Data gaps hamper disaster risk reduction

Disaster research needs to be integrated, say experts. Copyright: Flickr/DFID

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[NEW DELHI] Reducing risks and losses from natural disasters calls for collaboration between social and natural scientists, who in turn must work with policy makers, communities and development groups, an international expert has said.

For example, Bangladesh scientists had forecast the current devastating floods but local communities did not heed their warnings. In the 2010 Pakistan floods, scientists said they provided adequate data, but it was not utilised properly.

"Having the forecasts and data are only one piece of protecting people, lowering risks and losses. You need this information so you can understand what is, has and is going to happen," said Jane Rovins, chief executive officer of Integrated Research on Disaster Risk (IRDR), Beijing.

"Disasters are (also) social constructs. We have to address why people are living in areas that are at high risk. What are the social factors involved and how do we address those to lower risk and losses?" she told SciDev.Net.

IRDR, a 10-year research initiative that began in 2010, is working on a ‘disaster loss data’ project that will serve as a framework to develop a range of modern information systems on disaster risk reduction, Rovins said.

The project will explore putting the data in an open access format to make it available to communities. There also are plans to launch a new project in July on socio-economic activities related to weather events.

IRDR is working on a separate risk interpretation and action project to study human actions, conditions, decisions and cultural contexts during natural hazards, Rovins had told the International Council for Science (ICSU) meeting in Rio last month (14 June).

The ICSU meeting heard that disaster risk reduction and management research suffers from huge data gaps; lack of integration, and a ‘silos’ approach with few trans-disciplinary studies.

Data on weather, human deaths, number of people affected, or livestock lost, available in different scientific organisations and government agencies are not integrated and communicated comprehensively, experts said at the meeting.

There is little data on vulnerability, Gordon McBean, director of the Institute for Catastrophic Loss Reduction at the University of Western Ontario, Canada, said.

Another problem, Walter Ammann, president of Global Risk Forum, Davos, told SciDev.Net, is that analysts only look at data from big disasters – for example a big earthquake or a once-in-100 years floods – and ignore the regular, smaller or medium-scale events such as recurring annual floods. Cumulative damage from smaller events might be larger than an infrequent but more dramatic event.

Ammann said data management posed another problem. Data gathered by different authorities is often in different formats and cannot be merged or collated in a single library, he said.

Ammann said that scientists had substantial information, but "what is missing is doable knowhow for policy makers and politicians. We need to bridge the gap."