This anonymous essay was submitted to Open Philanthropy's Cause Exploration Prizes contest and posted to the Forum with the authors' permission.

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Summary

Investment in the detection, prevention, preparedness, and relief, in descending order, of natural disasters might be a priority for philanthropic efforts on or above the scale of identified causes in the Health and Wellbeing category. The importance of all four, in terms of the long-term future of humanity, is indisputable.

While disaster relief is a highly publicized field, with organizations such as the Red Cross, and Direct Relief prominent in the area, detection, prevention, and preparedness are often neglected. Based on the shallow investigation, I believe these three are all tractable, with global disaster preparedness and detection (i.e. improved risk evaluation of subduction zones) as better candidates for investment than prevention. Asides from funding disaster preparedness efforts in developing economies, funding research into natural disasters, including the improvement of public information systems and broadcasting, information flow between governments, prediction and forecasting, and resilience measures, could reach the impact bar.

Impact

First I’d like to establish the importance of avoiding (or preparing for) for natural disasters as a whole. Referencing this report from 2015, “DALY Measure of the Direct Impact of Natural Disasters”, natural disasters claim a yearly average of 42 million lifeyears, putting it on square footing with current focus areas.

The global impact of natural disasters is estimated to be 2.1 trillion dollars, making effective philanthropy work in the field promising. Moreover, low-income countries tend to be more poorly prepared, and susceptible to its effects. Focusing exclusively on highly impactful natural disasters, such as hurricanes, floods, and drought, and providing sustainable investments to combat both initial effects and longer environmental impacts over the long term seems to be a promising approach, even in high income countries.

An estimate for global natural disasters from 2015. DALY is a difficult concept to quantify when the risks in question affect infrastructure, leading the author to discount
financial damages by a factor of four:

We use the monetary amount of financial damages, and divide it by the monetary amount obtained in a full year of human effort. To proxy for this last quantity, we use income per capita as an indicator of the cost of human effort in each country-year, but discount this measure by 75%, as much of human activity is not spent in gainful employment.

https://voxeu.org/article/daly-measure-direct-impact-natural-disasters

The article notes that the vast majority of natural disasters occur in East Asia and the Pacific, shown in blue above. This dominance is probably because of the region’s multitude of extreme events like flooding, and the high population density in these exposed areas.

Beyond relief efforts

As FEMA admits, natural disaster intervention has largely been reactive, especially in low income countries but also in high income ones. In addition, the science behind natural disasters and underlying public knowledge is severely undeveloped.

One example is the growing awareness in recent years of an earthquake developing in the Cascadia Subduction Zone on the upper West Coast (Northern California, Oregon, Washington, and British Columbia), which has a high likelihood of going off in the next 50 years (According to this analysis, between 7%-41%. The New Yorker cites a one in three chance of a 8.0-8.6 quake, and a one in ten chance of a 8.7 to 9.2 quake).

The actual consequences of the quake, in social and cultural terms, is unknown and suited only for speculation, but we can use it as an example of the stark contrast between official recommendations and the actual preparedness of the public.

One common mistaken belief in locally cataclysmic events like earthquakes is that, similar to wilderness survival guidelines, three days of supplies are recommended. The current official recommendation is for two weeks of water and food (during which medical services might be disrupted, public infrastructure and institutions inaccessible, and societal collapse taken place) but they acknowledge it might take even longer to restore normal services. The two weeks recommendation is more of a basic, or a bare minimum requirement. source

FEMA (one of the most well-funded emergency management agencies in the world, in one of the most wealthy countries in the world) instead uses a baseline called Resilient Citizen status. This measures whether a household could survive on their own (with no outside help) for at least 31 days. According to FEMA and Cornell study on prepper demographics, within the United States (n=5000), just 3.8% of households were counted as a Resilient Citizen (RC) in 2017. That grew to 4.5% in 2018, then 5.2% in 2019.

Another interesting note is this article on the irony of the discovery of the Cascadia quake Even with the eruption of Mt. Saint Helens in 1980, people assumed that the Cascadia Fault line was dormant.

How bad would the Cascadia earthquake be? FEMA estimates that thirteen thousand people will die in the Cascadia earthquake and tsunami, with 27,000 injured, and shelter provided for a million displaced people. This would be the worst natural disaster in the history of North America, and cripple segments of the Pacific Northwest economy. "Kenneth Murphy, who directs FEMA’s Region X, the division responsible for Oregon, Washington, Idaho, and Alaska, says, “Our operating assumption is that everything west of Interstate 5 will be toast.” And yet, as the New Yorker puts it, “thirty years ago, no one knew that the Cascadia subduction zone had ever produced a major earthquake. Forty-five years ago, no one even knew it existed.”

Financially, this Report from ODOT on the solely transportation-related impacts of the Cascadia Subduction Zone says that “with no preparation ahead of time, Oregon could lose up to $355 billion in gross state product in the 8 to 10 year period after the event. Proactive investment in bridge strengthening and landslide mitigation reduces this loss between 10% and 24% over the course of the eight years simulated for this analysis.” They project a very positive benefit/cost ratio of 46, with a program budget size of 1.8 billion and a focus on bridges and landslides. Given that Oregon is a wealthy state in a wealthy nation, it stands to reason similar interventions in fast growing but vulnerable economies would get returns magnitudes higher.

Consider the bias here. This probability is for a reoccurring, predictable, earthquake next to major population centers (Seattle, Tacoma, Portland, Eugene) of one of the most developed nations in the world. Aside from the horrifying consequences of this individual disaster, the inevitable conclusion is that there is a high uncertainty underlying seismic research as a whole. That is, there is a high chance that we may never have discovered this specific earthquake without scientists who cared about where they lived. Extrapolating to other population centers, many of which are high density and low income in the Pacific Rim, and located on fault lines, the number of at-risk population for a cataclysmic event increases dramatically (see this map). There are 76 subduction zone segments that have been identified worldwide, and virtually all major subduction zones have the potential to produce earthquakes >= 8.5 Richter source.

One example here from the USGS collaboration with South American colleagues states that over 160 million people in South America (in particular: Venezuela, Colombia, Ecuador, and Peru) face elevated risk from seismic activity. Here’s an example of a recently discovered microplate in South America (in the Carribean subduction zone) through a recently installed GPS system, which has the capability to produce a 8.0 earthquake every 600 years. As the paper says:

the study “provides the first evidence of a shallow locked region south of Cartagena,” Lizarazo said. “This indicates that this segment of the Caribbean-South America plate boundary in northwestern Colombia can be the locus of significant earthquake and tsunami hazard.”

It goes on to remark on the need for fully what the hazard potential might be:

fully evaluate this hazard potential, researchers need to conduct large-scale geological mapping, and look for evidence of past tsunamis and large earthquakes in the region, among other studies. “It is also necessary to continue with the densification of the GPS network in the country, increasing its coverage and operation in real time,” Lizarazo said.

It seems very possible that a similar fault to the Cascadia subduction zone could be discovered, putting millions of people at risk.

Quick note

Open Philanthropy, while planning for long-term existential risk, and for global health and wellbeing, seems to overlook disaster preparedness and research (earthquakes above are a because it seems too conventional. Natural disasters preparedness seem to be left to the government, government agencies, and relief to traditional nonprofit organizations. On the forum, there is very little attention to disaster research, or preparedness on the whole. This long-term viewpoint was the only result I could find when I looked up Effective Altruism’s response on earthquake events. This seems like an oversight, considering the high impact, relative neglect, and the potential for high tractability in disaster preparedness and research.

Additionally, the climate change-aggravated effects of natural disasters are going to increase over the next hundred years, with an upper boundary of a revenue loss of 2 trillion dollars yearly for the United States, according to this Office of Management and Budget statement from the White House, citing an analysis by the Network for Greening the Financial System . This number seems unreliable and I was unable to find the original source, so I’m not going to be using it further. However, it is broadly true that climate change will make weather-related disasters occur more frequently and preparedness and research more important.

Who is already working on it/ What could a new philanthropist do?

The public generally views their government as in charge of natural disasters, and there are many charities and philanthropic efforts supplementing natural disaster relief. The main area of interest here is disaster research, and preparedness, and that is where the majority of media attention isn’t.

Spending on disaster relief consistently outweighs preparedness, and both far outweigh disaster research. Within the US, between 2005 and 2017, FEMA spent $81 billion directly on natural disaster relief. A total of $37 billion went towards preparedness and mitigation for future disasters. For context, the budget of the USGS, responsible for monitoring and reporting on earthquakes, was 1.7 billion this year. (Even this lopsided ratio is acknowledged as incomplete by FEMA: “as opposed to being included in the annual budget, many disaster relief and preparedness programs are funded through emergency appropriations bills.” A look at FEMA’s natural disaster mitigation and preparedness funding). Additionally, historically, the US does even worse: from 1985-2010, only 3% of disaster-related spending went towards preparedness, while 97% went toward disaster relief. WUSTL.

Finding sources for worldwide preparedness and relief spending is more difficult, but it’s probably not less lopsided than it is in America. This report from the Global Facility for Disaster Reduction and Recovery (2008) is worth looking at: it adopts a strategy of allocating 80% of its funds to 20 core countries, selected

The UNEP Adaptation Gap Report says that “while nations have advanced in planning, huge gaps remain in finance for developing countries and bringing adaptation projects to the stage where they bring real protection against climate impacts such as droughts, floods and sea-level rise.”

An interesting project by the Red Cross is the Disaster Response Emergency Fund. It’s targeted specifically for small and medium sized disasters which occur without international visibility or media attention: https://www.ifrc.org/disaster-response-emergency-fund-dref. It’s funded on the order of 100 million CHF, largely by government donations. While there is recognition that media attention is important for disaster relief, it’s still focused entirely on emergency response and not preparedness.

All of this points to disaster preparedness, research, and mitigation as being necessary interventions, even within high-income countries and especially in low-income countries.

The stance of the USGS is that predicting the timing of an earthquake is not possible: “Neither the USGS nor any other scientists have ever predicted a major earthquake”. However, risk profiles are routinely made for geographic regions, as can be seen here. The truly invaluable innovation would be an increased ability to predict natural (seismic and weather-related) disasters: in the long term, this might be end up being a focus area with limitless cost-effective benefits. One possible long-term pathway towards this could be to first fund conventional seismic research programs (including detectors and ) in Pacific (including South American) and Asia/Oceania regions, with the same thoroughness and care as with the Cascadia Fault, and then expand to funding more more general research on tectonic fault zones. This research seems to have the a good chance of saving many lives.

However, in the short term, Open Philanthropy could fund more research into natural disaster research; focusing heavily on preventative measures for locally cataclysmic events such as earthquakes, floods, and typhoons, and on improving responses in collaboration with state and local authorities. There is a Natural Hazards Center at the University of Colorado Boulder, which seeems to have similar priorities in terms of focusing on preparedness (e.g. earthquake early warning systems in schools), open access to information, and disseminating research between different governments.

I wasn’t able to find information on exactly how effective research-related interventions could be, and funding research to improve disaster detection will involve risk. I am relatively optimistic that there is research in priority areas of the world that will be high impact enough to justify funding, but I can’t be certain.

Other potential focus areas could be preserving important infrastructure for the internet in newly developed areas, increasing public awareness and preparedness for these events through archetypal imagery, successful national electronic alert systems, and other commonly overlooked areas. And finally, disaster preparedness, in providing long-lasting emergency supplies to households before disasters in high-risk areas, is extremely helpful if their time of use is adjusted after impact.

One of the major issues with natural disaster prevention is that many believe that the necessary work is already in place, which I don’t think is the case in many countries. One case study, from 2018, “Perceptions of Disaster Resilience and Preparedness in the Philippines”[https://hhi.harvard.edu/publicans/perceptions-disaster-resilience-and-preparedness-philippines] :

significant gaps remain in disaster management capacities across different regions of the Philippines and surprisingly little data are available referencing local levels of disaster resilience and preparedness.

The basic message, again and again, is that we are not prepared at all for unpredictable catastrophic natural disasters, and that interventions here would be incredibly helpful.

Another major issue that Open Philanthropy might be a good fit for is consolidating information gleaned from the sometimes myopic focus of governments after disasters. There are often very comprehensive individual reports on natural disasters, such as on the Sumatra earthquake in 2004, or on Hurricane Katrina (the most costly natural disaster in the United States to date), which get a slate of recommendations passed due to public attention. However, due to this singular nature of catastrophic natural disasters, it can be difficult to evaluate and make objective improvements which will have a high likelihood of benefiting others.

This makes it an ideal problem to tackle through the development of more effective information systems, particularly online ones. For the standard source, the International Disaster Database , the information is restricted to researchers.

Open Questions

Here, I mostly focused on the larger risk around our knowledge of a particular disaster event, earthquakes and why there might be many high earthquake risk zones which have not been mapped out yet (which was my original point of interest, and where I suspect that the “risk of risk” makes disaster research overlook).I have not been able to look more into the prevalence of more common natural disasters like typhoons, which are most common and the most deadly, and into preparedness and prevention there.

More work is needed to find effective measures within the scope of natural disaster research and preparedness, and that would probably be where I would focus if I had more time. In general, it seems like there is a good number of different organizations working on forecasting and prediction within the United States, not as much in other countries with high risk for seismic or weather-related disasters, including South America and Oceania.

The increase in the frequency of chaotic weather events due to climate change is a pretty controversial issue, and improved reporting systems and unpredictable non-anthropogenic trends are often cited as alternative main factors, which might be true. However, the actual conclusion here (and any linkage of disaster occurrence with climate change) does not affect the real and well documented consequences of these weather-related disasters.

As per the guidelines, I did not contact anyone during the writing of this article. I’d love to talk with people within the field (such as at the Natural Hazards Center) aout what approaches are particularly promising to research, and what funding schemes are best for increasing global disaster preparedness.

Conclusion

Where many charities and governments focus on reactive measures to natural disasters, there is an opportunity for Open Philanthropy to take a longer, more effective viewpoint by investments in both disaster preparedness and research to bring down global risks of natural disasters. This includes both risks of short-term impact during the initial occurrence, and long-term economic impacts from nonfunctioning public infrastructure, e.g. transportation and medical facilities.

The total impact of disaster research and preparedness has the potential to match the impact of other cause areas, and in particular disaster detection research has the potential for unlimited upsides in the long term.

The spending on preparedness and detection, versus relief, tends to be massively skewed and based on public awareness (within the US, 3%, and worldwide probably more like 1%). This is a mistake, as the returns are much better on investments in preparedness versus relief.

By funding projects which focus especially on disaster preparedness and mitigation in fast growing economies which are in high risk areas, Open Philanthropy can work to effectively reduce the number of lives lost (and economic impact) of natural disasters. In practice, this might look like funding GPS detection systems to discover high risk faults in vulnerable areas, improving early warning systems and forecasting for weather-related disasters, or simply investing in education programs and disaster preparedness supplies.

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2 comments, sorted by Click to highlight new comments since: Today at 4:38 PM

Really nice post- Thanks for writing this! Lot of thoughts- but just a few below for now:

From my experience in Natural hazard research in various countries (Mexico, Indonesia, Carbbean, S America) I can certainly confirm this statement:

One of the major issues with natural disaster prevention is that many believe that the necessary work is already in place, which I don’t think is the case in many countries.

The impacts are also strongly weighted by population exposure and vulnerability, especially for Earthquakes. For example, the magnitude 7 earthquake in Haiti (a strong but not unusual earthquake -occuring ~once a month somewhere in the world), killed 200,000-300,000 people. So targeted preparedness & research in some regions could be significantly more effective. 

Even if there is some organisation/preparedness in some areas/for some hazards, the low frequency, high impact natural disasters often catch orgs/charities out (e.g. we see this with recent Tsunami disasters in Japan and Indonesia), so again action in this area, might be most neglected and therefore effective. 

I'm a researcher in weather and climate science and this post is very interesting to me - weather forecasts, and forecasts of events that depend on those like for flooding, can be quite skilful and it's possible that more could be done to tailor that information to people's needs and get it out to them. Colleagues of mine would know more. If you happened to want to discuss that further, feel free to PM me.