In the last 10 years, over 500,000 people have lost their lives and around 1.5 billion people have been adversely affected due to rapid-onset natural hazards such as earthquakes, tsunami, floods and tropical storms. This briefing discusses the potential for science and technology to enhance resilience to such hazards in developing nations.
Currently, over 95% of deaths from natural hazards take place in developing countries, but disparities also exist within the developing world. From 2002-2008 over 6000 people were killed by hurricanes in Haiti, whilst the neighbouring Dominican Republic suffered fewer than 1000 fatalities.
Differences in preparedness, the effectiveness of early warning systems, the quality of governance, infrastructure and education were all contributing factors.
Moreover a recent report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has drawn attention to the impact of more frequent extreme weather events in future.
The Department for International Development (DFID) spent £7.7 billion on aid in 2010/11. Of this, around £250 million was spent on assistance in the wake of natural hazards; providing food, medicine, shelter and other resources.
National and International Policy
The Hyogo Framework, which runs from 2005-2015 as part of the UN’s International Strategy for Disaster Reduction (ISDR), sets out national and international responsibilities in preparing for natural hazards.
In the UK, responsibility for international Disaster Risk Reduction and resilience falls to DFID.
DFID acknowledges that “there is now compelling evidence that the impact of disasters can be significantly mitigated by building the resilience of nations and people, and addressing the root causes of vulnerability”.
In line with the Hyogo Framework, two of DFID’s seven policy goals are to:
build the resilience of individuals, communities and countries to disasters and conflict;
invest in research and innovation. In 2010/11, DFID spent £128 million on relative researches.
The Role of Science and Technology
Science and technology can assist in building resilience, by furthering understanding of:
what can be done to prepare against the threat of natural hazards in developing nations;
how to protect vulnerable people and critical infrastructure in the event of a disaster;
the range of issues that still need to be resolved in order for effective resilience building to occur.
Preparing For Disaster
Forecasting accuracy depends on the type of hazard. Forecasting of geological hazards such as earthquakes (using networks of ground based sensors) is still at an early stage.
General probabilistic forecasts for earthquakes can be obtained – for example the US Geological Survey forecasts a 62% chance of at least one earthquake of magnitude 6.7 or greater in the San Francisco Bay region from 2003-2032.
For volcanoes, progress is being made in predicting when certain eruptions may occur, although predicting the evolution of an eruption is not yet possible.
Atmospheric hazards can be detected through well-established national and international meteorological satellite and ground station networks – although many developing nations still need to build their capability to access and use the available data.
Met Office monitoring suggests the accuracy of weather forecasting has improved fourfold in the last 50 years, largely through the increasing availability of satellite data. However, in most cases it is still reliable only around four days in advance.
Identifying Vulnerabilities and Planning
Improving resilience does not completely eliminate vulnerability to natural hazards. For example, constructing a wall to prevent flooding provides some resilience, but the people behind the wall will still be vulnerable to a particularly large flood that overwhelms the defences. Alternatively the wall may ‘move’ flooding to areas further downstream. Careful consideration is required to identify schemes that do not create a false sense of safety, and take into account the needs and capabilities of local people.
Community buildings (such as hospitals, schools and religious centres) are useful as shelters because local communities already know where they are.
Taking these considerations into account at the planning stage (e.g. building on high ground to avoid flooding and/or building to withstand wind damage) is an effective way of protecting people and major assets within existing settlements.
Without effective infrastructure in place following a natural hazard, there is a risk of secondary disasters, such as disease. For example cholera outbreaks can occur if clean drinking water is not available. This can even arise as a result of the humanitarian assistance effort.
The Resilience of Buildings
There is a substantial body of research into how to make buildings more resilient to earthquakes. This does not necessarily require sophisticated technology.
‘Fachwerkhaus’ timber buildings are an 18th century German design, which are highly resilient to seismic hazards. They can be constructed from locally sourced timber by local workers. This technique has been applied in places such as Iran.
Many nations still rely on adobe buildings (constructed from mud and clay bricks).
During earthquakes, buildings often collapse because of failure to adhere to basic building codes, due to weak governance or corruption.
Planning for Resilience
Ensuring that development occurs in lower-risk areas, such as away from flood-plains, can reduce the potential impacts of natural disasters.
Research has shown that coastal mangroves can provide significant protection against tsunami, by providing a natural buffer zone that reduces the intensity of incoming waves before they reach inhabited areas.
Risk assessments can identify who or what would be at risk if a natural hazard were to occur. It is important that such assessments take the local context into account. Models can then be used to investigate potential damage to infrastructure, and help to inform decisions on where investment is most needed.
Early Warning Systems
This can be achieved by using many different communication channels, from radio and mobile phone networks to religious and community leaders. There is increasing emphasis on employing a “bottom-up” approach to use the knowledge and input of local people to design warning systems.
Warning and response activities (such as search and rescue, and providing aid and shelter) can be improved by carrying out simulations and training drills and allowing participants to familiarise themselves with the actions required of them. An overview of early warning systems for natural hazards was provided in POSTnote 239.
When disaster strikes the immediate concern is saving lives.
Technology can play a pivotal role in assisting in, for example:
search and rescue: the UK has its own team, UK - International Search and Rescue (ISAR), along with NGO teams who can be deployed around the world to assist in the search for survivors. UK-ISAR use techniques such as special probe cameras and sniffer dogs to locate survivors buried under wreckage.
getting the message out: It is often possible for people to call or SMS their location to relief aid organisations, if they know the number to use. Satellite imaging is also increasingly assisting with understanding areas affected in the wake of a hazard.
reuniting communities: online registration and SMS are increasingly being used in efforts to reunite people with their loved ones following a disaster. For example, missing people can be cross-checked against those found in shelters or hospitals.
The effectiveness of scientific and technological developments depends on factors such as coordination between stakeholders and consistent documentation of past successes and failures.
Various studies have identified a need for different actors (both civilian and military) to coordinate before, during and after emergencies.
In the chaos after an event, roads may be impassable and meetings can be time-consuming to reach. Telephone and video-conferencing services can allow coordination to take place remotely.
The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs is responsible for ensuring a coherent response to emergencies.
Understanding What Works
Many lessons are not learned because only anecdotal evidence survives. This also limits the extent to which policy can be evidence based. Effective DRR reduces the impact of a hazard. However, it is difficult to conclude how effective a DRR initiative has been, as it is impossible to say what would have happened in an emergency if the initiative had not been carried out. These factors mean making DRR initiatives accountable to governments, donors and the public is a challenge.
The Role of Innovation and the Private Sector
Innovation is not just about developing new ‘high-tech’ solutions. Understanding how to deploy existing technology effectively in developing markets, and in new ways, is also important. The private sector plays a key role in this area, particularly in activities such as providing communications networks or distributing food. The resilience of such services is as important as that of physical infrastructure. There can be commercial advantage in being able to continue to operate after a natural hazard.
The UK has a small ‘green enterprise’ sector - including some companies which have benevolent or ‘not-for-profit’ objectives and are focussed on international development projects.
Poverty, unplanned and rapid urbanisation, and climate change can all influence how vulnerable people are to natural hazards.
Historically most hazards have occurred in rural areas but urbanisation presents new challenges:
unplanned urbanisation can lead to low levels of resilience and high levels of vulnerability;
high concentrations of deprived people in urban areas increases competition for resources and may enhance the spread of contagious disease following a hazard;
urban areas are compact spaces which can make the provision of aid more complex and time consuming.
The IPCC has highlighted evidence that suggests climate change is likely to increase both the frequency and intensity of atmospheric natural hazards; particularly heatwaves.
All of these issues must be faced in the context of global economic difficulties. There is also a need to focus on sustainable solutions, driven and fulfilled by local people. The international debate in this area is likely to be driven by the expiration of the Kyoto Protocol (on climate change) in 2012, and Hyogo Framework in 2015.
In February 2012 the Foresight group within the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, launched “Improving Future Disaster Anticipation and Resilience”, a new project investigating how to improve anticipation of, and resilience to, disasters.