Expert Report

Tools and Methods for Estimating Populations at Risk from Natural Disasters and Complex Humanitarian Crises (2007)

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Each year, millions of people around the world are displaced by natural or human-induced disasters and social conflicts resulting in humanitarian crises. The South Asian earthquake and tsunami in 2004, Hurricane Katrina in 2005, and the ongoing conflict in Darfur are recent, highly publicized examples. Response and relief efforts are often hampered by a lack of good population data. Relief workers need estimates of the numbers and exact locations of people, as well as their ages, gender, and other relevant characteristics to know exactly how much and what type of aid is needed. This National Research Council report provides a framework for estimating populations at risk and improving the use of population data for effective disaster relief work. The report concludes that all nations, especially resource-poor nations most vulnerable to disasters, should be enabled to conduct a nationwide census every ten years, and that this information should be geographically referenced. Population data alone are not sufficient but must be accompanied by interagency and government coordination and training in the collection, use, and distribution of the data.

Key Messages

  • Assessments of at-risk populations involve a linkage between population data by location (place or area), frequency and severity of a specific kind of hazard or sets of hazards acting on that location, and the resilience (coping capacity) of societal and environmental subsystems of that location. In other words, the quality and level of population data will have a direct effect on the quality of the response and the number of lives saved.
  • Further, governments, emergency response organizations, and other types of responders need to be educated and trained in the importance, need, use, and contributions of such data and to be proactive in seeking and utilizing this information to enhance the distribution of disaster relief aid.
  • The data and analytical capacity or potential capacity to address populations at risk exceeds the actual use of such data and appropriate analysis as judged by recent disasters in the United States and globally.