So far, 2011 has been ridden with worldwide disaster. For whatever reasons this can be attributed to, the fact is they are becoming more and more frequent. Can we be more prepared and what can we do to reduce the post-disaster pandemonium that follows?
As I become immersed in the archive of BBC images of our world in disaster, I find myself propelled into an overwhelming sense of perspective. With an initially glazed focus I casually sift through the scenes of devastation from Brazil, Sri Lanka, South Africa, Australia, Haiti (one year on), Tunisia and Ivory Coast and I am soon pinched by the realisation that disasters – both natural and political – are increasing in frequency.
The world has seen the floods of Brazil, Australia, South Africa and Sri Lanka causing havoc, Haiti – despite great international intervention – is ridden with cholera and widespread crime and Tunisia and Ivory Coast are in severe unrest. With the media conveying a horrific picture of a world in turmoil, some questions spring to mind:
Can we try to foresee disasters, or are they to be branded each as dynamic individual cases: unpredictable and unexpected, to be dealt with when the time comes? How do you instil resilience into a community with limited resources but a high likelihood of experiencing a catastrophe? Do you ignore the vulnerable and poor populations already present in that place and prioritise only those affected by the disaster?
In the situation of a disaster chaos and complexity will always be present – but who leads and coordinates response? The most important participation is from the government and civil society of that country. In the circumstance of disaster, you wish for simple commanding control, but this is rarely the case and the national structures are often overwhelmed by an influx of multi-dimensional aid programs even in developed countries. For greatest benefit to be elicited, engagement of international organisations needs to be deeply in sync with the local community and authority, and often the time for interaction and discussion is not taken. The intervention of externals in many cases causes problems in terms of their behaviour or appreciation of context of the disaster. Such influx of foreign agencies can often be very destabilising to the country’s government, local authorities and populations – international humanitarian agencies struggle to strike a balance between providing resources and destabilising social and political infrastructure. We are aware of the countries that are most disaster prone to flooding, earthquakes, strong migration patterns etc. so NGOs, local and national authorities should plan together prior to disasters rather than ignore the risks and wait until we are consumed by the big disaster. In recent years there has been increasing engagements of all actors coming together, for example the Red Cross act as auxiliaries to the government, negotiating different roles in response to disaster.
Because each disaster is so different from the next, preparedness and planning is difficult. But we can seek to draw commonalities and lessons learned. Countries should be encouraged to put themselves in position to adequately respond to a disaster. Promoting community engagement and education through setting up warehouse centres and facilitating early warning sessions such as school drills would be a more fruitful way of investing finances. A disaster protocol system should be instated and this would equip people on the ground with a clear direction in a crisis, whilst harnessing expertise at a community level rather than numerous foreign agencies simply trying to take control of the situation.
The role of foreign media is crucial in generating world attention and recruiting global donor support. Unfortunately, it seems that if you’re from a rich country the media see you as more worthy of attention (for example, media coverage of the Queensland floods seem to have eclipsed that of other disasters). If you’re not, you’ll be a twenty second jumble of images on the evening news in someone else’s living-room. The media can get it wrong. News channels want you to tune into their station so they churn out the shocking stories to grasp your attention, and sometimes they can perceive a situation to be much worse than it is. Charlie Brooker raises an example of this here.
Over 100 hundred cities worldwide have already joined the UN’s campaign, “Making Cities Resilient” as UN International Strategy for Disaster Reduction (UNISDR) continues to work with local governments and organisations to build disaster resilient communities.(1) A major lesson we’ve learned is that recovery is not just to recover normalcy because these people are often living in starvation, abysmal poverty and antisocial activity, but recovery is a challenge of building back better and making opportunity. In the post-relief phase, there is a challenge of enhancing the local capacities to respond more effectively and to support relief camps until living conditions are adequate, allowing hand over to local capacities to rebuild their lives. An exit strategy is to look for resiliency to disaster and this should incorporate first aid training, natural disaster response training and instil preparedness and models of urban renewal. (1)
I can feel desolation that radiates so strongly from these people as they wrestle with the daily terror the world has thrown at them and it seems this is becoming an all too familiar picture. The challenge: can we be more prepared to reduce such large-scale catastrophe blighting 2011?