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Geologically Active – Williams et al.

© 2010 Taylor & Francis Group, London, ISBN 978-0-415-60034-7

Disasters should not be the protagonists of Disaster Risk


Sergio Mora
Engineering Geologist, Consultant to the World Bank, Costa Rica

ABSTRACT: Risk Management (RM) as we know it, refers to the convolute relationship
between hazards and vulnerability. Natural, socio-natural and anthropogenic hazards, when
mixed with social, environmental, economic and governance vulnerabilities, have consider-
able destructive power. Recent significant events in Latin America, the Caribbean and other
regions of the world have shown that considerable damage could have been avoided, or at least
reduced if only a view on risk, more than to disasters would have been applied. According to
several sources around two thirds of the total damage could have been spared by using space
(land, territory) more wisely, taking better care of the environment, and by offering more
options to the chronic impoverishment of our populations. These closely interlinked factors
have two common keys, most of the time not well understood nor materialized: policy and
strategy. Disasters are socially built; they are the product of a misconception of development
processes and a mismanagement of risk. Their evident social, economic and environmental
consequences lead us to ask: Has traditional Disaster Risk Management (DRM) been effec-
tive? Where are we going with it? Is it true that risk management should always have to be
benchmarked against “disaster reduction”? Why should we continue to call it DRM instead
of RM? Nowadays the most “à la mode” issue is of course climate change (CC). Why and
how has it taken more attention than climate variability (CV), the latter being, at least for the
time being, far more damaging for most nations? Does CC really deserve its present priority,
particularly after the disappointing results of Copenhagen 2010? What is then to be done
about other hazards, not related to climate change? Haven’t they caused and won’t they con-
tinue to cause, at least for the time being, more damage than CC? Again, a renewed effort in
setting down a clear and sound RM policy and strategy is required. Engineering and scientific
communities, even by being able to read Nature’s processes and by having reached a consid-
erable knowledge on hazards, vulnerability and risk, have not yet brought forward a politi-
cally effective risk management proposal. We are not persuasive enough. There is something
wrong or weak in the way we address the topic, stress our arguments and present our results.
It is therefore evident that RM requires new energy, vision and stamina to place it as an
integral cross-cutting policy. There is not a single order of priorities because they have to be
defined according to the mutating realities and circumstances of each nation and community.
However, it seems promising to incorporate RM into national and sub-national development
processes, as a cross-cutting multi-sectoral axis for public and private investment. Mitigation
should be inspired by the definition of “accepted” rather than “acceptable” risk thresholds,
and by metrics establishing sound Cost/Benefit ratios and future loss assessments. But the
most important paradigmatic change would be to associate RM with development planning,
separate from “disaster management”.


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1.1 The question

Risk Management or Disaster Management: that is the question.1 “Disaster Risk
Management” (DRM) has been differentiated from “Financial Risk Management”, and as
we have been able to witness recently, economists and financial “experts”, when colluded with
politicians are able to create disasters of enormous proportions, sometimes beyond nature’s
power. Let’s then grant their creativity with a supremacy in destructive power.
Risk Management (RM) as we know it, refers to the convolute relationship between
hazards and vulnerability. As we can also observe, natural, socio-natural and anthropogenic
hazards, when mixed with social, environmental, economic and governance vulnerabilities,
have certainly not yet reached their peak in destructive power. There is far more to be seen
in the future. This circumstance poses a certain number of questions whose answers are far
from being complete.
Recent significant events in Latin America, the Caribbean and in other regions of the
world have shown that considerable damage could have been spared or at least reduced, in
social, environmental and economic terms, if only a view on risk, more than to disasters
would have been applied.
According to several sources (CEPAL 2000a, 2000b, 2001a, 2001b; PDNA-Haiti 2009,
2010; Mora 2007, 2009); around two thirds of the total damage could have been spared
simply by using territory more wisely, taking better care of the environment and natural
resources, and by offering more options to the chronic impoverishment of our populations.
These three closely interlinked factors have two common keys, most of the time not well
understood or materialized: policy and strategy.

1.2 Disasters are socially built

Disasters are the product of a misconception of development and a mismanagement of risk.
Their evident social, economic and environmental consequences lead us to ask: Has traditional
DRM been effective? Where are we going with DRM? Is it true that “our” risk management
should always have to be benchmarked against “disaster reduction”? Why should we continue
to call it DRM rather than RM? Whilst DRM came rather late to the international arena,
a ready-made solution has been to propose an international framework of agreements and
scopes (e.g. Kyoto, Hyogo, Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, Global Earthquake
Model), very much in line with what was done with environmental issues during the 1970’s.
But even if this trend has been effective in raising awareness, it should be asked whether
“success” has been achieved/will be achieved, and if there is really a solid, robust sustainable
drive towards the reduction of the impact of natural hazards, and not only a conjectural and
ephemeral initiative.
The most “à la mode” current issue is of course climate change (CC): Why and how has
it taken more attention than climate variability (CV), the latter being, at least for the time
being, far more damaging and the cause, by far, of a higher jeopardy to the development and
well-being of most nations in the world.
As proposed by the Working Group I of the Fourth Assessment Report (FAR) of the
Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC): “… the scientific consensus voiced that
warming of the climate system is unequivocal…” Further “… most of the observed increase
in globally averaged temperatures since the mid-20th century is very likely due to observed
increases in anthropogenic greenhouse gas concentrations…”
Observations indeed confirm these trends, but considering CV’s impacts at present, it is impor-
tant to ask if CC really deserves that “unequivocal” priority? Are there some misconceptions
To be, or not to be: that is the question: Whether ‘tis nobler in the mind to suffer/ the slings and arrows of
outrageous fortune/ or to take arms against a sea of troubles/ and by opposing end them? To die: to sleep/
No more; and by a sleep to say we end/ the heart-ache and the thousand natural shocks/ that flesh is heir to,
‘tis a consummation/ devoutly to be wish’d. Hamlet, W. Shakespeare


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involved? What is then to be done about other hazards, natural, socio-natural (induced) and
anthropogenic, not related to climate change: seismicity, volcanism, external geodynamic
processes, climate variability-induced hydro-meteorological threats, and technological and
industrial accidents? Haven’t they caused and won’t they continue to cause, at least for the time
being, more damage than CC? Should we pay less attention to them just because some interna-
tional organisations, lobbyist groups and influential politicians decreed it a supreme priority?
A renewed effort in settling down clear and sound RM policy and strategies is required.
The first step is to clarify that RM is not a part of Climate Change Adaptation (CCA), but
the other way around.
Engineers and scientists, even if able to read Nature’s processes, and by having developed
a considerable knowledge on hazards, vulnerability and risk, have not yet brought forward
a politically effective risk assessment and management proposal. We simply do not have
enough persuasive power.
Risk assessments, space-time models and scenarios are not yet considered to be indispen-
sable day-to-day tools by decision makers, perhaps because there is something wrong or weak
in the way we address the topic, we stress our arguments, and we present our results.
By way of an example: Early warning, isn’t this a pleonasm? Is there any other option for
a warning not to be made “early”? Unfortunately, early warning systems are most of the time
only mere surveillance devices, dressed as doubtful DRM panaceas but with a promising
market development. They require further consideration and development to become real
risk management devices.
Therefore, it is evident that RM requires new energy, vision and stamina to be placed
as an integral cross-cutting policy and to clear its way of pervasive myths. Realities and
challenges are already pressing under the present setup and will not give us any time-losing
waiver. It is not acceptable that a tsunami in Indonesia, a cyclone in Burma, an earthquake
in Haiti and other events, add over a million fatalities and economic losses beyond compre-
hension in just the first decade of the third millennium. Something is definitely not going
as it should.
Whilst there is not a single order of priorities, they have to be defined according to the
changing realities and circumstances of each nation and community. However, it would seem
to be promising to incorporate RM into national and sub-national policies as a transverse
multi-sectoral axis for public and private investment.
Mitigation should be inspired by the definition of “accepted” rather than “acceptable” risk
thresholds, and by metrics establishing sound Cost/Benefit ratios and future loss assessments.
But the most important paradigmatic change would be to associate RM with development
planning, separated from “disaster management”.


2.1 The keys

Surprisingly, disasters are still and persistently called “natural” (GRAVITY, 2005; UNDP-
TTF-2006; UNDP-ER 2008; UNDP/BCPR 2004; UNDP/BCPR 2008; FAO 2003), even
when they clearly are not (Mora, 2009). Considering the divergences and sometimes incon-
sistencies found in the terminology applied throughout the literature, it is perhaps appropri-
ate to provide some definitions and clarifications that should help address the topics with a
consistent terminology:
Natural hazards: They derive from the damaging potential of natural forces (Fig. 1), that is
the combination of: i) Internal geodynamics (seismicity and volcanism), ii) Hydro-meteorology
and climate, global and local processes (i.e. cyclones, drought, El Niño/La Niña-ENOS,
Tropical Convergence, polar thrusts, intense rainfall, winds), and iii) External geodynamics
(e.g. mass movements such as landslides, torrential debris flows, intensive erosion). A natural
hazard can be represented by the probability that an event becomes intense enough, within
temporal and spatial frameworks, to produce significant damage.

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Vulnerability: Exposure, fragility and potential deterioration of all elements that contribute
to quality of life. According to the intensity of the event, it can be assessed under five meas-
urable factors: i) the degree of exposure to hazards, ii) the degree of fragility (i.e. inverse of
resilience) of the elements exposed, iii) the socio-economic value of possible losses, iv) the
potential changes to human well-being (deaths, injuries, trauma, forced displacements), and
v) the impact on the environment and natural assets, services and functions. Vulnerability is
exacerbated by the incorrect management of its aggravating factors (Fig. 2).
Risk: The combined probability that a hazard might cause significant damage, according
to the relationship (Mora, 2007):

Figure 1. Classification of natural hazards according to their origin (Mora, 2009).

Figure 2. A problem tree indicating the most common causes of vulnerability in developing countries
(Mora 2007, 2009).


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∫h p(H)da * ∫d p(V)da = ∫h, d p(R)da
where H is hazard, V is vulnerability and R is risk; all these are expressed as an accumulated
distribution function integrating the intensity of the event (h) and its damaging potential (d)
(Fig. 3).
Risk, large or small, always exists and is inevitable, but it can be managed to “acceptable”
levels from economic, social and environmental points of view. When a country wishes to
protect its population and assets, it may establish a risk management policy based upon the
following basic strategies, incorporating ways to understand the causes, consequences and
remedies in distinct dimensions:
• Risk identification: Incorporates individual and collective understanding, perceptions, social
representations and objective evaluations (i.e. imaginary, scientific, engineering, statistical)
of the causes and consequences of risk: hazards (type, intensity, distance, recurrence); vul-
nerability (degrees of exposure and fragility, socio-economic value of possible losses,
potential negative changes to quality of human life, and the impact to the environment
and natural assets, services and functions).
• Emergency and disaster management: Actions, defined ex-ante, to be performed when
risk is materialised, avoiding rebuilding vulnerability. They must be efficient and effective
in reintegrating the quality of life to the population affected. Incorporating preparedness,
alert-alarm systems, response, rehabilitation (immediate) and reconstruction (immediate
to long term) protocols.
• Risk reduction: Includes all ex-ante measures to reduce the physical impact of adverse
natural events. Also known as “prevention and mitigation”, it requires intervention against
loss generating factors, particularly the vulnerability, since from certain levels of intensity,
it is not possible to reduce natural hazards.
• Risk financing and protection: Ensemble of ex-ante measures aimed at improving the
capacity and resilience to cope with the financial consequences of disasters through, for
example: reserve funds, contingent lines of credit and insurance. It requires exante assess-
ments of risk in economic terms (i.e. retention, transfer). This is often done using complex
risk models focusing first on reducing the impact of natural hazards on society and the
environment, according to their specific vulnerability. To achieve this, it is necessary to
ex-ante establish thresholds for retention/transfer of risk based upon rational definitions
of “accepted” vs. “acceptable” risk. The next step is to build probabilistic scenarios, models
and metrics to estimate losses by means of: i) Probable Maximum Loss (PML), ii) Average
Annual Loss (AAL) corresponding to the expected loss averaged on an annual basis, and
iii) Loss Exceedance Curves (LEC). These metrics are determined for various selectable
return periods (e.g. 50, 100, 250, 500 years). For hazards where this is rather difficult to
perform, such as volcanic eruptions, representative historic events can be selected and their
levels of damage estimated. Comparative scenarios can also be performed to demonstrate
the effects of intervention versus non-intervention over damage, losses and replacement
costs of assets.

Figure 3. The combination of hazards and vulnerability create the conditions of risk.


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2.2 Assessing risk integrally
There is still no consensus on the most effective ways to assess risk. However an example
is the Comprehensive Approach for Probabilistic Risk Assessment (CAPRA; http://www. which is intended to establish a broad vision in risk understanding, com-
munication and financial protection. It enables specific risk scenarios derived from all types
of hazards and the quantification of vulnerability. It comprises a sequence of modules that
allow the estimation of potential losses, as shown in Fig. 4 (Mora et al. 2010).
CAPRA is conceptually oriented to facilitating decision making and to incorporating risk
management into development planning. As such, the platform’s tools are designed to sup-
port public and private financial risk assessments through loss assessment mechanisms2.
By applying probabilistic and deterministic hazard models and an inventory of assets
with their respective damage functions, risk evaluations allow the quantification, in advance,
of the expected number and distribution of human lives exposed and aggregated economic
losses to be estimated.
A risk financial strategy may establish thresholds for risk retention, transfer and protection
options, according to the assessment of hazards, public asset exposure, fragility functions,
financial reserves, contingent credit facilities, insurance and reinsurance, catastrophe bonds
or other mechanisms and tools available.
Risk information for land use planning, restrictions or incentives for urban and infrastruc-
tural expansion, construction codes and standards can also be identified.
Specific scenarios can be generated to illustrate potential victims and affected populations,
emergency and response planning, in addition to cost/benefit analysis for rehabilitation and
retrofitting of critical structures such as schools or hospitals, prioritizing early actions for
prevention and mitigation and highlighting the importance of relying on good quality infor-
mation and local risk evaluation models.

2.3 Risk management strategies

There is a well know expression that says it is cheaper to reduce risk than to repair damages.
Apart from the fact that this philosophy is seldom applied, the slogan is true but only up to a
point. To analyze the thresholds of optimal risk management investments and rationalize the
decisions to be made, Cost/Efficiency—Cost/Benefit analysis must be made (Mora, 2007).
But it is also important to identify the financial capacity to cope with risk reduction
investments; in other words, how much resource is there for prevention and mitigation? This
financial level is called “risk retention capacity” and it is composed of all available resources
(e.g. fiscal and/or corporate budget capacity and flexibility, donations, emergency funds).
Once all these accessible resources have been exhausted, and the requirements are beyond
the capacity of retention, that is the needs are still not financially met, it is then necessary to
“transfer the risk” among other stakeholders and through time. This can be made by means
of insurance and re-insurance policies, financial-capital markets, solidarity funds, “cat”
funds, social nets, contingent credit arrays and other instrumental options and tools.
It is obvious that all these latter instruments have costs that should be accounted for as
“retention”, but they do have the advantage that at a relatively lower cost they allow access
to important and quick funding sources in case of emergency. Since these instruments have
different cost structures, and some of them could be relatively expensive, it is important that
a financial engineering exercise is carried out to optimize the establishment of a basket of
efficient and lowest possible cost options (Mora, 2007).
And things can always turn out to be worse than expected, even after applying the largest
possible amount of retained and transferred resources, the event could always materialize
that causes an impact stronger than anticipated (e.g. higher intensity, larger return period)
and funds may not be enough to cover damages and losses. The country might therefore enter
into a dangerous condition of “disaster deficit” once its financial capacity is surpassed.



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Figure 4. The reduction of vulnerability through risk management (RM).

Figure 5. Risk assessment sequence (Mora et al. 2010; modified from CAPRA:

Figure 6. Risk and loss estimate models and scenarios (Modified after Anderson, 2008).


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These thresholds can be defined after financial assessments, but in the end they are the
product of a political decision. Ideally, these decisions should be based on adequate knowl-
edge of the risk factors, their causes and their consequences, and incorporating risk manage-
ment as a fundamental part of development planning.


3.1 Has the current view of “Disaster” Risk Management (DRM) been effective?
From the perspective of engineering, disasters could be defined as the consequence of a lack
of physical resilience resulting from not complying with or not having safety requirements
and standards. They are also the result of the materialisation of exposure in prone areas,
according to land use planning principles.
Most important of all, disasters are the product of human vulnerability, therefore Nature
does not deserve to be passed the liability generated by societal decisions; disasters should
not be qualified as “natural”. Under this perspective, risk management should have focus not
only on hazards, but also on how vulnerability is generated, increases, accumulates and how
it should be resolved.
Therefore, as of today and keeping in mind the important losses materialized during recent
catastrophic events, very little added value has effectively been made by the current DRM
views, trends and practices.

3.2 The January 12th 2010 earthquake in Haiti: A proof that disasters are not natural
Before daybreak on January 12, 2010, Haiti was rocked by a 7.0 magnitude earthquake
(maximum intensity of X+ on the Modified Mercalli Scale, Figs. 7 and 8) that caused large
scale and substantial human, social, economic, and environmental destruction.
This earthquake ranks among the deadliest and most devastating in the world’s recent
history, equalled only by the 1976 Tangshan earthquake in China, and deals a crippling
blow to Haiti’s development process, claiming at least 230,000 lives and injuring more than
100,000 people.
Almost 600,000 people were left homeless and nearly 300,000 were displaced (Figs. 9 to 16).
All these figures are in addition to another sizeable portion of the population in a similar situ-
ation as a result of the combined effects of poverty, exacerbated by previous disasters, and politi-
cal upheaval, which have plagued Haiti for many years. The earthquake also compounded the
hydro-meteorological disasters of the past two decades, causing additional suffering and pre-
senting an impediment to the restoration of stability of Haiti’s development momentum.
The earthquake caused landslides and liquefaction on the coast, which showed crustal sub-
sidence and uplift, as well as a minor tsunami. This situation resulted in profound psycho-social

Figure 7. Modified Mercalli intensities; January 12th 2010 Haiti earthquake (McCann & Mora 2010
in preparation).


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Figure 8. Modified Mercalli intensities and external geodynamic effects of the January 12th Haiti

Figure 9. The nearly completed and already operating SODEC hospital in downtown Port-au-Prince
(A) December 11th 2009 and (B) February 2010, after collapse during the earthquake due to shearing
and torsion of pillars supporting heavy concrete floors. Several tens of patients, administrative and
medical staff were killed inside.


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trauma in addition to damages and economic losses totalling almost US$ 8 billion (Table 1),
all of which represents a setback to the country’s recovery efforts and development process.
It is not the first time—nor is it the last—that a powerful earthquake has hit the island of
Hispaniola and Haiti in particular. This earthquake is a wake-up call.
Port-au-Prince’s population had swollen from 250,000 fifty years ago to nearly 2.8 million
before the earthquake. Buildings of all types were destroyed or heavily damaged by the earth-
quake including many of the oldest buildings, several of those constructed in recent years,
and even those under construction. The devastation will require rebuilding most of the city
in what is likely to be the largest construction project in the Caribbean region over the next
The earthquake is the latest and greatest disaster to plague this small island nation, which
is the poorest in the Western Hemisphere. Haiti is struck by frequent tropical cyclones that
cause extensive flooding and landslides exacerbated by severe deforestation, that have claimed
several thousand lives in recent decades.
This is not the first time that Port-au-Prince has been destroyed by an earthquake. The
city was flattened in 1751 and again in 1770 by Mw = 7.5 earthquakes on the same fault that
ruptured in January 2010. Unless building practices in Haiti are changed, Port-au-Prince will
suffer the same fate in the future. Other, even larger earthquakes are inevitable in this region.
Widespread failure of the built environment in Port-au-Prince and other urban areas in
southern Haiti due to strong ground motions during the January 12 earthquake was the
main cause of loss of life and injury. The exceptional damage was the result of poor building
materials and construction practices, stemming from a lack of building codes and insufficient
attention to planning. Buildings of all types failed.
Access to resources is limited in Haiti’s poor communities; most of those scant resources
are allocated to immediate survival needs—food and basic shelter—rather than less pressing
concerns such as risk management. Resource availability to all but a small number of Hai-
tians is particularly low; the average annual per-capita income is US$ 1,300.
Some international companies, such as utility providers, applied corporate building standards
and their structures survived undamaged. Telephone and internet provider Digicel’s 15-storey
building withstood the earthquake with only minor non-structural damage (Fig. 12).
Yet other large buildings collapsed or were severely damaged, including Haiti’s prized
Cathédrale de Port-au-Prince (Fig. 13), the National Assembly building, and the Palais de
Justice (Supreme Court building; Fig. 14). The second floor of the Presidential Palace col-
lapsed (Fig. 15), leaving the third floor resting on the first. The sea port ceased to function

Figure 10. The collapse of unreinforced or poorly reinforced, masonry and concrete slab buildings in
a Canapé Vert shantytown, a neighbourhood in the hills above Port-au-Prince, was due largely to their
brittle construction and unsuitable foundations on steep slopes.


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due to liquefaction of loose, water-saturated sediments, and collapse of docks, piers and
cargo cranes (Fig. 16).
Damage was so extensive that vessels providing international relief were forced to land
along adjacent shorelines. As is shown in Fig. 17 (A and B), there was an important dispro-
portion in both the number of people killed in relation to the magnitude of the earthquake
(the same order of magnitude of fatalities has been previously reached only in other events of
higher magnitudes), and also in relation to the Human Development Index values.

Figure 11. Shantytowns, characteristic of those surrounding Port-au-Prince (A) Canapé Vert after the
January 12th 2010 earthquake. (B) Picture taken on December 10th 2009, and (C) after the January 12th
2010 earthquake. Differences in damage to structures are related to minor differences to the quality of
building materials or construction, including masonry lacking steel or brittle steel reinforcement, poor
mixtures of cement/aggregates, etc.


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Figure 12. Digicel Tower, Port au Prince; February 2010. Sustained only minor non-structural damage
during the January 12th 2010 Haiti earthquake.

Figure 13. The Cathedral at Port au Prince, after the January 12th 2010 Haiti earthquake.

Figure 14. Palais de Justice (Supreme Court Palace), Port au Prince, after the January 12th 2010 Haiti


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Figure 15. The National Palace at Port au Prince, after the January 12th 2010 Haiti earthquake.

Figure 16. Damage at Port au Prince’s port facilities caused by liquefaction triggered by the January
12th 2010 Haiti earthquake.

3.3 Myths and realities of climate change (CC)

There is no doubt that the earth’s climate is changing (CC). The voices at the Inter-governmental
Panel of Climate Change (IPCC) have risen to announce and denounce that the “unequivo-
cal” warming of the atmosphere3 is mainly caused by anthropogenic emissions of greenhouse
effect gases, vapours, aerosols and particles (GVP/GHE).
Evidence does suggest that the climate is changing and that this situation will certainly have
consequences for the environment, natural resources, human life and biodiversity; therefore


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Table 1. Damages and losses (millions of US$) caused by the January
12th 2010 Haiti earthquake (PDNA-Haiti, 2010).

measures must be taken to change the trend, at least to the proportion of that caused by
human global factors, and attempts be made to mitigate this trend.
The greenhouse effect appeared as soon as the atmosphere was consolidated around our
planet ca. 4.5 billion years ago. It has eventually and continuously varied thanks to the accu-
mulation of volcanic emissions and the incorporation of astronomic materials (e.g. comets,
meteorites, attrition gases). The evolution of its composition has also varied following the
influence of solar and cosmic radiation and the geo-tectonic and telluric fields, the latter
provoking changes of the rotation axis and magnetic field of the planet.
On the other hand, the rate of solar radiation, controlled by the eccentricity and length
of the perihelion, and thus precession (i.e. seasonal variations), produced by retrograde
movements of equinoctial points (i.e. intersection of the equator with the ecliptic), thanks to
whom the equinoxes and solstices occur and vary, are defined as the Milankovitch Cycles4,
after the Serbian astronomer and engineer (Milankovitch 1920, 1930, 1941, Hays et al. 1976,
Muller & MacDonald, 1976, Wunsch, 2004).
The analysis of core samples recovered from drilling through the ice in Antarctica and
Greenland (e.g. Vostok-d180), as well as micro-palaeontology (foraminifera), palynology and
dendrochronology have reconfirmed Milankovitch’s theories. Solar radiation highs and lows
coincide remarkably well with their imprint left on thermo-biological and δ18O glacier ice
indicators. This means that a large proportion of climate change, thus global cooling and
warming cycles, as well as climate variability drivers, have existed almost since our planet has
existed and have accompanied life since its beginnings, as stratigraphic and paleontological
records have proven.
Climate changes have followed the trend of solar radiation and the amount and compo-
sition of green house effect gases, particles and vapours and there have been innumerable
changes and trends in its composition and thermo-dynamical balance.
Evidence and records of these changes and their evolution are beginning to be rich and
precise. One of the better known series of episodes occurred during the Quaternary (latest
2,588,000 years): the glaciations of the Danube, Gunz, Mindel, Riss and Würm (I, II, III)
and their respective interglacial periods.
Milankovitch cycles:


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Figure 17. The ratio of deaths: (A) In relation to the magnitude of the earthquake. The level of the
number of fatalities of the earthquake in Haiti has been reached only in other events with higher mag-
nitude. (B) As a relation between economic loss, inversely related to socio-economic development level.
Circles show direct, tangible earthquake losses (1950–2009) for some countries commonly affected by
earthquakes (blue) as well as recently estimated losses from the 12 January Haiti earthquake (red). The
Human development index (HDI) is a unit-less measure of development assessed by the United Nations,
based on life expectancy, education and GDP (Roberts et al. 2010).

Würm III started about 11,000 years ago, after a sudden decrease in temperatures during
the Younger Dryas episode5, which suddenly interrupted the progressive warming at the end
of the Pleistocene, leading to a decrease of around 5°C in a period of some 15 years, approxi-
mately 11,500 to 12,900 years ago. Its cause was perhaps a partial or a total interruption of
the thermo-haline circulation in the North Atlantic, derived from a sudden fresh water inflow
coming from the rapid fusion of a large ice mass at the northern polar ice sheet.

3.4 The root of the problem

During the last 50 years the CO2 content in the atmosphere has increased from 280 to 380
ppm, and at the same time the average temperature has increased about 1°C. At the same
time, a premature thawing of several snow covered peaks and glaciers, a millimetric to centi-
metric rise in sea level and confusing changing trends in rainfall patterns in some areas have
been occurring. It has become evident that there is at present an imbalance on the cycle of
emissions and natural mechanisms of capture.
Younger Dryas:


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Since there are two distinctive origins for CC (i.e. natural and anthropic), there should also
be two interlinked strategies to cope with the problem of the trend towards global warming
due to the excessive increase in greenhouse effects in our atmosphere. Actions should start by
finally understanding how thermodynamic balances and imbalances are established for the
excesses introduced by human activity.
The increase in 100 ppm of CO2 plus another 75 ppm from other greenhouse effect gases,
particles and vapours –GVP/GHE- (e.g. CH4, SO2, NOX NH2, troposphere O3, soot, chloro-
fluoro-carbons) seems worrying enough to justify remedial actions. There are other GVPs that
repel solar radiation, thus inducing a loss of temperature (i.e. stratospheric O3, metallic sul-
phate aerosols, albedo from anthropic products and cloud reflectivity from ice and snow).
It is commonly accepted that the baseline for atmospheric CO2 content baseline should be
set at around that of the eighteenth century’s pre-industrial conditions (i.e. ∼280 ppm), while
the average current content is located at ∼390 ppm (IPCC 2007). According to several certi-
fied sources, average global temperatures have risen around 1°C, a bit more in the northern
hemisphere and a bit less in the southern hemisphere and the oceans. The situation is of
course worrisome.

3.5 Climate change vs. climate variability

Climate consists of a series of atmospheric processes, with a somewhat cyclic behaviour, act-
ing in close relationship with hydro-meteorological and physiographic variables and param-
eters, all of which can be described physically and mathematically.
Therefore, climate variability describes the aspects, trends and uncertainties regulating their
singularities. As an example, the entrance and exit of the rainy season may vary every year, as
does its intensity and spatial distribution, according to the influence of global, regional and
local synoptic conditions (i.e. polar thrust fronts, Inter-Tropical Convergence activity, El Niño-
LaNiña/ENOS, cyclonic activity, orographic developments, microclimatic conditions).
It has become a frequent occurrence to hear or read declarations of people, even from high
status levels in international organisations, transmitted by the media, that readily attribute
a disastrous event (in particular if it is of an extreme intensity) to climate change, when it
is more likely the product of climate variability. These unfortunate interventions have the
power to confuse public opinion and decision making.
It seems as if the influence of global warming on hydro-meteorological hazards has not
reached yet a sufficient level of intensity to be observed and detected by instrumental and sta-
tistical measures of the resolution available in the present-day. On the other hand, it has been
established that CO2 contents in the atmosphere and sea level temperatures do not influence
the frequency and intensity of tropical cyclones (Klotzbach & Gray, 2010).
For the time being, climate variability causes and will keep causing more damage than CC.
Climate variability (CV) affects day to day life, but curiously it doesn’t appear on the develop-
ment plans of any country and it doesn’t have an explicit mention in national budgets, even if
it slows down development processes by consuming resources in response and reconstruction
after disasters. It goes very much invisible and unnoticed to decision makers.
Meanwhile, forums, meetings and international panels about CC are organized, with the
participation of the highest political and scientific protagonists. CC belongs to most develop-
ment programmes in almost all countries of the world and has a special bureau at the United
It can be asserted that attention to CC is well justified in the long term, but the vision is
distracting and casting a shadow over the attention to priorities that are equally or perhaps
even more urgent and damaging, and therefore should be part of very short term decision
It has to be kept clearly in mind that people, by the hundreds of thousands, are dying
yearly from the impact of natural hazards that are absolutely not related to climate change
(i.e. earthquakes, volcanoes, El Niño-La Niña/ENOS, tropical cyclones, drought, floods,
landslides). The paradox is that climate change adaptation (CCA) strategies have created a
perverse effect whereby they are considered integral to risk management.

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3.6 Risk management derived from climate change (global warming) hazards
It has been said and it is well known that the first step to take in solving the problem of risk is
to understand the causes, and to be able to control or reduce them before they materialize.
However, it is not easy to control and reduce the potential damages if the main actors, in this
scenario of anthropogenic climate change, do not take full responsibility and all the necessary
actions required to reduce their emissions of GVP/GHE. These are expected to increase to
double in less than a century, implying a rise in temperature by very worrying levels of 2°C or
more, with some areas concentrating the effects due local climatic and physiographic controls.
This scenario will certainly bring serious consequences to the stability and well-being of
some populations, the environment and natural resources, particularly in poor and develop-
ing countries, where the effects will be felt more intensely, even if the anthropogenic share of
the causes are located and mostly concentrated in richer countries.

3.7 Defining the priorities

Global warming, as postulated by many authors but remaining to be proved beyond any rea-
sonable doubt, could cause a “delta-gradient” on the intensity and the frequency of hydro-
meteorological and climate hazards (Fig. 18).
Under the expected increase in frequency and intensity of natural hazards it must be kept
in mind that it is the “delta-gradient” of vulnerability that will really cause the major increase
in risk (Fig. 19).
Whilst the incidence of anthropogenic climate change on the levels of risk has up to now
been irrelevant, contrary to what is caused by climate variability, a change in this scenario
cannot be ruled out in the future, particularly if the anthropogenic causes of global warming
are not taken care of effectively.
Meanwhile, the situation has to be tackled with a realistic vision, since there is absolutely
no doubt what causes the largest number of human losses, trauma and the deterioration of
the quality of life throughout the world:
According to the World Health Organization, and the United Nations Development Pro-
gramme, the number of deaths currently being caused by global warming, combining all of
its causes and variables reaches 150,0006; certainly a figure to be worried about, even if it
requires review and validation.
However, if this figure is compared with the 2 million fatalities caused annually by insuf-
ficiency in micro-nutrients (e.g. Zn+, Fe++, Vit. A), 4 million to malnutrition (affecting half of
the world’s population), 2 million by lack of access to adequate potable water7, 1.1 million
to malaria8, 3 million to HIV-AIDS9, 2.5 million to air pollution10 and the average 52 million
people affected by climate variability11, it would seem more than reasonable to revisit, rethink
and redefine priorities.
It is of the highest importance to emphasize the fact that even though climate change is
a reality with long term consequences, many countries are already under stress because of
their elevated vulnerability towards other hazards, not related to climate change, but to the
variability of climate (e.g. windstorms, drought, cyclones, flash-floods, El Niño/La Niña-
ENOS), and of course to internal geodynamic hazards (e.g. earthquakes, volcanoes) and
WHO, WMO, UNEP; 2003. Climate change and human Health: Risk and responses, Summary.
Geneva: World Health Organization;
World Health Organization; 2002. The World health report. Reducing risk, promoting healthy life;
World Health Organization & UNICEF; 2005. World malaria report; http://www.rollbackmalaria.
World Health Organization; 2008. Report on the AIDS epidemics.
World Health Organization; 2004. The World health report. Changing history; http://www.who.
United Nations Development Programme:


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Figure 18. Supposed increase of frequency and intensity of hydro-meteorological and climate hazards
caused by climate change (i.e. global warming).

Figure 19. Incidence of climate change (i.e. global warming) over the evolution of risk derived
from an increment of the intensity of hazards and the level of vulnerability at a given space and time

external geodynamics (e.g. tsunami, liquefaction, soil erosion, landslides), which definitely
require immediate attention. Observation, monitoring and surveillance of all natural hazards
must become a priority, as well as of the factors aggravating vulnerability.

3.8 Bio-fuels: A panacea to climate change?

It is of course not the intention of this paper to discuss technical details related to bio-fuels;
however, it is relevant to link several aspects between human-induced global warming and
energy, the latter being perhaps one of the major causes of the former. Energy is required for
the development of industry, agriculture, telecommunications and virtually all aspects influ-
encing the quality of human life; of course, its excesses and inefficiencies also contribute to
spur the greenhouse effect, as it is well known.
The exception to this fact is “renewable” energy sources, such as hydroelectricity,
geothermal, solar, and eolian. The newcomer to the stage is the family of bio-fuels, which are
addressed nowadays as perhaps one of the most interesting solutions. Although the notion


IAEG10.indb 106 7/1/2010 2:13:43 PM

and the trend seem to have interesting and valuable perspectives, it is important to point out
several relevant factors at stake.
Bio-fuels are still at an early stage of technological development, caused by multiple
factors tied to geo-political and economic interests, making them still only partially viable
from energy and financial points of view.
One very relevant issue is the fact that the production of bio-energetic commodities
(i.e. sugar cane, soy, cellulose, jathropa, African palm) will require extensive and intensive use
of soils, which in the long run could cause the extension of the agrarian frontier and drastic
changes in land use, and perhaps also their deterioration. But most important is that conflict
with forests and food crops will very likely occur, particularly in countries where regulatory
policies are not effective enough.
This scenario could imply an inevitable and irreversible increase in the cost of food, spur-
ring imports and so generating a severe impact on the balance of payment of developing
countries. But the socio-economic impact of bio-fuels might not end there. This activity also
implies relevant questions concerning the social quality of the jobs it creates. How do sugar
cane plantations work? In particular, what are the quality of life and labour conditions of the
manpower required?
Once technological development allows bio-fuels to reach a higher level of efficiency, when
an adequate cost/benefit rate is reached, if emissions to the atmosphere are effectively and
significantly reduced, and questions on social, economic, environmental and political issues
answered, perhaps they can then be considered a valid and adequate option.

3.9 Should we face climate change under psychosis?

While knowledge and understanding about climate change and global warming variables, as
well as their ensuing risk are improving, it is not yet possible to ensure a fully objective vision.
Of course, this statement does not authorize ignoring the facts about the dangers involved,
but nor does it favour a vision sustained by catastrophist fear and alarmism.
The panorama is certainly complex and calls for immediate attention on a certain number
of issues but it is not as sombre as it has been put upfront, on occasions approaching psy-
chosis and many times being defended by political and economic interests, opportunism,
ecological extremism and broadcast ratings. Worse still is the case when by ignorance and/
or incompetence; the effects of climate variability are attributed to global warming (Fig. 20).
Climate change should not be addressed under the same sensationalist and alarmist impulses
of fear and panic creation as those applied to face terrorism or the doubtful pandemics of
influenza, among other cases.

Figure 20. A public display poster at a train station in Buenos Aires, Argentina; April 2009: “If you do
not want this to happen again, turn your lights off at home for one hour. Join the hour of our planet”.


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It is not clear yet if the anxiety fed and magnified through some climate change awareness
lobbying has really established effective actions to cope with the real priorities, but the incon-
sistencies have obscured and darkened the realities and facts required for sound decision
making and implementation. Copenhagen 2010 was an example of how the power of inter-
ests of a handful of countries, on both sides of the extremes, instead of uniting efforts divides
and drags political decisions, most of the time based on sophism and doubtful science.
Without under-estimating all elements at play or obscuring the panorama, it is possible to
understand the causes, consequences and the measures to reduce them through an integrated
risk management process.
There are already enough analytical scientific and technological capacities to understand
most variables and factors associated with anthropogenic global warming, to go beyond the
mere reactive response by being able to effectively reduce the causes and consequences. These
must be placed under rigorous priorities defined according to the realities and capacities of
each country, as well as to their respective responsibilities for having caused the major part
of the problem of this extra-territorial threat.
Global warming is with no doubt, a reality requiring effective and urgent actions, but of
course without forgetting the existence of other problems that presently require the same, if
not more attention and greater priority.


Risk is always present. Whether it is severe or barely detectable, it must always be man-
aged. Disasters represent the materialization of poorly managed risk. The January 12, 2010
earthquake in Haiti was a sharp reminder of this. It is now time to build the future, incorpo-
rating pro-active risk management principles.
Meanwhile, demographic growth keeps concentrating in urban areas randomly exposed to
natural hazards (e.g. shorelines, river margins, steep slopes, the proximity to active volcanoes
and tectonic faults), along with ever present poverty.
Risk management requires identifying and understanding causes and consequences,
according to its level and space-time distribution. Moreover, this process facilitates assessing
vulnerability, how it builds up, increases and, in addition, how it can be reduced. Pro-active
risk management helps reduce the impact of natural hazards and, more importantly, the
sources of vulnerability to a level considered acceptable from social, economic, and environ-
mental standpoints.
Since it is impossible to eliminate risk entirely, steps should be taken to protect people and
property. Measures, channelled through, for example, the geo-sciences and geo-engineering
spectrum, must be implemented ex-ante to permit rapid reactions through surveillance, alert
and alarm systems, response, rehabilitation (immediate), and reconstruction (in the medium
and long terms) protocols. In adopting such an approach, replication of previous conditions
of vulnerability must be avoided. Instead, priority should be accorded to new paradigms
creating sustainable resilience, in addition to installing a culture of prevention to ensure the
integration of risk management in all future development processes.
A parallel process of raising awareness among the population, and political and managerial
decision makers is essential for advancing an understanding of risk and promoting measures
and actions for its reduction (i.e. multiple hazards assessments, such as in the case of Haiti;
Mora et al 201012) through land use planning, building codes, and eventually in defining reten-
tion/transfer thresholds through financial, environmental and social protection schemes.
Climate hazards must, without doubt, be paid attention regardless of whether or not they
are regulated or altered by natural or artificial conditions of variability and/or change. How-
ever, if this action is to be achieved effectively, considering that resources, most of the time are
quite insufficient, the first step to launch is reinforcing formal rigorous risk identification.


IAEG10.indb 108 7/1/2010 2:13:43 PM

Vulnerability assessments should also be a priority, in terms of exposure, fragility, social,
economic, environment and natural resources, and governance parameters and constraints.
Risk management must become a tool for conveying the information and assisting the proc-
ess of decision making for sustainable development planning.
What is clear is that it is not possible to dissociate progress and the development of nations
from risk management. Development and vulnerability are incompatible elements, and
beyond rhetoric it is not feasible to have them both and make a country advance towards
development with harmony.
However, from now on, it will not be possible anymore to adduce ignorance nor continue
to find excuses that this rainfall, such drought or that earthquake were the worst disaster,
the “never seen in history”, and that capacities were insufficient to cope with them. Disas-
ter occurrence implies a pre-condition of insufficient attention to elevated degrees of risk.
Governing and management are all about anticipating, and this is where the scientific and
engineering community must be present, with objectivity and care.


The author wishes to thank Ann Williams for her reviews and assistance during the prepara-
tion of this paper.


The findings, interpretations and conclusions expressed in this paper are entirely those of the
author. They do not represent the views of his employers.


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