11 June 2008

Deaths and research in landslides

Posted by Dave Petley

Now that the Tangjiashan crisis is over, it is clearly time to move on to other things. I will post
a retrospective on that event when the dust has settled. For now I think we should allow the Chinese to bask in the success of their achievement.

To change the topic, I thought it would be interesting to post an analysis that I did a couple of years ago. The analysis was simple but quite fun – I looked at the landslide fatality database for 2003 and 2004 by calculating the proportion of fatalities by large geographical area. I then looked at the field areas of the research presented in the Springer journal Landslides and in papers presented at a selection of international landslide conferences, and worked out the proportions as per the fatalities.

Now ideally there should be some relationship between the locations of landslide deaths and the locations of landslide research, one would hope. Care is needed as:
1. One year of landslide data might not be representative; and
2. The sample of the areas of research might not be representative.

However, the plot does show how far we are from an equitable situation:

In my simplistic world I would hope that most areas plot close to the central line on the graph. In most cases this is clearly not so. The regions with really serious landslide problems in this period – Central America, SE. Asia and S. Asia has a tiny proportion of the research. Regions that dominated the research into landslides – North America and Europe – had very few landslide fatalities. Only East Asia looks to be in the right place amongst those regions with large numbers of both research projects and fatalities.

Two things emerge:
1. Care is needed because in 2004 landslides in Haiti caused huge problems, which mean that for this period Central America dominates the statistics. If we were to take the period 2002-2006 East and South Asia would dominate the fatality count.
2. Only E. Asia appears to have the balance right between research and fatalities. This reflects the large landslide programmes in China, Japan, Hong Kong and Taiwan.

Of course the picture might look different if this were to be examined through the lens of economic losses rather than fatalities, but not I suspect if we were to normalise by GDP or per capita income. All of which serves to highlight the fact that the landslide research community should shift its focus if it really wants to make a difference by saving lives.

I will try to do a better analysis of the full dataset over the summer, but thought it would be interesting to share this initial analysis.