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Emergencies: 30 earthquakes, 28 lessons learned

Published on: 25/01/2010

The Overseas Development Institute reports on earthquake response.

As aid agencies launch Haiti earthquake relief efforts, a blog post on the Overseas Development Institute web site, has showcased a report by learning and accountability network, ALNAP [Active Learning Network for Accountability and Performance in Humanitarian Action], outlining 28 lessons learned over 30 years of earthquake responses.

The report covers the 1976 Guatemala earthquake that killed 23,000 people and the 2006 Yogyakarta earthquake that left 5,749 dead. Earthquakes are uniquely challenging, with high mortality rates, severe road and infrastructure destruction, debris delaying recovery efforts and the risk of aftershocks, stated ALNAP in the 2008 report.

“Every time there is a major evaluation, it states [that] emergency responses did not apply lessons from previous emergencies,” ALNAP head of research and development, Ben Ramalingam, told IRIN. “Decisions we make now in Haiti can influence the way operations go for quite some time.”

He has high hopes. Comparing Haiti now with the immediate aftermath of the 2004 tsunami, he says: “Now there is much more focus on what can be done better; there is a lot of debate about coordination and quality – this is potentially unique.”

The most important lesson aid agencies must apply is to address emergency relief and longer-term recovery efforts together, ALNAP says. “Recovery is the overriding challenge. Agency planning should not overstate the need for relief, and should quickly move into recovery activities.”

Physical recovery is likely to take three to five years in Haiti.


“In Haiti recovery is also social, political and economic – not just physical – and there is a limit to what humanitarian assistance can do in this,” Ramalingam said. “The entire international community needs to rise to this challenge.”

Other immediate priorities for Haiti include identifying an institution – be it existing government bodies, the UN or the American administration – to lead the response, he pointed out.

And when planning their response all aid groups must not forget a simple lesson: “The majority of life-saving work in any disaster is done by populations themselves… the most important resource Haitians have is their own social capital. Agencies must give good information to communities so they can plan their own recovery from the start.”

Two water-related lessons from the ALNAP report:

  • Do not overstate the risk of disease as this leads to misallocation of resources. Only three out of 600 geophysical disasters led to disease epidemics, according to research published in the Emerging Infectious Diseases Journal. The real risk posed by dead bodies after natural disasters is mental illness caused by shock and grief. [The ALNAP report (p. 11) states that "outbreaks of communicable disease are rare after natural disasters unless large numbers are displaced from their homes and placed in camps". It warns against wasting money on "imaginary" problems, using an example from the 2004 Tsunami disaster: "Even though there was no confirmed case of cholera in Aceh, an immunisation campaign targeted 160,000 people with preparations for cholera using an expensive twodose oral vaccine"].
  • Livelihoods are key to recovery; listen to affected populations about their priorities for livelihood recovery. [The ALNAP report (p. 18) cites the example of the earthquake disaster in Bam (Iran) where "interveners gave a low priority to irrigation for orchards, ranking such support lower than shelter, schools and drinking water. The affected population gave water for orchards their highest priority because of the risk of losing their orchard assets".]

Other lessons from the ALNAP report:

  • Give cash and buy locally wherever possible. Ramalingam warns this must be applied carefully in Haiti given security concerns.
  • Focusing on emergency shelter while neglecting permanent shelter is a mistake. The most sensible solution is “transitional shelter” that can be turned into permanent dwellings.
  • Recovery operations are not neutral. They will reinforce or reduce existing inequalities and must be actively designed to do the latter.
  • Listen to recipients and make sure the assistance is appropriate.
  • Be prepared for land-ownership disputes.
  • Try to build back better, for instance by improving building codes, but be realistic; disaster response is not a magic bullet.

Source: IRIN, 21 Jan 2010


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