Strengthening preparedness and response to natural disasters, with an emphasis on capacity-building

Published: 13 July 2004

Natural disasters impose remarkable losses on the economic and social development of the communities, particularly in LDCs every year. The incapability of developing countries for sufficient investment in disaster mitigation, multiplies the vulnerability of the people in such countries. The trend of natural disasters shows no decrease in global scale, and there is an urgent need for all States and partner organisations to address the priority of disaster preparedness and risk reduction, especially at the community level.

The number of reported disasters increased from 424 in 1993 to 766 in 2002 [World Disaster Report 2003, International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, P. 181]. The International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies has recorded 80 international disaster operations only in the first half of 2004 [Red Cross and Red Crescent Operations 2004, IFRC].

These disasters varied from some sudden onset ones such as Bam earthquake to another slow onset ones such as health and food security crises in Africa. The damage of natural disasters on the social capacities of the communities must be measured thoroughly, and effective preparedness and risk reduction mechanisms should be foreseen, if MDGs, in particular Poverty Eradication and Global Partnership for Development are to be achieved.

Preparedness is a term which is often used to show the capacity of the communities to respond to disasters. Effective preparedness should be complementary to long term risk reduction. The preventive measures which include vulnerability and risk assessments, awareness raising, education, safety messages and structural and non situational mitigation activities as part of development plan.

An effective preparedness is based on awareness about the disasters, their causes and their impacts. The awareness can not come only through training and media; it should rather come through a culture of preparedness. Yet it should not be confined to a limited number of key players and decision makers in disaster management, but it should get rooted in the lowest community level, to the family and individuals, and to the rural and remote areas, in particular the disaster prone areas.

Efforts to strengthen disaster preparedness should aim first and foremost at capacity building of the communities. Capacity building requires before anything recognition of available capacities and resources and then a partnership based concept of cooperation in local, national and international levels. It should moreover, focus on the least developed communities, as they are the most vulnerable in time of disasters. This is what we have in the Islamic Republic of Iran, where Government and the Red Crescent Society working as a community-based organisation, are able to partner themselves effectively with at risk communities to achieve good results in the worst of situations.

Much can be done to reduce the risk and impact of disasters and thus avoid unnecessary human suffering. The efforts and experiences of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement point to, as the World Disaster Report highlights, "an urgent need to move from fatalism to prevention, from response to preparation, from mobilizing resources after the fact to identifying and reducing risk before the fact." Red Cross and Red Crescent National Societies and States should play collaborative role with States and the UN in building such a culture of prevention and increasing political commitment as well as action to reduce the risks and impact of disasters.

Furthermore, a good preparedness plan must be built on collaborative mechanisms where different actors are cooperating based on shared principles and objectives. In particular, the states should seek for appropriate means and ways for promotion of social cooperation on disaster preparedness and risk reduction consequently allowing the potential resources and capacities identified, recognised and utilised. Without an appropriate disaster preparedness plan from national to community levels, incorporated in the national development plan and Poverty Eradication strategy one can only fail to achieve the MDGs as committed in 2000.

The experience of the International Federation and its National Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies in virtually every country in the world is a good example of a daily community based and comprehensive disaster preparedness. The Red Crescent Society of the I.R. Iran by benefiting from its volunteers and community based disaster preparedness has been able to respond effectively to various natural disasters such as the destructive earthquake of 26 December 2003 in Bam.

The volunteers and branches of the Iranian Red Crescent, who were trained and organised in advance, were mobilised from all over the country and provided rescue, relief and shelter to thousands of earthquake affected people. Within three months, over 18,000 volunteers participated in the Red Crescent relief operation in Bam and without their support and commitment such huge rescue and relief operation simply could not be done. In 48 hours more than 15,000 injured persons were provided emergency medical services and transferred from Bam to hospitals in other cities and about 150,000 people were given food, shelter and other relief items. Shortly after the disaster, other services such as psycho-social support program were provided to the survivors of the disaster.

This service to the affected population without the timely presence of the volunteers and relief workers and close cooperation among all humanitarian actors would have never happened. Members of the family, neighbours, and volunteers of local community are usually the first who come to assist the disaster affected people. Therefore, particular attention should be paid to the role of local communities and volunteers in disaster preparedness, risk reduction and response.

While the generous support from the international humanitarian community to Bam operation is much appreciated, it should not be forgotten that lives are saved within the first hours and days of the calamity. This is why the international community should put its main stress on investments for local communities and volunteers in disaster preparedness and risk reduction.

Another example of a good preparedness and response in disaster is the recent earthquake operation in Morocco. In this operation the Moroccan Red Crescent benefited from the capacity of its volunteers and branches and presented a successful example of community based disaster preparedness and coordination with the government.

In both Iran and Morocco earthquakes the International Federation as an international organisation has been in close contact and cooperation with National Societies in these two countries and provided the necessary international assistance. In both cases the International Federation deployed Field Assessment and Coordination Team (FACT) and Emergency Response Unit (ERU) and also launched international appeal on the request of its member Societies.

Coordination is perhaps the most controversial topic when humanitarian assistance is provided by the international community. It is a key in success of disaster response in local, national and international levels. Today coordination is considered more as an issue concerning the intervention of donors and international players in the disaster affected countries. The role of local communities and beneficiaries in disaster coordination should be far better taken into consideration. In national level, disaster preparedness plans must include a clear definition of roles and responsibilities and coordination mechanisms of the different actors, hence response to disaster and emergencies can be an effective one.

Disaster preparedness and risk reduction should be planned in conformity with the social and cultural characteristics of each country, and there is no single model to fit all. States should allocate more time and resources on disaster preparedness and coordination and networking with other civil society groups, in particular volunteers.

For an effective response in time of disasters, preparedness plans should go beyond ad hoc and short term regulations and has to be taken into consideration in national legislation and national plans, and must involve community actors. This is a key point often made by the International Red Cross and Red Crescent, and this Economic and Social Council is an appropriate forum to advocate for long term and comprehensive approach in disaster preparedness, risk reduction and response in national level.

International coordination in disaster response is becoming an important topic for the international community. Respecting the dignity of disaster affected population and beneficiaries must be considered the first principle in any disaster relief operation. Victims of disasters should not be looked at only as recipient of assistance but as equal partners in the humanitarian assistance.

International humanitarian intervention should play a complementary and auxiliary role toward the local affected population, in stead of establishing a new system by denying the available actual and potential capacities and resources in the affected population. The approach of any international assistance at any stage of the operation should be capacity building and long term preparedness in the affected population, in stead of creating a dependency of that community to external assistance.

By allowing full participation of the local community and the affected population in the relief programs, international assistance will be able to play a positive and constructive role in promotion of civil society in different countries. The important role of the states in time of international disaster response is undeniable. For international coordination all humanitarian actors should take into consideration the needs of the affected population, priorities of the local institutions, cultural aspects of the affected population, effective use of the resources and support to the civil society trend.

The states should facilitate humanitarian response to the disasters by facilitating the operations such as providing access to the affected people, and permission for the entrance of humanitarian aid. International Disaster Response Laws, Rules and Principles (IDRL) is one appropriate framework through which the required facilities for the effective delivery of international assistance to the victims of disasters can be secured.

The IDRL concept which was initiated by the International Federation has been receiving positive response from the international community and is hoped to facilitate humanitarian operations worldwide in future. IDRL is not an attempt to establish a new branch of international law or conclude a new treaty, but a response to the daily needs and challenges of international assistance in disaster response in terms of rules and regulations.

The coordination of international assistance for Bam earthquake has been a successful example. In Bam operation for the first time United Nations and the International Federation coordinated their appeals to avoid any gap or overlap and launched both appeals jointly in the presence of UN Coordinator for Humanitarian Affairs and the Presidents of the International Federation and the Iranian Red Crescent in Bam on 8 January 2004. This is a success story in humanitarian action which should be followed by similar actions in future.

This session of the Economic and Social Council is an important opportunity to reaffirm the commitment of the states and the international community for adopting comprehensive and long term measures toward disaster preparedness, risk reduction and response and hence to prevent, mitigate and alleviate suffering of disaster victims. But, as it proceeds, it must stress the importance of developing those measures in partnership with the communities themselves, and providing maximum resources to preparedness.

If there is one lesson to share with the world from Bam, it is that the terrible losses of life and property we experienced in Iran would have been very much worse if there had not been so much work done on preparedness, and such a strong partnership between the Government and our Red Crescent Society.

I would be happy to discuss any of these issues in greater detail, and can now be contacted at the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies in Geneva, where I am now an Operations Coordinator.

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