Humanitarian emergencies caused by natural disasters

Gusti Agung Wesaka Puja, Indonesia’s director of human rights, humanitarian and socio-cultural affairs, was visibly shaken when he described to IRIN his country’s initial reaction to the tsunami on the morning of 26 December 2004. “We were all immediately in a state of shock. So very shocked by this calamity beyond imagination,” he said.

Puja described how thousands of police and military personnel also were killed as the wave swept through Aceh, washing away helicopters, vehicles, weapons and whole barracks. “They just disappeared,” he said, “and we were all scrambling to help the survivors. Even on the first day lines and lines of trucks were waiting at Jakarta airport with assistance - so much spontaneous reaction from ordinary people. On the second day, the prayers were attended by everyone - Christians, Muslims and Buddhists.”


POLLUTION: Years of poorly regulated emissions from modern industry have contributed to climate change and less predictable weather paterns. Experts say the main cause of increased natural disasters is climate change
Credit: UN Library

Individual natural disasters often create humanitarian emergencies that are discrete in size and affect a limited number of people. To some degree, we allow ourselves to become immune to the persistence of natural disasters and the steady toll of destruction they wreak on lives and livelihoods around the world.

Nevertheless, the global death toll caused by natural disasters is surprisingly high - and for every death there are usually many others who have had their homes, livelihoods and communities destroyed before their eyes.

For many it has taken the tragedy - and the drama - of the Indian Ocean tsunami at the end of 2004 to reawaken an appreciation of the nature’s ability to create wide-scale humanitarian emergencies.

The accumulated impact of natural disasters over the last 10 years, according to the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC), has resulted in an average of 211 million people being directly affected each year, which is approximately five times more than those who are affected by conflict.

According to the same report, more than 650,000 people were killed by natural disasters during the past decade – and more than 90 percent of those who lost their lives did so in droughts, windstorms and floods. These figures preceded the 2004 tsunami, which has now been estimated to have killed almost 300,000 people in 12 affected countries.


DROUGHT: Cracked earth from lack of water and baked from the heat of the sun forms a pattern in the Nature Reserve of Popenguine, Senegal.
Credit: Evan Schneider/UN Library

The last decade has seen a marked increase in the occurrence of natural disasters along with exposure to greater levels of loss of life, property and material damage. The lives of tens of thousands of civilians are at risk each time an earthquake, hurricane or other natural disaster occurs, particularly in poor countries with less developed infrastructures, high population densities and inadequate emergency preparedness.

Many countries and regions that are vulnerable to natural disasters are poorly prepared to respond, according to the US government’s National Intelligence Council. While outlining global trends and projections for humanitarian emergencies, the organisation cited natural disasters as the primary cause of humanitarian crises.

The report said that Bangladesh and India are among the most disaster-prone countries in the world. A major cyclone hits the eastern shore of India every two to eight years. The 1999 cyclone was the country’s worst natural disaster of the 20th century, and the 2001 flooding in Orissa was the most serious in 50 years.

The Caribbean islands, Colombia, Peru and Central America also are especially vulnerable to major natural disasters, while Eritrea, Ethiopia, Mozambique, Somalia, Sudan and Tanzania are identified as particularly vulnerable to drought and floods.


Wang Huai Min sits on a make-shift raft that he uses to visit his submerged house, just behind him. Wang now lives on a dyke with his family of six. He did not have time to salvage any of his belongings, and now relies on emergency assistance. Asked if he plans to rebuild his home, he replied: "With what should I build a new house?"
Credit: Thorir Gudmundsson/International Federation

According to the IFRC World Disasters Report 2001, an average of 255 natural disasters occurred throughout the world each year from 1991 to 2000. From 2000 to 2003, this figure amost tripled to an average of 707 natural disasters per year. The biggest rise occurred in developing countries, which suffered an increase of 142 percent.

In 2003, there were approximately 700 natural disasters, which killed an estimated 75,000 people. Whatever the figures are for 2004, they will be massively compounded by the single event of the tsunami at the end of that year.

The number of geophysical disasters during the last decade - volcanoes and earthquakes - remained fairly steady, but the number of hydro-meteorological disasters, including droughts, windstorms and floods, has more than doubled since 1996.

Droughts are more prone to cause sustained and long-term suffering and social dislocation as starving communities are uprooted in their search for food. The casualties of drought are also less obvious when compared with earthquakes or tsunamis, where the cause of death is clear.

Where droughts occur, people die not only of malnutrition but also of hunger-related diseases, and the whole issue of good or bad governance comes into play. The severity of drought has a socio-political dimension as well, and the humanitarian repercussions often depend on whether a government’s response either impedes or encourages drought recovery and food relief.

Impoverished and densely populated countries in East and Southeast Asia are at especially high risk of natural disasters. China experiences big floods every year. Indonesia, North Korea, the Philippines and Vietnam experienced more than 120 major typhoons, earthquakes and floods during the 1990s.


Damage to a bridge, caused by rain-induced floods in Hargeysa, Somaliland.
Credit: IRIN

Many of the world’s largest cities – with populations of ten million or more - are at risk of natural disasters. Such cities include Calcutta, Istanbul, Mexico City, Tianjin and Tokyo. As large cities have grown, populations have spread along coastlines, flood-prone rivers and fault lines.

Most of the populations living in these disaster-prone areas are poor and lack sufficient housing, infrastructure and services that can mitigate the impact of a disaster. Recent attempts to house growing populations have resulted in a surfeit of substandard housing in flood-prone and geologically unstable areas, increasing the likelihood of massive casualties in the event of a major natural disaster.

The environment where humanitarian action takes place is evolving rapidly and continually poses new challenges to the humanitarian community. There is increasing human vulnerability in crisis situations – both in what aid agencies call complex emergencies (45 million in need of life-saving assistance in 2003) and in natural disasters (200 million affected in 2003).

According to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), the transition from humanitarian to development-led response in the context of complex emergencies is critical as peace is consolidated and the demand for humanitarian programmes increases (e.g., in Angola, Burundi, Cote d’Ivoire, Sudan). Poorly managed transitions can jeopardize the peace dividend as well as protract dependency and weaken state institutions, thereby threatening realisation of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs).

The same is true, however, for major disasters, which in a matter of a few seconds or minutes can devastate areas and erode years of development work that contribute to the achievement of MDGs. The transition from conventional emergency response and immediate recovery to reconstruction and improved development objectives is of great importance and was the subject of numerous debates and presentations at the World Disaster Reduction Conference in Kobe, Japan, in January 2005.

In spite of the repercussions in both the humanitarian and development sectors, the world still has not come to grips with how to manage and mitigate natural disasters.


Excessive snow-fall can also become a humanitarian emergency as communities become isolated and cut off from supplies as they did in Afghanistan in early 2005: here snow clearance assistance in Kyrgyzstan.
Credit: Kyrgyz Emergency Ministry

In spite of the repercussions in both the humanitarian and development sectors, the world still has not come to grips with how to manage and mitigate natural disasters.

“Instead of a separate pillar of disaster-risk-reduction projects, these projects must be integrated into development,” Johan Kieft, a programme leader with the international nongovernmental organisation CARE in Indonesia told IRIN. “Particularly in disaster-prone countries, risk reduction has to be integrated into development. In Indonesia we have to start working on risk reduction in relation to tsunamis now because we know enough to know that another will come sometime.”

Another dominant theme throughout the Kobe conference and in current literature on disaster management, is the frustration expressed by field workers and those implementing or responding to natural disasters, who say that unless the issues are pushed “up-stream” and incorporated into all development planning and investment decisions, natural disasters will continue to be the major cause of humanitarian crises worldwide.