Technology to manage natural disasters and catastrophes

Rationale and objectives

The economic cost of natural catastrophes and man-made disasters worldwide amounted to USD 370 billion in 2011, a huge increase over the previous year. The Japanese earthquake and tsunami alone cost the national economy at least USD 210 billion. Science and technology play an increasingly vital role in managing natural disasters. To this end, a growing number of OECD countries have recently established programmes or incentives to develop and deploy information and communication technologies (ICTs), geographic information systems, and remote sensing and satellite data (Table 9.1).

National emergency warning capabilities

The effective response to a disaster includes timely information and early warning of potential hazards. Countries are continually improving their national emergency and early warning capabilities, and federal governments often defer to their states, provinces or territories for the choice of the systems to adopt. Warning systems usually include radio broadcasts, cable over-ride systems, sirens and phone messaging systems.
Using ICT to streamline emergency responses: Australia, Finland, Germany, Israel, Luxembourg, the Slovak Republic, Turkey and the United States are working to integrate new ICT tools to streamline links among organisations in charge of disaster management. In Turkey for example, a new National Emergency Management Information System is currently being put in place, in parallel to an Uninterrupted and Secure Communication System (USCS) Project, to link authorities during disasters and emergency situations.
Improving weather forecasts: National meteorological agencies are often responsible for initial warnings concerning weather-related disasters (storms, floods, cyclones). In most countries, they rely on ground-based networks of radars, but increasingly also on satellite data, which allow nearly continuous observation of global weather. As satellites provide information for wide geographic areas, including oceans, improvements in forecasting have made warning systems more efficient (see Box 9.1.). Almost all OECD countries have national meteorological agencies, and all G20 countries have satellites in orbit (OECD, 2011).
Warning by phone: The use of telephone-based capabilities for emergency warnings is expanding rapidly, owing in particular the explosive development in mobile networks. For example, Australia's Emergency Alert enables states and territories to issue warnings to landline and mobile telephones linked to properties in areas identified as being at risk. It works across all telecommunication carrier networks. Since it became operational in December 2009, it has been used 330 times for flood, tsunami, bushfire, storm surge, chemical and oil spill incidents, as well as missing person emergencies, and has issued more than 7 million messages.

Preparedness for earthquakes and tsunamis

Countries such as Colombia, Italy, Japan, Mexico, Spain and the United States are vulnerable to earthquakes and are upgrading their seismic surveillance networks. Although earthquakes cannot be predicted and very few are preceded by clearly identifiable precursory events, the networks can facilitate emergency response (by giving the intensity and location of the tremors) and can provide early warning to tsunami-prone regions.
Following two major tsunamis in 2004 in the Indian Ocean and in 2011 in Japan, several regional and local warning system centres were set up. These centres are co-ordinated via UNESCO's Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission, which set up regional co-ordination groups for the Caribbean and adjacent regions, the Indian, Pacific, the North-eastern Atlantic Oceans and the Mediterranean. In late 2011, 23 countries on the Indian Ocean rim participated in an ocean-wide tsunami exercise. At the same time, three regional tsunami service providers in Australia, India and Indonesia became operational, adding warning capacity for the Indian Ocean.

Table 9.1 Adoption of new technologies to tackle disasters (selected countries)

Improved seismic surveillance networks

Australia, Canada, Colombia, France, India, Indonesia, Italy, Japan, Mexico, Turkey, United States

Improved tsunami early warning and monitoring

Australia, Colombia, India, Indonesia, Italy, Japan

Improved telephone-based information and warning capabilities

Australia, Austria, Estonia, France, Italy, Japan, Luxembourg, Netherlands, Slovak Republic

Countries currently members of the international charter on “Space and Major Disasters” for sharing data from their satellites in case of disasters

Algeria, Argentina, Brazil, Canada, China, France, Germany, India, Japan, Nigeria, Korea, Turkey, United Kingdom, United States and European Space Agency

Tackling risks related to climate change

Mexico, Norway, Portugal, South Africa and Switzerland are using geographic information systems, technical models, and satellite data time series to prepare for potential risks related to climate change. Norway's Climate Change and Its Impacts in Norway (NORKLIMA) aims to identify regions and sectors that may be particularly vulnerable to climate change over the next 30-50 years, and to provide input for a national strategy for adaptation to projected climate change.

Progress in the use of remote sensing techniques and improved international co-ordination

Considerable attention has been given in recent years worldwide to the potential of remote sensing satellite data for providing useful information and assistance in all phases of the disaster management cycle. Besides the currently expanding use of the international charter for major disasters, several countries and organisations (Argentina, Brazil, Canada, the People's Republic of China, France, Germany, India, Italy, Japan, Korea, Spain, the United States, the EU, EUMETSAT and more) are deploying satellite systems which offer a wide range of capabilities (all weather observations, high to very high resolution images, digital terrain models, land, ocean and ice monitoring, etc.) which are extremely useful in the preparation, assessment and relief phases of disasters. International co-ordination of these resources is improving continuously. In this regard the Committee for Earth Observation Satellites (CEOS) created in 2011 a dedicated task force for better co-ordination of satellite observation in disaster risk management chaired by Italy.

Box 9.1 Weather satellites for early warning

The World Meteorological Organisation's Global Observing System (GOS) provides daily observations on the state of the atmosphere and ocean surface. These observations are used to prepare weather analyses, forecasts, advisories and warnings. The system relies on thousands of national ground stations, upper-air stations, reporting ships at sea, drifting buoys, and aircraft providing reports on pressure, winds and temperature during flight. But it also depends on observations from operational geostationary satellites (situated in a 36 000 km arc around the Earth) and low Earth-orbit satellites.

Countries contributing satellites to the space-based part of GOS include: China, France, India, Japan, Korea, the United States, members of the European Space Agency, and Eumetsat, an intergovernmental organisation specifically in charge of maintaining and exploiting European operational meteorological satellites. It has 26 member states (mainly EU countries) and 5 co-operating states: Bulgaria, Estonia, Iceland, Lithuania and Serbia.

EUMETSAT (2012),; World Meteorological Organisation (WMO) (2012),


References and further reading
EUMETSAT (2012),
OECD (2011), The Space Economy at a Glance 2011, OECD, Paris.
World Meteorological Organisation (WMO) (2012),

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