Geology for Global Development

Geology for Global Development

Guest Blog: Earthquake Risk Reduction in Bangladesh

Dr Susanne Sargeant works as a seismologist for the British Geological Survey. Susanne is undertaking work on the enhancement of knowledge exchange between earthquake scientists and NGOs for disaster risk reduction, preparedness and response. Her research is an excellent example of the integration of geoscience and development, and she is a member of GfGD’s Advisory Group. Here Susanne guest blogs for us about her recent trip to Bangladesh to run an earthquake risk management training course.

Bangladesh comes to meet us before we’re even out of the airport in Dhaka. The place is so full of energy and bustle it’s as if life is tripping over itself (and the luggage carousel) in its rush to be lived. Despite not being much bigger than England, Bangladesh is home to over 160 million people, and around 16 million live in Dhaka, the capital. In terms of natural hazards, Bangladesh is typically associated with destructive, sometimes devastating, cyclones and floods. The last major storm to affect the region was Cyclone Sidr in November 2007, which killed as many as 10,000 people.

What is generally less well known is that Bangladesh also has a long history of large, deadly earthquakes. This reflects the country’s position within the collision zone between India and Eurasia. The top ten largest earthquakes for Bangladesh and southernmost Himalayas, for which there are records, includes earthquakes in Chittagong (1762 8.0 M and 1865 6.8 M), Eastern Bengal (1868, 7.5 M),  Lower Assam (1897, c. 8.7 M), Srimingal (1918, 7.6 M), northern Bangladesh (1923, 7.1 M), Dhubri (1930, 7.1 M). There have been no earthquakes greater than magnitude 7 since 1930 and the country is holding its breath for the next one…

Besides relatively high levels of seismic hazard, particularly in the east of the country, vulnerability to earthquakes is also high. General population increase, high levels of rural-to-urban migration, competition for space and the drive to maintain economic growth are (at least partly) responsible for rapid urban expansion, poor construction practices and the use of poor quality land. Vulnerability is increasing and there is significant potential for a massive earthquake-related disaster here.

Typical construction in Dakha

As a seismologist at the British Geological Survey, and a NERC Knowledge Exchange fellow, my work focuses on finding ways to ensure that our scientific understanding of earthquakes has maximum impact on decision-making (from government to community level) and people’s behaviour. In Bangladesh I’m working with Concern Worldwide to increase the way in which earthquake information is used in their operations. In November 2012, I was in Dhaka with Willie McMartin, Operational Director for the International Rescue Corps (IRC), to deliver an earthquake risk management training course to country staff from Concern, Plan International, Oxfam, Save the Children, Islamic Relief and Action Aid.

Participants on the earthquake risk training course

Willie worked as a fire officer in the UK for over thirty-seven years and is one of the founder members of the International Rescue Corps, a UK-based urban search and rescue charity. IRC regularly respond to a whole range of international disasters and since 1985 Willie has been involved in the response to twenty-four, including many earthquakes (e.g. Armenia 1988, El Salvador 2001, Gujurat 2001, Muzaffarabad 2005). Between us, we hoped that during the training it would be possible to increase general understanding of earthquakes  and raise awareness of the earthquake threat in Bangladesh, consider the potential impact on these organisations, their staff and operations, and help the participants to be better prepared when an earthquake happens either at home or at work.

To be honest, it was a bit of an experiment. This is the first time that Willie and I have worked together (and the first time I had delivered any training) and we weren’t sure how our different fields of expertise would fit together. Luckily, we’re both happy to improvise and as it turned out, we (Willie, the participants and I) spent a really rewarding and enjoyable three days working together and learning from each other. In fact, we’ve now set up a working group so that we can continue to work together and share information.

As a hazard scientist, I learnt a valuable lesson too: living somewhere where a potentially devastating earthquake could happen is frightening – especially when you have no control over construction practices and compliance with building codes. That’s where someone like Willie comes in, with the experience and understanding to give people hope that there is something they can do to protect themselves and their families if an earthquake happens tomorrow.  Implementing building codes and issues around non-compliance are tougher nuts to crack.


You can find out more about Susanne and Willies trip through the IRC blog.

You can read more about the vulnerability to natural disasters in Bangladesh here.

The International Association for Promoting Geoethics

As geoscientists we have to consider the human impact of the decisions we make throughout our careers. There are many circumstances that require us to  consider and discuss the ethical code of our profession. Developing the necessary soft skills and creating a forum for the discussion of ethical issues is one of the aims of Geology for Global Development.

The International Association for Promoting Geoethics (IAPG) is working to raise the profile of ethics within the geoscience community. The IAPG aims make geoscientists more conscious of their role and responsibilities, and inform society about environmental and resource issues. One area which particularly stands out to us is their theme of “organizing effective teaching tools to develop awareness, values and responsibility, especially amongst young people.”

Research into geoethics is often considered ‘low profile’ compared with traditional geoscience research, and fails to make it into the public domain in the form of journal articles. The IAPG has ensures that research gets due credit and discussion. The IAPG are active at conferences, and you can find them at the upcoming international groundwater conference and the 2013 EGU annual meeting.

GfGD will be following the work of the IAPG with interest, and we look forward to possible future collaborations in areas where our work may overlap.


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: