At regular but unpredictable intervals, people around the world are affected by natural hazards. These may be caused by climate (eg drought, flood, cyclone) and geology (eg earthquake, volcano, tidal wave, landslide, tsunami). The environment (eg pollution, deforestation, desertification, pest infestation) has also become hazardous because of human activity. Hazards may combine and become even more damaging and complex to address. Hazards become disasters when people's homes and livelihoods are destroyed.
Poverty, human activities, population pressures and environmental degradation mean that increasing numbers of people are vulnerable to natural hazards. Increasing population and urbanisation is multiplying the world’s exposure to natural hazards, especially in coastal areas (with greater exposure to floods, cyclones and tidal waves).
Disaster management is a complex series of activities that includes risk assessment, prevention measures, preparedness to cope with future disasters, emergency response to a disaster, recovery and reconstruction.
Good development and community preparedness can reduce the impact of a disaster especially for the most vulnerable people, such as those living in hazard-prone areas with few financial resources to help them recover if they lose their means of livelihood.
When disaster strikes the first response is to save lives (humanitarian action). While each disaster creates unique circumstances and the response needs to be tailored accordingly, the following general areas will usually form part of the response:
- Search and rescue – finding those who may be trapped under debris
- Assessment of needs – working out what is required, in what quantities, and for whom
- Health – providing medical care and preventing the spread of disease through immunisation, provision of safe water and food, waste disposal and burial of the dead
- Basic needs – procuring and distributing food, shelter and clothing
- Gender – understanding the roles of men and women in families and communities to identify needs and ensure the fair distribution of resources
- Livelihood and economy – assisting people to earn a living to speed their recovery
- Emotional support – counselling and reuniting separated families
- Logistics – transporting people and equipment
- Finance – obtaining, allocating and accounting for money
- Communication – providing affected people with information, informing the media, fundraising
- Infrastructure – rebuilding roads, electricity and telephone networks, water pipelines, and waste disposal systems.
Few countries have all the resources necessary to meet the demands of a large-scale disaster. International assistance can provide expert knowledge and resources, but survivors and people living in the area can also do much to help if they are prepared.
Any emergency response needs to be coordinated to ensure the survival of the maximum possible number of victims. The response is improved by:
- respecting local knowledge while using international best practice
- meeting survival needs in a culturally appropriate manner (eg types of food, clothing, shelter)
- limiting the effects of aid on the local economy
- training individuals, organisations and communities to manage development fairly
- prioritising the distribution of limited supplies
- gaining funding for long-term redevelopment and disaster preparedness, rather than simply responding to the current emergency situation.
In the chaos of an emergency response, the pressure to make quick decisions and balance the specific interests of victims, governments, non-government organisations (NGOs) and donors may mean that best-practice standards are not always achieved.
Once the immediate danger is over, people need assistance to rebuild their lives and their livelihoods. It takes time and money to plan and ensure that long-term redevelopment and future disaster preparedness are appropriate for everyone.
Modifying or taking measures to reduce the effects of a hazard and planning a response can help prepare for future disasters. Improving building standards and locating them away from hazard-prone areas; building levy banks in flood-prone areas; upgrading stoves to reduce the risk of fire; developing early warning systems that can function without power systems; developing response plans; defining the roles and training of emergency services personnel; collecting and storing resources and equipment to ensure a quick response; and educating the public and rehearsing for a hazard (eg by practising an evacuation drill) are all part of disaster preparedness.
Our individual responses
The most useful form of assistance during a humanitarian crisis is the donation of money to non-government overseas aid organisations. This is because such organisations:
- may have qualified people already working in the affected country who understand what is needed in the emergency situation, understand the peoples' cultures, and know the local languages
- have strong local networks so they know where to buy emergency relief goods at the best prices with the least long-term negative impact on the affected country and can manage timely and cost-effective transportation
- have controls in place to check that as much money as possible is spent on goods or services for the people in need.
What not to give
Items such as food, clothing, blankets, medicines and toys can cause problems for relief authorities. The costs of sorting, storing, packing, labelling (in English and in the recipient country's language) and then transporting these items may be higher than the cost of buying them in the country of need or from a country nearby. Sometimes such donations may also be culturally inappropriate.