EU Science Hub

Natural disasters: technologies for preparedness and response

Oct 13 2010

To mark the International Day for Disaster Reduction today 13 October, the United Nations International Strategy for Disaster Reduction (UNISDR) is calling on its partners to play a more active role to protect cities against disasters. Research institutions and academia play a crucial role in developing new methods for disasters management and advancing the state-of-the art in risk reduction.

Many cities have been disrupted this year by disasters: earthquakes in Haiti, Chile and New Zealand; floods and heavy rainfalls in Pakistan, Eastern Europe, Mozambique and other parts of Africa; forest fires in Russia; and volcanic eruptions in Indonesia and Iceland. All have caused huge human suffering and economic damage. More action is needed to minimise the adverse impacts of such disasters. Tools and methodologies developed in recent years at the JRC have proved useful in many such occasions to mitigate the effects of and respond to disasters. As the scientific body of the European Commission, the JRC provides scientific and technical support to European institutions, EU Member States and international organisations in the whole cycle of crisis management, from prevention and preparedness to response and reconstruction.

Early warning alerts for a rapid response

The Global Disaster Alert and Coordination System (GDACS) is a web-based platform that provides reliable alerts and impact estimations immediately after sudden-onset disasters. GDACS consolidates the network of disaster information systems worldwide, and provides online facilities and resources to coordinate international response. GDACS also provides a platform to share and coordinate disaster maps and satellite images. In the event of humanitarian disasters, GDACS automatically sends SMS or email alerts to its registered users.

Within the immediate occurrence of the Haiti earthquake on 12th January 2010, GDACS issued an alert only 18 minutes after the first shock, which helped to activate the European Commission's services as well as humanitarian relief and first responder organisations.

After the disastrous floods in the Elbe and Danube river basins in August 2002, the JRC launched the development of the European Flood Alert System (EFAS) in close collaboration with the national hydrological services and meteorological services. EFAS contributes to better preparedness for floods in Europe by complementing the national information with novel probabilistic flood forecasts up to 10 days in advance making use of state of the art weather forecasts. The information is provided to the EFAS partner network and the Civil Protection Centre of the European Commission on a web-interface while partners are informed directly through email during specific flood events. In 2010, EFAS has already sent 31 alert emails to its partners including authorities in Poland, Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary, Romania, Croatia, which were hit by devastating floods. For the first time, this system provides a European overview of ongoing and forecasted floods to the European Commission and a platform for research on flash floods, droughts and climate change. 

The European Forest Fire Information System (EFFIS) developed by the JRC provides consistent and harmonised information on forest fires in Europe, where approximately 60000 fires occur every year, burning over half a million hectares of forests and woodlands. EFFIS is operationally used by the European Commission, the European Parliament and the relevant civil protection and forest fire services in the countries. Fires are monitored throughout the full cycle, starting with the prediction of forest fire danger. This is followed by the detection of active fires from satellite observations and the assessment of the forest fire damages. Information from EFFIS has been used in many of the critical fire situations in Europe in the last years, such as fires in Portugal in 2003 and 2005, and the devastating fires in Greece in 2007. It provides unique information that supports international collaboration on forest fighting in Europe, facilitating the exchange of information among the countries and improving the efficiency of their operations.

Remote sensing for preparedness and response

The analysis of satellite images provides useful information during all phases of the crisis management cycle: supporting urban risk reduction measures, rapid identification of damage after a disaster, or planning recovery and reconstruction initiatives. The JRC develops innovative techniques for the processing, interpretation, and analysis of geo-spatial data to support crisis management activities.

Examples of useful products to enhance preparedness include the identification and mapping of built-up areas in regions of the world that experience recurrent disasters. The recent article "Quantifying the building stock from optical high-resolution satellite imagery for assessing disaster risk" in Geocarto International shows that Very High Resolution imagery proves to be adequate for quantifying the building stock. This information is valuable for the risk community and to local urban management authorities and international organisations supporting development projects, especially those related to slum upgrading. The building stock can be also used as a surrogate for human presence, a critical information on population in disaster prone areas that is often lacking and much needed by the humanitarian relief and first responder communities in the aftermath of disasters.

The analysis of satellite imagery also helps to quantify damage following conflicts or humanitarian and natural disasters. A few days after the Haiti earthquake in January 2010 the JRC produced a preliminary rapid damage assessment based on the analysis of pre-earthquake satellite data and post-earthquake aerial images, which allowed a prioritisation of efforts in the most affected areas. In the months following the earthquake in Haiti, the JRC - together with the United Nations' Institute for Training and Research (UNITAR)/Operational Satellite Applications Programme (UNOSAT), and the World Bank – produced a comprehensive atlas of all damage caused in Haiti by the earthquake. The analysis showed that almost 60,000 buildings were either destroyed or very heavily damaged. This work contributed to the Post Disaster Needs Assessment findings which were presented in the International donor conference organised by the UN on 31st March 2010 to help develop the action plan for planning recovery and reconstruction measures in Haiti. The JRC is currently contributing to international recovery effort following the severe floods that affected Pakistan in August 2010 through providing technical support on damage assessment to the national authorities in close cooperation with the World Bank.

Towards safer buildings

The EN Eurocodes are a series of 10 European Standards providing a common approach for the design of buildings and construction products, aiming at a more uniform level of safety in construction in Europe. The pre-normative research performed at the European Laboratory for Structural Assessment (ELSA) has significantly contributed to bringing the Eurocodes to their present stage, especially EN 1998 – Eurocode 8, which covers the design, assessment and repair of all civil engineering structures in seismic zones. In 2010, all national standards will be replaced by the European standards. The JRC is also engaged in promoting the Eurocodes and providing training in countries outside Europe.