Seadon, whose position is supported by a grant from the Auckland Council. Dr Mamula-Seadon is an internationally recognised expert in disaster resilience, policy and risk management.

“There has also been consultation with central and local government, the engineering profession and with other education providers that have interests in this area,” says Dr Ljubica Mamula-Seadon. “These organisations are challenged by the potential impacts of disasters and understand the need for suitably qualified practitioners.”

A common theme that arose during consultation on the new Masters in Disaster Management was recognition of the widening gap between academic training and practice in disaster management. This was particularly in post-disaster recovery planning and management assignments, she says.

A need was expressed for post-graduate programmes with a multi-disciplinary and inter-disciplinary focus on disasters. Such programmes would target educating both practicing professionals to lead and work in this space, as well as academic professionals to expand the education and research on disaster management and disaster resilience.

The Earthquake Commission (EQC) was one of the stakeholders consulted about the new Masters, and was encouraged by the proposal and the focus on holistic capability development for engineers and other professions, such as planners, urban designers, and community developers.

“One of the lessons from the Canterbury earthquakes experience is the importance of a broad understanding of the disaster risk context for engineers, planners and designers,” says Dr Wilkinson.