Science, Technology and Innovation for Resilience in Natural Disasters


By Juan Carlos de la Llera, Dean of Engineering at PUC. Researcher at the National Research Center for Natural Disasters Integrated Management. President of the National Commission for Resilience in Natural Disasters

Translated by Anthony Rauld

The recent forest fires that affected central Chile in the summer of 2017 brought back similar feelings to those felt after the earthquake of February 27, 2010. Apparently, again and again our country is subjected to these incredibly powerful events. Also, in recent decades the frequency with which we suffer natural disasters has increased according to the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction 2015-2030. Of the OECD countries, Chile is the most likely to suffer this kind of disaster, with 54% of its population and 12.9% of its territory exposed to three or more types of threats. Likewise, the disasters caused by natural threats have been commonplace in the history of Chile. In its little over 200 years of existence, at least 97 earthquakes of magnitude 7 or more have hit our territory, 18 of them considered highly destructive according to the standards of the Centro Sismológico Nacional (National Seismology Center).  In addition, data from the International Emergency Disasters Database (EM-DAT) show that the country has been affected with at least 19 floods, ten larger fires, eleven volcanic eruptions, four great landslides and two droughts of great magnitude. On average, the annual losses associated with natural disasters between 1981 and 2011 have been estimated to nearly 1.2% of the country’s GDP (UNISDR, 2015).

In spite of the permanent coexistence with events of this nature, Chile not only has shown remarkable resilience but it has generated new capacities in response to these catastrophes, which has allowed constant improvement in our institutions.  Clear examples of this include the creation of the Servicio Sismológico Nacional after the earthquake of 1906, the development of CORFO in response to the earthquake in Chillán in 1939, the ONEMI after the great earthquake of 1960, and the creation of the Observatorio Volcanológico de los Andes del SUR (OVDAS, Volcano Observatory of the South Andes) after the Chaitén volcano eruption of 2008. While it is clear that there is still much to be done in terms of prevention, management of these emergencies, as well as the recovery of systems, it is important, like with the previous example, to recognize that with each natural challenge, we have been able to strengthen the State over time.

In this context, and highly influenced by the physical and social impact of the earthquake and tsunami in 2010, the government created in 2016, through the National Council of Innovation for Development, the National Commission for Research, Development and Innovation (R+D+i) for Resilience in Natural Disasters, CREDEN. Maybe the most original component of this is that the mandate for the commission’s presidential term is rooted in the conviction that the development of a R + D + i strategy is an essential part of the cycle of risk management, and at the same time, for providing sustainable growth and scientific-technological development for our country.

The final document produced by CREDEN, Towards a Chile Resilient in the Face of Disasters: An Opportunity—A National Strategy for Research, Development and Innovation for a Chile Resilient in the Face of Natural Disasters was given to the President on December 20, 2016. The strategy contains the main conclusions of the CREDEN work and is grouped as 14 integral tasks aimed at generating and using basic, applied, associative and interdisciplinary knowledge related to resilience in facing natural disasters. The tasks identify a set of concrete activities that will bridge knowledge gaps and capacities in the short term (three years) and long term (20 years), and deal with the social dimension of resilience, the I+D+i dimension for the development of the country, the simulation and risk management dimension, and the physical dimension of natural threats and community exposure.

Additionally, the strategy acknowledges five transversal enabling conditions that constitute fundamental elements for the generation of a consistent dynamic capable of implementing and maintaining this strategy over time. These macro-initiatives deal with the main structural weaknesses that hinder R+D+i in resilience for the country and promote collaborative associations between the State, the sciences, technology and society. The enabling conditions consider: (i) the creation of a R+D+i institutional structure for resilience in natural disasters; (ii) the integration and consolidation of data and information in a new public data infrastructure for R+D+i and transfer; (iii) the creation of programs to advance in the development of human capital specific to resilience in the various sciences in collaboration with the best universities and technological centers in the world; (iv) the development of more sophisticated national laboratory infrastructure for discovery and innovation in issues related to resilience; and (v) the implementation of a program of national outreach and public dissemination of science that enables the swift delivery of completed research to communities.

Finally, the commission evaluated how much the State should invest to implement the strategy. Thus, it was possible to calculate that the initiative will involve investing approximately US $45.7 millions per year, for a total of US $914.2 million in 20 years. Along with the budget, the commission determined that based on local experiences and similar international studies, the strategy will have an expected return on investment of 2.32, and with this, it is expected that the proposal, on average, will mean annual savings for the country of roughly US$ 106 million, corresponding to fewer losses due to the natural disasters.

CREDEN’s efforts not only led to the R+D+I strategy, but it also created a mechanism for continuing the work of the multisectoral and multidisciplinary commission. Thus, the funding coming from CORFO during 2017 will facilitate the creation of a detailed design for the new R+D+i Public Institute of Technology for Resilience in Natural Disasters, ITREND. This project is being carried out by a group from the School of Engineering of the Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile together with the Center for Mathematical Modeling of the Universidad de Chile. As a result of this initiative, it is expected that ITREND will serve as a meta-institution that can provide a long term vision for R+D+i in disaster resilience for the country, generate an adequate collaborative environment for the implementation of  CREDEN’s strategy, coordinate  R+D+i capabilities existing in the country in relation to the goals and objectives described in the strategy, and promote the generation of a culture of resilience in the Chilean population.

The work of the commission was a first step in paying the huge debt the country still owes with respect to R+D+i applied to resilience and natural disasters. The strategy of CREDEN not only seeks to advance knowledge to minimize the impact our geography imposes on our population, but also to help us understand that our country’s unique condition can be an opportunity for sustainable development of Chile, and from where we can show the world our capacity for resilience and the technologies that we have been able to construct throughout our history, so that other countries can take advantage of our experiences as well.

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