Debarati Guha-Sapir on Quantifying the Human Cost of Climate Disasters

Debarati Guha-Sapir is an epidemiologist specializing in humanitarian settings, including natural disasters and civil conflicts. In the 1980s, while working in Chad during a period of severe famine, Debarati realized she couldn’t quantify the loss of human life caused by this crisis. This data gap meant there was a flaw in the evidence base for disaster risk reduction. In the years that followed, Debarati – with the support of USAID – began a first-of-its-kind effort to consolidate global data on natural disasters, which became the international disaster database EM-DAT.

In 2023, Debarati will come to the Bellagio Center to advance the creation of a multi-partner, multi-disciplinary climate impact data consortium called MERGE. MERGE will be a global database that details the human impacts of extreme weather events, hosted on a free public access platform.

Debarati has been the director of the Centre for Research on the Epidemiology of Disasters (CRED) for over 30 years. She holds a Ph.D. in Epidemiology and Preventive Medicine from the Université catholique de Louvain and has been awarded the Peter Safar Award for Services to Prehospital and Disaster Medicin. This year, she received the Blue Planet Prize for her contribution to environment and climate research.

How is your work helping to address the climate crisis?

Climate came into public health and epidemiology consciousness quite late. In 2000, EM-DAT produced a report that looked at the share of natural disasters in the world that were either geological or hydrometeorological phenomena. Climate disasters were hidden behind this latter term, and so, when we unpacked it, we discovered that about 70% of all natural disasters captured in EM-DAT were driven by climate change – and that number has grown to 92% by 2021.

At the time of the report, little attention was being paid to climate-driven disasters, so we started lobbying. We could see that we were now facing something imminent. It was no longer something that would happen in 30 years – these were floods and heatwaves happening tomorrow.

For me, the link between climate extremes and their impacts on people is the biggest gap in data that exists today. Heatwaves are an example par excellence. We all know that heatwaves are occurring more and more frequently, and more severely, but we’re extremely bad at capturing the vulnerabilities of exposed human populations. How many people are affected by them? And how are they affected?

For example, construction workers affected by heatwaves in the slums of Bangladesh or Manila aren’t captured by the data. If they fall sick, or even if they die, nobody’s cause of death is listed as heat on their death certificate. In other words, we don’t capture these people at all. We don’t capture the human costs.

And that’s the gap that MERGE will address. We would like to bring together not just the simplified data that EM-DAT has, but also the global databases that monitor socioeconomic vulnerability, real-time population, and real-time data on ecology and environment. MERGE will bring these different disciplinary data silos together and we’ll be able to capture the real costs of these climate extremes.

  • For me, the link between climate extremes and their impacts on people is the biggest gap in data that exists today.
    Debarati Guha-Sapir

What breakthroughs need to happen for us to both avoid the worst impacts of climate change and prepare communities to adapt to the new challenges that will arise?

We need accessible global data resources. It’s impossible to turn data into information if it’s caught inside highly specialized silos. MERGE intends to transform and harmonize these silos into an accessible platform allowing for two things: first, straightforward analysis, simple enough that even high school students all over the world could use it; and second, access to more sophisticated datasets, so specialists can do fancy analyses and make fancy models.

It’s important that all of this work engages young adults and appeals to their imagination – our work cannot stay in the ivory towers. It must have an extremely pragmatic lens. Teenagers and young adults are very feet-on-the-ground people – they’re not theorizing like us – so we have to build that bridge and engage this community in our target group.

We must also focus on what climate extremes mean to people on the ground. What does it mean to households? What does it mean to families? We must address that. We can’t stay in the realm of stratospheric models. We need to do something that has meaning for the people in places like Laos, Vietnam, or Mozambique. Otherwise we will not change anything.

  • We must also focus on what climate extremes mean to people on the ground. What does it mean to households? What does it mean to families? We must address that. We can’t stay in the realm of stratospheric models.
    Debarati Guha-Sapir

What keeps you up at night about achieving these goals? What makes you optimistic?

I sleep very well. I have the good fortune of solid backing from my data partners, like the Max Planck Institute, so I’m not fearful that I’m going to ride away into the horizon and look behind me and suddenly find nobody’s following. I’m a scientist and the scientific part I feel confident in. But I am more worried about the organizational structure of MERGE. I have very little experience in that part of the project. How can an initiative like MERGE maintain its independence? We cannot be subject to government or political pressure for the numbers we supply. Autonomy is the only criteria for credibility in the long run.

But I am optimistic that if we are pragmatic enough in the products we produce – products from a reputable global consortium that say, “This is the pattern in Southeast Asia or eastern Africa” – and we put that out in the cybersphere, it is bound to have an impact. People will not be able to ignore it in a way they could have 15 years ago. Today, doing good research, having credible backing for it, and making it accessible means it’ll be very difficult for the COPs of the future to ignore. I’m counting on our scientific credibility, our data credibility, and our independence.

Learn more: To find out more about Debarati’s work, read about the work of CRED, and explore a list of her publications. You can also listen to Debarati discuss her work on an episode of the Mind the Shift podcast.

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