Natural disasters have always happened and will continue to happen. Unfortunately, there is a major difference in how developed countries prepare for and respond to natural disasters, compared to developing countries. When a disaster hits a developing country, the death rates are much higher than in a developed country, the recovery period takes longer and the long term economic impact is more severe. This paper looks at the causes for the differences and addresses steps a developing country can take to be better prepared for and respond against potential natural disasters.
There is a distinct difference in the terminology disaster professionals use between the words natural hazards and natural disasters. Natural hazards are forces of nature like a hurricane, earthquake or volcano. When these natural hazards occur and there is no damage to land or people, they are considered just natural hazards. However, when a natural hazard occurs in such a way that it inflicts severe damage on a society it is called a natural disaster. A hurricane that develops off the coast of Africa and then travels for 2 days in the ocean without making landfall and dies out without inflicting damage is a natural hazard. A hurricane that makes landfall, resulting in severe death and destruction is a natural disaster.
Natural disasters can occur anywhere, at any time. They may affect developing nations, they may affect developed nations. Sometimes, as in the case of hurricanes and monsoons, there is advanced warning. Other times, earthquakes, tsunamis or tornados, happen so quickly there is little or no warning. The difference though, is that when a natural disaster hits a developing nation – Haiti, Pakistan, Bangladesh, for example – the results are significantly more disastrous than if a similar disaster hits a developed country like Japan or the US. The first question to examine, then, is why deaths and devastation are so much higher when a natural disaster hits a developing country, as opposed to what happens when a similar devastation hits a developed country.
One of the first reasons is a less developed infrastructure, which can manifest itself in a number of ways. In developed countries, there are typically well regulated building codes for both residential and commercial structures. When a building is designed and built, it must meet strict regulations on types of materials, design and construction. As a regular part of the construction process, government inspectors are on site to make sure the relevant regulations are followed. On a scheduled basis afterwards, there are ongoing inspections to look for any signs of deterioration or a weakening of the structure.
This is not always the case in developing nations. In many cases, there are no regulations regarding building construction. And in cases where there might be some regulations on record, the builders might ignore them or bribe officials to sign off on paperwork that says the regulations are met. This results in a high number of substandard buildings that are especially prone to collapse when stressed by a natural disaster like an earthquake.
In developed countries, there are regulations in place that control occupancy rates. Buildings, offices and apartments are built to accommodate a maximum number of people. Regular inspectors ensure those occupancy rates are followed. Many times in developing countries, there are no occupancy rates or if they are, landlords look the other way for financial gain. Usually, in developing countries, there is extreme poverty. Extended families live together in overcrowded situations because they have no alternative. So when a natural disaster hits, the sheer density of people living in proximity of each other causes a higher death rate.
Another reason for high death rates in developing countries hit with natural disasters is the lack of mobile medical personnel and equipment: first responders. The number of available ambulances, triage facilities and trained emergency personnel are quickly overwhelmed. People who could be saved with the right medical treatment administered quickly could be saved. But they don’t get it, and those people who might have been saved are not.
Even in a developed country, first responders can be overwhelmed by the enormity of a natural disaster. When Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans in the US, the local first responders where completely overwhelmed by the enormity of what they faced. The difference is in the ability to quickly call upon extended resources. Within hours of Katrina hitting New Orleans, first responders were coming in from all over Louisiana and their neighboring states. Developing countries lack that back-up network to quickly marshal enough first responders. What might take a developed country hours or a day to implement, might take a developing countries days or weeks to accomplish, if at all. The difference is a much higher death rate among the victims.
The lack of basic transportation facilities can also drive up the death rates. First responders might be hampered by the lack of good roads and bridges. Heavy equipment used in search and rescue operations might not have the right roads to be transported to remote villages. Existing roads might be washed out or covered with debris. In many developing countries, there might only be one road or one bridge leading to a certain town. If that one road or bridge is unavailable, there might be no other way to get to that town, delaying needed personnel and materials. By contrast, developed countries typically have multiple alternatives to get to a particular town. Some ways may be a little longer than others, but they still provide a viable alternative.
Even if a developing country has stockpiled medical supplies in anticipation of a natural disaster, there is often a lack of means to get those supplies distributed. When a natural disaster hits, NGO’s and other countries can quickly mobilize to deliver supplies, but face the same problem. Once the needed supplies are flown in to the airport, there is no transport system in place to distribute the supplies from the point of entry to the site of the disaster. When the earthquake hit Haiti in 2010, the airport quickly became overwhelmed. Emergencies supplies were being brought in so fast that it exceeded the ability of the Haitian government to transport them away from the airport to make room for more supplies. The longer the transport takes, the higher the death rate.
Once we get beyond the immediate time frame of initial reaction to the disaster, there are a whole host of issues that must be addressed. First is housing. People who find themselves in these situations have nowhere to go when their home is destroyed. Poverty is high in developing countries and extended families tend to live together or in very close proximity. The disaster will affect grandma and grandpa, mom and dad, sons and daughters, aunts, uncles and cousins collectively. Very few have the option of moving in with families in unaffected areas. When the earthquake hit Port O Prince Haiti, for example, some people were able to relocate to relative’s farms in outlying areas, but the vast majority simply stayed right where they were because there was no other option. If the disaster hits in winter, where temperatures are at freezing or below, the very young and very old are at risk of hypothermia.
The next issue is food. In a natural disaster, the whole infrastructure of how food is distributed collapses. Stores will be damaged and not functioning. Crops will be damaged. Even potable water will be unavailable. People who live in extreme poverty don’t have bank accounts, savings or credit cards. Even if stores would somehow reopen with limited basic goods, the overwhelming majority of people just don’t have money to buy anything. The very young and very old are especially vulnerable here.
Basic sanitation becomes a critical issue. Dead bodies of both humans and animals need to be quickly buried or burned. Toilet areas need to be set up. Bathing areas need to be set up. Diseases like dysentery can become an epidemic in a short time frame.
When a natural disaster hits, local government officials take responsibility for the initial reactions of search and rescue. They are first on the scene and they know the local town or village better than outsiders. They are quickly overwhelmed. They lack the physical resources to respond and also lack the knowledge and training of how to respond. Command and control then moves up the ladder to regional leaders or even to national leaders. Many of these leaders also lack the training and knowledge of how to respond. Typically, in developing countries the military is the best organization with the most resources to respond, so they are brought in. Finally, international organizations are called in who do have the resources and technical expertise to best respond. There is no one single source but the international organizations like the International Red Cross, Doctors without Borders, several United Nations Organizations and the governments of developed countries like the United States, England and France have a history of cooperating well together. Each brings different talents and resources and together they provide the best hope of recovery for the affected areas.
So what should developing countries do to prepare themselves to avoid a disaster or to limit the effects of the disaster when it hits? It’s not just about spending money, which developing countries usually lack. They should start by understanding which types of disasters are most likely to affect them. A number of countries around the world are prone to earthquakes. Others are in areas where hurricanes typically are formed. Monsoons and mudslides are common in certain other countries. Once the most common potential disasters are determined, steps can be taken to prepare for them.
The International Federation of the Red Cross holds Disaster Risk Reduction sessions in a variety of developing countries, to help them plan to avoid disasters. Other International Organizations that also get involved in Disaster Risk Reduction Planning are UNICEF, OXFAM, GFDRR AND UNISDR.
After a monsoon struck Bangladesh in 1991 that killed over 138,000 people, it instituted a three part disaster reduction program. First, they increased the levels of embankments along the major river ways to minimize the possibility of overflowing the banks and flooding wide areas. Secondly, they embarked on a program of planting mangroves to slow the flow of water in the rivers and hold the soil together during periods of heavy rains. Third, they constructed a network of cyclone shelters so people would have a safe place to go during a monsoon.
In 1999 a category four cyclone struck the state of Odisha in India, killing over 15,000. The International Red Cross helped them implement a Disaster Risk Reduction Program that included building a network of cyclone shelters, created evacuation routes and increased coastal embankments. In addition, it became the first state in India to create a dedicated disaster management agency to manage their DRP on an ongoing basis.
When an earthquake hit Haiti and another unrelated earthquake hit Chili, the results were incredibly different. Chile is in an earthquake prone area and had instituted strict building codes with strict enforcement. Buildings were constructed to withstand the shaking that goes on in an earthquake. Haiti is not considered earthquake prone so there were no building codes. When the earthquake shook their buildings, they collapsed. Proper planning was a key to minimizing death and destruction in Chili, compared to Haiti.
On a global basis, the United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction holds an International Conference every other year to educate officials from developing countries on how to develop and Implement a Disaster Risk Reduction Program. This conference acts as a clearing house for developing countries to establish contacts with a wide variety of sources that can be helpful to anyone affected by a natural disaster.
The Global Facility for Disaster Reduction and Recovery (GFDRR) is a global partnership, managed by the World Bank. Its mission is to help developing nations develop their Disaster Risk Reduction plans by providing grant funding and technical assistance. They hold regular international conferences and will work directly in-country to develop country specific programs.
Pillar 1: Risk Identification
At this stage they work directly with governments using sophisticated mapping and computer modeling software to identify the most potentially threatening natural hazards.
Pillar 2: Risk Reduction
Here they work to improve legislation driving the best land use planning and drive investment aimed at reducing risk.
Pillar 3. Preparedness
The focus here is on the development of early warning systems and natural hazard forecasting. The more time people have to prepare for an upcoming hazard, the more lives will be saved.
Pillar 4: Financial Protection
Through grant funding and technical expertise, they work with a network of financial institutions and insurers to ensure that investments on the part of businesses and individuals are protected by appropriate insurance. In the worst case scenario of a natural disaster, businesses and individuals will have the financial resources to start their lives over again.
Pillar 5: Resilient Recovery
Here GFDRR works with government and industry to plan out the best approach and plan to recover from the disaster. Planning is done on both a short term and long term basis and GFDRR assists in securing the investments needed to rebuild.
After reviewing a number of web sites of organizations dedicated to Disaster Risk Reduction, I’m convinced there is a wealth of information and resources for developing countries to draw on. That said, the burden is on the developing countries to take ownership of how they plan and respond to natural disasters. All the people and organizations that turn out to help in a natural disaster eventually leave and move on to the next natural disaster. The government and business leaders of the country will remain and are ultimately responsible for how their country deals with any natural disasters.
So why aren’t more developing countries taking a more direct approach to Disaster Risk Reduction? For starters, developing countries face a tremendous amount of short term challenges that must be addressed immediately. This leaves less time, effort and resources to address long term problems.
Because of the nature of how leaders rise to the top in developing countries, many times the leaders are more interested in securing their own financial independence than they are in guiding their country to prosperity. Sometimes it’s because they are just not that competent, or lack long term vision. In addition, there may not be a wealth of educated, talented personnel to fill local and regional positions, which is critical.
If I was appointed an Emergency Manager of a developing country, here is the approach I would take. First, I would start attending all the international conferences on Disaster Risk Reduction that I could. My primary intent would be to make personal contact with key players at organizations like UNISDR, GFDRR and International Federation of the Red Cross. If a natural disaster hits, I want to be able to quickly contact and coordinate with those that can provide the most effective assistance.
Second, I would assemble a team of direct contacts around my country. These would not be staff personnel, but rather local elected leaders, or key regional government officials. These would have to be people in whom I had confidence. The intent is to establish a working relationship with competent people – regardless of their official positions – that can be counted on to come through in the chaos of a natural disaster.
Third, I would develop contacts with our military leaders and learn what they have in resources and what they need in resources to respond to a natural disaster. Developing countries lack finances so I would have to take a creative approach to helping the military secure the resources they need. That said, at least determining their need is the place to start.
Fourth, I would put a planning group together consisting of key players from the government, academia, the military and business. Once I have those executives on board, I would invite GFDRR to meet with this team and work through their program of the Five Pillars to develop a Disaster Risk Reduction program that is uniquely designed for my country.
Fifth, once we have a Disaster Risk Reduction program – with long and short term goals – drawn up and agreed to, I would work to execute that plan. Events are prone to change in a developing country so it will be important to consider this plan a living document that must be updated and amended from time to time.
Natural disasters have always been with us, and will always be with us. Whether it’s a category five hurricane hitting Miami, a massive mudslide in the Philippines or an earthquake along the border of India and Pakistan, natural disasters will occur. Developed countries have the ability to overcome these disasters better than developing countries, as everyone would expect.
There are a lot of things developing countries can do, however, to minimize the effects of a natural disaster. While they are solvent countries, there is a whole international community of aid and resources they can draw from. While they are limited in what they can do in terms of mitigating potential damage from a natural disaster, there are still things they can do. The key is to recognize that there are ways to protect your people and you are not 100% at the mercy of events.
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