Volcano experts around the world are working on the first global assessment of the risks that volcanic eruptions pose to societies around the world for a UN report on natural disasters due in 2015.
The biennial UN Global Assessment Report on Disaster Risk Reduction normally combines information on disasters from most natural hazards, but it has not before included volcanic hazards, says Sue Loughlin, who chairs the Global Volcano Model (GVM) management board, which is contributing to the upcoming report.
"It is important that volcanoes are included as this will contribute to a holistic analysis of the natural hazards each country is exposed to and it will also demonstrate clearly the areas at highest risk that could benefit from investment in disaster risk reduction," Loughlin tells SciDev.Net.
"Many countries are lucky enough to have state volcano observatories that are responsible for monitoring volcanoes and informing authorities and the public about potential hazards, but there are also very many unmonitored volcanoes that are potentially dangerous and have populations nearby," Loughlin says. "The report will draw attention to these areas."
The GVM project began in 2011 as a worldwide network to provide systematic data on and analysis of global volcanic hazards and risk and to support volcano observatories at a local scale with the goal of improving eruption forecasts.
"GVM is empowering people everywhere to make their own judgements and assessments and then act upon them, so that anybody in any country can take control of their situation," Loughlin says.
She adds that local experience and knowledge of past eruptions is essential to understand the risk that each volcano poses, and so prepare for future eruptions.
A global database of this information would enable governments to design adequate warning systems, and planning of land-use could be legislated so people and property are not put in dangerous situations in the first place, says Gill Jolly, co-chair of the World Organization of Volcano Observatories for the Asia-Pacific region, which is a member of GVM project.
But she says building a global picture of volcanic hazard and risk has been a challenge partly because many volcanoes have little or no monitoring, especially in the developing world.
Last month saw an eruption of Sinabung volcano in Indonesia that killed about 15 people and displaced 30,000.
And Loughlin says: "In 2010 an eruption of Mount Merapi in Indonesia displaced more than 300,000 people. The eruption killed at least 350 people. But due to timely evacuations based on volcano monitoring 10,000 to 20,000 lives were saved."
Ecuador's Tungurahua volcano also erupted earlier this month.
Hugo Delgado Granados, president of the Latin-American Association of Volcanology (ALVO), which is a member of the GVM project, says many of the most active volcanoes in the world are in developing countries.
"Several disasters related to the activities of volcanoes have strongly affected these societies," he says.
ALVO has created a novel database showing the populations in Latin America with underdeveloped volcano monitoring systems.
This database includes not only all the volcano-monitoring instruments in Latin America, but also the exact number of people in each volcano observatory and their level of education. "Now we know how well watched a volcano is," says Delgado Granados.
GVM plans to expand this to the rest of the globe. It is collaborating with the Global Earthquake Model, an international project assessing global earthquake hazard and risk, which has developed innovative methods for assessing social vulnerability to hazards.
But there are some inherent differences in the two models, partly due to their different levels of funding, says Jolly. Funds for GVM from the UK's Natural Environment Research Council run until November 2014, and if the funding "isn't extended then it's going to rely on a lot of good will" for the project to continue, Jolly tells SciDev.Net.
"A small investment in research can pay dividends in terms of disaster risk reduction in the future," she adds.