Hazard and Disaster Data in the Island Nations of Pacific

The small, isolated island countries in the Pacific are highly vulnerable to natural disasters and the effects of climate change. ADB's urban development specialist Allison Woodruff explains how smart data can help countries in the region reduce and manage disaster risk.

The Pacific is one of the world’s most disaster-prone regions. The small island countries that dot this vast ocean are exposed to floods, cyclones, storm surges, and droughts as well as earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, and tsunamis. Climate change also poses a serious threat, as the region is experiencing major temperature fluctuations, changing rainfall patterns, intense storms, and rising sea levels.

“Disasters related to natural hazards pose one of the most significant development challenges for the region,” says urban development specialist Allison Woodruff at ADB’s Pacific Department. “I really got a sense of this when visiting Samoa following the 2009 tsunami. Resorts along the south coast of Upolu, once the center of the country’s tourism industry, had all been completely destroyed.”

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In a region where natural events can have such devastating consequences, effective disaster management and risk reduction are critical to protect people and the environment as well as achieve sustainable growth.

In 2007, ADB, the World Bank, and the Secretariat of the Pacific Community set up the Pacific Catastrophe Risk and Financing Initiative to provide disaster risk modeling and assessment tools for enhanced disaster risk management.

“The Pacific Catastrophe Risk and Financing Initiative is one of the key disaster risk management initiatives that ADB has been supporting in the Pacific in recent years,” says Woodruff.

The initiative builds on the principle of regional cooperation and has already collected information on ADB’s 14 developing member countries in the Pacific. This includes geographic information system datasets containing attributes of over 3 million buildings and other assets, and data on population and major crops, all of which are geo-referenced.

As such, the project has established the region’s most comprehensive historical hazard catalogue, including 115,000 earthquake and 2,500 tropical cyclone events and a historical loss database for major disasters.

The project has established the region’s most comprehensive historical hazard catalogue, including 115,000 earthquake and 2,500 tropical cyclone events and a historical loss database for major disasters.

Country-specific hazard models that simulate earthquakes (both ground-shaking and tsunamis) and tropical cyclones (wind, storm surge, and excess rainfall) are also available, along with risk maps showing the geographic distribution of potential losses.

Making the most of data

In early 2013, the World Bank launched a market-based catastrophe risk insurance scheme, which uses the Pacific data. The pilot project is designed to provide limited but rapid budget support following a major disaster. Tonga was the first of six countries participating in the pilot to receive $1.27 million, following Cyclone Ian last January.

"While the data was originally developed for the regional disaster insurance scheme and as such has some limitations in other applications, ADB has developed several additional uses for it," says Woodruff.

“For example, Pacific Catastrophe Risk and Financing Initiative can support more sustainable urban development in cities and towns by helping to identify high-risk areas where new developments should be avoided, as well as informing development controls such as building codes to ensure that critical assets can better withstand the impacts of natural hazard events,” explains Woodruff. She says Fiji's tourism hub, Nadi, and Samoa’s capital, Apia, will be used as case studies to pilot the use of  the database in urban planning and management. 

At the end of 2012, ADB approved a project providing technical assistance in building the capacity of urban planners and managers to use the Pacific data to support more resilient urban land use and development.

“Urban planners and managers are often unaware of natural hazard and climate change risk assessment tools and data that can support the development of more resilient cities and towns,” observes Woodruff. “Even if urban managers are aware of these tools, there is often weak capacity to design and implement risk reduction measures.”