Seven Questions: When Disaster Strikes

Another week, another deadly natural disaster. China is struggling to dig survivors out from its worst natural disaster in three decades, and Burma’s cyclone death toll continues to spiral upward due to sluggish rescue efforts. FP spoke to disaster expert Art Lerner-Lam about the world’s disaster hot spots and the million-casualty earthquake that keeps him up at night.

EH ENG KOON/AFP/Getty Images Crack up: Countries may have adequate disaster response plans, but actually implementing rescue efforts is another story entirely.

Foreign Policy: Can you tell us about the seismic portrait of central China where the major earthquake occurred Monday? Was this region due for a big quake?

Art Lerner-Lam: The central and western portions of China are very seismically active. This is an area of China that, geologically speaking, is caught in the collision of the Indian plate with the Eurasian plate, so there are many earthquakes distributed throughout the region. This particular fault system had previous earthquakes on it, and it had been identified as an area of possible hazard. So, the earthquake itself was not unexpected. The real issue is the size of the earthquake. It was an extremely large earthquake7.9. In a region such as thismountainous, densely populatedits the type of earthquake that can be very damaging. The fact that [the earthquake] was very shallow was also one of the reasons for its destructiveness.

FP: How effective have Chinas rescue efforts been so far?

ALL: The Chinese have a very sophisticated system of response, even relative to global standards. They rely heavily on their military, and they have a large civilian component of engineers and scientists who assist. The problem is not with the system, but with the particulars of this event. Its in a mountainous region; there are problems of weather and of roads being cut off. Those are all going to exacerbate the normal difficulties. Short of actually having grappling hooks, cranes, helicopters, and supplies positioned directly at the earthquake, you always have to move stuff in. If ground zero is cut off, then it becomes very difficult. The issues in China are logistic, not really institutional.

FP: There have been a number of natural disasters in East and Southeast Asia in recent months. Is this region particularly susceptible to disasters compared with others, and will it become increasingly so in the years to come?

ALL: To answer your first question, yes. East, South, and Southeast Asia are all highly susceptible and have what we call a multihazard risk profile. They are subjected to typhoons, cyclones, flooding, earthquakes, landslides, and in the case of Indonesia, volcanoes. From a geographic perspective, [these regions] are very susceptible to a whole range of hazards.

Whether the risk is increasing depends on two factors. One, are the hazards themselves increasing in frequency or severity? And two, are people becoming increasingly vulnerable in terms of population density and infrastructure? In the first case, you have to be a bit careful. We are not seeing increases in geological disasters such as earthquakes; you wouldnt expect that. Those are geological processes, so the rate of occurrence should be somewhat consistent over time. But with sea-level rise, which we accrue to global warming, there is some potential for there to be an increase in cyclones.

But the changes in the natural frequency and severity of hazards are dwarfed by the changes in urbanization and construction practices. The key issues in vulnerability are related to social, economic, and political factors more than they are to the geographic factors: building cities near coastlines, improper construction, having institutions that are incapable of understanding the magnitude of a disaster and putting together a responseMyanmar being a case in point. You can attribute most of the increase in disaster losses to changes in the patterns of development.

FP: Besides East and Southeast Asia, what are some of the other major disaster hot spots?

ALL: The Caribbean and Central America, the western edge of South America, the small island states in the southwest Pacific, areas of sub-Saharan Africa, particularly with respect to drought, and the eastern Mediterranean. We produced a hot-spot study for the World Bank. Generally speaking, countries near coastlines that have lower per capita incomes are generally more vulnerable.

FP: Are there any countries that stand out as the best in disaster preparedness?

ALL: I think China acknowledges this as an issue that any developing country needs to address. Part of Chinas emergence hinges on its ability to prepare for and deal with major disasters internally. So its recognized that its a high priority for them to develop that capacity. Japan and Taiwan pay great attention to earthquakes. They put their investments into monitoring systems, public and civil defense systems, and public awareness.

There are other countries that are surprisingly unprepared, but they are still making some headway. Romania, for example, just put in an early flood warning system for the Danube. Africa is not doing well. [The continent] needs a great deal of international assistance with respect to hazards such as drought and flooding. Indonesia is making some interesting progress post-tsunami. Cuba does very well with respect to hurricanes, whereas just adjacent to it, Haiti doesnt do well at all. So it varies. Id say California is doing everything it conceivably can, subject to budget limitations, about earthquakes. Id have to say that the United States as a whole is probably underbudgeting its preparedness. Japan and China seem about where they should be.

FP: What can we do to reduce the impact of future natural disasters?

ALL: Develop a good global sense of the natural-hazard risksnot just the hazards, but the risks. You have to combine a knowledge of the geographic distribution of Earth processes that cause harm to people with an understanding of the social, political, and economic vulnerabilities that contribute to risk. From a response and recovery standpoint, there needs to be a much better international regime for husbanding resources and then distributing them in the event of a disaster. How do we develop an international insurance pool for countries to access? The World Bank has taken some steps in this direction. But there needs to be a more stable source of funding for emergency recovery.

FP: What potential disasters keep you up at night?

ALL: Were all concerned about major, disastrous earthquakes. In particular, Im worried about disastrous earthquakes in Asia. Large cities are built near faults, and there are cities that havent seen earthquakes in 500 years but are due. It is entirely conceivable that we could see an earthquake kill a million people this century. It would not surprise seismologists.

On a more persistent basis, I am very worried about tropical cyclonesMyanmar just being the latest example. I think theres inadequate preparation for them, especially given the technology available to track them and give people prior warning. And the thing that my climate-scientist colleagues are worried about is the long-term climate trends that are going to lead to increasing drought. Drought is so intimately linked to the success of agriculture, and we already have a world food crisis. I worry about the potential for exacerbated drought, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa.

Art Lerner-Lam is director of the Center for Hazards and Risk Research at Columbia Universitys Earth Institute.