Disaster data is a disaster, but not for long (part 1)

A conversation with Julio Serje – UNISDR data scientist

Part 1 of 4

In 2017 Whitespace was selected by UNISDR to work on a project of global importance. We were tasked with designing a prototype for a system that would allow Nation States to monitor progress on targets and indicators for the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction 2015-2030.


The Sendai Framework is a 15-year, voluntary, non-binding agreement which recognizes that the State has the primary role to reduce disaster risk but that responsibility should be shared with other stakeholders including local government, the private sector and other stakeholders. It aims for the following outcome:

The substantial reduction of disaster risk and losses in lives, livelihoods and health and in the economic, physical, social, cultural and environmental assets of persons, businesses, communities and countries.


This large and ambitious project gave us the opportunity to collaborate with some brilliant and dedicated people at UNISDR, among them Julio Serje. Julio is a leading expert on Sendai and is the creator of DesInventar, “a tool for generating National Disaster Inventories and constructing databases that capture information on damage, loss and general effects of disasters.”

Julio was kind enough to share his perspective on the challenges facing today’s disaster risk reduction (DRR) stakeholders, as well as the opportunities created by Sendai and the recently launched Sendai Framework Monitor.

Whitespace: 2017 was another big year for disasters. Over the summer we witnessed hurricanes and earthquakes that caused enormous human suffering and economic loss in the Caribbean, United States, and Mexico. And we’ve had several high-profile disasters in the recent past, from the Indian Ocean Tsunami in 2004, to the earthquakes in Pakistan and Haiti, to the Fukushima nuclear incident in 2011. Given the shocking nature of these individual events and the dramatic media coverage they receive, are we losing sight of the bigger picture?

Julio Serje: I like how you put it; we’ve definitely lost sight of the bigger picture. Sometimes, the big trees don’t let you see that there’s a lot of small trees, that it’s a much more complex panorama than what you see. These big things, as you say, make people think – and unfortunately make many governments think – that the big thing is big disasters. That causes them to reason in two ways.

One, that most of the political agenda is now geared towards looking into these large-scale disasters because these are the disasters that give or take political gains. Because these are the ones where governments and politicians will be mostly looked at and judged by. However, this is what we’ve been trying to do for years, namely to take that smoke curtain away and help people look at extensive risk. The word has actually spread and now many many people are starting to use the term when they talk about disaster risk reduction. This is something that we keep pushing for. However, in the political agenda, working to reduce extensive risk is not as important for politicians as responding to these large-scale disasters.

Whitespace: So you’re saying that the short-term, “react and respond” nature of these large-scale disasters gets more attention than the long-term, proactive, risk reduction approach?

Julio Serje: That’s one thing. The second thing is that, for example, in India, a year ago when the big cyclone happened, they were saying, “Look, 20 years ago we lost 20,000 people in an event like this, now it was only 120.” Which means that the preparations for large-scale disasters can be very successful and can be used politically for the gain of those who are doing the risk reduction; which is fair and we are very happy about it.

However, that doesn’t happen with extensive risk. There is no political gain because today for mitigating small and medium disasters because they are not newsworthy. The importance in the news of these small and medium disasters is never comparable to what a large scale disaster can do. On one hand, the cumulative damage of extensive risk is huge, but on the other side is not visible, which seems to be a contradiction but it’s true. This is what is really stopping the actions towards the big picture as you were correctly pointing out. The big picture is to be able to work on what we call the strata of risk. You have to work at the different layers of risk, and this is what we call a holistic approach.

Large-scale disasters will continue to happen. But we cannot forget those small frequent and infrequent disasters. One major achievement, I believe, of the work that we’ve done is that these words are expressly stated in design of the Sendai Framework. And they are starting to permeate the awareness of many politicians and disaster risk reduction practitioners around the world. Hopefully, it will improve.


It’s absolutely unrealistic to think that we’ll meet the SDG targets if countries aren’t better prepared to reduce disaster risk. (Julio Serje)


Whitespace: Can you clarify for us what you mean by extensive risk?

Julio Serje: Extensive risk is these smaller but much more frequent disasters – local landslides, local flash foods, small floods, episodes of heavy rain – that make a lot of damage but are very localized. They are not countrywide, nor do they have a huge mortality or cause a large amount of destruction. In fact they are relatively small and usually contained. But the key is that they are also very frequent, and the cumulative damage of these small and medium, but very frequent disasters is huge.

Based on data that we have collected in many countries, we have compared the impact of these small and medium disasters in economic terms, and the costs are almost as big as the impacts of large scale disasters. In terms of mortality, large-scale disasters bring intensive risk; they still concentrate most of the mortality because their nature. But in terms of economic damage, extensive disasters are huge.

Extensive disasters mostly affect the poor populations. Because the poor are the ones who are living in disaster-prone areas, in vulnerable conditions, in places that are exposed, this is where the damage is happening. And unfortunately, it’s where people are poverty trapped. In fact, these disasters are a major factor that keep people in poverty. It’s a vicious cycle that has to be broken if the Sustainable Development Goals that the world has set up for the next 15 years are to be reached.




Whitespace: Would you agree with the Secretary General when he says that it’s going to be very difficult to meet these SDGs with countries always facing these disasters?

Julio Serje: Yes, it’s absolutely unrealistic to think that we’ll meet the SDG targets if countries aren’t better prepared to reduce disaster risk. This is something that is already on the minds of many people. But again, probably some of these statements are still based on the concept of large-scale disasters. The statement that the SDGs will never be achieved in countries that are constantly being flattened and rebuild has to be extended to the micro level.

In mathematics, there’s a way to describe this which is the word “fractal”. A fractal is something that resembles itself at a smaller scale. A good example of this is a tree. A branch of a tree is also very similar to a tree. It has a main trunk and branches, and these branches have a trunk and smaller branches and so on and so forth. There are many examples of fractals in nature, and disasters are also a fractal. The media and politicians are looking only at the big ones, but as you go down in scale you will find very similar things that happen at different scales.


This article is continued in Part 2.