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UP Natural Hazard Centre celebrates 10 years, aims to increase global footprint

Posted on March 11, 2019

The UP Natural Hazard Centre, Africa is 10 years old this year. Primarashni Gower spoke to its Director, Professor Andrzej Kijko, an international leader in hazard and risk modelling, about the work they do at the centre and what their aims are.

PG: Why was this centre set up and who does it collaborate with?
AK: The Centre is the successor to the Aon Benfield Natural Hazard Centre Africa, which resulted from a five-year partnership between leading reinsurance intermediary, Aon Benfield, and the University of Pretoria (UP). In 2013, it was remodelled into a multi-partnership centre and renamed the University of Pretoria Natural Hazard Centre. It strives to be interdisciplinary by building relationships with various departments at UP as well as with other national and international academic and research institutes. Recently, the Centre joined the Future Africa initiative as part of our commitment to help train a new generation of science leaders on the continent. 

Located in the Department of Geology, its main focus is the mathematical modelling of natural hazards and risks facing South Africa, Africa and the world. The Centre calculates the likelihood of natural disasters, offering advice on and analysis of their potential damage to lives and property. We contribute to academic activities that focus on fundamental research, the supervision of students and the publication of research in leading scientific journals and provide research solutions for financial partners and external clients.  This is done through the joint supervision of postgraduate students and research in collaboration with various departments, other universities and institutes, including the Russian Academy of Sciences.

The Centre offers a wide range of engineering geophysics, seismology and statistical solutions based on numerical and computing techniques, data analyses and applied statistical methods. It has the ability to provide solutions for limited, incomplete and uncertain data sets, based on strict mathematical and statistical modelling procedures.

PG: What work do you do for industry?  
AK: We provide contract research and consultancy services to industry (insurance, construction and mining). We mostly focus on assessing the hazard and/or risk that a specific area may face due to natural hazards such as earthquakes, tsunamis and hail. These assessments are then used by industry to develop or redesign their products to meet financial, safety and security regulations. The products range from insurance and reinsurance premiums to the development of critical infrastructure such as dams, bridges and nuclear power plants.

PG: What are the centre’s major achievements?  
AK: We have published more than 33 peer-reviewed national and international research articles in accredited journals, published chapters in two books, supervised and co-supervised over 25 postgraduate students, worked with various academic departments at UP and participated in international collaborations.

In November 2018, a paper co-authored by Ansie Smit, my research assistant, Alfred Stein (from the University of Twente) and me, received the prestigious Herbert Sichel Medal for best statistics paper at the annual South African Statistical Association’s conference. The paper forms part of Ansie’s PhD.

PG: Should South Africa be fearful of having earthquakes/seismic activity and floods?  
AK: South Africa has experienced strong earthquakes and seismic activity like the one that occurred in the Ceres-Tulbagh district on 29 September 1969, which had a Richter magnitude of MW 6.3, and the Orkney seismic event with a local magnitude of ML 5.5 on 5 August 2014.

Devastating flash floods include the Laingsburg flood on 25 January 1981, which resulted in over 100 fatalities, and the flash floods in Johannesburg and Ekurhuleni on 9 November 2016, which resulted in fatalities and damage to vehicles and infrastructure.

Although South Africa does experience hazards such as these on a smaller scale than many other countries, these events can still have a devastating impact on society, especially with our expanding cities and infrastructure. These natural disasters affect the most vulnerable, especially the lower income groups. With natural hazards, the universal rule is: if it happens once, it could happen again.

PG: How do you predict earthquakes, floods and mining catastrophes? 
AK: Owing to the physical nature of earthquakes and seismic activity, it is virtually impossible to predict such events based on current available knowledge. Science may tell us how often we can expect an event to happen in a specific area and what the potential size of the event may be, but it is virtually impossible to predict the exact time and location. We do, however, have the ability to build early-warning systems to predict certain types of hazards such as floods and tsunamis in order to save human lives.

Triggered and induced seismic activity stems primarily from mining activities and should be monitored closely. South Africa has a higher risk of flash floods compared to flooding (an event that spans a longer period). These types of floods are difficult to predict, although the South African Weather Services does excellent work by analysing meteorological and climatological processes and issuing early warnings.

PG: Do you do work on tsunami predictions for countries such as Indonesia and Sri Lanka?
AK: We do not work specifically in that region, but in South Africa, the important question is how tsunamis generated in these regions can affect our coastal areas. In a recent paper written in collaboration with leading scientists from Greece and Russia, we provided quantitative assessments of the potential tsunami effect for Cape Town, Port Elizabeth and Durban.  Another paper focused on the assessment of tsunami hazards in the Pacific Ocean.

PG: What are your plans for the future?
AK: The Centre aims to grow through joint collaboration with students, academia and industry by extending our research fields to other types of natural and man-made hazards and to intensify our focus on seismic hazards and risks pertaining to the mining and nuclear industries. It is also investigating possibilities of developing academic and continuing professional development courses (CPD). 

- Author Primarashni Gower

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