By Jonathan Fowler
Yerevan – In a country that suffered a devastating earthquake almost three decades ago, private sector researchers are helping to implement the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction by harnessing data to lessen the impact of future shakes.
The team members at Armenian firm Georisk spend their working days crunching numbers to flag danger zones according to a range of risk scenarios, offering potentially life-saving information to the authorities down to local community level.
The Sendai Framework, a 15-year global agreement adopted last March aims to bring about substantial reductions in global disaster deaths, the number of affected people and economic losses. Mining data to provide an accurate picture of the risk is a cornerstone of that drive.
Armenia, which lies on a seismic belt stretching from the Alps to the Himalayas, is crisscrossed by fault lines. Its offers a tragic case-study for earthquake researchers.
On 7 December 1988, a 6.8-magnitude earthquake smashed into the northern city of Spitak and surrounding communities. The estimated death toll was up to 50,000, while double that number are thought to have been injured.
“We’ve analysed the Spitak earthquake and its consequences,” said Georisk’s director, Dr. Hektor Babayan, at the company’s offices in the capital Yerevan.
“We use many types of databases. Geological, geophysical, or infrastructure, for example. We crunch the data in Geographical Information Systems, and produce hazard assessments, correlate them with city scenarios, and thereby calculate potential losses,” he explained.
When it comes to natural hazards, earthquakes are the deadliest of all. But the tremor itself isn’t the killer: the vast majority of casualties are caused by buildings unable to withstand the shock.
That basic fact means that understanding what exactly kind of buildings are where – and who is in them – is essential to reduce the risks.
Georisk taps data from a variety of sources, including city governments, planning authorities, infrastructure and utility firms, as well as carrying out detailed fieldwork, to produce hyper-detailed risk maps that can be adapted according to a host of scenarios.
There are also plans to deploy students from Armenia’s Crisis Management State Academy for building-by-building assessments to create an even more detailed picture – and raise public awareness of risk into the bargain.
“We provide five or six different types of maps, with layers,” said Dr. Babayan.
“You can see the distribution of buildings, their types, how many floors they have, how many people are in them in the daytime or nighttime, whether the buildings are made of stone or concrete, and so on,” he explained.
His researchers also factor in the presence of, and potential earthquake impact on, roads, bridges, and electricity, gas and water supplies.
“When we assess hazards we also include all secondary effects – not only the seismic impact, but also landslides, water levels. Our system also connects with building codes, environmental protection issues, and so on,” he said.
The Georisk team is multidisciplinary. Dr. Babayan is a mathematician specialized in modelling, while his staff includes geophysicists and experts in seismic technologies, among others.
The company is part of a consortium that also involves the Institute of Geology of Armenia’s Academy of Sciences, the National Association of Seismologists, in cooperation with the country’s National Platform for Disaster Risk Reduction.
Georisk’s research is also supported by the UN Development Programme (UNDP), and is made available to those who need it.
“It’s open data. If people ask for it, it’s free,” said Mr. Armen Chilingaryan, UNDP’s Disaster Risk Reduction Programme Coordinator.
“The results can be used for, first of all, urban resilience planning, because the authorities will understand what are the main risk areas. Based on this scenario they can also prepare response and population protection plans, and develop these capacities,” he added.
In addition to working with the authorities, the researchers are also aiming to involve the private sector, such as insurance firms, banks and mining companies.
“They are ready to invest in mitigation activities,” said Mr. Chilingaryan. “The private sector is becoming more and more interested, and in the future they can become the main partner for risk-informed development.”