Making Research Relevant to Avoid a Megadisaster

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 Earthquakes from Roger Bilham (Science, 2006); Population from Landscan (Oak Ridge Nat. Lab., 2004)
Graphic from Ross Stein (USGS, 2013) and Volkan Sevilgen (Seismicity.net, 2013); Earthquake data from Roger Bilham (Science, 2006); Population data from Landscan (Oak Ridge Nat. Lab., 2004)

Without concerted action, the world will one day see a megadisaster—a disaster resulting in over 1 million casualties.

The forces of population growth and rapid urbanization are dramatically increasing exposure to disaster risk. Over 600 million people, for example, live in the Ganges Basin of India, Nepal and Bangladesh. Due to the meeting of the tectonic plates with the Indian subcontinent shifting under the Eurasian continent, this area is at a large risk of seismic activity. And indeed, the Ganges Basin has seen earthquakes over magnitude 7.0 in the past 500 years, as illustrated by the graphic above.

As practitioners, we can help reduce disaster risk and build resilience to potential catastrophes through smart development practices. These practices, however, require targeted research that can inform which levers to move, and how to move them. Sadly, this kind of research is difficult to come by in the disaster risk management community, and harder still to communicate to those that need it most.

Two weeks apart on two separate U.S. coasts, I listened to two distinguished scientists emphasize the same message: practitioners and policy makers in disaster risk management need to engage researchers to produce more relevant and useful data. Dr. Susan Cutter, Director of the Hazards and Vulnerability Research Institute at the University of South Carolina, spoke in Washington, D.C., on December 4 on why more knowledge of natural hazards is not reducing losses. Later, Dr. Greg Holland, former director of the Earth System Laboratory at the National Center for Atmospheric Research, discussed the importance of communication of disaster risk to increase societal resilience at the American Geophysical Union (AGU) Meeting in San Francisco.

The key theme from both talks is the need for relevant risk information to help others understand their risk and ultimately mitigate losses. The Global Facility for Disaster Reduction and Recovery has recognized this need, most recently in a publication, Understanding Risk in an Evolving World, which urgently calls for the need to prioritize the communication of risk information in its list of recommendations. Understanding Risk, a growing community of practice for disaster risk identification professionals, has begun highlighting the field of risk communication at its global forum, inviting decision making professionals and communications researchers to collaborate on how to better reach community members and decision makers alike.

Risk communication itself is a fairly new field, but one thing researchers know is that it is not a one-size-fits-all box. Effective communication must be culturally sensitive and fill in the gaps between what an expert believes the public should know about the risk and what the public actually knows. This is part of a mental models approach, which has been researched for some time now within the US. Imagine the gaps in the public’s understanding of risk that would be discovered in places of impending megadisasters. It is our responsibility, as practitioners, to communicate our needs to researchers to positively affect change in developing countries.

2015 is an exciting year for those of us in climate change and disaster risk management, with the UN Climate Change Conference in Paris and the World Conference on Disaster Risk Reduction in Japan. We have a unique opportunity to use the momentum from these events to strengthen risk information and communication and help build resilience for vulnerable communities around the world.  

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