Why is the World Not Better Prepared For Disaster?

Haiti has shown yet again that the world is totally unprepared for natural disasters, and tens of thousands die as a result. One has to ask, of the 150,000 plus people that died, how many could have been saved if the aid had arrived within a day instead of a week?

Throughout the history of man, the world has witnessed a succession of catastrophes from Tsunami’s, volcanic eruptions, earthquakes, floods, drought, pandemics and famines that have cost the lives of tens of millions of people across the world. Advances in methods of transportation in the last fifty years now allow aid to be sent to these areas, but it is still extremely slow to reach the victims due to the logistical methods currently employed. Instead of being prepared for the inevitable, we are forced to react after the event.

The various organisations and governments slowly gear up to send supplies and specialists to the scene, but it all takes time before we see ‘feet on the ground’ as it were. Governments promise millions of dollars to the relief effort, but this again takes time to organize. In the meantime, just as in Haiti, the lost souls cry out for aid that will arrive, eventually, but far too late for some.

Disasters, some cataclysmic in nature, have been part of Earth’s history since the planet first formed. It is the way of things. The first such event recorded by science was the disappearance of the dinosaurs, and since then man himself has been struck many times.

The last one hundred years alone has seen ten major earthquakes, three volcanic eruptions, seven hurricanes, cyclones and floods, and nine pandemics and famines, all of which can be classified as major disasters. The cost in human lives of these tragedies is conservatively estimated at 1.7m for earthquakes, 73.000 for volcanic eruptions, 1.5m for hurricanes, cyclones and floods and 74.6m for pandemics (not including AIDS) and famines. The total estimated death toll from these events is almost 78m people, but the true figure will never be known.

Haiti is just another chapter in the long tale of woe and heartbreak suffered by the people of the world when nature strikes back at us. For all the good intentions of people and governments, the citizens of Haiti died waiting for the help promised. So why was the world not better prepared?

 

It is easy to be wise after the event, and to criticise from the comfort of your fireside chair, but when all is said and done the people did their best within the current system, and worked with the best intentions. I will not criticise the efforts of those who worked to ease the suffering of the Haitian people, but would rather look at what could be done to improve the process of aid to disaster areas.

The UN is often looked to for leadership by many less well-off countries in a crisis such as this, and rightly so, while the richer nations vie to be the first to provide aid and succour to the afflicted.

After a short time the huge aid machine starts into motion as governments and aid agencies begin gathering food, medical supplies and equipment for transportation to the affected area. Charities start the publicity campaigns to raise money for the victims, and governments come forward one by one with promises of cash. It all takes time. Time the desperate people of the affected area do not have. Haiti has amply demonstrated that people were dying for the want of simple things like water. The human body can survive for up to three weeks without food but only a day or two without water, especially in a hot climate like Haiti.

The regularity and severity of natural disasters is increasing decade by decade, and whether this is due to man’s interference in nature is not something I wish to debate here. The important thing is, it’s happening, and we need to be more prepared. So what to do?

Looking logically at what is facing us every few years, and scientific forecasts seem to indicate the time between events will get smaller with time, We need centralised aid and equipment to be ready for shipment anywhere in the world after a single phone call. Yes, I can hear the critics, Impossible!!! But is it?

Why should the UN Council not consult, and decide on strategic locations around the globe for stockpiles of disaster aid equipment, food, water and medical supplies. Many will say, but food and medical supplies have a limited life!!!! True, but what about military rations that stay good for years! Most medical supplies can be kept for a number of years without harm. Usually it is only certain drugs that have a short limited life.

 

So let us surmise that we have set up these UN Depots around the world in say, Buenos Aries to cover South America, Mexico City to cover Central America, Washington for North America, Berlin for Western Europe, Rhiyad for the Near East……….well, you know what I mean! It would become a network of logistical centres covering the globe, stationed for the most part at military airfields to allow rapid deployment using transport aircraft.

Agreements could be entered into with countries having heavy lift capable aircraft, military or civilian, that can be commandeered by the UN in time of crisis. These agreements would also include the use of military vehicles closest to the disaster area that can be used to distribute the aid once it reaches airfields within a reasonable distance from the area affected. The same would apply for helicopters that are so essential to the distribution of aid in many areas. Specialists in disaster rescue would receive equipment flown in from the nearest logistic centre.

OK! So let us put forward a simulated scenario for Haiti.

At 01.00hrs on January 30th a call is received by the UN Disaster Watch office that a 7.8 earthquake has hit Port-au- Prince in Haiti. The nearest Logistic Centre is The Mexican Air Force Base in Mexico City. A call goes out to the Commandant to activate the relief effort at 01,30hrs. He calls in his Base personnel who begin preparations for dispatch, bearing in mind that food, water and basic medical supplies are already palletised.

In the meantime, the UN office calls the Mexican, Cuban, Venezuelan, Columbian and American Military Command structures for transport aircraft, i.e. the closest countries with military transport aircraft. The manufacturing companies of ‘sensitive drugs’ on the continent are requested to supply previously agreed shipments of essential drugs, which may equal one days production for example. These are trucked to the nearest military airfield for onward shipment to Mexico City, or alternatively, the disaster area. The drugs and quantities required would have previously been decided upon by UN medical experts based on previous incidents and location.

In preparation for the arrival of the aid at the nearest airfield, the UN commanders, under its agreement, order trucks from both the Haitian and Dominican Republic Military which are directed to the airfields. Rescue Specialists and Medical Staff from surrounding countries, military or participating civilians, are directed to report to military airfields where they will be flown to Haiti. Their equipment will come from the Logistic Depot.

The required number of helicopters are requested from Cuba, The Dominican Republic, Jamaica and the Bahamas, including any suitable civilian craft of load carrying capacity.

It is estimated that the initial aid carrying aircraft from Mexico City could be on the ground within twelve hours. Also within that time period, sufficient trucks and helicopters should have arrived at the airfield to begin inland distribution. As surrounding nations gear up to the crisis, more transport means and supplies will be forthcoming. The rescue and medical teams from the closest countries could be on the ground within that same period.

I am well aware some will think they have found a flaw in this plan, i.e. that of money. So why does the UN not have a Central Disaster Fund that would be used to finance these operations. The Fund could have a target figure of say ten billion dollars that is administered by the UN Disaster Relief Office. The fund would be topped up when it is used. Richer countries line up to give large sums of money after a disaster, but why not pay a lesser amount annually into the central fund? If the will is there, an agreement could be reached whereby all countries donate to the fund each year based on their GDP. This would mean the affluent nations giving more than the poorer ones, but so what, they can afford it.

As soon as a crisis develops, money from the fund is used to compensate donating nations for their expenditure where required, and more important, help rebuild the damage done by whatever catastrophe has struck the unfortunates. There would be no need to rely on the generosity of gifts by the general public or Aid Agencies, nor governments to donate huge sums at a time when they may have concerns at home that need attention, like the current recession.

To many this will seem like a crackpot idea, and I realise that such an undertaking would require an enormous amount of work, planning, and above all co-operation between countries, but is it outside our capabilities? No I think not! If we are truly intent on relieving the suffering in the world when a catastrophe strikes, we can do it. Such natural disasters transcend petty disputes between nations and could affect us all at some time in the future. No country can hold up it’s hand and say it will never happen to us.

The human race is undoubtedly changing the world, and scientists say not for the better. They predict that we will experience more and more natural disasters in the years to come, and who can say with a certainty they are wrong? For this reason we should do all we can to be prepared. This is one way we can do that.

It is time the UN did something positive for all of mankind.

Roy.

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