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Environment Magazine September/October 2008


March/April 2010

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Editorial - Anticipating Surprise: Will we Be Prepared for the Next Humanitarian Crisis?

As this issue was going to the printer, the world was informed of the devastating 7.0 magnitude earthquake that struck Port-au-Prince, Haiti, on the evening of January 12, 2010. While it is too soon to gauge the human toll of such a catastrophe, it is clear is that the enormity of the event, coupled with the extreme poverty in Haiti, means a long, and protracted recovery for the Haitian people, their infrastructure, and the country's institutional structures. This humanitarian crisis is unparalleled in the western hemisphere, yet we are reminded of other natural disasters that caused widespread devastation and human suffering just in the last few years (the 2004 South Asian tsunami; Hurricane Katrina and the Kashmir earthquake in 2005; the 2008 Sichuan earthquake; and last, but not least, Cyclone Nargis, also in 2008, whose storm surge inundated the Irrawaddy delta in Myanmar, resulting in more than 130,000 deaths.)

The experience in Haiti highlights three important issues. The first is the direct links among development, social vulnerability, and the capacity of nations to respond to and recover from extreme events. The social vulnerability of affected areas acts to heighten the impact of disasters on locales and the people who live there. Yet, despite such vulnerability, there may be inherent resilience in the social networks and institutions within the community or nation that can help communities recover from such catastrophic losses. While the Haitian people are resilient in many ways, the long-term prognosis for the nation will require international aid and development to repair and restore the infrastructure and to ameliorate those factors that produced the social vulnerability in the first place (lack of education, poverty, substandard housing, overcrowding in urban areas, marginal livelihoods, poor governance, social tensions, and inbuilt corruption). The misery of everyday life in Haiti was already a humanitarian crisis, and the earthquake just made a bad situation worse.

The second issue that the Haiti catastrophe highlights is the lack of awareness of low probability, but high consequence, extreme events. The last major earthquake to affect Haiti was the 1842 M7.6 earthquake in nearly the same location. Unfortunately, the present human experience does not stretch back over nearly 170 years. Flooding from tropical storms (Jeanne in 2004; Hanna in 2008) confirms that the nation's capacity for emergency response is limited, given the vulnerable population that became so not only because of natural events, but also because of decades of economic deprivation. Once the immediate impact period was over, the rest of the world quickly forgot about the long-term consequences of these floods on this impoverished nation. Haiti does not have the same geopolitical caché as Pakistan or Iran, so it disappeared from the radar screen, until the next crisis, in this case the 2010 earthquake.

Finally, we may never know the number of casualties and deaths from this catastrophic event, because many of the databases used to project such estimates need reasonably accurate censuses of populations. As noted by a recent National Research Council Report,1 “Accurate national population figures with demographic details are necessary for planning and executing an appropriate response for any emergency relief, recovery, or development activity…. When such data are not available, it is difficult or impossible to estimate mortality and morbidity in the days and weeks following a disaster” (p. 144). In examining Haiti as a case study, the report found that population estimates after Tropical Storm Jeanne in 2004 were “highly inaccurate and have affected the efficiency of subsequent interventions” (p. 141), and this was for a much smaller event. Planning for and delivering aid relief in the absence of knowing how many people are at risk and in need of assistance, and where and who those people are, could do more harm than good. Nevertheless, Haiti is a target for an amazing commitment of aid. Indeed one of the many tragedies of this dreadful event is the damage to the aid agencies, UN, and many international NGOs, via death and injury to aid workers and loss of support buildings and services. Furthermore, the delivery of aid to those in need requires some semblance of pre-impact planning and coordination among aid givers (including logistics), and the infrastructure to deliver these basic human needs supplies—food, water, medicines. We must bring a sense of collective responsibility for governance and the prioritization for recovery and resilience, especially for hospitals and schools, as part of the longer-term recovery and reconstruction of this nation.

To foster resilient and sustainable human communities, we must anticipate surprise and be flexible in our thinking and actions regarding past, present, and future risks from extreme and not so extreme events. We must enhance the capacity of many of the world's poorest nations to understand their risks and vulnerabilities and provide long-term technical and financial assistance in moving toward a sustainable future. We have a collective responsibility to restore hope in the face of human misery and to assist those communities and nations that are not as fortunate as ourselves. Haiti is just the most recent example, but it will not be the only one, nor will it be the last.

1U.S. National Research Council, Tools and Methods for Estimating Populations at Risk from Natural Disasters and Complex Humanitarian Crises (Washington, DC: The National Academies Press, 2007).

—Susan L. Cutter

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