Thursday, October 8, 2009

Disaster Response: Failure in not an Option

As the world continues to tune into the news of an ever growing death toll in the Asia Pacific region, questions are being asked about why more deaths could not have been prevented. This, the most disaster prone region in the world, has once again been torn apart by a series of natural disasters which have killed hundreds.  

The photo here shows a Samoan Red Cross volunteers directing school children to higher ground during evacuation of Apia during a tsunami warning on the 3rd of October 2009. A practical example of how early warning through local action can save lives in real time.

In response, a massive global emergency response operation has been mounted to help reach those in need. But questions remain about why some of those communities affected were not effectively pre-warned. In a world of technological advances - when experts predict tsunamis and typhoons before they occur - why do the messages not reach everyone at risk in time to get them out of harms way?

The Red Cross Red Crescent has been active for many years in supporting communities to reduce vulnerability, and increase their resilience to natural disasters. This was put into practice on Tuesday as scores of Samoa Red Cross volunteers took to the streets to warn people in coastal settlements to stay clear of beaches. These dedicated, trained, and prepared volunteers helped evacuate people in and around the island of Apia, opening five temporary shelter sites across Samoa. In Vietnam, Red Cross volunteers also sprung into action, helping to evacuate more than 160,000 people before Typhoon Ketsana hit. This people centred approach was crucial because technology alone will not save lives.

In many poverty stricken areas there is no access to TV or radio to help communicate warning messages. Aid agencies must work with communities to find out which methods of communication work for them at the time of an emergency and run simulation exercises to put this into practice. Often mobile phone text messages or even sending people out into the streets with megaphones, as was the case in these emergencies, prove to be most successful.

But despite the progress made the number of lives lost this week underlines that much more needs to be done. Early warning, early action in high disaster risk countries needs to be seen as a mindset, not a mechanism or technology, and works best when it spans timescales, anticipating disaster by days, hours, months, years and even decades. It must also be firmly linked to early action by decision-makers, and must cover 'the last mile' -linking early warning mechanisms not just to the most 'at risk' communities, but to the most vulnerable people within those communities.

Strengthening community capacity to prevent and/or cope with the impact of disasters and crises is a concrete way to save lives and better protect livelihoods, and prevent such shocks from crippling development within the poorest countries. Early warning and early action is also more cost effective than traditional disaster response and saves more lives per pound spent: public money buys four times as much humanitarian 'impact' if spent on preparation and risk reduction, rather than on relief items. Rightly, we are currently focussed on meeting immediate emergency needs in the aftermath of these disasters.

But we must take time to reflect and learn. We have made great progress in ensuring early warning and early action is part of our programmes in countries which are vulnerable to emergencies. But we need a global strategy that integrates governments, NGOs and most importantly, local communities. Sadly, experience has taught us that this won't be the last emergency of this kind in this part of the world. Next time we must all be better prepared.

This blog is written by colleague Mike Goodhand who is Head of Disaster Management at the British Red Cross. For further information and backgrounders on Disaster Management please visit the relevant web section in the IFRC's website.


  1. An interesting article. Keep up the good work guys. Bob

  2. On re-reading the article, I believe the death toll in the Indonesian quake was very low. With 1 million people affected, the death toll is only 800 or so. Two years ago there was a big quake south of Padang in Benkulu and the RC movement put a lot into community preparedness (ICBRR) which is very evident when you go to those communities who were part of that programme. They had first aid training and basic rescue equipment. When I arrived in Padang shortly after the quake I travelled in a vehicle provided by the Danish RC and used the radio network provided by the French RC. The reason we were on the spot so quickly is that we had a pre arranged agreement with a helicopter company, owned by a generous Welshman (almost as good as being Irish) who gives a cheap rate. This is good preparedness. I hope other people will comment on this very topical blog that deserves more . Long live the field practicioners who have saved the day and may the academics, auditers and theorists, remain in their ivory towers out of harms reach.