World Disasters Report: tackling discrimination in disasters

Published: 13 December 2007

This year’s annual World Disasters Report, launched today (13 December) by the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, examines the issue of discrimination in disasters. It looks at which groups are discriminated against, and why, how discrimination manifests itself and how it increases vulnerability.

Among the groups identified as often discriminated against – often unintentionally, the Report lists the elderly, people with disabilities, certain minorities and women - people whose views are seldom sought out or heard. The problem is sometimes exacerbated by the fact that discriminatory attitudes are formed and fostered inside their own communities or families.

The Report makes recommendations on how to ensure that the needs of marginalized and vulnerable populations are taken into account in disaster preparedness programmes, that these groups receive timely and adequate assistance during emergencies, and that they are included in recovery activities after a disaster.

Italso points to the responsibility of aid agencies and governments to identify and address discriminatory attitudes and procedures. Race, colour, gender, language, religion, politics, opinion, national or social origin, economic condition and birth are just some of the causes of discrimination that can compromise certain groups’ access to aid.

“The answer to this discrimination must be dialogue, openness and understanding,” notes Markku Niskala, secretary general of the International Federation. “Aid agencies need to work to change attitudes, develop inclusion and advocate on behalf of marginalized groups. Discrimination thrives in the shadows, so we need to chase those shadows away,” he underlines.

This year’s World Disasters Report cites the examples of blind, deaf or paralyzed people, who may not be able to flee danger on their own. Do evacuation plans take into account that a part of the population may not know how to read because they have been excluded from school? Are the nutritional and medical needs of the elderly and pregnant women taken into account in assistance plans? Do distribution systems ensure all have access to essential food and water? Are vulnerable women protected from sexual and other forms of violence in crisis situations?

Among the solutions proposed to tackle discrimination, this year’s Report calls for a clear definition of marginalization and vulnerability, as well as more information on the impact of discrimination, and on the vital need to involve marginalized and vulnerable groups in the design and implementation of emergency and developmental aid programmes.

The World Disasters Report also includes a section on disaster statistics and some analysis of global trends, supplied by the Centre for Research on the Epidemiology of Disasters (CRED), based at the Catholic University of Louvain, in Belgium. Although the news for the comparison between 2006 and 2005 is relatively good, the trends over the past ten years show a dramatic increase in the number of reported disasters and deaths over numbers for the previous decade.

In 2006, 427 natural disasters were reported worldwide – very close to the 2005 number (433). In comparison with 2005, the number of people reported to be affected by these disasters (142 million) dropped 10 per cent, while the number of people reported as killed (23,833) plunged by nearly 75 per cent. The number of technological disasters in 2006 (297) dropped 20 per cent compared to 2005, the death toll (9,900) decreased by 15 per cent, but the number of people affected grew from 100,000 to 172,000.

In 2006, natural disasters accounted for the overwhelming majority of people reported to be affected by all disasters (the total number was almost 50 per cent less than the decade average of 268 million per year) and for 70 per cent of the fatalities. The deadliest disaster last year was the May 2006 earthquake in Yogyakarta, Indonesia, that left 5,778 people dead.

In contrast, comparing data for the past decade (1997-2006) with data for the previous decade (1987-1996), the number of reported disasters grew from 4,241 to 6,806 – an increase of 60 per cent. Over the same period, the number of reported deaths doubled, from more than 600,000 to more than 1.2 million, and the average number of people reported affected per year rose by 17 per cent, from approximately 230 million to 270 million. Meanwhile, the total cost of reported damage increased by 12 per cent. Better reporting of smaller disasters partially explains these increases. However, more severe disasters are also on the increase.

This trend is confirmed by the International Federation’s own statistics. For example, between 2004 and 2006, the number of disasters that Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies responded to increased by more than 70%.  Most of them were caused by floods and other meteorological events. As of 10 October 2007, the Federation had already recorded 410 disasters, 56% of which were weather-related, which is consistent with the trend of rising numbers of climate change-related disasters.