In recent years, the world has experienced a record number of back-to-back natural disasters. In the U.S. over 110 large fires burned throughout the country last summer alone, with California facing its deadliest heat wave ever. One study found that the area affected by forest fires in the West has more than doubled over the past 30 years, with Washington state having experienced the most damaging fire in state history in 2015. Hurricane Harvey and Irma brought devastation to Texas, the Caribbean and Florida last year, wreaking widespread havoc and earning Harvey earning the reputation of the costliest disaster in U.S. history. Southeast Asia suffered catastrophic flooding in 2017, killing 1200 people, displacing tens of thousands and causing more than $3.5 billion in total losses. Then there was the recent earthquake and tsunami in Japan that contributed to losses of over $354 billion in today’s dollars, the extreme heatwave of Europe and California’s severe drought of 2017. According to global insurance firm Swiss Re, economic loss in 2017 were estimated at $306 billion – almost double 2016’s loss and also much higher than the 10-year-average of $190 billion.
And the verdict is in. Scientific studies are beginning to reveal that climate change is exacerbating the naturally-occurring risks we already face as inhabitants of planet Earth. Extreme event attribution is one of the most rapidly expanding fields of climate science, with one major conclusion being drawn by those studying it: extreme weather events are here to stay.
So how do we prepare for what lies ahead? The answer is one that, ironically, is perhaps responsible for getting us to where we are today. Technology.
Technology can help solve inefficiencies within humanitarian responses to natural disasters. Next gen technology such as robotics and AI can help improve the efficiency and productivity (in terms of cost savings) to emergency responses, as well as allow humanitarian organizations to share data in order to better collaborate with other organizations. Through technologies that enable electronic payments, people in need of fast and secure cash relief can be helped quicker than ever before. But perhaps aiding the coordination and communication effort following a disaster is where we see technology have the most impact. Be it for relief workers on the ground, families seeking loved ones, authorities wishing to locate the missing or hospitals trying to treat the injured, traditional communication channels are often overloaded or broken down and unable to be used during times of crisis. ‘Crisis maps’ is one example of a Google-owned product that works to aid emergency communications and disaster response, using open-source software with information provided live by locals to develop maps of the crisis and publish real time information regarding the impact. Through this platform, messages and texts submitted by those trapped under rubble are able to be heard, enabling quick and efficient response by rescue teams. In the U.S., there are countless apps geared towards survival and rescue during an emergency. The official FEMA app is one example, which allows users to stay updated with weather-related alerts from the U.S. National Weather Service as well as upload and share disaster photos to support the emergency response effort. In a more generalized way, social media can also help save lives and reconnect separated families in the wake of a natural disaster – as well as enable communities to hold agencies to account by spreading awareness of abuse or poor conditions in refugee camps.
Early warning systems and capabilities via mobile technology can also allow people to prepare for oncoming disasters. For example, had Somalia, Kenya, and Ethiopia utilized early action systems they could have avoided as many as 100,000 deaths during the most recent famine, more than half of which were children, one Oxfam and Save The Children study found.
Technology can also facilitate the development of materials and products that prevent damage inflicted by natural disasters. Bushfire shutters, for example, are designed to withstand extreme heat, preventing windows from shattering and causing curtains or furniture to catch aflame. This significantly reduces the risk of houses of being burnt down during a bushfire, which can potentially save lives. Better yet, the technology of today can converge architectural, engineering and geo-spatial data to put into place better town planning, enabling builders, architects and government to prioritize restoration efforts in the wake of a natural disaster – as well as better plan towns to prevent further damage by natural disasters.
Technology can also help us mitigate climate change through innovations such as renewable energy, in order to reduce the risk climate change poses in terms of natural disasters. Finding and harnessing alternative energy sources are key to reducing our dependency on fossil fuels and in turn, reduce our greenhouse gas emissions. Through tech innovation we will see the complete transformation of the automation industry into one that uses resources more efficiently to reduce waste, pollution, energy usage and use of raw materials. Technology can also allow for large scale growth of lab-developed meats, lessening our dependence on livestock farming which contributes significantly to global warming and uses valuable amounts of land and water.
We simply need to harness all the incredible opportunities technology presents us in order to better cope with the inevitable increase of climate change-related natural disasters we will experience in our lifetime.