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What’s the challenge?

Natural hazards such as earthquakes occur around the world and when combined with people create natural disasters. How can we improve our response and ensure vulnerable communities are protected as much as possible?

Geographers define a natural hazard as a potentially dangerous physical event occurring close to a population (who are said to be at risk). A Disaster is the realisation of this hazard risk. Natural disasters are thus a function of both the magnitude of a physical event and the state of preparedness / coping capacity of the society that has been exposed to risk.

In this 21st Century Challenge, we take a look at how our response to natural disasters can be improved and ensure lessons are learnt which benefit vulnerable communities worldwide in the long-term.

The Royal Geographical Society (with IBG) held a panel discussion on 25 May 2010 to discuss the issue. Hear about this challenge from:

Storm surge

A storm surge can cause widespread coastal flooding resulting from the low pressure, high winds and high tides associated with a storm or hurricane. Low pressure causes sea level to rise by about 1 cm every 1 millibar change in pressure. High winds and tides pushes the ocean water towards the coast causing widespread flooding. Storm surges are dangerous. In 2005 hurricane Katrina had a storm surge of 8m which breached the sea defences and caused coastal flooding which killed 1800 people and damaged lots of the infrastructure and environment in New Orleans.


A storm surge can cause widespread coastal flooding resulting from the low pressure, high winds and high tides associated with a storm or hurricane. Low pressure causes sea level to rise by about 1 cm every 1 millibar change in pressure. High winds and tides pushes the ocean water towards the coast causing widespread flooding.

Storm surges are dangerous. In 2005 hurricane Katrina had a storm surge of 8m which breached the sea defences and caused coastal flooding which killed 1800 people and damaged loA tsunami is a series of huge waves caused by a displacement of large body of water. Earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, underwater explosions, landslides, glacier carvings, meteorite impacts among other disturbances have the potential to create a tsunami.

In 2004 the Indian ocean tsunami was caused by a underwater earthquake with the magnitude of 9.1 along the Indian / Burman plate boundary in the Indian Ocean. The tsunami’s 30m waves had worldwide effects, killing over 230,000 people in 14 countries due to coastal flooding and $14 billion of damage. ts of the infrastructure and environment in New Orleans.

Post-glacial rebound

Post-glacial rebound (or continental rebound, glacial isostacy) is the land masses following the removal of large ice masses. Large glacier or ice sheets, put a large force upon the land causing it to tilt. Once the ice mass has been removed the land rises or sinks through a process known as glacier isostatic adjustment. This change in land height causes relative changes in sea level which could enhance coastal flooding if the land is sinking.

In the UK the south is sinking and the north is rising following the retreat of the last british ice sheet during the last ice age around 200,000 years ago. Southern areas of the UK are sinking up to 5cm per century and are causing up to a 10cm rise in sea levels.

Coastal flooding globally

Climate change, urbanisation and subsiding land are leading to dangerous and costly flooding globally. Coastal flooding could cost $1 trillion a year globally in flood damage if no action is taken against promoting it. The top 5 cities around the world which are at greatest coastal flood risk are:

  • Guangzhou, China

  • Miami

  • New York

  • New Orleans

  • Mumbai

Myths and disasters in disaster situations

MYTH: Foreign medical volunteers with any kind of medical background are needed.

REALITY: The local population almost always covers immediate lifesaving needs. Only medical personnel with skills that are not available in the affected country may be needed.

MYTH: Any kind of international assistance is needed, and it’s needed now!

REALITY: A hasty response that is not based on an impartial evaluation only contributes to the chaos. It is better to wait until genuine needs have been assessed.

MYTH: Disasters are random killers

REALITY: Disasters strike hardest at the most vulnerable group, the poor – especially women, children and the elderly.

MYTH: The affected population is too shocked and helpless to take responsibility for their own survival.

REALITY: On the contrary, many find new strength during an emergency, as evidenced by the thousands of volunteers who spontaneously united to sift through the rubble in search of victims after the 1985 Mexico City earthquake.

MYTH: Locating disaster victims in temporary settlements is the best alternative.

REALITY: It should be the last alternative. Many agencies use funds normally spent for tents to purchase building materials, tools, and other construction-related support in the affected country.

MYTH: Things are back to normal within a few weeks.

REALITY: The effects of a disaster last a long time. Disaster-affected countries deplete much of their financial and material resources in the immediate post-impact phase. Successful relief programs gear their operations

MYTH: Epidemics and plagues are inevitable after every disaster.

REALITY: Epidemics do not spontaneously occur after a disaster and dead bodies will not lead to catastrophic outbreaks of exotic diseases. The key to preventing disease is to improve sanitary conditions and educate the public.

MYTH: Disasters bring out the worst in human behavior.

REALITY: Although isolated cases of antisocial behavior exist, the majority of people respond spontaneously and generously.

Source: Myths and realities in disaster situations (World Health Organisation)

The eruption of Eyjafjallajökull volcano in Iceland

Iceland’s Eyjafjallajökull Volcano sent a plume of ash and steam across the North Atlantic in mid-April 2010, prompting authorities in the United Kingdom, Ireland, France, Germany and Scandinavia to close airspace over their countries. The airspace closure has had a ripple effect, disrupting flights to and from other countries as well. Authorities could not say how long the airspace closure would last, and the ash’s spread threatened to force closures of additional airspace over the coming days. Unlike the soft, fluffy material that results from burned vegetation, volcanic ash consists of tiny jagged particles of rock. Once sucked into an airplane’s turbines, the abrasive material can easily cause engine failure, but an aircraft’s weather radar can’t spot the ash.

Eyjafjallajökull (or Eyjafjöll) is a stratovolcano composed of alternating layers of ash, lava, and rocks ejected by earlier eruptions. This volcano rises to a height of 1,666 meters (5,466 feet) above sea level. It began erupting for the first time in 190 years on March 20, 2010. The eruption opened a 500-meter (2,000-foot) fissure, and also produced lava fountains that built several hills of bubble-filled lava rocks (scoria) along the vent.

On 19 April 2010, three Royal Navy ships will be drafted to help return Britons stranded abroad as UK airspace remains restricted. The UK’s emergency committee Cobra met to discuss options in addressing travel chaos caused by a volcanic ash cloud and will hold more discussions later. British Airways has said it asked the European Union and the UK government for financial compensation for the closure of airspace. BA also said that its test flight through the no-fly zone had revealed “no variations in the aircraft’s normal operational performance”. The airline estimates that the crisis is costing it about £15m to £20m a day.

What lessons are being learnt from natural disasters

In the past decade the responses to major natural disasters have been analyzed in hundreds of case studies and examined by experts from a variety of fields. Lessons learnt from these are then tested in subsequent crises and further data is collected. It is essential that the right lessons are learnt. In more recent years people who deliver disaster aid have begun to benefit from data driven decision making, similar to commercial and military procedures.

More people are vulnerable today

Today more people than ever are vulnerable to natural disasters. Population growth and rapid growth of urban populations in developing countries over the last few decades has resulted in increased numbers of people who require help each year as a result of natural hazards such as storms, floods, and earthquakes. More than a billion people now live within 62 miles of an ocean, with over 10 million people being affected by flooding each year. Global climate change now threatens to increase these number significantly in the 21st Century.

Earthquakes are considered even more lethal for those in urban areas of poorer countries, highlighted by events in Port au Prince, Haiti, which claimed the lives of over 200,000 people. There has been a huge growth in the number of people living in poorly constructed urban dwellings in recent decades. Many of these people now live in poorly constructed housing.

Logistical problems in Haiti

The world responded to the Haiti earthquake with one of the biggest international aid efforts ever mounted, with thousands of tons of food, water and medicine being received from across the globe. But the small island of Haiti had a limited infrastructure before the earthquake struck. Physically moving the supplies into the country was extremely difficult with the capital’s port and airport severely damaged. Once they had arrived in Haiti, the task of distribution was even harder, with roads blocks by rubble.

With tens or even hundreds of different groups, charities and NGOs all descending on disaster zones, there is often a lack of coordination between them all. With many groups competing for resources such as food, fuel or transport, often duplicating their efforts which could be put to better use if better coordinated.

What has been learnt from previous disasters

Researchers continuously study relief efforts to learn lessons and find better ways to respond to natural disaster in the future:

  •  7 December 1988 – Earthquake: Spitak, Armenia Employ local people Armenia was part of the Soviet Union, but Moscow prohibited residents  from working on rebuilding, causing political tension. Four years later, only 30 per cent of necessary structures were finished.

  • 17 January 1995 – Earthquake: Kobe, Japan  Communicate better, more often, and more completely A lack of timely and accurate information made it difficult for families to get services they needed. Shelter locations were not well publicised, which delayed relief.

  • 17 August 1999 – Earthquake: Izmit, Turkey  Rebuild stronger After quakes destroyed unsafe structures, rebuilding started quickly and without proper regulation and building standards. This resulted in further vulnerable construction taking place.

  • 26 December 2003 – Earthquake: Bam, Iran  Restore law and order quickly refugees from the countryside flooded the city in search of aid, but there was no system to support them. Several days of looting held up distribution of supplies and threatened the recovery.

  • 26 December 2004 – Tsunami: Indian Ocean multiple countries affected  Basic provisions need to regionally appropriate Taking into account people’s beliefs and cultures.

  • 29 August 2005 – Hurricane Katrina: New Orleans, Louisiana, USA  Aid must be delivered quickly There was wide criticism at the speed at which aid reached the affected population.

  • 8 October 2005 – Earthquake: Kashmir, Pakistan  Medical care needs to be culturally appropriate Few female doctors were deployed to the region and due to strong local beliefs which restrict physical contact between men and female. This limited care available.

  • 27 May 2006 – Earthquake: Yogyakarta, Java  Prepare Areas where households had received some disaster training were able to deliver aid to others before official help arrived. People in those regions surveyed after the quake indicated that they appreciated such assistance.

Source: Lessons from Aceh (DEC), Organizing Armageddon: what we learned from the Haiti earthquake (WIRED)

Vulnerability to natural hazards

Natural disasters frequently occur across the world, affecting both developed and developing countries. However some populations are clearly more vulnerable than others. Different communities and countries are more susceptible to the impact of these hazards. The vast majority of lives both lost and affected by natural disasters come from developing countries, underlining the link between poverty and vulnerability to disaster.

At the root of this disparity is poverty. Simply put, people in wealthier countries have better access to the kinds of resources that help both prevent natural disasters becoming crisies and to cope with them when they do occur.

The earth is a hazardous place and natural disasters will continue to occur, but it is mainly in poorer countries that they lead to humanitarian disasters. The vast majority of lives claimed by natural disasters are in such countries and survivors often lose their livelihoods in the aftermath and are forced into more extreme levels of poverty.

This is not purely down to economics, but also ‘age’ and ‘gender’ play a large part as does the environment that people live in.

Industrialised Countries

  • Suffer higher short term economic losses

  • Have mechanisms in place to avoid or reduce loss of life, e.g early warning systems and building regulations to ensure development in high risk areas is designed to withstand forces

  • Have immediate emergency and medical relief infrastructure available which reduces casualty numbers

  • Insurance against property and infrastructural losses

Developing countries

  • Cause setbacks to long term economic and social development of the country

  • Lack of resources for early warning systems; unplanned squatter developments are not designed to withstand natural forces

  • Inflicts massive casualties due to lack of relief infrastructure and resources

  • Forced to divert funds from development programs to emergency relief and recovery

The last mile

Disasters are triggered by external hazards, but they also stem from vulnerability; people being in the wrong place without protection. It is therefore vital that information extends to communities to help them adopt protective actions and engage people living outside of the early warning systems. This is commonly known as ‘the last mile’, which means that warnings often don’t reach those who need them most.

Poorer people are often marginalised socially, politically and geographically and often may not receive early warning of hazards. The relationship between underdevelopment and disasters is made clear in the International Federation Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) World Disaster Report 2009.

Why does poverty mean vulnerability?

If an area prone to natural hazards such as flooding or earthquakes. there are various measures that can be taken to prepare. Early warning systems can be adapted; well organised evacuation procedures can be put in place; buildings can be designed and built to withstand hazards; protective barriers can be built to insure against rising water levels. However, such projects require adequate financial resources, effective government and strong community links. A protection that developed countries across the world benefit from, but a safeguard rarely possible for poorer nations.

Each year natural disasters occur across the world and in recent years countries including Haiti, Indonesia, Pakistan, Myanmar, USA, China, India, Iran, Turkey and Chile have all suffered severely, with the loss of hundreds of thousands of lives. The highest casualties can be seen in the poorer nations of both Haiti and Indonesia. Rapid urbanisation has led to poorer people being marginalised from safe and legal areas in many of these countries, forcing many to live in high risk locations, such as flood plains, river banks, steep slopes and reclaimed land. In these unplanned squatter settlements, homes are not built to withstand such natural forces. Many of these settlements lack even the most basic infrastructure, such as health and fire services and fresh water and sanitation. This leaves communities extremely at risk following a natural disaster.


Following the Asian tsunami crisis in 2004, the International Labour Organisation (ILO) argued that women are more vulnerable during disasters because they have less access to resources, are victims of gendered division of labour, and are the primary caregivers to children, the elderly and disabled. This results in women being less able to mobilise resources for recovery, more likely to be left unemployed and overburdened with domestic responsibilities stopping them from earning an income. There is also the risk of sexual violence and exploitation including trafficking in the aftermath of a disaster.

The elderly

As a group, the elderly are often among the most neglected in disaster relief programmes, even though they are among the most at risk. Relief charity HelpAge International reports that the vulnerability of the elderly is increasing, with the proportion of older people in developing countries set to double to 850 million by 2025. Following a natural disaster, the elderly’s isolation from family friends and community support greatly increases their vulnerability. Up to half of the people who lost their lives in the 1995 earthquake in the Japanese city of Kobe were elderly. This was disproportionately high given that they only made up 14% of the population.

Sources:  IFRC World disasters report, HelpAge International report , More women die than men as a result of natural disasters (RGS-IBG Annual Conference paper, 2006)

Further reading

Resilience and vulnerability in development, Daniel Morchain, Oxfam for ‘Ask the experts’

Environmental risk in the urban south, Dr Gemma Sou for ‘Ask the experts’

Impact of natural disasters, Geography Directions

OpenStreetMap – Project Haiti


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Natural disasters: How to improve? Challenge Overview Sheet


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Natural disasters: How to improve? Challenge Overview Sheet (1)


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Natural disasters: How to improve? Disaster management: working in partnership article


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Natural disasters: How to improve? Disaster management: working in partnership article (1)


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Natural disasters: How to improve? Essay assignment with examiners tips


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Natural disasters: How to improve? Essay assignment with examiners tips (1)


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Natural disasters: How to improve? Exam Specification Overview


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Natural disasters: How to improve?Exam Specification Overview


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Natural disasters: How to improve? Fact Sheet and Teaching Notes


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Natural disasters: How to improve? Fact Sheet and Teaching Notes (1)


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Natural disasters: How to improve? Fact Sheet and Teaching Notes (2)


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Natural disasters: How to improve? Fact Sheet and Teaching Notes (3)


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Natural disasters: How to improve? Group discussion activity


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Natural disasters: How to improve? Group discussion activity (1)


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Natural disasters: How to improve? Lesson one plan


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Natural disasters: How to improve? Lesson one plan (1)


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Natural disasters: How to improve? Lesson two plan


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Natural disasters: How to improve?Lesson two plan


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Natural disasters: How to improve? PowerPoint presentation


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