More science needed for tackling disasters, says report

Slow-onset disasters, such as famine, are regularly missed Copyright: FlickrOxfam

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[LONDON] Science and technology will be essential for anticipating and responding to disasters, according to a review of the humanitarian practices of one of the world’s leading national aid agencies, the UK Department for International Development (DFID).

Natural disasters are killing more people each year, with climate-related disasters alone predicted to affect 375 million a year by 2015. Finding new ways of tackling them is essential, according to the Humanitarian Emergency Response Review, launched yesterday (28 March).

"We are … caught in a race between the growing size of the humanitarian challenge and our ability to cope," said Paddy Ashdown, a former British politician and chair of the team that produced the report.

"It is, bluntly, not a race we think we are currently winning. Merely improving on what we have done in the past — enhancing the status quo — will not be sufficient. We must devise new ways of meeting these new, larger challenges."

The report tackles seven areas, including the anticipation of disasters, where science could be put to better use, said Ashdown.

"What is clear is that prediction, although far from perfect, is possible for some high-risk nations. But disaster managers do not make enough use of such science, and scientists do not routinely produce information for this audience."

The report cited the example of the 2010 floods in Pakistan: "The rainfall … happened a month before the flood water caused its greatest devastation. The effects were predicted, but not acted on."

It added that slow-onset disasters, such as famines, are regularly missed, despite the existence of tools such as the Famine Early Warning Systems Network, supported by the US aid agency USAID. Yet early intervention in such disasters costs a fraction of the bill arising from late intervention.

Elsewhere, there have been "significant advances" in understanding earthquake risk — for example in locating major fault lines and understanding the reasons for damage to buildings. But these anticipatory tools needed to be used more: "Science in this area has … significantly reduced fatalities and damage in many countries but research and investment is needed elsewhere to promote safe construction".

In another section, the report also highlights the importance of innovation in finding new ways of responding to disasters, saying that many of the most important innovations of the past 30 years — such as using cash instead of goods in relief operations, and community feeding therapy — have arisen as a result of listening to, and being more accountable to, affected communities.

It claimed that there was scope for "transformative" developments in innovation by harnessing Southern capacities for innovation.

Technologies already in use that offer "considerable potential" include the use of mobile phones for cash transfers; the use of satellites in tracking storms and providing imagery for humanitarian operations; and crowd-sourcing as a way of soliciting information from those affected by a disaster.

In addition, emerging technologies that could play an important role are nanotechnology, which could transform medicine, water safety and foodstuffs, within the next five to ten years, and agent-based modelling, which could help understand the spread of epidemics or population movement.

Link to the ‘Humanitarian Emergency Response Review