Natural Hazard Mitigation Can Decrease Disaster Risk - International Standard Suggested

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The recent tsunami in Asia focuses the attention once more on the need to prevent and mitigate natural disasters. While the earthquake was not foreseen the tsunami was, and many deaths could have been prevented. A universal Hazard Mitigation expert system such as the one installed in Nicaragua, combined with global standards and free data, could lead to substantial savings in life and property, and even decreased poverty.

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When hurricane Mitch devastated Miami in 1992, the U.S. attention shifted from disaster relief to disaster prevention. Although much has been done in terms of hazard mitigation since then, there is still a long way to go.

Neither the US, nor the vast majority of countries, has a comprehensive programme for quantitative and uniform evaluation and mitigation of natural disasters. The American solution is on state level, voluntary, and without common standards.

In contrast, Nicaragua has a national system for universal description of natural hazards. Dr Ulf Erlingsson led the project that implemented the system, based on a Geographic Information System, in 2002. The expert system, named HazMit for Hazard Mitigation, was designed to allow quantitative and objective comparisons of all natural risks. Risk is expressed as lives or economic value lost per year as a long-term average.

The HazMit system also allows cost-benefit analyses of mitigation measures. Examples of prevention include building earthquake and hurricane-resistant buildings, or installing early warning systems against tsunamis. The data in the database comes from governmental institutions and scientific research, and will be continuously refined.

The tsunami in SE Asia highlights the present problem in most countries. Mitigation is largely based on databases of historic disasters, not on scientific research regarding potential future disasters. Scientists knew that tsunamis are hitting southern India only rarely, but with great force. However, there was no institutional system for this knowledge to penetrate to the decision-makers.

That is where HazMit comes in. It is an expert system that puts the knowledge of the few in the hands of the many.

Too much of the focus thus seems to be on low magnitude events. As an example of a hazard that would miss our radar screen, Dr Erlingsson mentions the Storegga slide off Norway. Eight thousand years ago a submarine slide occurred, setting off a tsunami that hit Britain and the North Sea in a devastating disaster. In “Atlantis from a Geographer’s Perspective” (Lindorm Publishing, 2004, he suggests that the memory of that event may have survived in Plato’s tale of Atlantis.

The HazMit system is designed to store information on all hazards, of all magnitudes. Dr Erlingsson believes that this kind of risk information is an essential step to improve mitigation. However, he is critical to private companies providing proprietary risk data, and believes that the opportunity for the international community to seize the initiative is now. “Private data will just increase the cleft between rich and poor,” he says. “To maximally benefit the whole global population we absolutely need an international standard and freely available data and analyzes. That calls for government involvement.”

Dr Erlingsson plans to talk about the HazMit system at the international conference GIS Planet 2005 (, where he sits in the scientific board. He executed the Nicaragua project on behalf of AB Hydroconsult (, where he is also a senior partner.

About Erlingsson Sub-Aquatic Surveys

Originally focused on under-water research and instrument development, now working in any environment in the fields of Physical Geography, Geomorphology, and Natural Hazards Mitigation. The head office is in Sweden, while sales and marketing is done from Miami, Florida.

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Dr Ulf Erlingsson

Erlingsson Sub-Aquatic Surveys



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Ulf Erlingsson