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While natural hazards are inevitable, their impact on any given community is not. This is the thrust of the #NoNaturalDisasters campaign.

There’s a truth behind the hashtag. Modern societies are increasingly capable of determining their resilience to natural hazards. We nowadays know enough to prevent extreme weather events from escalating into full-blown disasters. In developed nations, sophisticated forecasting systems, social media networks and engineering capabilities can make any weather-related death seem like pure bad luck.

So, if it’s all down to chance, no particular group in society should be at higher risk. The truth, however, is rather different.


Aged Defenses and Aged Communities

On February 28, 2010, at 2 a.m., Cyclone Xynthia pushed a destructive surge onto the French Atlantic coast, devastating the town of La Faute-sur-Mer. Twenty-nine residents lost their lives. Over 70 percent of the fatalities were aged over 60. Almost all of them resided in bungalows built in the flood plain, protected only by defenses dating back to the Napoleonic era.

La Faute Sur Mer memorial

Memorial to Cyclone Xynthia victims at La Faute-sur-Mer. Image credit: Franck David

Are such disasters inevitable? Or can they all be avoided, as the hashtag suggests?

Half a century earlier, the United Kingdom experienced its own devastating coastal surge event – the famous North Sea Flood of 1953. Like Cyclone Xynthia, the storm surge hit overnight, early on a Sunday, as people slept in their beds. A storm tide of more than 5.6 meters (18 feet) ravaged the east coasts of England and Scotland. Over 300 people were killed in the U.K alone. Belgium and the Netherlands bore the brunt of the impact, though, with more than 1,800 fatalities.

Data collected in the U.K. after the event showed that Jaywick, a small seaside village on England’s Essex coast, had the highest proportional death rate, with 36 out of 700 residents losing their lives. Over 80 percent of the fatalities were aged over 60. Of the remaining victims, two were reportedly disabled and one was a woman in the advanced stages of pregnancy.

Canvey Island – a retirement hot spot further down the coast towards the Thames Estuary – was another location where fatalities were concentrated. Sea defenses failed. Several cheaply built single-story retirement homes collapsed. Almost 60 residents died.

Canvey Island flood

Canvey Island in Essex, England, during the North Sea Floods in February 1953. Image credit: Wikimedia

Learning Faster from Disaster

After the 1953 event, the U.K. took a much more sophisticated approach to flood risk management. This led to a major upgrade of the coastal defense network (including the eventual construction of the Thames Barrier), the development of a storm-surge prediction system by the Proudman Laboratory in Liverpool and continuing coastal research to inform the regional Environment Agencies.

However, despite over half a century of research and investment, an inequality in social vulnerability to flood risk in the U.K. remains. The Joseph Rowntree Foundation, in collaboration with the University of Manchester, mapped the Flood Disadvantage – the combination of flood exposure and social vulnerability factors.

The key finding: the U.K. Government needs to do a better job of addressing social vulnerability in its flood protection investments.

Factors of Flood Disadvantage

Social vulnerability to flood is caused by personal factors, social factors and environmental factors. As highlighted in both the 1953 flood and Cyclone Xynthia, personal factors, such as age and health, significantly increase fatalities in coastal floods. Also evident is the impact of so-called environmental factors, such as poorly constructed, one-story homes behind inadequate defenses. Social factors, such as income, mobility, isolation and access to insurance, are significant drivers of peoples’ adaptive capacity, influencing their ability to act before, during and after an event.

For many U.K. coastal communities, vulnerability due to these factors is actually increasing. A general trend of youth outmigration coupled with inward migration of older people and an overreliance on tourism leads to high numbers of both retirees and benefit claimants with low incomes. Transient populations lacking local knowledge may also be less aware of flood risks. Aligning expenditure on flood protection with areas of significant Flood Disadvantage has, therefore, become increasingly important.

In the aftermath of Cyclone Xynthia, the French Government produced a plan to upgrade their flood risk management. Initiatives included decreasing the number of homes in high risk flood zones, strengthening coastal defenses, raising awareness of flood risks and improving forecasting. This was undoubtedly a positive move and has reduced disaster risk.

However, unless social vulnerability is considered when risk is modeled and funding is allocated, it seems likely that the inequality faced by disadvantaged social groups to flood risk will remain. The concept of Flood Disadvantage, appropriately applied with the relevant local social vulnerability factors, can help to prevent future natural hazards from becoming disasters. By layering socioeconomic data over cat model results, we can better characterize a community’s resilience profile, better prioritize investments in resilience and come closer to delivering on the promise of #NoNaturalDisasters.

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March 08, 2019
International Women’s Day: A Call to Action

March 8 is International Women’s Day (IWD). It’s a day to celebrate the achievements of women and to highlight the ongoing struggle in achieving equal rights for women across the globe. The theme of the United Nations’ observance of #IWD2019 is particularly resonant at RMS: “Think Equal, Build Smart, Innovate for Change.” Given the discriminatory impact from catastrophes, where the vulnerable in society suffer the most, this theme is especially relevant to our mission to increase resilience to disasters. Deadly Disadvantage Natural disasters have disproportionately killed women and girls. Cyclone Gorky, which hit Bangladesh in 1991, caused 140,000 deaths. The gender fatality ratio in this event was approximately 14:1. In other words, this cyclone killed 14 women for every man. Similarly, in the 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami, 70 percent of the 250,000 fatalities were women. What causes this differential in death rates? Why is a woman more likely to die in a disaster than a man? One candidate answer is simple: women’s relative unwillingness to evacuate or seek appropriate shelter. Believing that shelters will not accommodate for their cultural needs or religious beliefs, women remain at home. Not being able to swim is another probable cause of the differential. In some cultures, women are hampered by the lack of equal access to swimming lessons. In others, their ability to swim is hindered by traditional dress. There are also local, event-specific reasons for the disproportion of female victims in disasters. For example, the 2004 tsunami hit Sri Lanka at the time when women on the east coast traditionally bathed in the sea. Of course, the death rate attributable to a disaster is only one metric by which to measure the disadvantage faced by female populations. Even if they survive an event, women and girls are at greater risk than their male counterparts from post-disaster violence and exploitation. The 2010 Haiti earthquake offers an extreme example of this, with many reports of armed gangs targeting women and girls in displacement camps. Socioeconomics and Gender Inequality There are socioeconomic considerations too. A study of gender-disaggregated data from disasters between 1981 and 2002 in 141 countries concluded that death rates between women and men were less differentiated where economic and social rights were more equally distributed. Mortuary data shows negligible differences between male and female death rates after Hurricane Katrina. That said, even in countries with more socioeconomic equality between genders, women still unfortunately face an increased threat of violence post-disaster. The rate of gender-based violence towards displaced women in Mississippi rose more than threefold during the year after Katrina. What is being done to reduce the disproportionate vulnerability that women face during and post-disasters? And is it working? Legally-Binding and Gender-Responsive Four years ago, the United Nations adopted the Sendai Framework. A legally-binding agreement between 193 sovereign states, it aims to substantially reduce the economic, physical, social, cultural and environmental impacts from disasters. Remarkably, it is the first UN Disaster Risk Reduction (DRR) framework to explicitly include a gendered perspective. Indeed, the Sendai Framework couldn’t be clearer. “Women are critical to effectively managing disaster risk” and their participation is essential in “designing, resourcing and implementing gender-sensitive disaster risk reduction policies, plans and programs.” The inclusion of gender-mainstreaming in DRR is an important development. It signals a broad realization that both gender-sensitive analysis of disaster impacts and the preparation of gender-responsive actions are critical to reducing disaster risk for all members of society. But what does this realization mean in practice? How should we modify our approaches to ensure that the female voice is heard, that the role of women as providers of food, water and energy for their families is considered and women’s unique insight into the provision and maintenance of collective resources for the whole community is fully harnessed? Gender-Disaggregated Modeling The key here is a consistent approach to the collection of gender-disaggregated data. Without it, the risks faced by both women and men during and after natural hazards cannot be fully understood. Without it, attempts to build gender-sensitive policies for resilience and preparedness will be hamstrung. The good news is that efforts to collect and analyze gender-disaggregated data are increasing. However, through this very process, the complexity in attributing gender-differentiated vulnerability is becoming more apparent. As noted earlier, experiences during disasters are highly localized and event specific. They are dependent not only on cultural, economic and political circumstances, but also the time of day or season during which the event occurs. This makes it very difficult to assess whether actions and investments designed to improve equality and reduce disaster risk for all members of a society are having the intended outcomes. In the absence of comprehensive data, scientists often turn to models to help fill in the gaps. Catastrophe models have been used to estimate risk from natural hazards for 30 years. At RMS, we have begun to innovate towards a new application of catastrophe models. We have begun to use cat models to augment understanding of gender-differentiated vulnerability. Complexities remain, of course. However, by consistently applying gender-disaggregated vulnerability data we are addressing this knowledge gap; we are reducing gender inequality in disaster risk for the benefit of all. …

Nicola Howe
Nicola Howe
Lead Modeler, Model Development

Nicola is a hazard specialist who leads the development of coastal flood models focusing on Asia and Europe. Since joining RMS in 2015, she has worked on various RMS typhoon models including Taiwan, South Korea, Japan and most recently led the development of the RiskLink v18 Philippines Typhoon coastal flood hazard module. Her current work focuses on coastal flood risk in European windstorm.

Prior to RMS, Nicola worked for five years as a Research Scientist for the National Centre for Earth Observation at the University of Reading, investigating decadal climate prediction and ocean eddies.

Nicola graduated with a master’s in Chemical Physics from the University of Bristol and holds a PhD in Physical Oceanography from Imperial College, London.

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