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Improving disaster risk resilience

More than half of the countries in the world most vulnerable to natural hazards and the negative impacts of climate change are Small Island Developing States (SIDS). To be able to mitigate against these impacts, it is vital that these nations are able to access information to both build their resilience to natural disasters but also to reduce the risk of the disaster occurring before it happens.

It is important for us to note that a natural hazard does not necessarily equate to a disaster, even though the two terms are typically used interchangeably. For example, the same magnitude of earthquake and size of associated tsunami in different parts of the world can have drastically different effects, depending on factors such as geography, vulnerability, and preparedness.

When we talk about disaster risk reduction and resilience, there are still opportunities to support nations in implementing changes to mitigate against the impacts of a disaster, even if the likelihood of the hazard occurring and its magnitude remains the same. If the risk can be reduced, communities and nations can recover faster and better, the duration of the impact is then shortened, and that in turn lessens aid requirements, irrespective of what form that aid takes.

Fijian coastal settlement
A Fijian coastal settlement aerial photograph

Tackling vulnerability and getting prepared

Both reducing risk and improving resilience rely on knowing as much as possible about all relevant factors. Satellite remote sensing is ideal for helping us to understand physical aspects as varied as topography, land cover, existing infrastructure, and locations of buildings. Other information can be gleaned from in situ data and surveys. Local census data, for example, may help to provide data around poverty, ethnicity, gender and age – all of which, along with family bonds and culture, can increase or decrease vulnerability.

The platform being built into the IPP CommonSensing system will provide a comprehensive set of data to the governments of Fiji, Vanuatu, and Solomon Islands. This could be used to support projects designed to directly reduce certain risks, for example, building defences on flood plains. The data can also be used for planning to reduce levels of vulnerability, and therefore exposure to risk. And finally, it can enable governments to plan their responses to potential future disasters, so that recovery is faster.

Not all disasters are due to natural hazards, however. Others have a slower impact, including some related to climate change, such as heatwaves, droughts, and forest fires. The uncertainty surrounding these events can make it difficult to prioritise projects and access climate finance to fund them, but it is vital that action is taken in advance to reduce risk and build resilience.

For example, water security is likely to be an increasingly important issue for many SIDS, as it underpins everything, from industry to farming to domestic life. In this context, satellite data can be used to provide information on geology, soil types, elevation and slope, vegetation, and land use. This can highlight areas that would benefit from actions taken in advance to preserve water in future or identify where relocation or change in land use may be advisable.

Supplying data at national and local levels

The United Nations’ Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction was adopted in 2015. This lists four priorities:

  • Understanding disaster risk
  • Strengthening disaster risk governance to manage disaster risk
  • Investing in disaster risk reduction for resilience
  • Enhancing disaster preparedness for effective response and to ‘Build Back Better’ in recovery, rehabilitation and reconstruction.

The Sendai Framework also suggests that while the state has the primary role in reducing disaster risk, responsibility should be shared with other stakeholders, including local government and the private sector. Raising awareness and providing access to information on a local level can encourage communities to undertake activities such as building dwellings and public buildings in less exposed locations and give them the insights they need to identify where to build and where to avoid – both to reduce risk in advance of any disaster and to ‘build back better’ afterwards.

As a result, the CommonSensing project is working at district as well as national levels to supply information to support communities in building resilience. However, there is a limit to how much data can be collected remotely, including from satellites.

One option is to use drones to capture data, but with many SIDS consisting of tens or hundreds of islands and the relatively short range of the drones, this isn’t practical for initial data collection. Instead, one answer to this challenge is to take advantage of technology that is almost ubiquitous, even in the most remote locations – mobile phones. Neither 4G nor 3G are available everywhere, so this isn’t a straightforward solution for gathering local data. Nevertheless, the CommonSensing teams are aiming to provide an app that could be used to gather in situ data, including imagery that could be analysed using machine learning techniques for the ground truthing of data collected remotely.

Enabling decisions by providing accessible information

In all of this, we have to remember that there is no absolute certainty attributable to any of the hazards being considered. The best we can do is estimate the probability of them occurring, including long-term meteorological shifts and events due to climate change. But we can accurately measure many factors so that governments can be prepared and take action to reduce risk and build resilience for events that may happen.

SIDS governments need both a full set of data and to have it presented in a uniform and accessible way so that they can make evidence-based decisions. With potentially hundreds of islands, accessing comprehensive information can make this challenging. The varied ways in which hazards and effects are measured and the scientific language used also presents a further challenge when building a decision support system.

Our remit, therefore, is to communicate the science and the facts in ways the decision-makers can understand, using descriptive analytics and presenting information in a ways that enable them to access an overarching picture but then drill down to specific information as needed.

The COVID-19 pandemic has provided a stark reminder that people increasingly rely on usable, accessible tools to understand what’s going on elsewhere and take action. A ‘natural’ disaster, such as a cyclone, would also affect travel to affected areas and require decisions to be taken at a distance. With IPP CommonSensing, we have an opportunity to provide something to SIDS that can be used to take actions now to increase resilience and reduce risk, as well as respond if and when a ‘disaster’ occurs.


CommonSensing Team

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