Iguacu Blog

Are we learning the lessons from past disasters?

Jan 26, 2018
Are we learning the lessons from past disasters?
Adib Chowdhury
Disaster Research and Response Specialist

Adib holds an MSc in Conflict Studies from the LSE. He has worked with the UNDP and with NATO. He also works as a photojournalist undertaking projects exploring human rights and environmental issues across the Middle East and South Asia and was awarded the Marty Forscher Fellowship Prize for achievements in humanistic photography. Adib speaks English, Bengali, and basic French and Arabic.

In 2017, nearly every continent was hit by natural disasters or major hazards: cyclones in Asia; hurricanes, mudslides and wildfires in the US and Caribbean; landslides in South America; the largest earthquake of the year in the Middle East; and flooding in Europe. Disaster Response Specialist at iguacu, Adib Chowdhury, reviews the major disasters of the last year and considers whether the lessons are being learned to minimise casualties in future, and to prevent natural hazards from becoming major disasters.

“These disaster events are not natural phenomena, but a failure to understand how we are…not adequately addressing poverty, land use, building codes, environmental degradation, population growth in exposed vulnerable settings” — Dr Robert Glasser, Special Representative of United Nations Office of Disaster Risk Reduction.

APRIL

Colombia landslide

A landslide occurred after a full month’s worth of rain fell in the span of five hours. It came just weeks after previous landslides in Mocoa. Both instances affected the poorer populations in the area. Government agencies, land use experts and environmental organizations had warned for years that these areas could face dangerous flooding, but these concerns were ignored.

The aftermath of landslides in Salgar, Colombia where housing conditions look alltogether risky. | Photo Credit: Hyance

“Unfortunately, in Colombia we don’t have a good assessment of risk, or good land use policies to prohibit people from settling in areas like these,”Marcela Quintero, a researcher with the International Center for Tropical Agriculture.

It is estimated that more than 300 were killed during the landslide. The death toll could have been significantly lower had the warnings led to action.

JUNE

Cyclone Mora: Bangladesh and Myanmar

The cyclone made landfall in Bangladesh on May 30, displacing around 851,000 from the two countries. It was the largest displacement from a natural hazard in 2017, killing 135 people and injuring many more.

In Bangladesh — before the large influx of refugees in August — Rohingya refugees, sheltering in makeshift tents on the outskirts of camps, endured heavy winds and falling objects and 20,000 dwellings were damaged. In Myanmar, Rohingya IDP camps and villages were flattened by the strong gusts.

Households threatened by Cyclonic Storm Mora, then over the east-central Bay of Bengal and intensifying. Bengladesh, May 27, 2017 | Photo Credit: Mukul Kanti Saha/DRK

Despite the warnings by various NGOs, in both countries, a lack of focus on providing adequate storm-proof shelter for the most vulnerable groups of society resulted in a horrendous situation for those affected. In fear for their lives, families watched their fragile foothold on survival, and attempts to create some kind of home, being swept away in front of their eyes.

AUGUST

Hurricane Irma

On August 31, Hurricane Irma became the strongest Atlantic basin hurricane ever recorded outside the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean Sea. It became a fully formed hurricane on August 31st and lasted until September 11th. Irma spanned 650 miles from east to west and affected at least nine US states, causing heavy flooding, damaged power lines, uprooted trees, and cut off transportation links to coastal communities.

The massive storm triggered evacuation orders for around 6.5 million people, but the evacuation procedures and emergency shelters were put in place effectively. The challenge in developed countries lies in making people understand the importance of evacuating and pressuring them to take action on the warnings if the level is high enough.


Saint Martin, in the aftermath of Hurricane Irma. | Photo Credit: Mark Yokoyama

For such a large and prolonged hurricane, the death toll stood at 134 but was expected to be potentially higher. A frequently recurring issue after cyclones and hurricanes is that of communications. Damaged cell towers take time to be repaired, and a lack of communication means a lack of access to healthcare and vital assistance.

SEPTEMBER

Mexico earthquake

On September 19, a 7.1-magnitude earthquake struck 2.8 miles (4.5 kilometers) northeast of San Juan Raboso and 34.1 miles (55 km) south-southwest of the city of Puebla. The death toll was around 365.

Similar to many natural hazards, Mexico suffered greatly from the quake due to poor monitoring and adherence to building regulations. A report conducted one month later by the Guardian revealed that many buildings that collapsed in the earthquake were the subject of around 6,000 citizen complaints about safety that were left unanswered.

An aid, search & rescue delegation assesses the integrity of buildings on the day after the devastating earthquake hit the country. Mexico, September 21st, 2017. | Photo Credit: IMFA

NOVEMBER

Iran/Iraq earthquake

On November 12, a massive 7.3-magnitude earthquake struck south of the Iraqi city of Halabja. The epicentre was in a mountainous region on the Iranian side of the border. The death toll reached 580 lives with more than 7,800 injured.

One of the major challenges responding to the quake was the region’s remoteness, and the length of time it took to reach those affected. Near Halabja, Iraq, the death toll was less than on the Iranian side due to better access, as well as the closer proximity of aid agencies.

Damaged apartment block in Sarpol-e Zahab, Iran. | Photo Credit: Alireza Vasigh Ansari

Why are some affected by disasters more than others?

There are numerous factors, but a key aspect to this is preparedness: measures taken to prepare for and reduce the effects of disasters. This includes measures to predict, prevent and mitigate disasters, as well as to respond effectively and cope with their consequences.

For the majority of the natural disasters in 2017, prior warnings had repeatedly been made regarding building regulations and insufficient oversight and preparedness by local authorities and governments.

Less developed countries and the vulnerable groups of populations within them are most at risk from natural disasters. When a disaster strikes, they often have to respond very quickly and with far more limited resources.

Truly effective preparedness plans preempt natural hazards and heed warnings, taking the necessary preventative measures. They can cost, but greater action locally, with international support, for the world’s most vulnerable populations, would save a great many lives, reduce much suffering, and be far more cost-effective than financing an international response to a major humanitarian disaster.

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