An international science body is calling for a rethink on the way science and society deals with natural disaster. The call comes hot on the tail of possibly one of the worst 12 months on record for natural disasters around the world, from floods and hurricanes to earthquakes and plagues.
Scientists studying ocean temperature and circulation in the Gulf of Mexico during hurricanes Rita and Katrina have fresh insight into how they gain in intensity.
© National Science Foundation (www.nsf.gov)
In response to a world where natural disasters are increasingly disrupting nations, rich and poor, the International Council for Science (ICSU) ratified this month a new initiative aimed at using science to prevent natural hazards from becoming the catastrophic events all too graphically demonstrated by the likes of the Asian tsunami, US hurricanes, Bangladesh and Indian floods and the earthquake in Kashmir.
“It's time to change the mindset that natural disasters are inevitable,” said Gordon McBean of the Institute for Catastrophic Loss Reduction at the University of Western Ontario, Canada, and head of the ICSU ‘Scoping Group' on Human-Induced Environmental Hazards.
“We can't actually stop hurricanes or tsunamis or other extremes of nature. But if we bring together the right mix of research – work that integrates such disciplines as engineering, climate, health, and social sciences – and find a better way to plug these insights into the policy-making process, we can avoid a lot of unnecessary human and economic losses,” he said in a statement.
McBean said the goal of the initiative, presented to ICSU members at their 28th General Assembly in Suzhou, China, is to provide a strong scientific basis for reducing the risks and consequences of natural and human-induced environmental hazards.
The Scoping Group's report on natural hazards launched at the conference makes it clear that recent disasters in the USA and Asia are not anomalies but are, in fact, part of a long-term and dramatic increase in natural disasters. Between 1900 and 2000, recorded natural disasters rose from 100 to 2 800 per decade, with most of the events being weather related. The report notes that natural hazards now kill, injure or displace millions each year and cause great economic loss. In 2004, natural disasters caused around €117 billion in damage. Events in 2005 appear likely to dwarf that number.
EU at work to alleviate natural disaster
If the ICSU initiative is to make a difference, McBean noted that it must address two fundamental challenges: the need for new research revealing more about why disasters are increasing; and insight into human activities aggravating or mitigating their effect.
Communication is key to tackling these challenges. Strong scientific evidence already exists that natural disasters are a growing threat. Expert advice on specific actions that can be taken to reduce exposure to harm is available but needs to be communicated better. For example, years before Katrina struck, scientists had pointed out the shortcomings of the New Orleans levee system and the dangers posed by the loss of surrounding wetlands.
“We have found a lot of evidence that policy-makers may, at times, act in ignorance or simply disregard relevant scientific evidence of what's needed to prepare for, or prevent, devastation from a natural, predictable event like a hurricane,” McBean told delegates. “Why are we removing mangrove swamps from vulnerable coastlines? Why do we continue to see land-use practices around the world that clearly boost the risks of floods, wildfire, and landslides? Why are we not making better use of satellite data to anticipate vulnerabilities?”
Part of the answer is that societies often focus on short-term gains instead of guarding against the potential long-term losses, he lamented. The challenge for ICSU, he added, is to organise a natural hazards initiative that moves beyond our traditional focus on the physical sciences and addresses how scientific results interact with policy-making processes, the world over.
“We need to find new ways to communicate science to decision-makers so that they understand how to integrate scientific evidence into their political and policy processes,” he said. “A strong component of this initiative will focus on linking scientific advances to end-users, which include local, regional and national governments and also development agencies and those providing humanitarian assistance.”
First step for the ICSU initiative will be to set up a planning committee of scientific experts from different backgrounds who will map out the next three years. The goal is to establish an international collaborative research and communications programme that will last for a decade or more. Not dissimilar initiatives exist at the EU level, such as the EU-MEDIN (Euro-Mediterranean Disaster Information Network) whose job is to promote the sharing of disaster-related information, research and expertise.
EU research is already investigating the possible causes of natural disasters. Studies, overseen by the dedicated Global Change Unit at the Research DG, are looking into the possible links between climate change, human behaviour and natural disasters. The Joint Research Centre (JRC) DG is also heavily involved in this area, providing policy support on floods, tsunamis, earthquakes, forest fires and more.
Meanwhile, SINAPSE – Scientific Information for Policy Support in Europe – is an EU-backed tool to improve information exchange between the scientific community and decision-makers. It contains an interactive library of scientific opinions and advice, as well as an early-warning system for better detection of potential crises and awareness of important scientific issues.
ICSU, EU sources