Preventing catastrophe

Floods, fires, hurricanes, earthquakes, tsunamis: can the worst consequences be prevented?

Wollongong, 1998. Photo: John Larkin

On 17 August 1998, there was sudden downpour in Wollongong, with over 300mm of rain in a few hours. There was flash flooding; coal wash from a colliery swept through suburbs.

Some homeowners were insured; others were not. There was uproar over whether the damage was caused by storm or flood, because some companies covered only storm damage. After being shamed in the local media, some companies paid up – but not all.

The controversy over insurance coverage overshadowed a bigger issue. Should something be done to prevent damage and loss of life from such heavy rain? Wollongong is built on the edge of the ocean, in a narrow strip next to a steep rise called the Illawarra escarpment, and rain runs in torrents down the incline to the sea.

View of Wollongong from the Illawarra escarpment

When houses are built at higher elevations, displacing the tree cover, there is more runoff to the areas below, creating a greater risk of inundation. Perhaps the local government should impose stricter controls over development, or homeowners at higher elevations should pay a premium land tax to compensate for contributing to increased risk of damage to other properties.

The bigger picture

The Wollongong storm story is a small example of a much bigger problem: what should be done about so-called natural disasters? In 2011, a huge earthquake off the coast of Japan created a tsunami that killed over 15,000 people and damaged nuclear power plants. Japan sits on or near a major fault line for earthquakes.

If you want to learn more about the history of fires, floods, earthquakes and tsunamis, then check out the engaging book The Cure for Catastrophe: How We Can Stop Manufacturing Natural Disasters. The author, Robert Muir-Wood, has decades of experience in investigating disasters, often visiting sites immediately afterwards, observing destruction of buildings and noticing which construction types survived, assessing responsibility for the human deaths and casualties and seeing what reduce the impact of natural forces.

obert Muir-Wood

Much of the book is historical, telling about many of the most prominent disasters, such as the 1755 Lisbon earthquake. In earlier centuries, before the theory of plate tectonics, Aristotle was the authority, and he believed earthquakes were due to great underground hollows that opened and swallowed up buildings and people. In popular understandings, in Europe at least, disasters were seen as divine retribution. However, the Lisbon earthquake did not fit the pattern, as the city was one of the most religious at the time.

An artist’s portrayal of the Lisbon earthquake

Gradually, more empirical approaches gained support. However, the scientific study of disasters faced several obstacles. One was vested interests. After the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and fire, local merchants excised mention of earthquake and opposed funding studies of earthquake hazards, because acknowledging the risk might discourage commercial development. The disaster was named a fire and regulations were set up so buildings could withstand fire, but they remained susceptible to collapse due to fierce shaking.

Unnatural disasters

Muir-Wood says that natural disasters are not purely “natural” but always involve a social dimension. Indeed, most of the damage from disasters, physical and human, is due to human choices. Today, there is sufficient knowledge to know what to do to minimise death and damage, but often insufficient political and social will.

Fewer people died in building collapses in the Magnitude 8.8 central Chile earthquake than in the 1,000 times smaller 2009 L’Aquila earthquake in central Italy. After fifty years of investment in world-class schools of engineering, and by strictly enforcing tough building codes, Chile today has some of the safest earthquake-resistant building stock in the world. (p. 172)

In some locations, disasters are frequent enough that people should stay away. It makes no sense to rebuild in a floodplain unless there are ways to prevent flooding. But after a few decades, people forget the previous disaster and profit-seeking developers carry the day.

The Netherlands offers the best example of effective disaster prevention. With much of the land below sea level, the country relies on dykes to prevent inundation. In case the dykes are breached, there are plans for secondary defence of life and property. What is especially significant in the Netherlands is that the potential for disaster had a profound effect on the political system, with all involved in a cooperative effort to protect the country. The potential for disaster in this case generated a special form of political cooperation.

Flood control in the Netherlands

Muir-Wood describes the rise of insurance systems. Initially, competition between insurance companies was ruinous: some would gain business by offering low premiums and then go bankrupt when a disaster required large payouts. Gradually, insurance companies adopted scientific approaches, calculating premiums in a realistic way. They also led to the emergence of reinsurance, insurance for insurance companies. Reinsurers have a special interest in disaster planning, and can apply pressure to adopt policies that reduce damage in a disaster.

Muir-Wood says that, ultimately, affluence is a cure for catastrophe, because people are willing to pay to reduce risks. Just as important, though, is corruption prevention. In many countries, there are laws governing housing construction to reduce the risk of collapse in an earthquake, but the laws are routinely ignored: bribery enables dangerous construction to continue. In such circumstances, campaigns against corruption have the potential to save many lives.

Construction codes and suitable technologies can greatly reduce vulnerability to disasters. So can warning systems. Yet another vital step is to stop contributing to the likelihood of disasters. The most significant item here is global warming, which is increasing the sea level and the likelihood of damaging storms. There are sophisticated models to calculate the contribution of climate change to natural disasters. Disaster mitigation includes campaigning to reduce the emission of greenhouse gases.

When insurance companies refuse to cover certain hazards, this can have an impact, for example reducing the value of houses in areas subject to flooding. Whether insurance is available, and how much it costs, thus can be a signal about the need for disaster planning.

The 2010 Haiti earthquake: more than 200,000 people died

Unnatural disasters, take two

Muir-Wood does not address disasters primarily created by technology. A good example is nuclear power. There is no private insurance available for nuclear reactor accidents. In the 1950s, the US government passed the Price-Anderson Act exempting electricity utilities from full and immediate liability for reactor accidents. This served as a financial prop for the nuclear industry: prices would have increased if commercially calculated rates had to be paid to cover the exceedingly rare but exceedingly expensive costs of a major nuclear accident. Some analysts have recommended that nuclear power plants be built underground to reduce the damage from a meltdown accident. This has not been done, indicating that governments are subsidising nuclear power, with people and the environment occasionally paying the price, as at Chernobyl and Fukushima.

Across the world, there is another catastrophe that is unnatural, yet all too familiar: war. Many of the world’s top scientists and engineers toil away to produce deadly weapons, and arms factories pump out everything from small arms to missiles. Although popular concern about nuclear war faded after the 1980s and the end of the cold war, there remain over 10,000 nuclear weapons with the potential to kill hundreds of millions of people. The cure for catastrophe in this case is not more weapons or more treaties, but rather disarmament. The most important tool against war is peace activism, but it receives little funding compared to the war system.

One of the important messages from The Cure for Catastrophe is that most of the consequences of natural disasters are not “natural” but rather depend on human choices, for example about where and how to build housing. The same applies to unnatural hazards of nuclear, chemical, biological and other creations. It is an interesting thought experiment to apply the principles of disaster planning and insurance to the risk of war.


Bad outcomes were determined, researchers were discovering, not so much by the earthquake or hurricane itself as by the nature of the society affected – its inequalities, poverty, education, and preparedness. Disasters were “manifestations of unresolved development problems,” and the flood or cyclone was a trigger. The problem of disasters would not be solved by focusing on the hazards alone. (p. 212)

Brian Martin