In legalese, natural disasters are termed “acts of God,” the implication being that they are beyond human control or predictability.
So it may have seemed an impossible task when John Beddington, UK government chief scientific advisor, was asked to look ahead to 2040 and prophesy potential disasters around the world. He was asked what science can determine about future catastrophes - whether they can be predicted, when they are likely to happen, and what sensible policies could head off the worst of the damage.
He soon had teams of scientists looking at storms, floods, droughts, earthquakes, volcanoes and landslides, as well as human and animal epidemics. Their conclusions have been published in a thought-provoking new report.
It notes that “disasters with very large impacts happen very rarely... This means that a much greater proportion of the risk is associated with rare events.” Early warning and disaster readiness are therefore critical.
But currently, the only disasters that can be predicted with any reliability are severe weather events, and these can be forecast only a few days in advance. That much warning is useful - if action is taken. Hurricane Sandy, which struck the US East Coast as weakened tropical storm, affected densely populated areas, but early warning reduced loss of life. And cyclones regularly hit Bangladesh, but today they cause fewer fatalities than in the past, partly because of early warning systems and well-practised emergency plans.
Yet scientists remain poor at predicting epidemics and geophysical hazards, and they are particularly poor at foreseeing earthquakes, which can cause tremendous damage and loss of life. Looking ahead 30 years, more data, more powerful computers, and a better understanding of the mechanisms underlying extreme events should improve forecasting. Still, the report frankly admits that scientists will likely remain poor at determining when earthquakes will occur.
Many disaster-prone countries, particularly affluent ones, undertake exhaustive and expensive precautionary measures. In Japan, the frequency of typhoons and earthquakes is factored into infrastructure spending, emergency drills and other forms of readiness. But even these measures were insufficient during the country’s enormous March 2011 earthquake and tsunami.
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Places unprepared for disaster could fare far worse. And because of global environmental changes and a trend toward urbanization, disaster risks are growing.
“Already,” says the report, “eight out of 10 of the most populous cities in the world are at risk of being severely affected by an earthquake, and six out of 10 are vulnerable to storm surge and tsunami waves… Many cities are still not addressing their rapidly increasing risk.”
“Between now and 2025, there’s going to be another billion people on the planet, and most of that increase is going to be concentrated in the urban environment in less developed countries,” Beddington said at a recent meeting in London. “The other inexorable trend is the number of people over 65, [who are] much more vulnerable to these kinds of risks. This sector is going to triple over the next thirty years.”
Yet risk mitigation is possible. Infrastructure being built today, for example, will be around for many years; increasing its robustness and resilience could offer future protection. But it will cost money. The report sums up the dilemma: “Relief in response to a disaster is action-orientated, easy to quantify, readily accountable to donors and media-friendly. In contrast, before a disaster occurs, it is not always obvious what should be done, hard to tell what difference preventative measures will make, and difficult to decide how much to spend. Also if prevention is effective, it may attract little attention.”
Brendan Gormley, former head of the UK Disasters Emergency Committee, who worked on the report, said: “There is need for a culture change around disaster risk reduction. We think it is… perhaps too closely linked to emergency response funding. And what we have identified is that many of the solutions are in the hands of others. For NGOs, clearly there is a need for funders to make sure this is tied into contracts, that it isn’t an optional extra, that it is core to the investment they are making. If you care about development, you must be serious about risk.”
Costs and benefits
“We need much more work on the economic costs and benefits. Ministers of finance want to know this information, and they want to know it in black and white,” said Tom Mitchell, who heads the climate change programme at the UK-based think tank Overseas Development Institute. “This is not about preparing for 2040. This about what we are doing today.”
Photo: American Red Cross/Matthew Marek
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But performing that cost-benefit analysis will require better data, pooled from many sources, including far more information about disasters than is presently available.
Virginia Murray, head of extreme events at Britain’s Health Protection Agency, told IRIN, “Documenting disasters is difficult. It’s very difficult to say, ‘This is a disaster,’ until after the event. And documenting the aftermath is also tricky. We need to look at the longer effects and how people recover.”
Decision-making agencies must also better understand probabilistic forecasting. Probabilistic predictions - which might posit, for example, an 80 percent chance of a storm making landfall - are often regarded poorly when the projected event does not occur, even though such a forecast also anticipates a 20 percent chance of the storm remaining at sea. As the report says, “If an event is forecast with high probability and these probabilities are reliable, then the non-occurrence of the event should not be interpreted as a failure.”
But governments, NGOs and others have to make yes-or-no decisions on the basis of forecasts that will likely always be probabilistic. Many tend to prefer, as the report puts it, “taking your chances and avoiding the up-front cost of risk reduction.”
The best scientists can do is give decision-makers the information and tools to makes informed decisions - including the decision not to take action.
With limited resources, it will sometimes be more economical to, for example, refrain from upgrading weak buildings in anticipation of simply rebuilding post-disaster. But such an assessment must also consider potential loss of life, and the value of lives saved - grim actuarial calculations governments must be better equipped to undertake.