Mitigating disasters, improving responses

By Sheila Moorcroft

Natural disasters will always happen, but their impacts can be lessened and our ability to respond and recover from them radically enhanced, as a growing body of research indicates. As ever, prevention is the better than cure, by developing systems, communities and structures that reduce impacts. And to ensure greater prevention we need better leadership in countries, communities and companies, and to take full advantage of a growing number of technologies. This Trend alert was informed in part by discussions at the recent UK FAN club, Humanitarian Futures.


Mitigating disasters needs systemic, coordinated change. Organisations and individuals will need to develop different approaches to cost benefit analysis, taking a more systemic, long term view and assess risk in new ways, recognising that the 1 in a 100 year events are no longer so rare. Construction and engineering companies will need to rethink building and infrastructure designs; insurance companies will need to make the case for change; political leaders will need to take a long term view; we as citizens will need to develop our communities at the local level so that we can cope better if disaster strikes.

What is changing?

Natural disasters regularly hit the headlines – the recent floods in India, Thailand and Europe; storms and tornadoes such as hit New York and Oklahoma; earthquakes in Iran, China and New Zealand – and the dreadful ones in Haiti in 2010 and Japan in 2011; droughts and failed harvests in the USA and most recently in Uganda. All cause enormous damage, often running into billions of dollars and terrible loss of life and human suffering. Such events are also expected to increase in number as our weather patterns become more erratic and extreme events more likely. They are likely to affect more and more of us.

Meanwhile, as we become a more urban planet, we are also becoming a more coastal planet. More people are settling in the growing number of coastal towns and cities, with densities upwards of 500 people, and as high as 2000 people, per square km in cities such as Shanghai. Not only is this resulting in rapid urbanisation and all its attendant challenges, but also increased agriculture, industrial activity, tourism and residential uses – and often slums, all of which in turn are resulting in changes to coasts – the destruction of mangrove swamps or wetlands, dredging of channels and the construction of dams and sea walls, increased water pollution. These changes are making populations more vulnerable to natural disasters; and the stark truth is that poorer nations suffer most, are least prepared and least able to recover.

Enter technology and new approaches to resilience and humanitarian responses. In the aftermath of the Haiti earthquake, SMS messages transformed how humanitarian organisations found and reunited people, provided public health or security warnings, mapped and collated information to target their activities and support communities. The Tsunami warning system in the India Ocean and the sea monitors in the Gulf of Mexico are designed to give early warning of danger.

Why is this important?

Resilience is the keyword- early detection, preparedness, response and recovery – but especially prevention wherever possible. A growing body of research discusses the need for and the core elements of resilience; the Rockefeller Foundation aims to turn research into action and is promoting the implementation of resilience through a challenge to create 100 resilient cities, with a $100 million prize. A critical element of ‘winners’ will be the appointment of a Chief Resilience Officer to coordinate and lead prevention efforts. Leadership is a critical element; recognition of the need to have the systems and processes, plans and policies in place, to invest in prevention – much as the Dutch government is doing by investing billions of Euros in approaches to reduce the impacts of flooding on homes and infrastructures. But so too are bottom up approaches, and here the spread of smart phones is likely to be a major enabler. But soft elements such as trust and social cohesion are also vital.

The insurance industry is also playing a major role: they are the ones who usually pick up many of the bills. They can increasingly influence the ways in which countries, cities, companies and citizens prepare for such events, to design in prevention to reduce the impacts. For example, in the wake of the mega storm Sandy in New York, discussions are underway to change the designs of gates on the subway and other underground facilities so that they act as flood barriers; similarly the redevelopment of wetland areas to absorb water and storm surges more effectively. In Oklahoma, however, despite the recent loss of life in the tornado, there is likely to be no state mandate to include storm shelters in schools or homes.

In the longer term, technology will have an even larger role to play:

  • Very small scale drones – tiny flying robots will be able to fly over affected areas to map damage, record where roads are still passable and so support logistics of operations.
  • A variety of remote controlled robots will be able to be first responders, or go into dangers structures, or navigate difficult terrains.
  • Distributed and localised power supplies – such as solar power or micro-grids – will mean that power supply systems will not be as vulnerable to complete or widespread collapse; inbuilt energy.
  • A new nanotechnology-enabled water purification system only cost users US$3 per year to filter 10 to 20 litres of purified water per day. Not only that, it is portable and so could be taken into disaster areas immediately and so solve a major problem.
  • The emergence of new GM crops will enable greater resistance to weather variations and drought, and so potentially reduce the impacts of them.
  • 3D printing may enable the local manufacture of key components to mend damaged infrastructures, buildings and other facilities.

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One thought on “Mitigating disasters, improving responses

  1. Pingback: Mitigating disasters, improving responses | itouch ART design/systems

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