Geology for Global Development

Disaster Risk Reduction

Placement Report – Sam Marshall (CAFOD, April 2013)

At the end of each GfGD placement we ask the student completing that placement to think about his/her experiences and write a short report (available to download here). In April 2013, Sam Marshall spent a week working with disaster risk reduction advisor Dr Kate Crowley (pictured with Sam Marshall) at the international NGO CAFOD. Today we share Sam’s report – outlining what he got up to during the week and some key things he learnt.

Name: Sam Marshall
University: University of Southampton
Year of Study (when undertaking placement): 3
Placement Title: Disaster Risk Reduction, CAFOD
Placement Dates: 15th-19th April

Why did you apply for this placement? 

I applied for the placement as I wanted to better understand the role geologists can play in development globally, and the work Geology for Global Development is doing in the sector immediately caught my attention. I undertook the placement for a week in April, shadowing Dr Kate Crowley, CAFOD’s Disaster Risk Reduction (DRR) Advisor.

Outline what you did during the placement (activities, meetings, things you contributed to):

When I first arrived I met some of the other people in the department, and went over the plan for the week with Kate. She assured me the variation in her job meant more would certainly be added to the schedule during the week, which certainly proved true. I began work on a task profiling the risk of natural hazards in some of the countries that CAFOD operates in. In the afternoon I got the opportunity to meet with a few of CAFOD’s Emergency Response Coordinators, and understand what their role entails and how they got to their position.

On the Tuesday morning I sat in on a Humanitarian Futures Programme meeting hosted by CAFOD about planning an upcoming workshop about integrating science and development to support resilience. The meeting looked to organize the format of the event, decide on invitees, and establish the goals that they hoped to accomplish in the workshop. In the afternoon I got the opportunity to see how DRR policies are applied to CAFOD projects when I sat in on CAFOD’s DRR internal working group meeting, in which updates on current and proposed DRR policies were discussed.

On the Wednesday I attended the CAFOD humanitarian working group meeting, and continued my risk-profiling task. In the afternoon I travelled to Brighton with Kate, where she had been asked to be a speaker on an Institute for Development Studies panel discussion entitled: “Are current efforts to integrate climate change and development misdirected?” Leaning about the topic and understanding the different viewpoints and opinions made it a very interesting afternoon.

On Thursday I was lucky enough to be allowed to attend Hyogo Framework for Action Post-2015 and Global Platform Advisory group meeting at the Cabinet Office, which Kate attended as co-chair of the bond DRR group. It was an amazing opportunity to observe how organizations interact with the government, and I’ve very thankful to have been allowed to come along.

On Friday I completed the country risk profiles, and later in the day attended, with Kate, an Overseas Development Institute event launching the British Red Cross’ recent study on humanitarian action in urban areasLearning from the city, centred around a panel discussion about the findings of the study, and assessing current and future humanitarian action in urban settings. The event gave me an understanding of how knowledge in the development sector is shared and enhanced through such discussions.

What did you learn during the placement?

The placement taught me a lot about how NGO’s operate in the development sector, and through my opportunity to interact with people working for CAFOD I learnt which skills are most desirable for a job in international development. Dr Kate Crowley provides an incredible example of how a background in geology can be applied to work in the development sector, and through observing her work I have a much greater appreciation of how geology can be used to benefit society.

Has this placement influenced your own future career plans? 

I plan on continuing to look into opportunities in the development sector throughout the rest of my degree and once I graduate. I’d like to thank Dr Kate Crowley for her generosity in allowing me to shadow her for the week and understand her role. It is immediately obvious how passionate she is about the work she does, and how extremely talented she is at it, and I’m sure her advice will prove invaluable. I am very grateful to Joel Gill, founder of GfGD, for organizing the placement, and I would strongly recommend GfGD placements to other students who have an interest in the development sector.


On Wednesday we will be introducing you to those students undertaking GfGD placements with a range of organisations in July 2013. GfGD are very grateful to all those who have and will be hosting students – they are highly valuable opportunities for geoscience students. If you work in a development NGO, or are contributing to a development project within a consultancy, government survey/department, or policy/research institute and would like to know more about hosting a student for a 1-2 week shadowing scheme please contact GfGD National Director Joel Gill.

Guest Blog: Disaster Resilience in Dharamsala, India

John McCarthy and Sam Bradley are collaborating to develop an earthquake awareness and disaster resilience program for vulnerable communities in Dharamsala, India. The region is predicted to have an extremely large earthquake in the next 50 years and they are looking to raise awareness, develop community programs and improve the resilience capacity for the population. John and Sam both have Master’s degrees in Geophysical Hazards and are looking to further their careers in natural hazards, DRR and resilience. 

Nestled in the foothills of the Himalayas sits the political and cultural centre of the Tibetan refugee community. Since the Chinese invasion of Tibet in 1959, His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama and the Tibetan Government have resided in exile in McLeod Ganj, Dharamsala.

Dharamsala is located in northern India, in the foothills of the Himalayas. Image from Google maps

Residents of this region are subject to a host of natural hazards as well as a large range of socio-economic issues that have left much of the local community vulnerable to potential disasters. The region has been assigned a zone V, the highest rating of earthquake risk in India and is subject to the annual Monsoon and associated flash flooding which can give rise to landslides. The region also plays host to man-­made and natural forest fires during the summer months.

The last major earthquake to affect the region was the 1905 Kangra earthquake with a magnitude (MW) 7.8. The earthquake devastated the region, killing nearly 20,000 people and reducing 100,000 dwellings to rubble. The region was left with a depleted population until the arrival of the displaced Tibetans from 1959 onwards. Since then, the centre of Dharamsala has been rebuilt and is home to nearly 14,000 Tibetans and 20,000 Indians.

The displaced Tibetans face further problems with population rates exceeding rates of economic development. Many of the refugees face difficulties in obtaining work and as such are dependent on the tourism industry that is centred on Dharamsala. Up to 2,500 refugees migrate over the border of China to Nepal, with many moving to the cultural centre each year to escape persecution, adding further burden to already strained resources. Although there is a high rate of literacy amongst Tibetans, they have a very high drop out rate from schooling and can rarely afford to seek higher education, leaving the community reliant on income from tourism and the service industry. Tibetans in India are also unable to gain citizenship; they cannot vote, carry a passport or legally purchase land for development. This leaves them vulnerable and socially isolated.

Houses built on steep slopes in Dharamsala. Source Wikicommons

Under international law, the Indian government is not liable for implementing disaster risk reduction (DRR) or post disaster relief for the Tibetan community. As such, the current disaster management structure is poor. There is very little in the way of DRR awareness and many campaigns have been largely forgotten. The community has a low understanding of earthquake risks and as such, there is limited preparedness, limited response and a distinct lack of community trust in local Government Authorities to act in the event of a disaster. Any large earthquake in the future could leave the Tibetan community and large parts of its cultural heritage at risk.

The geologically complex region forms part of the convergence zone between the Indian and Eurasian plates. The Indian plate has been moving northwards into the Eurasian plate at a rate of 40mm/yr and has caused several large earthquakes in the last 15 years alone, namely Gujarat (Mw 7.7) in 2001, which killed 20,000 people and Kashmir (Mw 7.6) in 2005, killing 86,000 as well as the earthquakes in Eastern Iran during April this year.

The Dharamsala region contains two major thrust faults running parallel to the length of the Himalayan range. There are two large seismic gaps (parts of active faults that have not produced any activity in a long time) on either side of Dharamsala where a high accumulation of strain has built up due to several years of low activity. There is a large slip deficit of up to 16 metres. Although there are frequent minor shocks in the region, a future earthquake could exceed Mw 8.6.

Here, we come to the old adage that ‘earthquakes don’t kill people, buildings do’. Many of the buildings were constructed in the late 1950’s and early 60’s with the influx of Tibetan refugees. Many buildings were built very quickly using the cheapest materials possible and with no adherence to building codes. As a result, many dwellings are constructed using brittle concrete and unburnt bricks with very heavy rooftops that are susceptible to cracking and collapse under the shear forces produced by an earthquake. Many dwellings have had further stories added as the region became more populated and tourism has flourished adding to further instability. Many of these buildings have placed large water storage tanks (1000 litres+) on rooftops adding further weight and vulnerability. In addition to all of these problems and poor planning, many buildings are situated on the slopes steeper than 45° on poorly compacted soils that are prone to earthquake and water induced landslides.

The only building that has been retrofitted for earthquake resistance thus far is the Library of Tibetan Works and Archives. All other buildings are yet to be assessed and retrofitted due to the high cost and dependence on donor funding.

Our project is looking at all aspects of resilience within the community to earthquake-­based disasters and further secondary hazards such as earthquake induced landslides. We are investigating methods to develop earthquake awareness programs, community DRR planning and implementation, response efforts and promote multi-­stake holder participation to reduce the vulnerability of this community and further communities in the region.

We are also looking at ways to reduce casualties through retrofitting programs. Our investigations will explore cost effective and simple solutions to make dwellings resistant to the shear forces produced in earthquake situations and hence collapse.

We would like to reach out to design engineers, architects and NGOs that are involved with earthquake engineering and community resilience to earthquakes and their manifold effects. We would welcome any advice or comments on the technical and social aspects of our proposed project. Comments can be left using the comments box at the bottom of this article, or by contacting us via email ( or 


New Placement Opportunities – Deadline Midday 2nd June 2013

Placements give students a valuable opportunity to get an insight into the international development sector, consider what key skills they need to develop to contribute to such work, and better understand the role of geoscience in fighting poverty. Following successful placements with the NGO CAFOD, GfGD are delighted to announce two new placement opportunities for UK-based geoscience students – both taking place this summer.

TEARFUND (Teddington, UK)
WHEN: 1st – 12th July 2013 (two weeks)

The successful candidate for this placement will be working with Tearfund’s Disaster Risk Reduction and Environment Adviser. The focus of this two week placement will be the completion of a literature review relating to water management in coastal Bangladesh. The successful candidate will use their critical literature skills and scientific understanding to investigate what others (both academics and multilateral organisations like the World Bank) have been writing and thinking on this topic. You will also have the opportunity to converse with some specialists in Bangladesh. These findings should then be synthesised into a short report.

This placement will also give the successful candidate a preliminary insight into the development sector, and the importance of disaster risk reduction. The student will have the opportunity to hear about a range of projects being undertaken by the organisation and find out more about a career in this sector. It will also give the student an opportunity to make a valuable contribution in the fight against global poverty.

Requirements: The successful candidate should have completed at least two years of study at undergraduate level, and have an interest in water management and/or disaster risk reduction. Experience of completing an extended literature review as part of your study/training is desirable and should be noted in your application. Tearfund is a Christian organisation, but applications for this placement are welcome from those of any religious affiliation or none


WHEN: 1st – 5th July 2013 (one week)

This placement will be jointly hosted by Humanitarian Futures Programme/King’s College London (Mon – Tues) and the British Geological Survey (Edinburgh Office, Weds – Fri). Due to the extra travel involved in this placement, GfGD are making available a small bursary to the successful student. This will consist of an advance purchase train ticket for the journey from London to Edinburgh on Wednesday 3rd July (the student must have a 16-25 railcard) and a contribution of £25 towards the return travel/further expenses. The Humanitarian Futures Programme will also reimburse the student for travel costs within London on the Monday and Tuesday of the placement.

The student placement will be within the stream of HFP work focused on strengthening the dialogue between those with scientific and technological knowledge and those engaged in efforts to support community resilience. The placement will specifically focus on providing support for, participating in and reporting on a collaborative workshop being undertaken joint by a number of UK Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) Knowledge Exchange fellows, the BOND Disaster Risk Reduction and InterAgency Resilience Groups and the UK Collaborative in Development Science (UKCDS).

In Edinburgh you will work with Dr Susanne Sargeant (BGS Seismic Hazard Analyst, NERC Knowledge Exchange Fellow, GfGD Advisory Board), giving you an understanding of how hazard potential from earthquakes is monitored and assessed. Susanne has undertaken work in a number of contexts, including Bangladesh which she wrote about on the GfGD Blog recently, and is part of the Earthquakes Without Frontiers consortium, working to increase resilience to earthquakes in Central Asia, China and Nepal.

Requirements: The successful candidate should have a particular interest in (i) geohazards from either a geology or geophysics background and (ii) efforts to make science useable for supporting community resilience, including by strengthening the dialogue between those with science/technology expertise and those engaged in efforts to build resilience. They should be an enthusiastic and energetic individual, with a willingness to get involved in a wide variety of tasks.

Interested students should review the full placement information available on our website, which includes full details of each placement and how to apply. The deadline for all applications is midday on Sunday 2nd June. The successful candidate will be required to sign a Memorandum of Understanding and write a short report for GfGD describing your work, what you learnt and how it benefitted you.

Some Comments on Recent Earthquakes in Iran

In this article, Joel Gill and Faith Taylor write about the importance of reducing individual and community vulnerability in Iran. This post is written in response to the recent earthquakes in April 2013, and an article posted in the Guardian in 2010. In addition to their GfGD responsibilities, Joel and Faith are undertaking PhD research at King’s College London – investigating specific aspects of natural hazards and their impacts on society, and leading a summer school on Natural Hazards and Society in July 2013.  

Topography of Iran (Source and Licensing: Wikipedia)

In the space of eight days, two lethal earthquakes have struck Iran. On the 9th April, a M6.4 earthquake struck 89 km south-east of Bandar Bushehr, with at least 37 fatalities and 850 casualties. Eight days later, on the 16th April, a M7.8 earthquake struck 83 km east of Khash (close to the border with Pakistan), with the number of fatalities and casualties in Iran currently unclear. The latter of these earthquakes was felt across the Middle East, and had a significant impact on neighbouring Pakistan, with at least 35 fatalities and 150 casualties.

These two earthquakes are a tragedy for all those living in the region, but they are not surprising. Iran is a seismically active area, with a long history of earthquakes across the country. Perhaps the most memorable of the 21st Century was the 26th December 2003 M6.6 earthquake in Bam. This devastating event, striking a densely populated area of poor construction at 5.30am local time, killed from 26000­ to 40000 people (Berberian, 2005). In 1990, a M7.3 earthquake killed at least 40000 people, in 1978 a M7.4 earthquake killed approximately 20000 people, and in 1962 a M7.0 earthquake killed more than 12000 (Berberian, 2005).

Disasters such as those outlined above are a result of the interaction between the dynamic nature of the Earth, and vulnerability of individuals, communities and society. Vulnerability has been defined by the United Nations International Strategy for Disaster Reduction (UNISDR) as being “the characteristics and circumstances of a community, system or asset that make it susceptible to the damaging effects of a hazard”.  You may have heard the phrase before that ‘earthquakes don’t kill people, buildings do.’ Poorly constructed buildings clearly do kill people, inadequate materials and design, corruption, and poor town planning can have serious, often lethal, consequences. But there is more to individual and community vulnerability than just building quality. Vulnerability can be increased by many aspects often linked with severe poverty, including poor access to education and poor education itself, gender inequality, weak governance, or racial discrimination.

The recent earthquakes in Iran, and those over the past decades, are a result of this interaction between a dynamic Earth and the vulnerability of individuals and communities. They are categorically not a result of women ‘wearing revealing clothes or behaving promiscuously’ as suggested by a senior Iranian cleric in 2010. It was with great sadness and anger that we read this article in the Guardian recently (published 2010). It has been said that ‘with great power comes great responsibility’ and this is a tragic example of those with power and influence behaving not just in an irresponsible manner, but also a dangerous one. In the same Guardian article, an Iranian Government Minister was also reported to have said that ‘prayers and pleas for forgiveness were the best formulae to repel earthquakes.

Such statements are deeply concerning. Understanding disasters as punishment from a higher being is a belief many have held throughout human time (and indeed, the term “act of God” is still commonly used by many people). What is of particular concern with the statements outlined above, however, is the suggestion that efforts to reduce disaster risk through good geoscience education, preparedness and fighting poverty and inequality are futile – as the destruction is society’s price to pay for behaving immorally. As already established, Iran is a seismically active area, with the potential for large earthquakes and destructive disasters (Jackson, 2006, notes the possibility of large earthquakes in Tehran for example). It is therefore essential that we do all we can to promote effective and sustainable efforts to reduce vulnerability.

It is worth noting that there are many organisations, driven by religious conviction, that have a hugely positive role in disaster risk reduction. GfGD have worked closely with, for example, the overseas development charity CAFOD (the Catholic Agency for Overseas Development), to set up student placements that are open to people of all beliefs and none. Organisations, both with a religious ethos (CAFOD, Christian Aid, World Vision, Tearfund, Islamic Relief Agency) and without a religious ethos (Oxfam, Save the Children) all work together as part of the Disasters Emergency Committee in order to bring life-saving support after and during major disasters. This work has offered hope to individuals in the toughest of circumstances.

But these organisations (from our understanding) follow a philosophy, very different from that expressed by the cleric or Minister in Iran. It is a philosophy that is not unique to religions such as Christianity or Islam, but shared by many working in disaster risk reduction. This philosophy is that in the same way as vulnerability (a dynamic process) can be increased by factors such as corruption, inequality and poor education, vulnerability can also be reduced through tackling these injustices. For some people it is their moral responsibility, some people feel a professional responsibility and others a responsibility through a shared sense of humanity.

This example from Iran highlights our responsibility as privileged scientists from developed nations in a number of ways. Firstly, through promoting good science informing education and mitigation, through increased equality (including, but not limited to, gender, racial, age, disability) and improved access to basic services (clean water and good sanitation, education, health-care) vulnerability can be reduced, and the impact of hazardous processes such as earthquakes can be reduced. But secondly, we must look inwards to consider how our communication skills, knowledge of and sensitivity to “place” (being both a social and environmental construct) can help us to build trust and ensure wide uptake of good disaster risk reduction strategies.

This must be (and in many cases is) the response of those wishing to outwork their religious convictions in the context of disaster risk reduction. As a final thought, and challenge to us, we should also recognise that in many societies exposed to risk, citizens may place greater trust in religious leaders or other local social networks rather than somewhat distant scientists or (possibly corrupt) governments. This could be seen as being a great obstacle to those working on disaster risk reduction, but it could also be an opportunity. Through working with open-minded clerics, churches and other organisations that have community trust – we can together take forward genuine disaster risk reduction activities.

Joel Gill and Faith Taylor