Geographical Distribution of Disasters Caused by Natural Hazards in Data-scarce Areas : Methodological exploration on the Samala River catchment, Guatemala

Abstract: An increasing trend in both the number of disasters and affected people has been observed, especially during the second half of the 20th century. The physical, economic and social impact that natural hazards have had on a global scale has prompted an increasing interest of governments, international institutions and the academia. This has immensely contributed to improve the knowledge on the subject and has helped multiply the number of initiatives to reduce the negative consequences of natural hazards on people. The scale on which studies supporting disaster risk reduction (DRR) actions are performed is a critical parameter. Given that disasters are recognized to be place-dependent, studying the geographical distribution of disasters on a local scale is essential to make DRR practical and feasible for local authorities, organizations and civilians. However, studying disasters on the local scale is still a challenge due to the constraints posed by scarce data availability. Social vulnerability in many disaster-prone areas is however a pressing issue that needs to be swiftly addressed despite of the many limitations of data for such studies.This thesis explored methodological alternatives to study the geographical distribution of natural disasters and their potential causes in disaster-prone and data-scarce areas. The Samala River catchment in Guatemala was selected as a case study, which is representative of areas with high social vulnerability and data scarcity.  Exploratory methods to derive critical disaster information in such areas were constructed using the geographical and social data available for the study area. The hindrances posed by the available data were evaluated and the use of non-traditional datasets such as nightlights imagery to complement the available data were explored as a way of overcoming the observed limitations.The exploratory methods developed in this thesis aim at (a) deriving information on natural disasters under data-scarce circumstances, (b) exploring the correlation between the spatial distribution of natural disasters and the physical context in order to look for causalities, (c) using open data to study the social context as a potential cause of disasters in data-scarce areas, and (d) mapping vulnerabilities to support actions for disaster risk reduction. Although the available data for the case study was limited in quantity and quality and many sources of uncertainty exist in the proposed methods, this thesis argues that the potential contribution to the development of DRR on a local scale is more important than the identified drawbacks. The use of non-traditional data such as remotely sensed imagery made it possible to derive information on the occurrences of disasters and, in particular, causal relationships between location of disasters and their physical and social context.