Asian researchers dominate the field of disaster science, but need to collaborate with counterparts in developing countries that suffer the worst catastrophes to help build local knowledge and resilience, a new report says.

Natural disasters inflict economic losses of up to US$300 billion globally each year, according to the United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction, and an estimated 1.35 million lives have been lost in such events over the past two decades.

Elsevier, a publishing company responsible for prominent academic journals including The Lancet and Cell, analyzed more than 27,000 disaster science-related papers released globally over the past five years to give an unprecedented insight into research trends.

Its report, published on Monday, notes that nine of the ten most prolific research institutions are in Asia, probably because the region is prone to many disasters.

The biggest output in this field comes from the Chinese Academy of Sciences followed by the University of Tokyo. The first non-Asian institution on the list, Columbia University in the United States, is ranked tenth in terms of disaster science publication volume.

The report also identifies a striking disparity. Countries that suffer the most deaths from natural disasters tend to have low levels of relevant scholarly output, whereas nations with the highest economic losses – such as Japan – tend to be more prolific.

The earthquake- and hurricane-prone country of Haiti has the highest disaster death toll as a share of its population, but only 42 recent publications in the field.

“Myanmar has the second highest human death toll relative to its population but only nine recent publications in the field,” says the report, titled A Global Outlook on Disaster Science.

“Sri Lanka has the third highest human death toll relative to its population and although its scholarly output is highly specialized in disaster science, its total recent output in the field consists only of 51 papers.”

Elsevier analytical services product manager Sarah Huggett, who was one of the report’s authors, said the disconnect “raises the question of whether local research is needed to improve disaster resilience, and whether collaboration could help bridge the gap.”

“For the emerging countries most affected by disasters, the current analysis suggests that international collaboration in disaster science research would be particularly crucial, as it would help increase their scholarly output and impact in the field,” she said in a statement.

Future-proofing infrastructure

Many developing countries do not have specific funding sources for disaster research, said Dr Rajib Shaw, a professor at Japan’s Keio University and an expert adviser to the report’s authors.

While cross-country collaboration is important, he said, the report should also encourage emerging countries to build their own mechanisms for funding research.

“We always say that developing countries don’t have enough funding support, but still in some of these emerging countries they’re spending huge amounts on investment in infrastructure – bridges, roads, social infrastructure and so on,” Shaw said in a phone interview.

“It possibly needs a small amount of money, for example 1% or 2%, of that large investment to be allocated to make this infrastructure more resilient in terms of disasters.

“That possibly needs more of a mindset change. That possibly needs more advocacy. I don’t think always the amount of funding is a problem … it’s just how we try to link it with the needs of the disaster research, or how we communicate properly the need of disaster risk reduction research [and its] links to this type of infrastructure investment.”

‘Invisible disasters’

Shaw, who is a member of the United Nations International Strategy for Disaster Reduction’s Science Technology Advisory Group, said the report also showed that a large amount of the research focused on visible disasters like earthquakes, tsunamis, flooding, typhoons and hurricanes.

He would like to see a greater focus on “the invisible disasters like drought or water scarcity, gradual sea level rise, or heat wave and cold wave.”

“These are creeping disasters – it doesn’t happen in one day; it’s over a period of time,” he said.

Shaw noted that Japan’s triple-disaster in 2011 – the deadly combination of an earthquake, tsunami and nuclear meltdown in Fukushima – was an example of interlinked events. But even on a smaller scale, there were a range of flow-on effects from disasters that should be examined.

For instance, Shaw said he had been involved in research in Vietnam that showed drought was linked with a drop in children’s school attendance.

“There are also many types of cascading disasters due to climate change impacts which are possibly affecting different other issues like food security or health or even conflict between two countries or within a countries’ different communities. This type of what I call ‘connecting the dots’ in different sectors, starting with the disasters … that connection is still very much lacking.”

Earthquake risk warning

The release of the report comes days after other researchers warned of a possible increase in the likelihood of intense earthquakes next year owing to a periodic slowing of the Earth’s rotation.

In the past the cyclical slowing of the Earth’s rotation has been linked to increased numbers of quakes of magnitude 7 or greater, according to Roger Bilham from the University of Colorado Boulder and Rebecca Bendick from the University of Montana.

Their paper, published recently in the journal Geophysical Research Letters, took into account seismic data stretching back to 1900.

“The correlation between Earth’s rotation and earthquake activity is strong and suggests there is going to be an increase in numbers of intense earthquakes next year,” Bilham told the Observer newspaper in the United Kingdom last week.

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