How to turn awareness into action on disaster preparedness

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

The aftermath of the Nepal earthquake. April 2015. [European Commission DG ECHO/Flickr]

The international response to the Nepal crisis is making a diference, but the future of sustainable development depends on minimising risks, rather than cleaning up after disasters, writes Nicholas Rutherford.

Nicholas Rutherford is Event Director for AidEx, the leading forum for the international aid and development community to discuss how to improve the efficiency of aid delivery.

The scale of devastation caused by the earthquake in Nepal has once again raised the question of how prepared vulnerable regions are to deal with emergencies. But it also highlights the role that the EU and other developed regions should play in strengthening global resilience to natural disasters.

Prior to the events of 25 April, Nepal had already been identified as being particularly vulnerable to earthquakes; this was the fifth significant quake in the last two centuries. As recently as three weeks ago, geological experts had gathered in Kathmandu to discuss how to better prepare for the next inevitable quake. On top of this, prolonged political instability has hampered the full implementation of disaster preparedness efforts.

Of course, natural disasters remain for the most part unpredictable. Even developed nations with strong preparedness plans can be overwhelmed by the force of nature, just as Japan was by the 2011 earthquake and resulting tsunami.

For this reason, the provision of emergency aid remains crucial. The European Commission responded to events in Nepal by activating the EU Civil Protection Mechanism, which coordinates assistance from participating member states to disaster-struck regions. The United Kingdom, Sweden, Italy, and the Netherlands are among those nations whose search-and-rescue or medical experts are already making a difference on the ground, while a total of 17 countries have now offered similar assistance.

But increasingly, bridging the gap between humanitarian intervention and sustainable development in the world’s geological flash-points depends on building resilient communities from the bottom-up. This can help to mitigate and, where possible, prevent the extreme impact of such disasters in the first place.

The EU has form here too. As a member of the Nepal Risk Reduction Consortium (NRRC), DG ECHO has funded efforts to help communities prepare for disasters, whether by setting up early warning systems, training people to build more resilient structures, or teaching children what to do if an earthquake strikes.

Clearly, more can and must be done. So it’s good to see preparedness and resilience are front and centre at this week’s European Civil Protection Forum, which brings together the European civil protection community to share best practice and experience on disaster relief. In the case of Nepal, better preparedness might mean more investment in earthquake-proof structures or enforcing stricter building codes.

But international and national players should ensure that smart disaster preparedness efforts tap into local resources and expertise.

In a report released earlier this week for the European Year of Development 2015, experts called for development funds to be invested in local capacities and governance if they are to be truly effective. This will allow development to move away from a donor-recipient model, which can keep a country trapped in long-term dependency on aid. But it also means local disaster response teams can respond to disasters themselves, with international agencies taking on a support role.

This was partially achieved following the hurricane which struck the Philippines in late 2013, where local actors such as the Philippines Red Cross were the first to respond; and it has been the case in Nepal, with volunteers from Nepal Red Cross among the first to assist with search and rescue efforts.

However, as the release of the Disaster Resilience Journal (a joint project between the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) and the European Commission) showed last year, a preparedness strategy that works in one country may be entirely inappropriate or unfeasible in another. So it’s important to take cultural sensitivities and different norms into account when planning.

It’s encouraging to see a greater awareness of how effective and comprehensive disaster preparedness can radically reduce the human impact of an earthquake, flood or typhoon. This has not always been the case – Commissioner Stylianides’ predecessor, Kristalina Georgieva, famously said of resilience building that “preparedness is not so sexy“. And it’s true that careful, considered efforts to build resilient communities do not grab headlines. But such work cannot be viewed as an optional add-on. Instead, it must form the cornerstone of any long-term development strategies for vulnerable parts of the world. Only then can we prevent the next disaster from becoming another tragic front page news story.

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