Can more accessible data equal less disaster in Asia-Pacific?

UNDP supports the gathering of data, which is used by operation centers in Guiuan, eastern Samar to provide situational reporting format for use in the preparation of local agencies' responses during Typhoon Ruby in 2014. Photo by: UNDP

BANGKOK — The height of devastating tsunami waves in Japan, the number of people displaced after cyclones in the Philippines, and the cost of damage to infrastructure — it’s all data that could help make Asia and the Pacific more disaster resilient. 

A new Global Disaster Database seeks to collate data from satellite imagery, geographic information systems, and risk maps with government’s existing disaster loss and damage reports. The result will be smarter, more informed disaster risk reduction plans, according to Sanny Jegillos, disaster risk reduction team leader for the United Nations Development Programme in Asia and the Pacific.

The largest implementer of disaster risk reduction programming in the U.N. system, UNDP is working closely with governments and research partners on data collection and the creation of the database. In 2015, UNDP partnered with Japan’s Tohoku University and Japanese ICT powerhouse Fujitsu to create a Global Centre for Disaster Statistics, where the new Global Disaster Database will live.

Since 1970, a person living in the Asia-Pacific region has been five times more likely to be affected by natural disasters than a person living outside the region, according to the “Asia Pacific Disaster Report 2017.” And between 1970 and 2016, Asia and the Pacific — home to more than half the world’s population and nearly 900 million of its poor — lost $1.3 trillion in assets as a result of floods, storms, droughts, and earthquakes.

Disaster resilience is a key element of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, and UNDP has already helped 16 countries in the region establish their own disaster loss and damage databases to establish where disasters strike, analyze what might happen on an annual basis, and make informed disaster risk reduction budget decisions. Some of these databases already draw on comprehensive data stretching back decades, which can help a government anticipate a disaster and might show how and where to construct a flood-resistant road or a cyclone shelter, for example.

“The challenge is that these are databases that are not linked with many other applications,” Jegillos explained. “The global database is about helping governments develop the capacity to incorporate other structured and unstructured data.”

Some of this data might come from research partners such as Tohoku Univeristy, which is examining questions such as “how high are the tsunami waves that kill people?” Jegillos said. The university is busy conducting engineering research and data collection on tsunamis, seeking to answer this question and others. Such information can determine the amount of evacuation needed and the kind of protective infrastructure that deserves investment, as well as where this infrastructure should be placed.

UNDP is also working to answer questions about disaster and climate risk-related displacement in the Philippines and Indonesia, with the help of the nonprofit research organization Stockholm Environment Institute and the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre.

Combining available data, the countries will be able to analyze where displacements happen, how many people are displaced, where they go, and how long they stay there.

It’s information that will help not only with post-disaster recovery, Jegillos said, but also with modeling to reduce potential future displacement in a region where more than 200 disasters affected 66.7 million people in 2017, according to the United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction. The data will also allow countries to zoom in on root causes, such as property and land rights or political agency, that may also inform displacement.

“One of the things that I’m seeing now is, in fact, many of these displacements do not just happen after the immediate impact of a flood or a cyclone, some of the displacements are actually more than one year later,” he said.

“That brings some insight on ‘are we doing well enough with resettlement?’”

One of the roles of the database is to provide stronger monitoring for the 38 indicators identified to measure global progress in the implementation of the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction.

But Jegillos sees the database — which soft launched in early July at the 2018 Asia Ministerial for Disaster Risk Reduction in Mongolia — as a way to help governments create smarter medium- and long-term disaster risk reduction plans down to the local level. Along the way, countries will be able to more successfully deliver on building the sustainable cities outlined in the SDGs, he said.

The current database is derived from data from seven pilot countries, including the Philippines, Indonesia, Sri Lanka, Maldives, Cambodia, Myanmar, and Nepal — all identified as countries with existing historical loss and damages data that are willing and able to invest in their data capacity. By 2020, UNDP plans to have expanded the database to 20 countries throughout Asia and the Pacific.

For now, “the bottleneck is about data literacy and data capacity,” Jegillos said. “Most countries are still on Excel files, they are not geo-referenced. We still have a long way to go, but this is a start.”

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About the author

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    Kelli Rogers

    Kelli Rogers is a global development reporter for Devex. Based in Bangkok, she covers disaster and crisis response, innovation, women’s rights, and development trends throughout Asia. Prior to her current post, she covered leadership, careers, and the USAID implementer community from Washington, D.C. Previously, she reported on social and environmental issues from Nairobi, Kenya. Kelli holds a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Missouri, and has since reported from more than 20 countries.