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Building resilience to disasters

This policy brief, published by the UK Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology, outlines how science and technology can help developing countries cope with disasters by strengthening their resilience to natural hazards.

Resilience to natural hazards is the capacity to protect lives, livelihoods and infrastructure from destruction, and to restore areas afterwards. Whether a natural hazard becomes a disaster often depends on countries' preparedness and vulnerability.

Science and technology can help build resilience by advancing knowledge of how to best prepare for natural hazards, and how to protect vulnerable communities. It also furthers understanding of the challenges that stand in the way of building resilience.

For example, forecasts of when and where a natural hazard might occur enable early warning systems to be set up. The accuracy of these forecasts varies depending on the hazard, and many developing countries still lack the capacity to use available data.

But the spread of mobile phones, and increasing focus on communication channels that utilise input from locals, can help improve early warnings, says the policy brief. In Bangladesh, for example, the use of an expanding mobile phone network and local communication channels, such as cyclists with megaphones, has reduced the number of deaths caused by floods and cyclones.

Research can also identify measures for preventing secondary disasters, such as the outbreak of cholera following the 2010 earthquake in Haiti. And more sophisticated risk assessments can then build on the available science to determine people and places at risk, taking into account the local context. Such assessments require skills and infrastructure not yet available in many developing countries.

When a disaster hits, technology can play a crucial role in the search for survivors, finding out which areas have been affected, and reuniting people affected by the emergency. But technological solutions need to be accompanied by innovations in how technologies can be deployed — an area where partnerships with the private sector can play a key role.

Resilience cannot be built on scientific and technological advances alone, the brief concludes. Their effectiveness depends on good coordination between the people and organisations that use them before, during and after an emergency. It also depends on the capacity of these practitioners to learn lessons from past experience.

Link to full policy brief from the UK Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology

This policy brief was written by Martin J. Goodfellow, from the University of Manchester, United Kingdom, and Chandrika Nath, scientific adviser at the UK Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology.