Facing natural hazards

Each year 250 Million people are affected by natural disasters, challenging disaster response and recovery capacities worldwide. Strikingly, 97 % of all deaths occur in developing countries.

 Reason enough for 40 young people from 28 countries to meet from September 13th-23rd during the Potsdam Summer School with the topic “Facing Natural Hazards”, organized by the Potsdam Earth Science and Climate Research institutions. Scientific colleagues in different phases of their career from academic institutions of diverse disciplines of natural and social sciences and experts with practical experience learned and discuss the political and social engagement for mitigation of ecological and socio-economic consequences of natural hazards.

Natural, as well as political and social scientific lectures focus on possibilities to mitigate the consequences of natural hazards, minimize risks and the legal framework. In practical exercises, participants got a view on theoreatical and practical disaster risk management. Participants and speakers came from the science, business/insurance industry, aid agencies, NGOs and government agencies. Therefore, personal experience of the (professional) life of disaster precaution and management in various countries were discussed.

Disasterprecautions is worthwhile, but not always popular

The tsunami 2004 in the Indian Ocean, earthquakes in Haiti (2010) and Nepal (2015 ), or volcanic eruptions on the Cape Verdes (2014)  demonstrated how risk mitigation could have saved lives and reduced economic damage.

Catastrophe precautions are worthwhile but not popular. “Disaster risk reduction is not something that communities or governments like to deal with. Politicians seldom act on the basis of evidence and research. Corruption, bad policy, bad buildings and ignorance are the main reasons why Earthquakes turn into disasters” said David Alexander, professor for risk and disaster reduction at University College London.

When do natural hazards become a risk?

It is not the earthquake that kills people. Collapsing buildings do. And the earthquake turns into a disaster if the community cannot cope with it on its own. The degree of the communities’ vulnerability to the hazard influences the impact of the disaster. This impact does not primarily depend on the natural event. Lacking resilience is a socio-economic and political issue.

Unlike geophysical hazards, the destructive potential of some natural events is strongly amplified by human behavior and by the way humans influence their environment. This applies especially to weather related natural phenomena:

Sealing of soils and straightening of rivers cause floods, destruction of coral reefs or mangrove forests enhance the threat of floods and tsunamis. Natural disasters can also be consequences of climate change or land and water exploitation, which are mainly caused by the western civilization. Climate change causes sea level rise and related dangers, increases the occurrence of extreme weather such as droughts, storms, intense rainfall or tornados. Through deforestation, landscapes become prone to mass movements.

The relationship between natural geoscientific aspects and international and national politics and economics.

In his talk about natural hazards in the insurance industry, Prof. Peter Hoeppe from MunichRe depicted why losses caused by natural disasters have increased exponentially in the last decades: "Not only the increasing number of people living in hazard-exposed regions but also increased vulnerability of modern societies and technologies to natural hazards are reasons."

Particularly in developing countries, population growth, rapid urbanization and the competing demands for natural resources forces more and more people to settle on and make use of risk exposed areas:

In many earthquake-prone regions, population densities are high. Often, buildings and infrastructures do not meet earthquake-proofed standards, making them and their inhabitants vulnerable to the natural phenomenon, as recently demonstrated by the earthquake disasters in Haiti and Nepal. People settle in calderas of active volcanoes or high on their flanks where the soil is richest such as for example on the Cape Verde Island Fogo. They live in coastal marshlands or unprotected areas exposed to flood hazards such as in Pakistan. The favelas in Rio de Janeiro are often built on steep slopes prone to landslides and rock falls. One participant of the Potsdam summer school reported from her work as advisor to the mayor of the Brazilian mega city: "These people are highly vulnerable, not only due to their risk exposure but also because of lack in communication infrastructure."

Fatalities and economic losses may be lower due to the scientific evidences and modern techniques. However, political structures often don't allow their implementation. Taking the Nepal April 2015 earthquakes as example: Scientist knew well about seismic risk in the Himalaya. The earthquake and its intensity were expected. However, only few local NGOs achieved mitigation with preventative methods in some areas. A Nepalese participant, dealing with disaster risk reduction in the Himalayan region, pointed out the poor risk perception in his country and that ineffective risk governance and communication raise distrust in authorities.

Research on natural hazard preparation is advanced; however, the implementation of such knowledge lags often behind due to conflicting interests of different stakeholders. Only when a natural event has happened and turned into a societal catastrophe, governments, aid agencies and the public deal with the consequences. Then politicians, decision makers and the general public realize that the human and economic costs, which these natural disasters can cause, are huge and that recovery takes very long. And these costs are much higher than the costs for prevention. In fact, costs for disaster risk reduction are only a quarter of those needed for disaster response. In the long perspective, preventative methods will not only save lives but will also be significantly more economic. But in politics as well as the society, there is often not enough will to invest in preparedness for events that may never occur, involving a circular psychological misconception: When effective precaution measures have been applied, the consequences of the natural event will be minor. And because the damage is not visible, people will wonder what has happened to the money.

Disaster management includes promotion of risk reduction activities and the technical assistance and financing regarding protection measures as well as monitoring networks and early warning systems.  Other aspects are training of the population in terms of risk awareness and guidelines on how to react in case of a natural event as well as disaster oriented regional planning and activities to increase the self-help potential of the affected population.

These aims are in accordance with international policies such as the "Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk reduction", agreed upon in March 2015, the "Sustainable Development Goals" and the "UNFCCC Climate Change Agreement".

The participants of the Potsdam Summer School see disaster precautions and creating resilience within their responsibility and as part of sustainable development.

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