As the world hears news of a mounting death toll in the Asia Pacific region, questions are being asked about why more deaths could not have been prevented. The most disaster prone region in the world has once again been torn apart by earthquakes and tsunamis which have killed hundreds.
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 can 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?
In many poverty stricken areas, such as the South Pacific islands, 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 text messages or even sending people out into the streets with megaphones, as was the case with these earthquakes, 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. It must span timescales, anticipating disaster by days, hours, months, years and even decades. It should also be firmly linked to early action by decision-makers, and must cover ‘the last mile’ - linking early warning mechanisms to the most vulnerable people within 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 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.
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.
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.