How can science play a bigger part in reducing disaster risk?


A four-storey wood frame building is tested under the conditions of a number of historical earthquakes using the world's largest outdoor shake table by researchers at the University of San Diego California, Aug. 17, 2013. REUTERS/Mike Blake

 

By Robert Glasser, UNISDR

Tuesday, 26 Jan 2016.

When the Viceroy of Peru, Jose Antonio Mansa de Velasco, was given orders to rebuild Lima after an earthquake in October 1746, he hired the French mathematician, Louis Godin, to come up with a reconstruction plan.

It was an early example of trying to “Build Back Better” as advocated for by the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction adopted by U.N. member States last year. Godin proposed to reduce vulnerability by widening streets and lowering building height.

Unfortunately, the Viceroy lacked the political clout to overcome opposition from Lima’s aristocracy and religious authorities, and Spain never provided the required tax relief and financing needed for the full reconstruction plan to be implemented.  

This is an early example of weak risk governance interacting with vested interests to sabotage good urban planning and compliance with a reasonable building code in a disaster-prone urban setting.

What science tries to deliver in such situations is the evidence which connects and convinces those in authority to apply the technological solutions which will save lives in the future and reduce the numbers of people affected by natural, technological, environmental and biological hazards.

The Sendai Framework places enormous importance on the role that science and technology can play in enhancing disaster risk reduction, which is why this week’s UNISDR Science and Technology Conference (January 27-29) in Geneva - the first of its kind - is so significant.

Scientists are not only important because of the innovation they can muster to avoid potential disasters, but also because of their ability to connect with decision-makers in government, the private sector and other spheres, to encourage evidence-based action and  the best use of available technology.

TECH ADVANCES

Today, more than ever, it is vital that science and technology are put at the service of reducing disaster risk in a world where the death toll from a single disaster event such as the Indian Ocean tsunami or the Haitian earthquake can exceed 200,000 people.

Drought, floods, storms, heat waves, epidemics and technological disasters directly affected the lives of an average of 174 million people annually between 2004 and 2014.  

The idea that humankind could alter regional climates through development and technology was first aired by scientists and philosophers in the 18th century. The French physicist Jean-Baptiste Joseph Fourier presented an essay to the Academie Royale des Sciences in Paris in 1824 which explained what today we know as “the greenhouse effect.”

Almost 200 years later, anthropogenic climate change is a disaster risk affecting us every day in all corners of the globe, in ways that scientists, especially those involved in the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, are helping us to understand and prepare for.

Many of the advances which have been made in disaster risk reduction rely heavily on science and technology. Satellites have revolutionised weather forecasting and the communication of early warnings to coastal populations in advance of cyclones. An effective early warning system for tsunamis is now in place across the Indian Ocean.

BIG QUESTIONS

But big questions remain to be answered. What more can we do protect drought-vulnerable populations? Famine early warning systems are in place but last year the number of major recorded droughts doubled around the world, leaving many people in dire straits when it comes to food security and drinking water.

What more can be done to ensure the world is better prepared for the next pandemic when it comes? Over 50 million died in the 1918 influenza pandemic. Medical advances including vaccine development have reduced mortality rates, but the crowded interconnected world of today is a petri dish for new and existing viruses including Ebola, SARS and H1N1.

Science and technology has a major role to play in ensuring that lessons learned are applied in the wake of the Great East Japan Earthquake and Tsunami five years ago which triggered a major crisis in the nuclear power industry. How can we avoid a repeat of this type of synchronous failure in our high tech-dependent world?

In Geneva this week, the conference aim is to mobilise existing networks and scientific research institutions at all levels, with the support of the UNISDR Scientific and Technical Advisory Group, to bridge the science-policy gap and identify concrete initiatives for implementation of the Sendai Framework over the next 15 years.

The work ahead includes strengthening the evidence base for implementation of the Sendai Framework, identifying research and technology gaps and setting recommendations for research priority areas in disaster risk reduction.

Many representatives from government, local governments and the private sector will also attend. Disaster risk management is everyone’s business - something which the Viceroy of Peru tried to convey with mixed results back in the 18th century. It’s time for a change.

Robert Glasser is the head of the UN Office for Disaster Risk Reduction and the Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Disaster Risk Reduction.

 

 

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