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First in a series on forgetten disasters

Out of sight, out of mind

As donors and the global media chase mega-disasters, thousands of smaller-scale, ‘forgotten’ disasters never make the news. The phenomenon is not new and the Movement response is making a difference. But is the overall situation getting better or worse?

On 10 March, as the world watched massive waves smother harbour towns along Japan’s north-east coast, tens of thousands of people fleeing violence in Côte d’Ivoire were making their way towards the Liberian border.

One of those refugees was Adèle Zranhoundo, 41, who had fled with her husband and her three youngest children, losing track of her two grown-up sons on the way. Soon afterwards, her husband died, leaving her to fend for the little ones in a strange country.

“Right now, after my husband’s death, I am too confused to plan for the future, or even to work,” she said. “I am grateful for the generosity of the people in this village, who provide me and my children with food, even though they don’t have much.”

In some ways, Zranhoundo has much in common with the people affected by Japan’s tsunami. The loss of home, family and friends. The destruction of her community. Hunger, the prospect of long-term displacement.
But in other ways, her situation could not be more different. While the world rallied in support of Japan’s people — and the country’s government had significant economic and emergency response capacity — the Ivorians who wandered days through the forest to reach the Liberian camps received little attention from much of the global media.

Those who fled Côte d’Ivoire for Liberia are largely isolated from population centres and government infrastructure, and humanitarian appeals (by both the Movement and international organizations) have raised far fewer dollars than the earthquake and tsunami in Japan. An emergency appeal in January for US$ 4.1 million had raised US$ 2 million by 15 June — 48 per cent of its target.

There are many reasons for this disparity. Japan is a major economic power with many cultural, economic and political ties around the world. In addition, the shocking and sudden devastation of a disaster such as the Japan earthquake — combined with the ongoing nuclear threat — made for a perfect media firestorm. The 24–7 coverage was augmented by myriad amateur and professional videos, webcam journalists, tweets and blogs.

In Liberia’s camps, or the small communities that have taken in refugees, only a handful of journalists and delegates from humanitarian organizations carrying video cameras and notebooks posted news items for far more limited audiences.

The CNN effect

As the media increasingly rely on the repetition of compelling visuals to gain and retain viewers, there is a corresponding focus on epic mega-disasters — which in turn garner greater donor support.

This concern is nothing new. For more than a decade, humanitarians have been talking about ‘the CNN effect’, in which a few select mega-disasters get the lion’s share of media and donor attention, while hundreds of smaller disasters are overlooked.

“We are looking at a serious and chronic problem,” says Hossam Elsharkawi, director of emergencies and recovery for the Canadian Red Cross Society. “Our reading of the trends is that there are more frequent, small to medium-sized disasters and many chronic crises where access both to the people affected and to media and information is a problem.”

Often, those smaller disasters add up to greater, combined loss even if they gain little media attention. In Colombia alone, researchers using a database called DesInventar catalogued more than 19,000 small and moderate events that took lives, destroyed assets and infrastructure between 1971 and 2002.

“The total loss in financial terms was greater than all of the high-profile disasters to affect [Colombia] taken together, including the deadly eruption of Nevado del Ruiz in 1985,” researchers Ben Wisner and J.C. Gaillard later concluded from the data. “The best-known international database, EM-DAT, of the Centre for Research on the Epidemiology of Disasters, records only 97 disasters in Colombia for that period. Few of these 19,000 small and moderate events made it into the national press in Colombia, let alone the world media.”



Often this bias towards medium or large disasters is reflected in aid policy. Some donor governments have rules that permit aid only for disasters that affect a certain number of people (Canada, for example, mobilizes aid when more than 5,000 people are affected). “But if a disaster affects 4,000 people, it is just as real to those people,” Elsharkawi notes.

These are a few of the reasons why, in 1985, the IFRC established the Disaster Relief Emergency Fund (DREF). The idea was to create a pool of money that could be used for rapid response in areas where specific financial appeals were unlikely to garner the public attention needed to deploy an adequate and rapid response.

In 2006, the IFRC’s World Disasters Report highlighted this global disparity in the aftermath of the Indian Ocean tsunami and several other major catastrophes. Since then, DREF has made a substantial difference in the ability of IFRC and National Societies to mobilize (see graphics, pages 20–23). But the fund is still small (roughly US$ 22.5 million in allocations in 2010, up 9 per cent from 2009) compared to the needs, and use of the funds is limited to emergency response, not preparedness or risk reduction.

Originally, DREF was set up largely to provide short-term resources that would get operations going until emergency appeals could make up the funding gap. Due to a steady increase in the number of disasters, combined with insufficient response to emergency appeals, a majority of allocations (77 per cent in 2010) are now made in the form of non-reimbursed grants to National Societies for operations, thus increasing the fund’s reliance on large partners and donors.

Disaster within disaster

There are many reasons why emergency appeal targets frequently go unmet. The global financial downturn is compounding the problem, while many of the areas that suffer from numerous, overlapping ‘hidden’ emergencies are also, ironically, suffering from donor fatigue.

In western and central Africa, the combination of conflict, displacement, natural disaster, a general lack of hygiene and health infrastructure has worsened the effects of several disastrous health emergencies: polio in the Republic of Congo, cholera and meningitis in Cameroon and malaria and HIV/AIDS in several other countries in the region.

While significant resources have poured into some parts of the region (particularly refugees in the Democratic Republic of the Congo), the coverage on appeals for other emergencies has been disappointing. A US$ 1.3 million appeal for the wild polio outbreak in the Republic of Congo reached only 15 per cent of its goal, while the cholera outbreak in Cameroon had achieved only 7 per cent of its US$ 1.5 million target by 16 June. In both cases, DREF funding made up much of the difference.

A growing storm

By far the greatest number of natural disasters are climate-related. Even individually, the more serious floods, storms and mudslides can claim many lives. But the vast majority are on a smaller scale, causing substantial damage to property and infrastructure, as well as compounding poverty, infectious disease and malnutrition.

When torrential winter rains hit the department of Chacó on the Pacific coast of Colombia, for example, the resultant floods affected about 10,000 people, mostly indigenous and Afro-Colombian communities in one of the poorest departments in the country. Already dealing with armed conflict, they now face hunger, damaged infrastructure and decreased mobility.

In eastern Europe, seasonal floods in Moldova spread out over the flat land and consume cities and towns already facing hard times. The floods occur in July and August, when many people in the richer European nations are on vacation and not necessarily watching the news.

In Asia Pacific, a variety of weather-related events affected some 20 million people in more than a dozen countries in 2010 alone. The crises ranged from cold in Bangladesh and Mongolia to cyclones in Viet Nam and an outbreak of acute watery diarrhoea in Nepal. October’s Typhoon Megi, which affected some 430,000 families and damaged 150,000 houses near Luzon, Philippines, has only attracted 67 per cent of the US$ 4.9 million appeal in the six months after it was launched. For immediate disaster response, DREF contributed 257,000 Swiss francs.


So what should the humanitarian sector do? Some of the people interviewed for this story suggest that disaster preparedness, prevention and risk reduction at the local level could make a significant difference — and that National Societies will play a key role.

Often serving as auxiliaries to their governments, National Societies are well placed to respond quickly to small-scale disasters due to their presence in the affected communities. They don’t need to wait for international media or a global funding appeal to respond.

But even with DREF funds, many National Societies do not have the capacity to respond fully. Part of the challenge, therefore, lies in building up the local response capability based on lessons learnt from past disasters (as well as improving risk reduction and prevention) before the next disaster strikes.

Many of the most serious health consequences of smaller-scale disasters — contamination of water sources, for example — can be solved proactively by building raised latrines and protecting wells from flood waters. For example, the Liberian Red Cross Society, with the support of various Movement partners, is securing and improving numerous water sources where they have been compromised or where the refugee crisis has put pressure on local water supplies.

While DREF funds are sometimes used to prepare for imminent disasters, they are not intended for long-term risk reduction and prevention. Some within the IFRC are looking at ways to allow a greater percentage of emergency appeal funds to be used for preparedness, risk reduction and capacity building (particularly in areas affected by repeated, seasonal crises).

Some National Societies, such as the Canadian Red Cross, are creating their own global funds of unrestricted resources (which contribute to DREF). One Canadian Red Cross campaign carries a simple message: “Just because it’s not in the news doesn’t mean your support isn’t needed.”

But it’s a hard sell. With mega-disasters, donors can see results. From complete devastation, the emergency response phase provides clear, visual examples of food distribution, shelter, first aid or improving lives.

With prevention, risk reduction and capacity building, it’s hard to show and prove that projects are working, says Elsharkawi. “The standard formula we present is that one dollar invested in prevention and risk reduction saves seven dollars down the road,” he says. “But we need a lot more stories to back that up. We need better research and better evidence in order to convince people that their money is well invested.”

That is one area where Elsharkawi feels the Movement is lacking. More serious research and papers published in peer-reviewed journals, for example, would help build up the credibility and evidence for donors that risk reduction, prevention and capacity building make a difference, he says.

Forgotten by whom?

Fortunately for Adèle Zranhoundo, the Liberian families that have taken her in are not neglecting the crisis in neighbouring Côte d’Ivoire. Far from it. Liberian communities along the border have opened their homes to those fleeing the violence in Côte d’Ivoire. This is largely because Liberians are still are in contact with Ivorians who took them in during Liberia’s long and brutal civil war. Now Liberia is bearing the burden of more than 100,000 Ivorian refugees.

“These people I am staying with, they had befriended my husband when they were themselves refugees in Côte d’Ivoire,” says Zranhoundo. “But later, when I recover, I hope I will be able to work in the fields. And one day, God willing, I will perhaps go back home.”

Malcolm Lucard, with Iolanda Jaquemet/ICRC and Benoît Carpentier/IFRC.

Hidden under the mega-crises,
there is a world of smaller,
lesser-known emergencies

It’s well known that the number of natural disasters is increasing. But a typical TV viewer could be forgiven if he or she has the impression that most natural disasters are the massive catastrophes that dominate the news.

In fact, quite the opposite is true. As the graphics on this page show, by far the greatest number of disasters in the last ten years have been floods and most of them have been smallto medium-sized events. They cause fewer deaths than the major disasters but combined they affect a far larger number of people.

These small- and mid-sized disasters get less attention, but they cause immense financial loss and have wide-ranging secondary effects such as malnutrition, chronic poverty and spread of infectious disease.

By contrast, earthquakes and tsunamis are relatively infrequent but they can be tremendously destructive and claim many more lives, especially when they hit densely populated areas.

Understanding this dynamic is a vital part of developing strategies for rapid international and local response, as well as building the local capacity to best respond to and prevent the more frequent, small- to medium-sized emergencies. The charts on this page show number of events by category in the last decade, as well as the approximate number of people affected and killed.




Imagine you are flying a massive cargo plane called the 'International Action' with capability to deliver a large, but limited amount of aid. Your mission: to bring the aid where it is need most.

This is your instrument panel. On your radar, you can see which disasters are getting the most attention and funding, and which ones are not getting sufficient funding. You can also see the dramatic rise of climate-related disasters and which emergencies are falling off the radar screen of global donors.

Source: Center for Research on the Epidemiology of Disasters




Top 5 under-funded appeals

West Africa: 8.4% (of US$ 691million requested)
Zimbabwe: 29% (of US$ 488 million requested)
Djibouti drought: 29.6% (of US$ 39 million requested)
Niger 31.5% (of US$ 225 million requested)
Republic of South Sudan: 34% (of US$ 620 million requested) Source: OCHA/Financial Tracking Service. Includes contributions from governments and international organizations including ICRC, IFRC and National Societies (as of July 2011)




Reader question:

What are the forgotten emergencies in your region and why are they being forgotten? Send your response to or join the discussion at redcrossredcrescent



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