Humanitarians must adopt a new mindset and respond to the global economic crisis by fostering a cost-effective culture of prevention

تم النشر: 16 يونيو 2009

GENEVA, 16 June (IFRC) – “The rising dangers of climate change require a response from governments equivalent to the one made to address the global financial crisis,” according to the chief executive of the world’s Red Cross and Red Crescent body.

Launching the new 2009 edition of World Disasters Report by the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC), the organization’s secretary general, Bekele Geleta, said disaster-relief agencies must focus on cost-effective prevention measures, rather than expensive response operations.

With aid budgets, at best uncertain, amidst the global downturn, a relatively new approach to relief work called “early warning, early action” will save more lives per dollar, says the report, published every year since 1993.

“The evidence we have is that public money buys about four times as much humanitarian ‘impact’ if spent on preparation before disaster strikes than on expensive response,” according to Geleta.

“With global GDP forecast to decline for the first time since the Second World War,” he added, “as well as the ever-growing challenge of climate change, we must increase preventive activities as the most effective way of saving lives and preserving development gains.”

Earlier this year, Geleta recalled, the World Bank – in the run up to the G20 meetings – said that falling growth would “sharply slow” reductions in infant mortality in the developing world, and that there might be up to 400,000 more deaths a year than would be without a crisis of this type.

The International Federation is increasingly using its own Disaster Relief Emergency Fund (DREF) – now worth more than US$ 15 million a year – for preemptive action.

“Hydrometeorological” events linked to climate change – floods, storms, heatwaves and droughts – together accounted for nearly 60 per cent of DREF grants in 2008, according to the new World Disasters Report.

In July 2008, the IFRC launched its first wholly preemptive appeal (for US$ 750,000) for flood preparedness, based on seasonal forecasts for the West African monsoon that were to prove highly accurate.

In Haiti, meanwhile, although the human toll from the Caribbean storms – Fay, Gustav, Hanna and Ike that battered the country in 2008 - was considerable, it would have been higher still but for “early warning, early action”. Haitian Red Cross volunteers, mostly forewarned, worked round the clock before and after the storms hit, carrying out evacuations, search and rescue, first aid and relief, but many lacked equipment to disseminate warnings.

Mohammed Omer Mukhier, IFRC head of disaster policy and preparedness, says early warning, early action is as much a “mindset” as an operational framework.

“It emphasizes the crucial importance of prevention,” he says. “We can do better if we seek out risks before they happen.”

“It means capitalizing on existing know-how and resources to refocus ‘disaster response’ onto prevention.”

“If we engage with communities before – not after – crisis or disaster strikes, we can help them take action to minimize human and economic losses.”

Maarten Van Aalst, associate director of the Red Cross Red Crescent Climate Centre in The Hague and a contributor to the 2009 report, writes that donors have to be persuaded to “support continuous revision of contingency plans and updates of emergency stocks in strategic locations,” based on early-warning information.

World Disasters Report, however, cautions that early action is not always an option.

In Myanmar, for example, where Cyclone Nargis claimed some 138,000 lives last year, unfavourable topography and an almost complete lack of logistics and communications combined, in effect, to rule out evacuation as a life-saving measure.

And while it is possible to prepare communities for earthquakes like the one that killed nearly 88,000 people in China’s Sichuan province last May, “sudden-onset” seismic disasters are far harder to predict.

Between them, Nargis and the Sichuan quake accounted for 93 per cent of the global total of disaster deaths last year, according to figures quoted in World Disasters Report.

The Sichuan earthquake affected around 46 million people; a major US flood 11 million; and drought in Thailand 10 million.

But there were fewer disasters worldwide in 2008 than in any other year of the preceding decade: 326 natural and 259 technological disasters.