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Humanitarian disasters resulting from earthquakes, floods and other natural calamities could in some cases be prevented if governments collected and shared hazard data internationally, according to a World Bank/UN report.

Making information on potential hazards, such as seismic fault lines, flood plains and weather and climate patterns more accessible is a "relatively easy and effective measure" to reduce their impact, argues Natural hazards, unnatural disasters published earlier this month (11 November).

Collecting and sharing data can help build up an international picture of risks to help make more sophisticated predictions on a local level, it says.

"Few countries collect data on hazards in the first place — data on where past hazards have struck, frequency, intensity, and so forth. Even data that is collected is not made accessible," Apurva Sanghi, a senior economist at the World Bank and team leader of the report, told SciDev.Net.

Many governments or public authorities suppress their data or need to be persuaded to share the information, he said. Releasing data can damage commercial interests, for example by devaluing property in high-risk areas.

Non-governmental organisations trying to deal with disasters can find their efforts hampered by a lack of data, according to the report, which uses Ethiopia as a case study.

"A lack of basic information means donor agencies that want to lessen the impact of, say, drought can't make optimal decisions," said Sanghi.

A country that has successfully reduced the scale of disasters is Bangladesh, which has used data to develop accurate weather forecasts and cyclone warnings. The report notes that people can be protected from flooding using shelters and evacuations, avoiding the expense of building large-scale embankments which can damage the flow of rivers, and that can, in turn, impair agriculture.

Sanghi added that small countries should be able to "piggyback" on the weather forecasting of their larger neighbours, which could easily extend their forecasts to cover them. However, as nations can be reluctant to share data across these borders, he suggested that clusters of small, geographically close countries could jointly invest in forecasting technologies.

José Achache, director of the
Group on Earth Observations, an organisation coordinating efforts to build the Global Earth Observation System of Systems, told SciDev.Net that there has been some progress on releasing data, such as from LandSat, a NASA (US National Aeronautics and Space Administration) satellite, which provides information on water quality, glacier melt, invasive species, coral reefs and deforestation.

But he added: "Releasing data alone will not reduce the impact of disasters, because governments also need to apply more stringent regulations to land planning, for example building earthquake-proof houses or not building on flood plains".

Link to Natural hazards, unnatural disasters