Celebrating and Reflecting: UN International Day for Disaster Risk Reduction...by Joel C Gill

October 13th is the UN International Day for Disaster Reduction, with the specific theme of reducing the economic losses resulting from disasters. It is a day to remember those communities impacted by disasters, including the recent June 2018 eruption of Fuego volcano in Guatemala and the tragic earthquake and tsunami occurring in Indonesia just weeks ago. It is a day to celebrate the actions that people and communities around the world are taking to reduce their exposure and vulnerability to disasters, and the progress we have made to reduce fatalities from disasters in some countries recent decades. It is also a day to reflect on the research, innovation, training and technology transfer needed to advance this work and ensure sustainable and resilient communities.

Natural hazards (e.g., landslides, earthquakes, volcanic events) have a significant impact on lives, livelihoods and economic growth, disproportionately affecting the most vulnerable in society and threatening social and economic development progress. A report published this week by CRED/UNISDR estimate that disasters between 1998 and 2017 resulted in direct economic losses of US$2,908 billion, 1.3 million fatalities, and 4.4 billion people injured, rendered homeless, displaced or needing emergency assistance. Disasters place an additional demand on already stretched budgets, diverting resources away from improving education and healthcare, or developing infrastructure and jobs. The UN Office for Disaster Risk Reduction (UNISDR) estimate that disasters drive 26 million people into poverty every year. It is therefore imperative, if we are to achieve the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), that we accelerate efforts to reduce disaster risk. The Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction (UNISDR, 2015) has put disaster risk reduction (DRR) at the centre of the UN development agenda, with an important role for geoscientists.

Credit: UNISDR (used with permission)
Disasters, however, are a complex challenge requiring many disciplines to work in close partnership if we are to ensure sustainable and resilient communities. Disasters are not an inevitable consequence of geological or meteorological hazards. It is the spatial and temporal coincidence of hazardous phenomena with exposure (i.e., things we value being located in hazard-prone areas) and vulnerability (i.e., conditions that increase the susceptibility of people/infrastructure/systems to the impacts of hazards) that results in the generation of risk and the potential for devastating effects. In this context development challenges of poverty, inequality, lack of access to and overconsumption of resources, climate change, and uncontrolled urbanisation can all change exposure and/or vulnerability, thus contributing to disaster risk. So called ‘natural disasters’ really are not natural at all, and that means we can do something to address them and stem the economic losses that so badly impact communities.

BGS has a global portfolio of projects aiming to better understand natural hazards, and reduce disaster impacts. For example, through our Official Development Assistance programme, Geoscience for Sustainable Futures, we are coordinating work on ‘global geological risk’ aiming to improve the lives of some of the world’s most vulnerable communities. Through this work, we cooperate closely with a range of partners (e.g., governments, academics) and disciplines (e.g., geoscientists, social scientists, engineers) in the UK and overseas.

A key theme within our hazards work is ‘multi-hazard resilience’, recognising that many communities are affected by multiple hazards that do not always occur independently. Hazards may occur simultaneously, or in quick succession with one hazard triggering multiple secondary hazards. Building on the success of the myVolcano Mobile Application, we are collaborating with partners including the University of the West Indies Seismic Research Centre and the National Emergency Management Organisation of St Vincent to develop a multi-hazard app. This will capture and disseminate data and information about multi-hazards and impacts (e.g. road closures, shelter locations), and enable local management of observations in real time.

Our multi-hazards engagement also extends to Guatemala, ranked 4th globally in the 2017 World Risk Index in terms of the risk of becoming a disaster victim due to an extreme natural event. We are working with hazard and disaster risk reduction professionals to characterise the relationships between the many natural hazards affecting the region, aiming to develop new and more holistic approaches to hazard management and disaster risk reduction.

Eruption of Santiaguito, Guatemala in 2014 (Credit: Joel Gill, BGS)
Our expertise in multiple hazards is also being applied within a complementary project, funded by the UK Space Agency. METEOR (Modelling Exposure Through Earth Observation Routines) uses Earth Observation approaches (e.g., satellites) to understand exposure to multiple hazards in Nepal and Tanzania, with the approach being extended to all 47 least-developed countries on the DAC list of ODA recipients. Poor understanding of the population exposed to natural hazards causes major challenges to disaster risk management. METEOR will help to address this, providing open and free, consistent data to NGOs, governments, town planners and insurance providers to promote welfare and economic development in these countries and better enable them to prepare for, and respond to hazards when they occur.

Through our sustainable development work, we continue to have a leading role responding to requests for humanitarian assistance in the aftermath of disasters, such as the 2015 earthquake in Nepal or the 2017 landslide in Sierra Leone. Our volcanology team regularly provide advice during volcanic crises, often associated with multiple hazard types. We work closely with organisations such as the United Nations Institute for Training and Research (UNITAR), the Food and Agricultural Organization, NASA and MapAction to provide support and geohazard advice during emergency situations, including response to landslides, volcanic eruptions, hurricanes and earthquakes.
Through these projects, and many others (have a look through the web links below!), BGS are taking seriously the call of the UN Secretary General to help tackle disaster risk, contributing to global efforts to ensure a resilient and sustainable future for communities around the world. 

Read more about BGS hazards and disaster risk reduction research:
Joel Gill is an International Development Geoscientist at the British Geological Survey, and an interdisciplinary researcher, integrating natural and social science methods to address issues relating to sustainable development and disaster risk reduction.