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Natural Disasters and Complex Emergencies: Differences and Commonalities

To victims of emergencies, there may be little point in distinguishing a typology of disaster genesis – pain, injury and loss are immediate problems requiring direct remediation. Yet, experience shows that different types of disaster events have markedly different responses, in terms of donor response, in terms of permissive or non permissive operating environments, and in terms of media (and thereby public) attention.

The International Committee of the Red Cross, the founding sponsor of the HELP Course, has historically paid particular attention to emergencies arising from armed conflict. However, the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, as well as the many National Societies, are deeply involved in both man-made conflict emergencies and natural disaster emergencies. Many of the other agencies and organizations in the humanitarian assistance sphere also share this dual focus.

Further complicating the question is the developing consensus that so-called “natural” disasters are not as clearly distinct from man-made disasters as was once thought. There have been many disasters with mixed origins, for example, extreme drought mixed with civil war in 1990’s Mozambique, the 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami impacting areas of civil strife in Banda Aceh and Sri Lanka, and recently Cyclone Nargis hitting Myanmar, a country already struggling under economic and social deprivation.

As well, it is now better understood that human agency has a powerful effect on pre-existing vulnerability to disaster shocks, and even the most overtly “natural” catastrophe will have markedly different impacts on sub-populations with characteristics defined by social construction, not nature (i.e., social class, minority status, gender roles, etc.). Many human decisions, such as where to live, how to build our homes and other structures, or how much advance preparation we choose to do, also define the impacts of emergency events.

To begin to work with these ideas, we have assembled some materials here that illuminate various aspects of this theme.

Learning Objectives

• Understand and articulate three ways in which armed conflict emergencies are distinguishable from emergencies arising from predominately natural causes.
• Understand and articulate three ways in which armed conflict emergencies resemble emergencies arising from predominately natural causes.
• Know the definition of “disaster” used by the Centre for Research on the Epidemiology of Disaster

Video: What is a Disaster?

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The Johns Hopkins Public Health Guide to Emergencies: Chapter 1 – Defining a Disaster

What is a disaster? What are the public health impact of disasters on populations, and how can the capacity of vulnerable communities can be strengthened to cope with disasters? The first chapter of this guide examines the social, political, economic and cultural factors that create vulnerabilities.

Natural Disaster and Conflict-Induced Displacement: Similarities, Differences and Inter-Connections

Elizabeth Ferris, Senior Fellow, Foreign Policy, Society for Applied Anthropology.

This paper examines some of the similarities and differences between displacements caused by natural disasters, and displacements caused by conflicts, or “man-made disasters.”

The Responders Cauldron: The Uniqueness of International Disaster Response.

Arjun Katoch. Journal of International Affairs, Spring/Summer 2006.

This paper discusses the international response to sudden onset natural disasters, the high pressure situations in which responders find themselves at a disaster site, and outlines what instruments the
international community uses to respond to major natural disasters.

Introduction to International Disaster Management: Chapter 1

Damon P. Coppola

This first chapter of this book provides a very useful overview of International Disaster Management. Additional information about this book, along with ordering information, is at the publisher’s website.

“Links between Natural Disasters, Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Risk Reduction: a critical perspective”

Papa Seck. United Nations Development Program, Occasional Paper Series, 2007.

This paper explains how the barriers that impede on risk reduction financing are mostly related to the perverse incentives — both political and strategic — that drive donors and aid recipients after the onset of a natural disaster, and how these impact the perceptions and financing of risk reduction strategies.

The International Humanitarian System and the 2004 Indian Ocean Earthquake and Tsunami.

John Telford Independent international aid consultant, France, and John Cosgrave
Independent evaluator, InterWorks Europe, Ireland.

This paper compares international disaster response objectives, principles and standards of the 2004 Indian Ocean Earthquake and Tsunami with actual performance. Additionally, it draws several conclusions on four aspects: funding; capacity and quality; recovery; and ownership.

Video: The Sphere Project: Introduction to Humanitarian Challenges

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The Sphere Project was launched in 1997 by a group of humanitarian NGOs and the Red Cross and Red Crescent movement. Sphere is based on two core beliefs: first, that all possible steps should be taken to alleviate human suffering arising out of calamity and conflict, and second, that those affected by disaster have a right to life with dignity and therefore a right to assistance. Sphere is three things: a handbook, a broad process of collaboration and an expression of commitment to quality and accountability. The project has developed several tools, the key one being the handbook.

University of Hawaii at Manoa; Center of Excellence in DMHA; ICRC

Contact Information

Disaster Management & Humanitarian Assistance
University of Hawai'i at Manoa
2424 Maile Way, Saunders Hall 118
Honolulu, HI 96822