News Archive

posted 10/29/04

Contact: Katie Mastriani
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Global Natural Disaster Hotspots
Earth Institute project assesses disasters and risks to increase investment

Global distribution of highest-risk disaster hotspots by hazard type


a) Mortality risks (click for larger image)

b) Total economic loss risks (click for larger image)

c) Economic loss risks as a proportion of GDP per unit area (click for larger image)

A unique collaborative project assessing natural disasters and the risks to human populations and economic activity will provide a quantitative basis for risk-conscious investments in sustainable development worldwide. This project draws on expertise from across The Earth Institute at Columbia University, including Earth Institute fellows and undergraduate students. The final report, “Global Natural Disaster Risk Hotspots,” will be published by The World Bank this winter.

Natural disaster risk hotspots are countries or regions whose populations or economic activities are at extreme risk from multiple natural hazards. The hotspots project team compiled event data for six natural hazards—earthquakes, volcanoes, landslides, floods, drought, and cyclones—to identify regions of significant hazard activity throughout the world. The hotspots maps show the specific regions of the world at highest risk from natural disasters.

Using population data and Gross Domestic Product (GDP) at the sub-national level, the team and their international partners then assessed the risks of mortality and economic loss for combined hazards.

“What makes this even more significant is that poorer countries in the developing world are more likely to incur repeated disaster-related losses and costs and get caught in the recovery trap. In addition to the loss of human life and assets, these countries have to meet the costs associated with disaster relief, recovery, rehabilitation and reconstruction. With this cycle repeating itself every few years, developing countries find themselves in a vicious cycle of recovery without the ability to move forward to get out of poverty and achieve sustainable development,” said Dilley, research scientist at the International Research Institute for Climate Prediction (IRI).

Chen, senior research scientist and Deputy Director of the Center for International Earth Science Information Network (CIESIN), added, “World Bank data indicates that emergency loans and reallocation of existing loans for disaster reconstruction from 1980 to 2003 totaled $14.4 billion with $12 billion going to countries with the most significant natural disaster hotspots. This tells us that we need to work to reduce the vulnerability of these developing countries to natural disasters as part of any poverty reduction strategy. “

The hotspots project included several case studies to learn what specifically can be done to reduce vulnerability and therefore the risk from these hazards. The Caracas, Venezuela case study showed that the vulnerability of urban areas can be reduced by incorporating locally appropriate risk-sensitive strategies into urban development planning. Under the direction of Professors Sig Grava and Klaus Jacob, faculty and students from Columbia’s Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation completed this study using an innovative instructional model based on student teamwork.

Arthur Lerner-Lam, Doherty Senior Research Scientist at the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory and Director of the Center for Hazard and Risk Research (CHRR), said, “The hotspots project has provided exceptional opportunities for Earth Institute postdoctoral fellows and undergraduates to do follow-on research. For example, two undergraduates, Matthew Isanuk and Alexandra Skorik, are looking at the link between the persistent occurrence of multiple hazards and reductions in economic growth. In developing countries, there is a high degree of correlation between multiple hazards occurrence and growth. Such correlations could be used to calculate the value of investments in mitigation that could reduce disaster recovery costs and thus the post-disaster debt load of poor countries.”

Earth Institute postdoctoral fellows are also pursuing research motivated by the hotspots project. Guillermo Franco, a second-year fellow specializing in engineering, is examining the costs and benefits of investments in structural retrofitting, which reduces the potential for damage to buildings and infrastructure.

Bijan Khazai, a first-year fellow, is developing plans to do country-level disaster risk assessments in Iran. Such country-level hotspot studies can be done at higher resolution than the global assessment, leading to more specific and appropriate disaster risk reduction strategies.

The reduction of risks from natural disasters is a priority for the development community. The hotspots project provides the basis for identifying the countries or regions where disaster risk reduction would have the most significant impact on sustainable development.

The Earth Institute provided seed funding for this assessment, a joint project of the World Bank’s Hazard Management Unit (HMU) and the Earth Institute’s CHRR, IRI and CIESIN. The core project team includes researchers from the World Bank’s Development Economics Research Group, the International Center for Geohazards at the Norwegian Geotechnical Institute, as well as the World Bank’s HMU and the Earth Institute. Many groups from other national and international institutions contributed data and analysis. The project co-leaders at the Earth Institute are Drs. Maxx Dilley, Robert Chen and Arthur Lerner-Lam.

The Earth Institute at Columbia University is the world’s leading academic center for the integrated study of Earth, its environment and society. The Earth Institute builds upon excellence in the core disciplines—earth sciences, biological sciences, engineering sciences, social sciences and health sciences—and stresses cross-disciplinary approaches to complex problems. Through research, training and global partnerships, it mobilizes science and technology to advance sustainable development, while placing special emphasis on the needs of the world’s poor.