Geology for Global Development

Disaster Risk Reduction

Women and Natural Hazards

“Women and children first” went the call from the deck of the titanic. And then of course Jack sacrificed his own life to save Rose, who was afloat on what admittedly looked like a raft with more than enough space for two. Chivalrous though this picture is, the reality is very different – in most disasters women seem to suffer a disproportionate number of injuries and deaths.

Most countries now have gender policy incorporated into health, education and employment. It is only recently however, that gender has been considered in disaster and risk reduction programmes. Researchers have started to record the gender of people who die or report injuries. The findings show large differences in the way the two genders are  affected by different disasters. This is hardly surprising – gender determines your economic role, level of education and lifestyle in most societies, particularly in developing countries.

A male dominated environment at the fish market in Tanzania. Gender determines where people are likely to be and what they will be doing in a disaster. Credit: Patrick Bradley

Girls are less likely to be taught to swim, so are more likely to die in floods (and on sinking ships), and are more likely to be illiterate,  so may be unable to read evacuation instructions and emergency advice. In the L’Aquila earthquake lots of women lost their lives in collapsed buildings as they were more inclined to behave ‘passively’ and return to their homes after the foreshock warning signs.

In some societies, men and boys are given priority for food when resources are scarce in the immediate aftermath of a disaster. Groups tend to gather in large temporary shelters following a major disaster, and often women don’t feel safe, and indeed are not safe, in these places. Women in displaced people camps are particularly vulnerable to sexual violence.

Returning to normality after a disaster is a slow process. In Haiti, women tend to do lower paid work such as domestic service, and are also responsible for all household tasks and caring roles within the family. Women are finding it harder than men to rebuild their businesses after the 2010 earthquake.  After the L’Aquila earthquake, Italy, women also suffered from higher levels of unemployment and post-traumatic stress in the years that followed. The coping mechanisms of men affected by the disaster led to an increase in substance abuse and domestic violence, problems that further affected women.

Data collected so far indicates that women and girls suffer disproportionately during, immediately after, and long-term from the effects of a disaster, but research into the gender bias in disaster response is currently very limited. Every disaster occurs in different circumstances, and these will change regularly. There will be some circumstances where men are disproportionately affected, for example in a tsunami men may be more likely to be working on fishing boats and in ports.

The real question is, why do we care about the gender of people who die in disasters? After all, if a man survives but loses his wife and children, there are no winners. It is important that we understand as much as possible about the circumstances that affect peoples vulnerability to a hazard. In most societies gender is an important factor in determining the circumstances somebody will be in when a hazard occurs. The more we know, the more we can do to reduce risk in future disasters across all genders and age groups. Research into this area must continue, and be communicated in a way that politicians can understand and incorporate into policy.

Recommended reading

One of the first academic papers to recognise the excessive mortality rates among girls and women in disasters: Rivers, 1982

Ellie Murtagh, GfGD secretary,  helped research a fantastic article about the role of women in disasters during her summer 2012 GfGD/CAFOD placement.

With thanks to the UCL Institute for Risk and Disaster Reduction, who held a panel discussion on gender in disasters on the 8th of March, where many of these issues were debated by a panel of experts.

King’s College London Summer School: Natural Hazards and Society

The study of natural hazards, such as earthquakes and volcanic eruptions, are an important part of geoscience courses. However a thorough understanding of how and why they impact society requires the study of a much broader range of topics. Similarly, the study of social sciences gives us an understanding of the origins and development of vulnerability, but this knowledge must be combined with an understanding of the science behind hazard processes in order to effectively mitigate against disasters.

In the summer of 2013, King’s College London (KCL), will be offering a three week Summer School (1st-19th July) that will draw on aspects of both physical and social science to explore the topic of Natural Hazards and Society. The course is particularly suited to undergraduate students from both physical and social science backgrounds with an interest in natural hazards, however is open to students from all disciplines with an interest in this area. Whether from the perspective of earth sciences, international development, politics, insurance or the media, this course will give you a solid foundation on natural hazards and their interaction with society.

This course will help you to:
– Develop an understanding of the physical and human dimensions for a range of natural hazards.
– Identify key parties involved in disaster risk reduction and emergency response.
– Recognise the significance of appropriate communication to a range of audiences.
– Understand that disasters in the real world are a complex mix of human and physical factors which have varying degrees of uncertainty.
– Gain an overview of the data and tools available and apply these in an independent study.
– Use novel and state-of-the-art techniques to obtain and disseminate information.

The course will be organised and taught by two doctoral researchers from KCL’s Earth and Environmental Dynamics Research Group, in the Department of Geography, Faith Taylor (GfGD’s University Groups Officer) and Joel Gill (GfGD’s National Director and Founder). Their experience and interests span multiple areas of natural hazards and vulnerability research, including a range of desk based approaches and field work in four continents. They bring a range of teaching and demonstrating experience, including most recently as class teachers on the Environment: Science and Society module at the London School of Economics and Political Science.

Many students get credit for the summer courses taken at KCL. We’d recommend approaching your home university before applying to find out whether they accept this course for credit (a three-week course is approximately equivalent to 4 US credits or 7.5 ECTS, for instance).

Full details of the course, associated costs, and application information can be found on the website. Please note that places are limited and the application deadline is 15th May 2013. Informal questions can either be directed to Joel Gill or the KCL Summer School Office.


Reducing the Risk of Future Disasters

GfGD welcomes the release of the UK Government Office for Science Foresight Report into “Reducing the Risks of Future Disasters: Priorities for decision makers. The report has been specially commissioned to recognise the growing need for good disaster and risk reduction (DRR) science.

The report describes how the growing threat of natural hazards to increasingly vulnerable communities worldwide can be lessened using better processes of decision making, through the integration of information provided by scientific developments. This course of action will subsequently save lives and resources in developing countries.

Over the next 30 years the risk of disasters is expected to increase as a result of amplifying factors, primarily expanding populations in high-risk regions and a warming climate. Through strategic investment in scientific research, we can expect to improve our ability to predict, understand and manage hazards.

We support the decision by the UK Government and Department for International Development to invest in developing and improving this field through the production of this report. We are particularly encouraged by the report’s focus on the improved use of science and evidence within disaster and risk reduction; it is important that the latest geoscientific knowledge on hazards is understood by policy makers, especially in developing countries where populations may be more vulnerable. At the same time, we feel it is prudent to recognise the limitations and uncertainties of DRR science and to ensure we are sensitive to and inclusive of indigenous knowledge.

We feel that for hazards research to move forward effectively, we need to strengthen communication between scientists, policy makers and the affected communities. In light of the recommendations in the Foresight report, we offer some thoughts on how communication can be best fostered:

  • There is a need for training in the communication of science to include multi-disciplinary and cross-cultural approaches.
  • Exchange and overlap between geoscientists and development practitioners should continue to be encouraged.
  • Undergraduate and Master’s courses should work to place natural hazards into a wider context

You can read our official response to the report from our advocacy team, and read a summary of our response in our press release.

We also hosted a twitter discussion about the report, which has been documented using storify. Our discussion focused on the meaning of some of the terms in the document: vulnerability, hazards and disasters, which are often misused. We also asked broad questions that we have to address following of the Foresight report’s findings: What kinds of collaborative efforts can you see happening in the next 20 years relating to DRR? Do you think scientific literacy on vulnerability is increasing? What can GfGD do to enhance this? How ready are the scientific community to incorporate local and indigenous knowledge into their work, hazard analysis and hazard assessments? Is this valued and used currently, and if not why not? We welcome your continued contributions to this discussion through twitter, facebook or blog post comments.

We believe that geoscience can make a significant contribution to DRR. Further steps need to be taken to ensure that the scientific tools and models being developed can be used to their best effect by other stakeholders. Geology for Global Development will be working to play their full part in addressing these challenges, and preparing young geoscientists to contribute to DRR.


The full report can be accessed here:

An executive summary of the report can be accessed here:

Our official response:

GfGD Foresight ‘Reducing Risk of Future Disasters’ Response

Our press release:

Our storify documenting our twitter discussion:


Launch of Foresight Report: Reducing the Risk of Future Disasters.

Today the UK government released their highly anticipated foresight report into “Reducing the Risk of Future Disasters”. This report, led by the UK government’s chief scientific advisor, Sir John Beddington, looks at disasters in developing countries that have resulted from natural hazards.

The aim has been ‘to provide advice to decision makers on how science can inform the difficult choices and priorities for investing in disaster risk reduction, so that the diverse impacts of future disasters can be effectively reduced.’

The GfGD team look forward to reading through the report and discussing it’s findings. We will be hosting our first twitter discussion about the report on Saturday 1st December, at 3pm. Please join us to feed in your initial thoughts about the report. You can find us on @Geo_Dev, using the hashtag #Foresight.

We look forward to hearing from you!