Thursday 31 March 2011

The Role of Geologists in Humanitarian Emergency Response

As reported on Monday, a review into the UK’s response to humanitarian emergencies has been conducted by Lord (Paddy) Ashdown and released yesterday. The review outlines ways in which the UK can improve its response to such emergencies, and anticipate such emergencies. Incorporating these into the core of DFID’s work is crucial – making sure their development work and humanitarian assistance are integrated. 

The report highlights seven threads to the approach needed to be adopted including:

1.   A more anticipatory approach – using science to aid in the prediction of and preparation for such emergencies. It is important to be preparing for disasters as well as reacting to them (including equipping at-risk governments/civil society with the means to act).

2.   Resilience – working with local people to strengthen the community’s capacity to be resilient to an event. This was highlighted as an area that needs to become much more central to DFIDs development activities. Resilience will mean the damage is less lasting and communities can recover more quickly.

The report cites an interesting example where Mozambique asked in 2006 for £2million pounds to invest in preparing for the impacts of floods – which it could not receive. Soon after, the international community had to spend £60million pounds responding to a flood season

3.   Improve the strategic, operational and political leadership of the international humanitarian system, including pushing for reform within the UN’s response procedures.

4.    Innovate to become more efficient and effective – using the best of new technologies and science, new processes and practices, and new ideas from those affected. More investment needs to happen in research and evidence.

5.   Increase transparency and accountability towards both donor and host country populations. More conversation needs to occur between donors and communities to ascertain exactly what they need, how they can be helped and who can help them. Vulnerable people can often be overlooked. On the flip side, measuring the impacts of resources is a key way to ensure accountability to donors.

6.   Create new humanitarian partnerships to allow DFID to better influence and work within an increasingly complex humanitarian system. The need for multilateral work in this area is crucial, and while DFID is commended for adopting this approach it suggests they should work to enable new partnerships with emerging nations, NGOs, faith groups etc

7.   Defend and strengthen the humanitarian space – humanitarian workers should be granted access and protection as they give assistance in areas affected by conflict. DFID should work with agencies that can access and help those in need and humanitarian aid should not be politicised.

Over the past couple of years we have witnessed some awful natural disasters that have required significant humanitarian assistance. Earthquakes have rocked developing countries such as Haiti, as well as more developed countries such as Chile, New Zealand and Japan. Floods have been catastrophic in Pakistan, and Australia, and large landslides and flooding have hit Brazil. The way in which the UK responds to such disasters – especially in developing countries where the effects disproportionately affect the population is very important. The UK is the second largest bilateral global humanitarian donor, although in terms of its percentage of GNI trails behind a number of countries.

The results of the Humanitarian Emergency Response Review are broadly welcomed. As developing countries are urbanising, vulnerability to disaster is in many ways increasing and steps need to be taken to ensure the international community’s response to disasters matures, as well as the anticipation of disasters and building of resilience develops.

Geologists have a very important role to play in the factors of anticipation, resilience and innovation.

ANTICIPATION: In disasters such as earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, floods, landslides etc – geologists study the science of how they occur and can use their skills to understand and recognise vulnerable areas. While prediction is not always possible, understanding of vulnerable areas, frequency and magnitude can be understood to a certain degree

For example: The study of palaeoseismology can provide information on the frequency of historical earthquakes and their magnitude. This information can help inform governments and civil societies to prepare. The UK for example knows to expect earthquakes up to approximately magnitude 6 following the M5.3-5.9 earthquake in the late 1500’s (although this size is extremely rare (See here for more info on UK Seismic Hazard). In Chile, they must prepare for earthquakes significantly bigger than this, at Magnitude 9 or greater.

Data for some hazardous areas can be significant, but often in developing countries the data is gathered at a much slower rate, and so is less sizeable, as governments can invest less in their own monitoring and evaluation programmes. Geologists can play a major role in building up knowledge of the mechanisms of hazards, their appearance in history and the likely impacts of the hazard.  

RESILIENCE: Building resilience to minimise the damage of the hazard is another area of humanitarian work that geologists can play a crucial role in. The education of communities to understand how hazards are triggered can help people recognise the warning signs for a number of hazards. Understanding the relationship between landslides and water can help communities construct simple drainage mechanisms, avoid the undercutting of slopes and ensure deforestation doesn’t occur on vulnerable slopes. Understanding the relationship between earthquakes and tsunami’s was not understood by many communities in the tragic 2004 Boxing Day tsunami in Indonesia, understanding the risk of a tsunami following an earthquake can give communities that vital extra time to move inland. Education can involve a community led, participatory approach in order to build a sustainable programme.

As well as education, improving physical structures can develop resilience. Geologists can play a major role in identifying which areas of the city are must vulnerable and how resilience methods can change from place to place. The types of buildings required to withstand earthquakes will differ from one rock-type to another for example.   

INNOVATION:  With regards to innovation, geologists are doing various pieces of research, and must do more, to improve the understanding and preparation for humanitarian emergencies. Geologists and other scientists must work closely with social scientists in order to develop and improve better risk assessments for developing countries – including the development of multi-hazard risk assessments. Research into the effects of global climate change at a local scale, and mitigating any risks, is fundamental research to be collated, as is how increased urbanisation will impact the consequences of disasters.

The response DFID gives to this review, and the speed at which they respond, will be very interesting. DFID must take seriously the importance of Disaster Risk Reduction, and the economic benefits of it, and ensure it is integrate into the core of its work. The crucial role that scientists can play in this sector must also be recognised further – not only in terms of health and agriculture – but also with regards to geology and engineering.

Monday 28 March 2011

Humanitarian Emergency Response Review

A review into how UK Aid is spent responding to humanitarian emergencies, such as natural disasters, is to be published shortly. The review, by Lord (Paddy) Ashdown, examines how the UK Government can best respond to emergency situations, such as the Pakistan floods and Haiti earthquake, how the best value can be got from UK Aid and the nature of the leadership required in these situations.

In an article for the BBC News, Paddy Ashdown states..."If resilience is the key of this then it (DfID) can't deal with humanitarian emergencies simply as a little sort of pimple, off-shoot of its job... It has to take that into the core of what DfID does and it has, above all, to include that in its development policy so part of your development policy - which DfID regards as its core task, rightly so, too, and does a very good job there - has to be about building up resilience in at-risk countries."

It will be interesting to read the entire report, and see how DFID responds in terms of its 'Disaster Risk Reduction' strategy. Investment in disaster risk reduction (DRR) can not only save huge numbers of lives and protect property, but in many cases can result in a much lower rebuilding cost following a disaster. Some reports suggest that for every £1 spent on DRR, around £7 can be saved in economic losses (The World Bank) - yet in many developing countries affected by natural hazards, DRR is not made a priority. Supporting developing countries in building resilience to natural hazards should be a key component of any aid and humanitarian strategy.

Further information and comment will be published when a copy of the report has been seen.

Editors Note: The report can now be accessed on the DFID website here with DFIDs initial description of the report here. More comment to follow.

Friday 25 March 2011

Burma Earthquake (24th March 2011): Initial Report

More details are starting to come in on the M6.8 earthquake that struck Burma last night, close to the border with Thailand and Laos. A combination of high vulnerability and the earthquake dynamics (including the shallow depth of the earthquake, and ground materials) have led to a large amount of damage and at least 75 people killed - though this is expected to rise. The villages in the vicinity are expected to have significant damage, and there are reports of liquefaction destroying crops. 

The military regime in Burma can be slow to release information, but as further reports come in this post will be extended and developed.

Japan Earthquake & Tsunami: Documentary

Last night Channel Four showed a documentary outlining how the Japanese earthquake and tsunami happened. It gave some good and clear explanations of some of the science behind the event, and how the vulnerability of communities combined with the hazards to create the disaster.


One stark message from the program was how, even when a country prepares for such a disaster, it is incredibly difficult to understand the complexity of how things will interact. Japan built large coastal flood barriers to hold back high tides and large tsunami waves... yet during the earthquake it is thought that there was subsidence of land of up to 1m - reducing the effectiveness of these walls. Japan's preparations for earthquakes and tsunamis, and the vast sums of money they invested in reducing vulnerability, will have saved many lives and reduced the level of disaster. Yet tragically, over 10,000 people have died - with another 17,000 missing - demonstrating the difficulty of disaster-proofing a city. 

As more work and research is done, including the development of multi-hazard risk assessments, it is hoped that even if we cannot prevent hazards, we can further improve our preparation for them, decrease our vulnerability, and thus reduce the magnitude of the disaster. 

Tuesday 22 March 2011

World Water Day

Today Tearfund and WaterAid, under the coalition of charities End Water Poverty, organised an event for World Water Day outside the Houses of Parliament. Members of Parliament from all the main parties came along to show their support and help raise awareness of the plight of millions across the world who lack access to clean water and sanitation. MPs walked a 100m course while talking with supporters of both charities about the need for more action on water and sanitation. It was great to see both Andrew Mitchell (Secretary of State for International Development) and Harriet Harman (Shadow Secretary of State for International Development) amongst those taking part.

Before the event Fiona Bruce MP talked to us about the need for people across the UK to contact their MP and urge them to speak up on this issue. At a debate on water not too long ago, only a handful of MPs turned up to discuss the issue. Why not write to your local MP (find them here), or make an appointment to visit them at their surgeries, and make sure they are aware of the shocking truth that 4000 children die each day due to lack of clean water and poor sanitation. MPs can get information by contacting either Tearfund or WaterAid, and can sign Early Day Motion 1632, stating:

"That this House welcomes World Water Day taking place on 22 March; considers access to clean water and sanitation vital for a healthy life; acknowledges that for every 1 invested in water and sanitation there is an economic return of 8; recognises that one in three people globally still lack access to basic sanitation and one in eight people are without access to safe drinking water; notes the severe negative impact this has on human health, education and livelihoods; further notes that diarrhoea is the biggest killer of children under five years in Africa, and that in India over 600 million people defecate in the open; recognises that there is a need for urgent and substantial progress against the water and sanitation Millennium Development Goal targets; and urges the Government to increase significantly its ambition for the sector commensurate to the scale of the global crisis, and play an essential leadership role in Sanitation and Water for All by encouraging further donor countries to sign up."

Currently there are only a small handful of MPs, out of 650, who have signed EDM1632. It would be great to see a huge surge of interest in this debate and many more MPs become passionate advocates for clean water and good sanitation in developing countries.

25th March 2011, Editors Note: Currently only 32 MPs have signed the Early Day Motion, so please do continue to lobby your MP to sign this important statement. 

Monday 21 March 2011

World Water Day... 22nd March

Tomorrow is World Water Day. A day in which the world remembers the millions of people who lack access to clean water, good sanitation and safe hygienic practices. Current estimates suggest that nearly 900 million people lack access to clean water, and 2.6 billion people lack access to good sanitation. See this blog from February for more information about water and sanitation, and the role geologists can have.

Around the world many will be taking part in events to highlight to politicians, and the public, the desperate situation in so many places. One event, the World Walks for Water, is highlighting the plight of many and the need for strong government action by groups of people across the globe collectively walking 6km - the distance some communities have to walk to collect clean water.

As you shower tomorrow, flush your toilet, make your morning coffee, fill up your water bottle for work and brush your teeth - imagine having to walk six kilometres with a heavy jerry-can of water (sometimes clean water, sometimes not) on your back before you can even begin your day. 

You can read more at...

Friday 18 March 2011

Japan Earthquake: Photos & Donations

Earthquake Damage:
Following on from Tuesday's post about the multi-hazard nature of the disaster in Japan, The Telegraph website have an array of pictures from last weeks devastating earthquake and tsunami in Japan. They capture the power of the earthquake, the destruction of the waves that caused the widespread damage, and other hazards (fire, nuclear etc) triggered by the event. 

The BBC News continue to cover the disaster, and have a set of photographs highlighting the humanitarian challenge. You can read more about the struggle to help survivors here - as weather conditions, and infrastructure damage hinder the response.  

Emergency response teams are working hard to help survivors - providing blankets, food and clean water. Appeals are being run by World Vision and the Red Cross, amongst others, clink on the link to read more and make a donation.

Tuesday 15 March 2011

Japan: A Multi-Hazard Disaster

Our screens and newspapers have been filled with shocking images of the disaster in Japan over the past few days. In the age of 24 hour news, the world watched the disaster unfold as north-east Japan was struck by a major earthquake - 8000 times bigger than the one that struck Christchurch, New Zealand - followed by a tsunami causing widespread damage and destruction. The earthquake also triggered fires, landslides and now a possible nuclear disaster. In the coming weeks and months the full extent of the damage and loss of life will become clear.

The disaster in Japan demonstrates the complex nature of natural hazards, and the importance of forming a multi-hazard approach to preparing for and mitigating against natural hazards. The earthquake in Japan caused significant damage as buildings shook, roads cracked and structures collapsed. However it also triggered a number of other hazards. It had its epicenter under the sea, triggering the devastating tsunami that caused further damage and destruction. It caused slopes to become unstable, and landslides to occur. It caused gas leaks and subsequent explosions and fires. It has also potentially caused radioactive leaks, bringing a state of nuclear emergency.

Any of these hazards occurring on their own could cause significant damage - all of them occurring at one time is significantly worse than the sum of the damage that could have occurred if they'd been stand-alone disasters. For example, the damage to infrastructure from the earthquake would have increased people's vulnerability to the tsunami... making it more difficult to escape as roads were blocked etc. 

Landslide Blocked Roads:

The hazards will also have increased human vulnerability to other possible disasters, such as disease and aftershocks. Since Friday aftershocks have struck the region, and they are likely to continue for many more weeks to come. The biggest aftershock is normally around a magnitude less than the main earthquake, meaning a large earthquake of approximately M7.5 could hit the area in the near future. It is possible and likely that this will cause further damage. Some of the damage this will do as an aftershock (after a major earthquake) will be greater than the damage it would have done if had just occurred as the main event itself. Slopes that were brought to a level dangerously close to instability by the M8.9 earthquake could fail. Damage done to infrastructure such as dams that has not yet been repaired could be exacerbated and failure occur. A risk assessment done for a M7.5 earthquake following the damage and destruction of a M8.9 earthquake and tsunami will be different to a risk assessment from a M7.5 earthquake. 

Japan M8.9 Earthquake & Aftershocks:

The complexity of the situation in Japan, and the interconnectedness of the natural hazards must be reflected in how we approach disaster risk reduction and risk assessments for urban areas. Treating hazards as discrete events is far from the reality, and can lead to increased vulnerability. This said, most of the existing work into multi-hazard risk assessments (with rare exceptions) still view hazards as discrete events and fail to take into account (i) a hazard triggering another hazard, (ii) synergistic hazards bringing a greater risk than the sum of the individual hazards, (iii) one hazard increasing the probability of other hazards occurring. There is a growing need for further work and research to be done in this important area in order to develop and improve disaster risk reduction programmes.

Friday 11 March 2011

M8.8 Japan: Tsunami Warning

This morning (05:46 GMT) a huge earthquake (current estimates suggest M8.8) struck the north-east of Japan, causing a tsunami. A tsunami warning has been issued for numerous countries across the Pacific Rim - A current list of countries at risk are:


The latest details on where a warning has been issued can be found here:

It is important to follow the advice and specific warnings of local authorities. A detailed description of what to do can be found here: 
A brief summary of the advice is to:
- Remember that there can be more than one wave, and the waves can be separated by times ranging from around 5-60 minutes.
- Remember that the first wave will not always be the largest - Do not assume they will reduce in intensity after the first.
- Move away from the shoreline and coastal areas - DO NOT STAND AND WATCH THE WAVE - they can move much faster than you.
- Get to higher ground - Tsunamis will move inland quickly, before losing their energy.

Thursday 10 March 2011

Key Themes: Geohazards

The 'Key Themes' posts are a series of short articles outlining the role that geologists have in various aspects of global development.

Communities across the world are affected by geohazards of one form or another. Earthquakes, volcanoes, landslides, floods, and tsunamis are all hazards that can and have led to severe damage, loss of life and devastation for communities large and small. Other hazards such as tropical storms, droughts, and wildfires can also cause misery for many.

When natural hazards occur in populated places that are vulnerable to natural hazards they can result in a natural disaster. An earthquake occurring in an unpopulated area is not considered to be a natural disaster, whereas when a hazard meets vulnerability, such as the 2011 New Zealand earthquake occurring in the heavily built-up and populated Christchurch area, it is considered to be a natural disaster.

Damage to Christchurch Cathedral
From Gabriel,
Disasters can result in all or some of, (1) Injury and loss of life; (2) Damage to buildings and structures; (3) Loss of crops, food and drinking water supplies. Often the initial hazard triggers or raises the probability (through increasing vulnerability) of other hazards, which will cause further damage and loss. An example of this can be seen by studying the Haiti earthquake, where damage not only occurred from the earthquake but also later cholera outbreaks due to poor water and sanitation conditions. In New Zealand some of the damage and fatalities were a result of seismically induced landslides.

Pakistan Floods
Natural disasters are in the news on a regular basis. The recent earthquake in New Zealand caused severe damage to the city of Christchurch, as well as loss of life. In the past year or so there have been landslides and floods in Brazil and Bolivia, severe flooding in Pakistan and Australia, and volcanic eruptions in the Philippines. Not to mention the large earthquakes in Chile and Haiti. This is by no means an exhaustive list of natural disasters in the 2010-2011 period.

Geohazards are a fundamental part of our world, and billions across the world are forced to live and work alongside them. Many organisations are working to better understand these hazards and reduce the vulnerability to them, in doing so reducing the level of disaster.

What role do geologists have to play in this sector?

Geologists have a crucial role in studying and analysing the causes, mechanisms and impacts of geohazards. Geologists use their field skills to examine areas, which are prone to, for example, earthquakes. Their fieldwork can be used to help determine the mechanism by which they occur, the frequency they occur and areas of ground that will be affected to a greater or lesser extent by an earthquake. In a similar way, geologists can also use their field skills to monitor and study volcanoes and landslide prone areas.

Greece: Fault Analysis
Geologists can also use their analytical skills, often combined with information from the field, to determine the probability of specific sized events occurring, within a given area – such as the probability of a Magnitude 8 or greater earthquake in an area. This information can be used to generate hazard maps, inform the insurance industry, and help communities adapt to reduce the impact of the hazard.

Thursday 3 March 2011

Case Study: Bududa Landslide, Uganda - March 2010

The United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UNOCHA), have stated (October 2010) that one of their key concerns in Eastern Uganda is flooding and landslides as a result of environmental degradation.

Eastern Uganda is generally a flat plateau, with the border between Kenya and Uganda dominated by the beautiful hills and slopes associated with Mount Elgon, an extinct shield volcano. These slopes are home to a number of communities. The higher elevation provides a more moderate climate than the plateau below, and the fertile soils are used by communities to grow crops, especially coffee. The slopes are also home to a wide variety of plants and forest – although a deforestation programme has been taking place in recent years.

Foothills of Mount Elgon

The slopes of Mount Elgon have been prone to a number of landslide events, as can be seen on aerial photographs. One of the biggest was this time last year (March 1st 2010) in Bududa. This landslide was preceded by significant rains. The slopes of Mount Elgon are the catchment area for a number of streams and rivers. The heavy rain caused a significant swell of these, and groundwater levels to rise. As groundwater levels rose, the instability of the slope increased due to the decrease in effective stress. This was likely exacerbated by the deforestation, with the soil losing anchorage and surface erosion more likely.

The total impact and effects of this landslide are unknown. Estimates of those who died are currently about 388, and significant numbers were left displaced as soil, mud and boulders submerged three villages. A number of school pupils took shelter in a health centre, which was tragically then destroyed.


As Uganda is entering a new rainy season one year on – there is a possibility that old landslides will be reactivated and new landslides occur. So what can be done to help reduce the tragic loss of life and economic costs of these disasters? In many ways it is hard to answer this question without fully understanding the landslide mechanisms and causes.

The Government of Uganda has criticised the communities for living in these high-vulnerability places, and advised that people move off the landslide prone slopes. This is, however, around half a million people – most of whom are subsistence or crop farmers. Relocating this amount of people, and finding the land for them to make a living, is no easy task. A review of vulnerability in the area could give more specific advice on which communities to relocate – but if crop yields (coffee etc) are less productive than their original plots, it may be difficult to persuade people not to return.

Research published this year in the African Journal of Agricultural Research suggests that farmers have a reasonably good knowledge of where landslides might hit, and some things they avoid (such as terracing) that can trigger landslides. The research suggests that possible interventions could be done using participatory methods. This would aim to help farmers better recognise causes and effects of landslides, and reduce activities that lead to instability - such as undercutting slopes for house construction. The research did not, however, discuss the effects of deforestation with the farmers. It is also unlikely that the threat could be removed simply by getting the farmers to change some practices. A bigger scale intervention, reseeding degraded land, planning and organising the slope-sided farming and improving drainage on the slopes would also be required.

Foothills of Mount Elgon: Concave Slopes identified by farmers as areas more vulnerable to landslides

It is likely that the best way to help reduce the effects of landslides in this area is a combination of a number of things:
  • Relocation in some areas of very high risk
  • Working with farmers to ensure their farming is more sustainable and avoids environmental degradation. Offering alternative housing styles to prevent the need for undercutting slopes.
  • Some possible engineering solutions - improving drainage and increasing toe weights to prevent instability.
It is hoped that the Ugandan Government and their development partners will act strongly to reduce the possibility of future disaster in this area.

    Tuesday 1 March 2011

    Response to UK Aid Review

    Today saw the UK Government announce its Review of UK Aid. Andrew Mitchell, Secretary of State for International Development in the Coalition Government, announced that the UK Government would honour its commitment to spend 0.7% of Gross National Income (GNI) by 2013 – in accordance with the Millennium Development Goals. In the UK that means that for every pound of tax that is paid, less than a penny of that will go to helping some of the world’s poorest people. Yet, this relatively small amount of money would make a tremendous difference to so many lives. Both Andrew Mitchell and Harriet Harman (Shadow Secretary of State for International Development) highlighted the moral responsibility we have to this commitment.

    If you watch programmes such as Question Time, read the letters pages of national newspapers or talk to many people it will be easy to find large numbers of people who are opposed to the UK spending money on global aid, with the phrase ‘charity starts at home’ often being used. The UK Government does have a primary responsibility for the safety and security of their citizens, however they also have a significant responsibility to ensuring a fairer, more just, safer, world.

    Tanzania: Unprotected Water Source
    The poverty in many of the countries that this aid goes to is of a level significantly greater than anything we see in the UK. In Tanzania there are women and children walking several miles to get clean, safe water, and others who have to walk similar distances just to find any source of water. There are women in villages in Uganda giving birth in their homes, built of mud and straw, banana leaves used as a roof. They have no access to health workers and hygienic practices. There are very young children who should be in school herding cows, ploughing fields and collecting water, as their parents can’t afford to send them to school. There are the millions of children who die each year due to diarrhoeal diseases – so easily avoided with simple interventions. Millions relying on the crops they grow in their small plots of land, so when the rains don’t come they are left hungry and without a source of food.

    Tanzania: Hand-Drilling for Water
    In my own experiences in some of the countries that DFID sends aid to (Tanzania, Rwanda, Uganda), I have seen the need and poverty that people live in – and am overwhelmingly convinced by the need for the UK to spend money on international development programmes. The things we take for granted - education, food, water, toilets, electricity, free health care, social security, and infrastructure - they simply do not always have and cannot take for granted. The look on a community’s face when you meet with them for the first time and tell them that you are going to begin surveying for water and hope to put a water source in their village is remarkable. They are not indignant – “it’s about time” they are overwhelmed with joy and gratitude. They are willing to do everything they can to help, provide food, labour, gather sand and rocks to help make cement, dig through sand, clay and rock.

    There will be many questions from this statement today, are we putting money into the right countries, the right sectors and the right organisations? In the midst of those questions it is first and foremost essential to remember that we are doing the right thing in committing to meet our spending targets on international development. Overseas aid is morally right and, as Andrew Mitchell stated today, can work miracles if well targeted and properly spent. The 1p in every £1 from your tax (even less than that!) can be the miracle that a child in Sub-Saharan Africa or Asia has been longing for, can be the thing that changes a woman feeling nothing but fear during her pregnancy – to feeling hope and excitement for the future. It can be the life-saving well that brings clean and safe water to a community for the first time.

    Tanzania: Shallow Well