December 14, 2005


Earth scientists should find better mechanisms to disseminate facts
about the risks of natural disasters, to help local populations make
the necessary preparations.

These days, science offers ever-more-comprehensive assessment of the
risks of earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, storms and floods, and
technology offers more sophisticated approaches for coping with them.
Yet growing urban populations -- as well as large rural populations in
places such as northern Pakistan and Kashmir, now suffering the
fallout from October's massive earthquake -- remain hugely vulnerable
to such disasters (see

There is plenty of evidence that the right combination of scientific
knowledge, experience, planning and common sense can substantially
reduce the risks posed by natural disasters. One such example pertains
to Hilo in Hawaii, which was badly damaged by a tsunami in 1946. As a
consequence, scientific research into the causes and the physical
behaviour of the giant waves was intensified, leading in 1949 to the
creation of the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center. The effectiveness of
the system was put to the test in 1960, when another tsunami flooded
the city. Thanks to building restrictions and regular exercises in
preparedness and emergency behaviour, Hilo has again become a
relatively safe place to live.

Unfortunately, preparation for a tsunami in the Pacific is the
exception, rather than the rule. The dozen countries that were
affected by the deadly Indian Ocean tsunami a year ago had made few
preparations, despite scientists' familiarity with the risks of such
an event. Many countries around the world, such as Turkey and Iran,
remain unable or unwilling to take the necessary steps to prepare for
disasters that specialists believe are waiting to happen.

Scientists who study these risks have a critical and valuable role to
play in ensuring that every effort is made to raise public and
political awareness of impending risks. The effective communication of
risk is a non-trivial problem: individual researchers who study fault
ruptures, volcanoes or cyclone thermodynamics are not always well
positioned to publicize their findings widely, and one cannot always
expect local policy-makers and planners to delve directly into the
scientific literature for information. So imaginative approaches are
needed to forge effective links between the two groups.

Some effort is now being made to implement such approaches at the
global level. For example, the World Conference on Disaster Reduction,
held last January in Kobe, Japan, called for a worldwide risk-
management strategy coordinated by the United Nations. Such a strategy
needs solid scientific support, and David King, science adviser to the
British government, has suggested setting up an International Science
Panel for Natural Hazard Assessment to provide it. A proposed joint
initiative by the United Nations' Development Programme and the World
Bank might fulfil the same purpose without the need to establish a new

No amount of international coordination activity will make much
difference, however, in regions where poverty, illiteracy and
corruption stymie preparations against disaster. In many parts of the
world, compliance with regulations to ensure that buildings are
constructed to withstand earthquakes, for example, would be totally
beyond the means of the local population. From Tehran to New Orleans,
disaster reduction has an immense social dimension  people can be
protected only as part of a broader fight against poverty.

That said, risk management can be improved through international
mechanisms that will feed the best science to decision-makers. Global
thinking is vital -- but saving lives ultimately requires preparation
at a local level.

Story from

 2004 Nature Publishing Group