Natural hazards and resilience

Natural disasters

What’s the challenge?

Natural hazards such as earthquakes occur around the world and when combined with people create natural disasters. How can we improve our response and ensure vulnerable communities are protected as much as possible?

Read about myths and disasters in disaster situations

Read about the eruption of Eyjafjallajökull volcano in Iceland

Read about what lessons are being learnt from natural disasters

Read about vulnerability to natural hazards

Storm surge

A storm surge can cause widespread coastal flooding resulting from the low pressure, high winds and high tides associated with a storm or hurricane. Low pressure causes sea level to rise by about 1 cm every 1 millibar change in pressure. High winds and tides pushes the ocean water towards the coast causing widespread flooding. Storm surges are dangerous. In 2005 hurricane Katrina had a storm surge of 8m which breached the sea defences and caused coastal flooding which killed 1800 people and damaged lots of the infrastructure and environment in New Orleans.


A storm surge can cause widespread coastal flooding resulting from the low pressure, high winds and high tides associated with a storm or hurricane. Low pressure causes sea level to rise by about 1 cm every 1 millibar change in pressure. High winds and tides pushes the ocean water towards the coast causing widespread flooding.

Storm surges are dangerous. In 2005 hurricane Katrina had a storm surge of 8m which breached the sea defences and caused coastal flooding which killed 1800 people and damaged loA tsunami is a series of huge waves caused by a displacement of large body of water. Earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, underwater explosions, landslides, glacier carvings, meteorite impacts among other disturbances have the potential to create a tsunami.

In 2004 the Indian ocean tsunami was caused by a underwater earthquake with the magnitude of 9.1 along the Indian / Burman plate boundary in the Indian Ocean. The tsunami’s 30m waves had worldwide effects, killing over 230,000 people in 14 countries due to coastal flooding and $14 billion of damage. ts of the infrastructure and environment in New Orleans.

Post-glacial rebound

Post-glacial rebound (or continental rebound, glacial isostacy) is the land masses following the removal of large ice masses. Large glacier or ice sheets, put a large force upon the land causing it to tilt. Once the ice mass has been removed the land rises or sinks through a process known as glacier isostatic adjustment. This change in land height causes relative changes in sea level which could enhance coastal flooding if the land is sinking.

In the UK the south is sinking and the north is rising following the retreat of the last british ice sheet during the last ice age around 200,000 years ago. Southern areas of the UK are sinking up to 5cm per century and are causing up to a 10cm rise in sea levels.

Coastal flooding globally

Climate change, urbanisation and subsiding land are leading to dangerous and costly flooding globally. Coastal flooding could cost $1 trillion a year globally in flood damage if no action is taken against promoting it. The top 5 cities around the world which are at greatest coastal flood risk are:

Guangzhou, China
New York
New Orleans

Panel discussion

The Royal Geographical Society (with IBG) held a panel discussion on 25 May 2010 to discuss the issue.

Dame Barbara Stocking, Chief Executive, Oxfam GB
Barbara Stocking joined Oxfam GB as Chief Executive in May 2001. Oxfam GB is a major international non-government organisation whose mission is “to work with others to overcome poverty and suffering”. Barbara has provided strong leadership within the organisation, including the Oxfam International confederation; and across the international development sector, during the last seven years.

Since January 2008 Barbara has been Chair of the Steering Committee for Humanitarian Response (SCHR), an alliance for voluntary action of currently nine major international humanitarian organisations. Barbara is a member of the UN Inter Agency Standing Committee for Humanitarian Action (IASC), and of the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) High Level External Committee on Millennium Development Goals. She was one of 75 women leaders to attend the International Women Leaders Global Security Summit in New York, in November 2007. In 2007, Barbara was a member of the BBC’s impartiality panel on business coverage, led by Sir Alan Budd.

Previously a member of the top management team of the National Health Service, in her eight years with the NHS, Barbara worked as regional director and then as Director of the NHS Modernisation Agency. Barbara has a Masters degree in physiology, and has broad experience of healthcare systems, policy and practice, including periods at the National Academy of Sciences in the USA and with the World Health Organisation in West Africa. Barbara was awarded a Dame Commander of the British Empire (DBE) in the 2008 Queen’s Birthday Honours List.

Cameron Sinclair, Co-Founder, Architecture for Humanity
Cameron Sinclair trained as an architect at the University of Westminster and at the Bartlett School of Architecture, University College London. During his studies Sinclair developed an interest in social, cultural and humanitarian design. His postgraduate thesis focused on providing shelter to New York’s homeless through sustainable, transitional housing. After his studies, he moved to New York where he worked as a designer and project architect.

In 1999 Sinclair co-founded Architecture for Humanity, which seeks architectural solutions to humanitarian crises and brings design services to communities in need. Currently the organization is working in a dozen countries on projects ranging from health centers in Sub-Saharan Africa, community centers in Southeast Asia to low-income housing on the Gulf Coast of the United States. In 2007 Architecture for Humanity launched the Open Architecture Network, the worlds’ first online community dedicated to improving living conditions through innovative and sustainable design.

He has spoken at a number of international business and design conferences on sustainable development and post-disaster reconstruction, including guest appearances on BBC World Service and CNN International, National Public Radio and PBS.

In 2003 Sinclair was named a Nice Modernist by Dwell Magazine. He is a recipient of the ASID Design for Humanity award and the Lewis Mumford Award for Peace. In 2004 Fortune Magazine named him as one of the Aspen Seven, seven people changing the world for the better, and in 2006 Sinclair was named one of three winners of the TED Prize, which honors visionaries from any field who have shown they can “positively impact life on this planet.” Together with co-founder Kate Stohr he accepted the 2008 Cooper-Hewitt Smithsonian National Design Patron Award in honor of the work of Architecture for Humanity, its chapters, volunteers and design fellows.

Architecture for Humanity(AfH) is a nonprofit design services firm founded by Cameron Sinclair in 1999. An organisation who helping to build a more sustainable future through the power of professional design.

By tapping a network of more than 40,000 professionals willing to lend time and expertise to help those who would not otherwise be able to afford their services, Architecture for Humanity brings design, construction and development services where they are most critically needed, focusing particularly on post disaster regions such as Haiti, New Orleans, India and Sri Lanka.

Each year 10,000 people directly benefit from structures designed by Architecture for Humanity with their advocacy, training and outreach programs impact an additional 50,000 people annually. Channelling the resources of the global funding community to meaningful projects that make a difference locally. From conception to completion, Architecture fo Humanity manage all aspects of the design and construction process. They work with community groups, aid organizations, housing developers, government agencies, corporate divisions, and foundations.



Professor David Sanderson, Director, Centre for Development and Emergency Practice (CENDEP), Oxford Brookes University

David’s professional experience lies in urban poverty, disaster risk reduction and livelihoods. He has undertaken work for the UK Government’s Department for International Development (DFID), Disasters Emergency Committee (DEC), European Commission (DiPECHO, EC), United States Agency for International Development (USAID), World Bank (EDI Section), United Nations (UNDP/UNDESA), Action by Churches Together (ACT), British Council, Christian Aid, Tear Fund and the Mott Foundation.

David has been Director of CENDEP since 2006. CENDEP’s award-winning Masters degree in Development and Emergency Practice is known and respected for its practice base and strong culture of student and practitioner collaboration. Since its founding in 1991 the Masters degree has established an international reputation for excellence. In that time well over 500 students have attended the programme from all around the world, with many going on to hold wide-ranging positions in community based groups, NGOs, UN and donor bodies, governments and the military.

The programme is above all multi-disciplinary: each year students come from all kinds of backgrounds and walks of life. While many have extensive experience working within aid agencies and are looking to make sense of their experience, others may be wanting to become engaged in issues of poverty, development, conflict and disaster. Others still may have found themselves caught up in emergencies and are now looking to refocus their careers.

“To reduce vulnerability and the scale of a disaster the key relates to community cohesion, community knowledge, skills and the education of girls. The stuff of development.” Professor David Sanderson

“…as we find cities get denser and people are living stacked on top of one another and getting denser and denser, the issue is land. This problem comes to the fore following a disaster. It’s a real problem and one the aid agencies are really grappling with. Professor David Sanderson

Robert Hodgson, Chair of RedR International

Robert Hodgson joined RedR in 1980. He is a civil and geotechnical engineer working independently with a number of consultancies, including Patrons Black & Veatch, with whom he originally trained.

Robert has been a member of RedR since its inception and has undertaken numerous assignments with a range of client agencies. His day-job is as a civil engineering consultant, who specialises in ground investigations and design of earth structures and foundations for water infrastructure. He also coordinates research into low-cost housing at the University of Exeter and is Clerk to Uplowman Parish Council. He has a passion for community involvement at all levels and promotes community links through Devon Aid, a charity established in 1986.

“Haiti has been the biggest thing I have confronted…we saw a capital city wiped out”

Brendan Gormley, chief executive, Disasters Emergency Committee (DEC)

The Disasters Emergency Committee (DEC) was formed in 1963 and is an umbrella organisation for 13 humanitarian aid agencies:

ActionAid / British Red Cross / CAFOD / Care International UK / Christian Aid / Concern Worldwide / Help the Aged / Islamic Relief / Merlin / Oxfam / Save the Children / Tearfund / World Vision

At times of overseas emergency, the DEC brings together a unique alliance of the UK’s aid, corporate, public and broadcasting sectors to rally the nation’s compassion, and ensure that funds raised go to DEC agencies best placed to deliver effective and timely relief to people most in need.

The DEC’s remit is to unite agency efforts in times of disaster – such as flood, earthquake or famine – wherever it happens in the world. The way we at DEC approach our work is to maximise funds raised and ensure they are spent in an effective and fully accountable way.

The DEC is also supported by a network of television and radio broadcasters, the banks, the Post Office, BT, regional and national press and a range of organisations in the corporate sector. These organisations help the DEC at the time of an appeal, to publicise the situation and raise funds.

DEC appeals are reserved for major disasters and emergencies which cannot be dealt with by the usual in-country coping mechanisms, and where DEC agencies are in a position to respond quickly and effectively. Our DEC Decision-making guidelines are used to ensure that a national joint appeal is the appropriate response to a particular emergency.

At the time of appeal, we coordinate a strategic response with our members and Rapid Response Network partners, organising a national fundraising appeal to finance urgently needed humanitarian relief.

“Haiti has been the biggest thing I have confronted. We saw a capital city wiped out.” Brendan Gormley

Further reading

Resilience and vulnerability in development, Daniel Morchain, Oxfam for ‘Ask the experts’,

Environmental risk in the urban south, Dr Gemma Sou for ‘Ask the experts’,

Impact of natural disasters, Geography Directions A journey along the world’s most dangerous fault lines, documenting the intriguing and perilous lives of those who live along them, Fault Line Living is an expedition and multi media project commissioned by the Royal Geographical Society (with IBG) and Land Rover.

Haiti Kids Kino Project (HKKP)

OpenStreetMap – Project Haiti

Bureau for Crisis Prevention and Recovery (BCPR)