Confronting the Rising Natural Disasters

In the past year, humanity faced global disasters of unprecedented magnitude and impact. With tragic earthquakes in Haiti and Chile, and floods in Pakistan and West Africa, all in only one year, countries and international aid organizations are dealing with enormous human suffering. The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs recently noted that 2010 has seen the largest number of people hurt by flooding. The New Year has seen massive floods in Australia, Sri Lanka and Brazil, with tens of thousands left homeless.

Given the rise of natural disasters, it is important to look into lessons learned from different types of natural calamities to help in more effective responses. Evaluative research shows that providing early response during an emergency period is critical. Distribution of emergency supplies needs to be orderly, involve local leadership, and help enhance social cohesion. If it does not, the opportunity cost is huge.

The reconstruction of Haiti following last year's earthquake was complicated by the haphazard nature of relief distribution practices in the first weeks and months, when goods were randomly tossed from trucks and helicopters into crowds. The ability to make relief and emergency decisions and communicate them speedily to the involved parties is important to prevent rumors and forestall mob action.

There is the tendency for people to band together in the face of a natural disaster. The effectiveness of reconstruction efforts is largely dependent on the mutual trust of individuals in the effected society and outside aid organizations. For example, the manner in which relief distributions are managed either enhances community involvement in reconstruction or constrains it, fostering dependency and other undesirable consequences. It is much harder to quell the use of force, looting, rioting and the firing of weapons after the fact than it is to prevent such violence in the first place.

Pakistan, during the floods of last summer, did not have an elected local government. The local government system of elected Nazims and counselors has been disbanded. Given the vacuum in local elected government, it was all the more important to have clear criteria to share responsibilities among the various actors above and below the local government level, to assess local needs, and monitor interventions.

Another key factor is ability to deploy experienced relief staff as early as possible. Historically, there has been no clear procedure for ensuring that the right staff are assigned to lead such operations. The World Bank has recently begun to develop a cadre of experienced disaster professionals.

To be more effective in facing global natural disasters, both international institutions and governments need to have plans for early emergency relief, build capacity of local governments and communities to cope with such disasters, and have a cadre of well trained staff that can be deployed within hours of an emergency. We also need to learn from previous disasters to become better in managing aid and relief work. More information can be found in the evaluative notes on Haiti, Pakistan and West Africa from the Independent Evaluation Group.