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Silent killers

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THE IDEA OF ‘SILENT’ OR ‘FOR GOTTEN’ DISASTERS is not entirely new. Such terms were used as early as the 1930s when an increasingly globalized League of Red Cross Societies (now IFRC) began coping with more and more natural disasters around the globe.

Today, global awareness about major disasters is almost instantaneous. In some cases, the people affected use Skype, YouTube, Facebook or Twitter to report as events unfold.

But because the majority of the earth’s population does not have smart phones and good internet connections, the so-called ‘CNN effect’ still applies: events receiving sustained coverage with powerful images get attention; the others fall off the radar to become silent disasters.

But ‘silent disaster’ is a strange term. Winds tearing the sheeting off a roof or water washing away an entire house are anything but quiet to those affected. The silence is about what is heard — or not heard — in donor countries, especially in hard economic times.

Given that reality, some donors and humanitarian organizations consider that the way forward in addressing these disasters is to invest in making vulnerable people less so when the next storm, quake or drought hits.

“This is a substantial shift in mentality and practice,
from distributing aid to drought-affected people in order to survive until the next drought, to investing in the long run — building irrigation systems, promoting more resistant crops, helping pastoralists manage their livestock,” write two European Union (EU ) commissioners, Kristalina Georgieva and Andris Piebalgs (representing EU humanitarian assistance and development agencies respectively), in a joint editorial written for the Red Cross Red Crescent magazine web site:

Today, with funding from the European Commission’s Humanitarian Aid and Civil Protection department (ECHO), the IFRC and 11 EU National Societies are carrying out 55 disaster preparedness projects in partnership with host National Societies in 36 countries. They also jointly launched a public awareness campaign about silent disasters, along with ten National Societies, in February (

It’s a natural progression. In the 1970s and 1980s, many donor nations and humanitarians began feeling frustrated by the cyclical repetition of disasters in vulnerable areas. Many realized that natural disasters have as much to do with human development patterns as weather patterns. “Some critics of relief operations claim that their main goal is to return victims to the status quo,” concluded one 1984 article entitled Natural Disasters, Acts of god, or acts of man?
“Yet it is the status quo that makes them disaster-prone and vulnerable.”

Some fear the humanitarian mandate could be diluted or compromised if emergency relief organizations take on too much or are aligned too closely with government or development agendas. Others argue that disaster preparedness must be a key part of local, community development in a world where not all disasters are treated equally.

Sometimes that unequal treatment plays out within one disaster. Take the case of Hurricane Sandy, (see graphic) which slammed into the east coast of the United States in November, causing widespread destruction and the death of 131 people. Coming at the tail of a presidential election in which climate change suddenly became an important issue, media attention was intense. Coverage of the hurricane’s impact in the Bahamas, Cuba, the Dominican Republic, Haiti and Jamaica was minimal, though the storm was just as devastating (an estimated 137 people killed or missing; massive damage to crops and homes). “We know our early warning systems are very good and they allow us to be well prepared, but we are simply not used to this loss of life,” said Luis Foyo Ceballos, secretary general of the Cuban Red Cross.

Similarly, ‘Super’ Typhoon Bopha killed more than  1,000 people and damaged or destroyed more than 216,000 homes on the island of Mindanao in the Philippines. The IFRC, the Philippine Red Cross and the ICRC provided relief to thousands. But the IFRC’s US $ 17 million appeal for Bopha was still just 30 per cent funded in February, meaning it could provide shelter repair materials to only 5,000 of the 15,000 families targeted. “This was a category 5 storm, the largest on the scale,” says Necephor Mghendi, IFRC head of operations in the Philippines. “If this disaster does not warrant donor attention, the future for survivors looks bleak.”


Fast forward
In 1992, the Centre for Research on the Epidemiology of Disasters (CRED) registers a total of 221 natural disasters. These disasters claim an estimated 14,811 lives, affect 78 million people and cause economic losses totalling nearly US$ 70 billion. In 2011, CRED registers a total of 336 natural disasters. These disasters claim an estimated 31,105 lives, affect 209 million people and cause record-breaking economic losses totalling nearly US$ 366 billion.


150 years of humanitarian action

November 1918: Armistice is declared in the wake of war. Many parts of Europe are plagued with hunger and diseases such as typhus and influenza. As powers meet in Versailles for treaties of peace and armies are decommissioned, many ask what should be done with the relief organizations. Should they be decommissioned or built up to meet post-war suffering? The chairman of the War Council of the American Red Cross, Henry Davison, leads an ambitious drive to unite post-war National Societies in allied countries. ICRC President Gustave Ador objects that principles of universality and neutrality require that National Societies in defeated countries must be included in the League.

May 1919: Leaders from National Societies from the Allied Powers meet at the Regina Hotel in Paris and sign the Articles of Association for a League of Red Cross Societies, which would later become the IFRC. The effort to create the League leads to the inclusion of the National Red Cross Societies in the Covenant of the League of Nations, which comes into force in January 1920. In just a few years, the League of Red Cross Societies would include National Societies from the countries defeated in the war.

February 1921: The American Red Cross reports that approximately 20,000 children die every year in road accidents in the United States.

Fast forward
In 1999, the IFRC’s World Disasters Report ranks road crashes as a major humanitarian crisis, claiming 1.2 million lives per year. Eleven years later, the IFRC and its hosted project, the Global Road Safety Partnership, are key players in the United Nations Decade of Action for Road Safety, 2011–2020.

 1921: The Leipzig War Crimes Trials are held before Germany’s Supreme Court to prosecute crimes committed during the First World War. The trials’ scope was limited but they set the stage for later international war crimes tribunals.

August 1922: China is hit by a typhoon and some 60,000 people die.

Photo: ©ICRC archives

September 1923: (above)The Japanese cities of Tokyo and Yokohama are devastated by the Great Kanto earthquake which claims 99,000–143,000 lives.

October 1929: The US stock
market crashes, causing financial collapse in institutions in many countries and worldwide economic hardship for many years. The United States withdraws all overseas aid, crippling many Red Cross overseas relief efforts.

Photo: ©ICRC archives

1931: (above) The Huang He River (also known as the Huang Ho or Yellow River) in China floods some 104,000 square km (40,000 square miles) and more than a million people are killed.

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