Small disasters neglected despite big impact

As Typhoon Haiyan dominates headlines and triggers a global humanitarian response, disaster relief experts at a workshop in Dubai today warned that small disasters risked losing out on attention.

Such lower-scale events include the cyclone that hit northern Somalia’s Puntland region over the weekend, killing at least 140 people and up to 100,000 livestock. With such events, it is usually far from clear whether aid donors will get involved, which in turn can limit agencies’ desires to carry out assessments that could unrealistically raise expectations.

Bangladesh, one of the world’s most vulnerable countries to natural disasters, has not declared an official emergency in around 10 years, despite experiencing major weather events, including the Haor flooding in August 2010, which displaced 10 million people, according to NGO estimates.

“There is less money around due to the global financial crisis,” said Benedicte Giaever, director of the emergency response department at the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC), who organized the seminar on disaster risk reduction at Dubai’s International Humanitarian City. “There will still be money for the Philippines, and for the Haitis, but the smaller crises that we don’t see on CNN or in the newspapers won’t get funding now - those are the millions of lives that we need to save.”

Cumulative toll

Between 1970 and 2010, some 3.3 million people died because of natural hazards - around 82,500 a year - according to estimates by the UN and the World Bank.

When a government chooses not to declare a humanitarian emergency, these natural disasters are often dubbed “small disasters”, “low-profile disaster events” or “severe weather events”.

“We don’t want to take away from the importance of the big disasters, but these lower profile events happen several times a year, and even though they may not kill many people, they do have an effect and have a significant impact on livelihoods,” said Sandie Walton-Ellery, an assessment coordinator with the Assessment Capacities Project (ACAPS) in Bangladesh.

The vast majority of people affected by smaller natural disasters are already living below the poverty line, and such events can have a long-term impact, including on health and education.

Unseen

Many of these events do not appear in global disaster tracking databases, and without an evidence base, donors are less willing to get involved, analysts say.

Because such disasters are often not deemed “global” or even “national”, humanitarian mechanisms to provide emergency aid are generally not put in motion. The focus of UN agencies and NGOs in the country is often on long-term development activities, such as helping populations adapt to climate change, rather than short-term response.

“Maybe we can be better about building response in development programming,” said Walton-Ellery, who is helping to development assessments that focus more on livelihoods than lives lost, which could avoid raising too many expectations for a corresponding aid effort.

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