New Report Looks at Past Disasters to Prepare for the Future

The great disasters of the past – like the eruption of Vesuvius in 79 AD or the hurricane that devastated Santo Domingo in 1930 – can provide valuable lessons to help governments and institutions increase the resilience of communities in the face of modern challenges, such as climate change and rapid urbanization.

Released today by the Global Facility for Disaster Reduction and Recovery (GFDRR), Aftershocks: Remodeling the Past for a Resilient Future looks at various disasters from the distant and recent past and explores the likely impacts similar events would have if they were to occur in today’s more populous and connected world.

The eruption of Mount Tambora in 1815 – detailed in the report – was the most devastating volcanic event of the last thousand years, killing over 70,000 people in its immediate vicinity. Particles from the eruption blocked sunlight, contributing to a 3o C decline in global temperatures, which caused the global ‘year without a summer’ of 1816. Crops failed in China, Europe, and North America, and famine took hold in some parts of the world.

If a similar eruption were to happen in Indonesia today, it would do so in an area ten times more densely populated. It would disrupt air travel over a wide area, and could reduce global food production at a time when there are six billion more people on the planet.

“With significantly increased levels of population, urbanization, and built infrastructure, our cities and communities are more exposed to disaster risk. Looking at past disasters helps us plan for a more resilient future,” said Laura Tuck, World Bank Vice President for Sustainable Development.

Launched on the occasion of “World Red Cross and Red Crescent Day” today, and in advance of the 2018 Understanding Risk Forum taking place in Mexico City, May 16 – 18, Aftershocks notes that impacts from disasters are increasing due to population growth and development. These trends are likely to continue in the future. For example, models show that by 2050, population growth and rapid urbanization alone could put 1.3 billion people and $158 trillion in assets at risk to river and coastal floods. However, these figures do not factor in the impacts of climate change on hazard intensity and frequency – in the future, more frequent extremes in rainfall will trigger more droughts and floods, and sea level rise will result in many coastal areas experiencing more frequent and intense inundation.

The report looks at the potential impact of disasters on a range of sectors, including agriculture and infrastructure. It also looks at the vulnerability of our more recent digital and electronic infrastructure to potentially devastating scenarios – such as the Carrington Event, a powerful solar storm that disrupted the telegraph networks in Europe and North America in 1859.

Importantly, Aftershocks explores how understanding the great disasters of the past enables governments and communities to better prepare for the risks they face.

For example, earthquakes that struck Chile and Haiti in 2010 demonstrate the value of enforcing building standards and resilient urban planning to mitigate the impact of future events. A remodeling of typhoon Wanda, which devastated the coastal regions of China in 1956, illustrates both the impact of natural hazards in a rapidly growing economy and the benefits of effective risk identification and early warning systems. A closer look at the two earthquakes in Mexico City in 1985 and 2017 illustrate the importance of integrating multiple interventions to mitigate risk, from early warning to improved building practices and financial protection.

“The devastating hurricanes and earthquakes in Latin America and the Caribbean last year, came as a reminder of the urgent need to better understand our vulnerabilities and act to reduce them,” said Francis Ghesquiere, Head of the Global Facility for Disaster Reduction and Recovery (GFDRR).  “Having a better understanding of historic disasters gives us an opportunity to avoid the mistakes of the past.

Developing countries are disproportionately impacted by disasters; with the poorer communities in those countries particularly affected. Aftershocks makes the case that these communities stand to benefit from improved communication of risk information, including the information provided in risk models.

“With additional impacts from climate change, the coming years will see an increase in the frequency and severity of some hazards,” stressed Tuck. “These challenges will require the deployment of every tool in the box – from the important lessons of the past, to the emerging technologies of the present and the future.”