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Assessing disaster risk in Europe and Central Asia – what did we learn?

Alanna Simpson's picture
Heavy rains on June 13-14, 2015 caused a 1 million cubic-meter landslide to flow down the Vere River valley and damage the capital city of Tbilisi, Georgia. (Photo via Wikimedia Commons)
Heavy rains on June 13-14, 2015 caused a 1 million cubic-meter landslide to flow down the Vere River valley and damage the capital city of Tbilisi, Georgia. (Photo via Wikimedia Commons)
Across the Europe and Central Asia region today, policymakers are confronted daily with a wide range of development challenges and decisions, but the potential impacts of adverse natural events and climate change – such as earthquakes or flooding – may not always be first and foremost in their thoughts.

Admittedly, the region does not face the same daunting disaster risks as some other parts of the world – especially in South Asia, East Asia and Latin America – but nevertheless, it is far from immune to the effects of natural hazards – as the past clearly reminds us.

Less than two decades ago, in 1999, the catastrophic Izmit earthquake resulted in more than 17,000 deaths and $5 billion in damages in Turkey. Indeed, over the centuries, several countries across Europe and Central Asia have experienced similar tragedies. Cities that were nearly or completely destroyed by earthquakes at various times include Dubrovnik in Croatia in 1667, Ashgabat in Turkmenistan in 1948, Skopje in Macedonia in 1963, and Erzincan in Turkey in 1939. In fact, over 30% of capital cities of the region were destroyed by earthquakes at some point in time.

In addition, earthquakes are not the only disaster risk: the region also suffers from high floods. A stark example was the 2014 flooding in Serbia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Croatia – the worst flooding in 120 years – which affected millions of people and caused more than one billion Euro in damage.
  
So, what can governments and policymakers do to minimize the human and physical costs of natural disasters, which usually occur without warning? It’s not an easy question to answer, certainly: to fully explore and understand the dynamic nature of disaster risk poses several challenges for analysts.

However, a team at the Global Facility for Disaster Reduction and Recovery (GFDRR) and the World Bank Group recently produced an assessment which we believe can further strengthen the policy dialogue on disaster risk management.

In addition to looking at risks in the present day, we also consider how risks could evolve in the future. For example, climate change would certainly change rainfall patterns and potentially exacerbate flood risk. Similarly, socioeconomic changes – such as urbanization and population growth – could drive massive increases in exposure to risk.

Rather than waiting for these risks to materialize into catastrophic disasters, we were determined to catalyze action by quantifying risk through disaster risk modeling – an approach that originated in the insurance industry and has been successfully applied in World Bank projects across all regions.

But, risk modeling is a resource-intensive exercise. Depending on which hazards are covered, the resolution of the analysis and the detail of analytics, such kind of risk assessment typically exceeds $300,000 for a single country, and can even exceed $1 million. Therefore, working with a significantly smaller budget ($100,000) to quantify earthquake and flood risks for 32 countries in Europe and Central Asia would be no small feat.

Fortunately, a small group of dedicated researchers in the Netherlands, including Hessel Winsemius of Deltares and Philip Ward of VU University Amsterdam, had recently developed a global flood model. By successfully collaborating with them, we were able to make practical use of their flood model output and a new, much cheaper way of assessing flood risk. And, coincidentally, across the border in Germany, James Daniell of Karlsruhe Institute of Technology had just finished his PhD on seismic risk in Turkey, using an approach that could be scaled-up for the rest of Europe and Central Asia.

Together with risk modelers and risk communication specialists in GFDRR and the World Bank, we were able to pull together a strong team to assess current and future risks across 32 countries in Europe and Central Asia. And, we did it within budget.

More importantly, the results were quite sobering.

Our assessment found that Georgia could potentially face $10 billion in losses to GDP and $7 billion in capital losses from an earthquake expected to occur on average once every 250 years. Such a loss is equivalent to roughly half of Georgia’s GDP. For Turkey, these numbers soar to $300 billion and $60 billion, respectively. And, a flood occurring in Poland today, expected to occur on average once every 100 years, could affect up to $30 billion in GDP, but by 2080, affected GDP could reach as high as $90 billion.

Numbers like these – as frightening as they are – nevertheless help us to create the consensus needed for forward-looking investments in disaster risk management. And, importantly, they help us to push forward the policy dialogue on acting on today’s risks to build a less risky, more resilient future.

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