EIIP Virtual Forum Presentation – October 12, 2005

Natural Disaster Hotspots
A Global Risk Analysis

Arthur Lerner-Lam, Ph.D.
Director, Columbia Center for Hazards and Risk Research (CHRR)
Earth Institute, Columbia University

Avagene Moore
EIIP Moderator

The following version of the transcript has been edited for easier reading and comprehension. A raw, unedited transcript is available from our archives. See our home page at http://www.emforum.org

[Welcome / Introduction]

Avagene Moore: Welcome to the EIIP Virtual Forum! Amy Sebring, my partner/associate, and I are pleased you could join us today!

Today's topic is "Natural Disaster Hotspots - A Global Risk Analysis." Our session today is in honor of the ISDR International Day for Disaster Reduction. The EIIP is but one of many entities who are participating in or conducting some special event today to bring attention to the need for disaster reduction around the world. We are glad you are here to learn and discuss this topic.

It is a pleasure to introduce our distinguished guest today, Dr. Arthur Lerner-Lam. Dr. Lerner-Lam is a Doherty Senior Research Scientist and Associate Director for Seismology, Geology, and Tectonophysics at the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, and an Adjunct Professor in the Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences, both at Columbia University. A seismologist, he has studied and published on the interactions between crust and mantle, the thickness of continental plates, the structure of mountain belts and crustal rifts, and active seismicity. He has done fieldwork in the Middle East, Central Asia, the Southwest Pacific, and throughout the United States, and in recent years has lectured extensively on natural hazards and society.

Dr. Lerner-Lam is the organizer and Interim Director of the new Columbia Center for Hazards and Risk Research, part of Columbia’s Earth Institute. The Hazards & Risk Center brings together experts from the physical sciences, the social sciences, and the policy communities to develop approaches for reducing the vulnerability of society to natural and man-made disasters.

Please help me welcome Dr. Lerner-Lam to the EIIP Virtual Forum. Art, we are delighted you are here and I now turn the floor to you for your formal remarks.


Art Lerner-Lam: Thank you, Avagene. Hello and good afternoon. I am very pleased to be able to participate in this EIIP Virtual Forum, and to have the opportunity to discuss disasters and our response to them in the context of science-based risk management, global economic development, and humanitarian action.

Of course, the relevance of these discussions, let alone your work, could not have been more clearly illuminated than by the natural disasters in the Indian Ocean, our own Gulf Coast, and, recently, in Pakistan and Kashmir.

In our work here at the Earth Institute at Columbia University, we have approached these issues not only as academics in the traditional sense, but as participants in a partnership with governments, NGOs and the private sector to develop policies, and to fully understand the barriers to implementation of best practices. In turn, we use our understanding of these barriers to drive basic and applied research, educational programs and field demonstrations, so that new generations of professionals will be well prepared for real-world situations. In all of this, we work to provoke discussions of the policy framework needed for effective disaster mitigation, preparedness, and response.

These recent events illustrate the terrible humanitarian and economic consequences of inconsistent planning and preparation for extreme events. Extreme events are not only geophysical occurrences of low probability and high severity, but also events that overwhelm disaster preparedness and response planning and capacity. Thus the 'extremeness' of a disaster depends on an understanding of vulnerabilities as well as the physical nature of the event.

There are few agreed-upon methodologies for evaluating disaster vulnerabilities. In fact, there is little agreement on what should constitute vulnerability, and whether the definition should extend beyond engineering into systems and social structures. I favor the latter approach. A first step is to try to quantify vulnerability by mapping proxies at national and sub-national resolution.

In our work we have used an exposure proxy, namely the geographic extent and severity of hazardous events correlated with the spatial density of population and economic activity. There have been several recent studies of this sort, including work by the United Nations (UN) and reinsurance and risk management companies, as well as the one we are discussing today, the World Bank's 'Hotspots' report, of which I was a co-author. Hotspots Phase I was the product of a partnership among the World Bank Hazard Management Unit, Columbia University Earth Institute, the Norwegian Geotechnical Institute, and geographers, economists and scientists from the United Nations Development and Environment Programmes (UNDP and UNEP) and other academic and NGO partners. It was funded by the ProVention Consortium http://www.proventionconsortium.org/. The report is summarized at http://www.ldeo.columbia.edu/chrr/research/hotspots. PDF format maps and tables are available for download from http://www.ldeo.columbia.edu/chrr/research/hotspots/maps.html. You can download and study these maps at your leisure.

The Hotspots study has several distinct purposes. First, it provides guidance on prioritizing and designing regional approaches to natural disaster risk reduction. Second, it establishes a methodological apparatus for assessing disaster risk through exposure and vulnerability proxies. Third, it illuminates problems with existing global data sets and analytical methodologies and makes suggestions about improving them. Fourth, it establishes a quantitative basis for intercomparisons among different global disaster risk assessments. It is not the last word.

Instead it is meant to raise awareness among policy makers in the international development community about the risks posed to development from natural hazards, and trigger research in establishing the appropriate international financial regimes for dealing with disaster risk reduction, response (including preparing for post-disaster rapid needs assessments), mitigation, and preparedness. The hazards examined are earthquakes, landslides, volcanoes, severe storms, floods and droughts.

On first glance, the results are not surprising. Areas of Central and Latin America, Southeast Asia, show high population exposure and economic loss from multiple natural hazards. Much of the East Asian mainland is highly exposed to hydrological hazards along the coasts and rivers. The Mid East and Central Asia are dominated by solid earth hazards (earthquakes and landslides) with some drought, and sub-Saharan Africa is dominated by drought. Of course, as we know, the East and Gulf Coasts of the US, and parts of Europe, are exposed to floods and storms, and risk along the West Coast of North America is dominated by earthquakes.

What is less obvious is the relative exposure calculated from casualties proportioned according to population density, and economic loss relative to the geographic distribution of GDP (Gross Domestic Product). This calculation emphasizes what is essentially a humanitarian and development problem. Poor countries are affected disproportionately by persistent natural disasters, let alone extreme ones. From a development perspective, the persistent impacts of natural disasters are a drag on economic growth, limiting the efficacy of long-term strategies to achieve broader development goals including the UN's Millennium Development Goals.

We are optimistic that the timeliness of these global reports coupled with the recent disasters has raised disaster risk management to a higher priority among policymakers. In particular, Hotspots I, and the UN's Reducing Disaster Risk (RDR) report (and others) have triggered an international program, now in its formative stages, to assess risk, measure loss, and integrate disaster mitigation into national-level development programs. It is important to maintain this momentum.

How do reports like this affect the responsibilities, and the jobs, of emergency management professionals?

- First, it can only help, by emphasizing that disasters are persistent parts of our lives. This should elevate disaster management in political arenas.

- Second, it emphasizes that prior knowledge of vulnerabilities, even in proportionally wealthier countries, should be an important component of pre-disaster planning.

- Third, it can be used to trigger more detailed regional and national studies of disaster potential in order to develop strategies for pre-positioning resources for eventual use, for developing broad international, bi-national and national strategies for disaster mitigation and emergency response, and for integrating disaster risk management into sustainable development plans, whether in developing countries, or in the poorer parts of the first world. Personally, I would hope that this would be a part of the planning for the rebuilding of New Orleans, as well as the response to the Indian Ocean tsunami and the Pakistan earthquake.

In addition to raising awareness of disaster management among policymakers, we need further research in hazard and impact prediction, and vulnerability analysis. We could expand our scenario modeling to include extreme events, including the worst that could happen. We need a public education process that is tuned to the different needs and cultures of communities. We need a comprehensive identification of critical infrastructure and system weaknesses. And we need to promote an ethic of mitigation and preparedness in addition to rapid emergency response.

Thank you for this opportunity. I am happy to take questions.

Avagene Moore: Thank you, Art. I am sure there are several questions for you from our audience.

[Audience Questions & Answers]

Steve Frost: On the topic of storms, such as the worsening of hurricanes and such, is this partly due to global warming? And how can we prepare for this?

Art Lerner-Lam: That question is very important. There is scientific consensus on global warming. Two recent papers address the impact of warming on hurricane statistics. One, by Webster et al., discusses the impact of rising ocean temperatures on hurricane frequency, duration, and severity. It was published in Science just a few weeks ago. There is no statistical evidence that hurricane frequency and duration will be increased by global warming. However, the number of severe storms will increase; also, rising sea level will lead to more inundations.

Amy Sebring: Art, can you provide some specifics regarding the need for improved datasets that you mentioned?

Art Lerner-Lam: Datasets – in doing our analysis, we relied on several compilations of disaster casualties and economic damage. There are few standards for collecting these data after an event, and different datasets vary widely.

Sherry Elmes: Public information is such an important issue and most people get their information from the media. How do you suggest we use the media in a more useful role rather than the sensational?

Art Lerner-Lam: There are two parts to this:

- First, professionals need to develop relationships with the media *before* things happen so that they understand the scientific, technical and social basics of disasters. Coordinate workshops with the media, and support programs in journalism schools.

- Second, have prepared agreements with local outlets on the dissemination of crucial information. The sensationalism spikes. Studies by Reuters show a significant drop off once the humanitarian crisis is over.

We need to keep contacts with the print journalists to keep the deeper, more important longer term aspects of reconstruction, rebuilding and planning. Those stories will be picked up by TV and radio. That's our experience in NY.

Susan Young: You spoke of Public Education -- how do you propose that be accomplished? Through the private sector? Through state emergency offices? Though the school systems?

Art Lerner-Lam: The school systems are obvious conduits. We see that frequently in countries overseas. California is also a good example. Brochures, one-pagers, information fairs, open houses, are other mechanisms. The private sector, particularly the big infrastructure companies, could also play a role. There may be opportunities for other organizations as well.

Avagene Moore: Art, I believe public education and education of elected officials / heads of governments are perhaps the greatest shortfalls when discussing and trying to achieve disaster reduction. You have talked about public education. What do you suggest to address education of officials domestically and globally?

Art Lerner-Lam: We work frequently with government agencies. The political discussion must take into account political opportunities. Economic arguments are important. Overseas, we find that many governments want to demonstrate their effectiveness in protecting their populations. There is enlightened self-interest at work here.

Michaela Kekedy: Consistently we have seen the recurring problem of not being able to reach more isolated areas with disaster relief supplies in a timely manner, i.e. the first 24-72 hours or longer. Has anyone studied what can be pre-positioned in remote vulnerable areas, how to store these supplies so they actually survive the event, and provide training in the communities on how survivors can use them? Do you know any success stories where this type of activity has been incorporated into a visit from development officials, medical teams, or others who may have contact once or twice a year with such villages?

Art Lerner-Lam: I am not aware of pre-positioning in rural areas. Some urban areas (Caracas, Istanbul) have studied pre-positioning and have implemented some programs. Often it involves a cooperating military but this can be a problem in countries sharing a dispute. That said, there are a number of examples for stockpiling emergency supplies at distribution centers (United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs [UN-OCHA] for example) and building materials for quick replacement housing.

Steve Frost: Is mitigation being done about global warming internationally? Are the rising sea levels caused from the melting of the polar ice cap?

Art Lerner-Lam: Two things cause rising sea levels. First, as you mention, melting of ice and glaciers. Second, thermal expansion of water. The operative mitigation environment is the Kyoto protocol. The US has a different approach.

Burt Wallrich: I'm not sure what you mean when you say "once the humanitarian crisis is over"? It seems that the humanitarian crisis drops from public attention in a relatively short time but lasts for much longer. Isn't that the case with the South Asia tsunami, for example? How long will it take for the crisis to be over for the poor families that were displaced by that event?

Art Lerner-Lam: The media is interested in large- and small-scale stories of humanitarian crisis. Some of these are short term, such as death tolls. But these crises persist, as you suggest. I meant that the media focuses on relatively superficial measures of the crisis. The deeper problems are related to development and reconstruction. We have to continue to remind everyone of these stories. I think reports like Hotspots is one way to do this.

Amy Sebring: I am very glad you mentioned standards with respect to loss statistics and perhaps the type of analysis that you have done as well. We have been discussing the need for standards for a long time in order to even begin to measure any future improvements from some sort of baseline. Are you aware of any efforts to develop any such international standards, or do you have any suggestions as to an international framework for doing so? (e.g., is the UN the right body? Somewhere else?)

Art Lerner-Lam: There should be at least two places where standards are discussed. First, the international scientific unions have a forum for discussing the collection of damage statistics and vulnerability measures. Second, the World Bank and the UN can collaborate. They are starting to do this on rapid needs assessments, and Hotspots Phase II will have a standards component.

Jim Froehlich: Do you recommend, or know of any, worldwide hotspot infrastructure information packages available to Government agencies responding to disasters. For example, when sending medical teams to locations, we need to collect all infrastructure information (beds, facilities, local medical personnel, etc.,) before deploying in order to have best situational awareness. Do you know of any databases or efforts aimed in this direction?

Art Lerner-Lam: This 'baselining' is a huge issue. The capacity to respond is one component of vulnerability. The UN has a GIS team that is technically competent, but woefully cutoff from data collection. I think we should prioritize this as a 'grand challenge' in disaster management.

Lora Hainy: You mentioned international scientific unions, the World Bank and the UN for discussion of standards and analysis. What about the role of the Red Cross Movement? The International Federation of Red Cross & Red Crescent Societies (IFRC), based in Geneva, has had long-term involvement with response to disasters, and subsequently involves itself in mitigation efforts to decrease the potential for future disasters. Has this entity entered into the conversation yet?

Art Lerner-Lam: Yes, it has. The IFRC (and other NGOs) are central to response and data collection and they are part of the discussion.

Amy Sebring: I am also glad you mentioned Hotspots II. Can you tell us a little more about the future direction of your studies?

Art Lerner-Lam: Hotspots I had the desired effect. The UN and the World Bank will implement a "Global Risk Identification Programme'. 'GRIP' will be conceptualized this year and will comprise four regional or country-level studies that integrate some of the issues we've discussed – data collection standards, integration with planning and policy, public education.

Avagene Moore: Art, how does the UN and the World Bank monitor these reports and their effects?

Art Lerner-Lam: It's both monitoring, and internal promotion. We've given several seminars to WB and UN groups but the real test is if the country-level operations see disaster risk management as part of their programs. That's what GRIP will attempt to do.

Amy Sebring: I do not see strong participation from the U.S. government or a focal point here for international mitigation. Is there a need here, that is, to identify such a focal point?

Art Lerner-Lam: In brief, yes. It was interesting to see how the US Navy participated in relief operations in Sumatra and we think that disaster relief will be part of the US military operational concept. But the State Department should have a role, too. USAID and others are aware of these efforts and we hope that they will become more involved.

Burt Wallrich: There is a strong relationship between the severity of a natural event in terms of its impact on people's lives, and the extent of poverty in the affected area. Does your work take economic conditions in a locale as a given or do you work with groups trying to mitigate poverty, also?

Art Lerner-Lam: Good question. Poverty is an unquestionable factor in vulnerability. We are trying to link preparedness and mitigation to sustainable development agendas; in particular, we are linking disaster risk reduction to the attainment of UN Millennium Development Goals. This makes the link to poverty reduction explicit.

Amy Sebring: You mentioned that the results of your analysis were not too surprising. But I am just wondering if there were any results that were a little surprising to you? Some additional insights that you might not have been expecting?

Art Lerner-Lam: Yes, there were some surprises. First, as a seismologist, I was surprised at how bad storms and floods really were. Second, drought in Africa dominates mortality. Third, coastal hazards and earthquakes affect the same populations. I should have guessed that one since coasts are there as a consequence of geology.

Michaela Kekedy: Would it be beneficial when the US gives foreign aid monies for development projects, the party receiving the monies would also be required to address vulnerability, mitigation and preparedness questions as a condition of receipt? To your knowledge has any country done this?

Art Lerner-Lam: Yes, it would be beneficial, and yes there are some examples. First, most of the conditional giving in this area is done through the World Bank with US support and the World Bank is beginning to take this seriously. An earthquake mitigation master plan for Istanbul is the best example; unfortunately, this isn't done everywhere. A common example is that schools could be built much stronger, and we build a lot of schools.

Amy Sebring: In your travels, Art, have you seen any outstanding examples of local action?

Art Lerner-Lam: On two levels - Istanbul is an excellent example of a municipality cooperating with national and global support. China is a good example of a national effort and we should see some community-based project appearing in the countries affected by the tsunami.


Avagene Moore: Thank you, Art, for a superb job! We greatly appreciate your effort and time on our behalf.

We have two new Partners to announce today. We welcome Buffalo Computer Graphics. Inc http://www.disasterlan.com; the Point of Contact is Chris Zak, DisasterLAN Program Manager. We are also pleased to add Drogin Consulting http://www.droginconsult.com to our list of EIIP Partners; Barry Drogin, Consultant, is the POC to the EIIP.

Thanks to everyone for participating today. We appreciate you, the audience! Before you go, please help me show our appreciation to Dr. Art Lerner-Lam for a fine job. The EIIP Virtual Forum is adjourned!