Learning from Natural Disasters

By Garrett Bradford

In the last few years, countries across the globe have seen a sharp increase in devastating weather-related events. Parts of Colombia are experiencing heavy rains that have lasted for a year now. In the United States, the Midwest experienced the region's wettest April, while Texas had the state's driest April in a century. It is clear that we are seeing increasingly frequent and severe climate-related disasters, such as drought, floods, and catastrophic storms.

Yesterday, the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C. hosted "Responding to Natural Disasters," a panel discussion on the challenges humanitarian agencies and governments are facing when responding to the increasing number of deadly natural disasters. The event brought together three experts to share experiences from disaster response efforts in Colombia, Japan, and the United States. The discussion, moderated by Nan Buzard, from the American Red Cross, outlined practices, problems and lessons learned to bolster an already stretched humanitarian system, much of which hinges on the coordination between relief organizations, national governments, and local communities.

These disasters are having a massive impact on people and economies. Elizabeth Ferris, Co-Director of Brookings-LSE Project of Internal Displacement, cited the Brookings report A Year of Living Dangerously: A Review of Natural Disasters in 2010, which reports that 300 million people worldwide were affected by natural disasters in 2010. Earthquakes in Haiti and Chile, floods in Pakistan, China and Colombia, wildfires in Russia, and Typhoon Megi in the Philippines were just a few of the disasters that displaced millions and caused more than $100 billion in damages.

Alice Thomas, Climate Displacement Program Manager of Refugees International, discussed that severe flooding in Colombia led to the worst natural disaster in that country’s history. The rainy season and floods "affected 1.5 million in 2008 and this year twice that amount," noted Thomas. Donna Derr from Church World Service also discussed how tornadoes and flooding across the lower United States have displaced thousands. These disasters have impacted water supplies, land availability, food availability and prices, and housing.

Forests and other natural resources are disappearing at alarming rates across the globe, subsequently hindering natural systems' ability to mitigate the effects of weather-related events. The destruction of these resources also makes people much more vulnerable to disaster. According to Thomas, officials from Pakistan's government stated that the floods in that country were 30 percent worse because of human activity and exploitation.

All panelists agreed that governments' response to catastrophic events has room for improvement. International funding for natural disasters was wildly disproportionate, with 96.6% of all humanitarian funding recorded by the UN’s Financial Tracking System going to the Haiti earthquake and Pakistan floods. And there is a desperate need to improve procedures and systems for building transitional shelter and long-term housing.

In particular, Thomas urged a “rights-based approach” that coordinates with and empowers local communities when responding to a disaster. Ferris pointed out that, often, affected populations do not trust the government. Preparedness and response efforts therefore should be coordinated at a local level within a framework that respects human rights and builds trust between the government and those affected. Ferris referenced the U.S. federal response to Hurricane Katrina and concluded, "Natural disasters and the way in which a government responds to them can affect the relationship between the government and the people for years."

Derr also urged stronger education and awareness programs that help people better prepare for when a disaster strikes. “If we don’t put plans in place now… we will see more loss of life,” warned Derr.

By learning from the immense number of disasters in 2010, agencies can put better plans in place to prevent future catastrophes, quickly provide assistance and shelter, and help communities rebuild. "There are opportunities inside every single disaster," concluded Buzard. "Whether it's strengthening codes, revising laws, building back better, we really need to say, 'What could we do better?'"

See more videos from the event.