Measuring the real, long-term costs of natural disasters

Scientists at NIWA are investigating the longer-term costs of natural disasters using the September 2009 Samoan tsunami as a case study. The anticipated costs of natural disasters drive decisions about investment in risk-reduction initiatives, so the more accurately the costs can be estimated, the better those decisions will be.

NIWA's Dr Shona Van Zijll de Jong is looking at the costs that occur for between two and five years after a disaster, especially the costs associated with the recovery of individuals and communities. The direct costs of a disaster can be relatively easy to measure, but indirect and intangible costs are much harder to quantify.

“We know very little about the longer-term costs associated with the psychological, physical, financial, and emotional damage people suffer as a result of a disaster,” says Shona.

Developing loss indicators

Directly after the tsunami in Samoa in October 2009, Shona led a team of socio-economic researchers with the aim of developing loss indicators which could then be used to measure these hard-to-quantify costs.

“The benefit of developing and using indicators soon after a disaster is that we now have a set of benchmarks against which we can better understand the types of losses people incur, and who incurs the greatest costs,” says Shona.

The research in Samoa included running focus groups in different coastal communities, and involved women, men, and children. Participants talked about their current vulnerability in human and economic terms, and researchers identified common themes which were then used as a basis for developing indicators.

The researchers hope that governments will use the indicators to develop plans to reduce post-disaster risks to people, and curb losses during the early recovery phase.


Temporary living accommodation erected after the October 2009 tsunami. Many people have decided to move further inland permanently. [Photo: UNESCO-IOC International Tsunami Survey Team, October 2009]





Monitoring the Samoan economy post October 2009

Monitoring Samoa’s socio-economic recovery is part of a larger study looking at the longer-term economic losses and damages of a natural disaster. NIWA is part of an international team which has also been monitoring the recovery of the Samoan economy. The main early recovery issues have been associated with: water, reconstruction, agriculture, infrastructure, disaster management, communication and knowledge management, people’s post-disaster livelihoods, and health and education.

This research is funded by the Foundation for Research, Science and Technology.
Contact: Shona van Zijll de Jong