Issue 38 - Article 6

Effective response reduces risk

July 31, 2007
Arjun Katoch, UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs

Risk reduction is the mantra of our times. However, for some it has become purely a development mantra, which, if pursued assiduously enough, will somehow eliminate disasters. This line of thinking emphasises that, with enough prevention, risk will disappear and there will be no need for response. According to this school of thought, emergency response to disasters, dominated as it is by the need to save lives and provide emergency relief assistance, does not address the underlying causes and risks that provoked the crisis in the first place, nor does it stimulate rapid recovery. This often results in the reproduction of the very conditions of risk and vulnerability that led to the disaster in the first place. Money spent on emergency response should instead be spent on mitigation, which constitutes true risk reduction.

Nothing could be further from reality. A more realistic view of risk reduction would define it to include all actions that reduce the suffering of the population and the damage to human habitation. Disasters are a force of nature which we cannot prevent. No amount of mitigation can insulate the people and structures of places like Istanbul, Mexico City, Almaty, Ulan Bataar or Manila from the effects of an earthquake. However, speedy and effective emergency response can reduce the number of casualties, ease the suffering of the population and telescope the time in which a semblance of normality is restored to society. Therefore, investing in effective response mechanisms reduces the likely severity of the impact of the disaster on the affected population, and as such reduces the risk to the population. Disaster response preparedness should be a key component of effective risk reduction. This is recognised by the Hyogo Framework for Action adopted at the World Conference on Disaster Reduction in January 2005.

Risk reduction through disaster response preparedness

The UN General Assembly has consistently stated that the government of a disaster-affected country is primarily responsible for the response to the disaster. The quickest and most effective response to a disaster is provided by the local and national authorities of the affected country. The international system’s assistance, whether bilateral or multilateral, normally represents only a very small fraction of the assistance generated from within a country. Risk reduction through effective disaster response preparedness is about working with disaster-affected governments, communities, donors and regional organisations before a disaster strikes, to improve the effectiveness of national and international response oncea disaster strikes.

Currently, the international community has made limited efforts to further risk reduction by assisting disaster-prone developing countries and regional organisations to improve their response systems. Ensuring that this is done is the responsibility, as mandated by the UN General Assembly, of the UN’s Emergency Relief Coordinator (ERC) and his Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA). John Holmes, the current ERC, appears to appreciate the importance of this. At the request of national governments, OCHA has utilised the UN Disaster Assessment and Coordination team (UNDAC) for risk reduction through disaster response preparedness. The UNDAC team has analysed and suggested improvements to national disaster response systems in a range of countries, including Afghanistan, Bolivia, the Dominican Republic, Laos, Mongolia, the Philippines and Tajikistan. At the same time, however, systematic risk reduction by means of disaster response preparedness needs to include complementary actions at international, regional, national and community levels. Some of these are discussed below.


Risk reduction through response preparedness at the international level

Risk reduction through emergency response preparedness at the international level should involve integrating international response processes and capacities into regional, national and local disaster response planning so that international responses fit seamlessly into ongoing national efforts. This is done by creating a consensus amongst all international responding entities on the procedures and methods of disaster response, and through coordination via discussions, seminars and exercises at international, regional and national levels.

Risk is also reduced by building international response networks such as UNDAC, the International Search and Rescue Advisory Group (INSARAG) and the Environmental Emergencies network. After the Indian Ocean tsunami, the importance of building consensus and creating procedures to govern the use and coordination of military assets in disasters has become clear. This involves a considerable amount of diplomacy because of the sensitivity of using the military in an international context.

An essential element of risk reduction is shaping the discourse on disaster response by influencing academics and decision-makers. There is a need for responders to engage actively with universities, think-tanks and institutions such as the Asia Disaster Reduction Centre (ADRC) and Chatham House in the UK, to influence international thinking on the theory and processes of disaster response. Currently, this is being done on an ad hocbasis.

Finally, the international community should systematically and collectively assist the governments of disaster-prone countries in developing a national disaster preparedness strategy and contingency plans. Using a database such as that developed by the Centre for Research on the Epidemiology of Disasters (CRED), OCHA could list the 30 most disaster-prone countries in the world and focus international efforts on reducing risk by assisting them in developing efficient response systems. Similar lists already exist. The IFRC’s World Disasters Report, for instance, lists countries affected by natural disasters, while Columbia University’s Centre for International Earth Science Information Network ranks countries according to their level of preparation for climate change.


Risk reduction through response preparedness at the regional level

The nearest countries to a disaster site can obviously get there first, so investing in regional response frameworks is good risk reduction. This should involve assisting regional groupings such as the Association of South-East Asian Nations (ASEAN), the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC), the Centro de Prevencion de los Desastres Naturales en America Central (CEPREDENAC) and the Caribbean Disaster Emergency Response Agency (CDERA) to create their own frameworks for regional response. A good recent example of risk reduction in this form is the ASEAN Committee of Disaster Management (ACDM), which in 2006 signed an agreement on a framework of regional disaster response. In formulating this framework it was assisted by OCHA and other UN organisations.

One way to reduce risk is by organising disaster response seminars and exercises at the regional level. INSARAG arranges regional earthquake response simulation exercises with governments of disaster-prone countries. In these exercises, international urban search and rescue (USAR) teams from the region participate in skeleton form along with national USAR teams, the Local Emergency Management Authority, UNDAC teams, NGOs such as MapAction and Telecoms Sans Frontieres and private sector companies such as DHL. The last such exercise in the Asia- Pacific was held in Shijiazhuang, China, in 2006. The next one will be held in Ulan Bataar, Mongolia, in August 2007. ASEAN has also started to conduct regional disaster response exercises, and one is planned in Singapore in October 2007.


Risk reduction through response preparedness at the national level

For international and national response mechanisms to dovetail effectively, working relationships of trust and rapport must be established between the international community, especially the ERC (OCHA), and the governments of disaster-prone countries prior to disasters striking. It is too late to try to do so after a disaster has happened. Overall risk is reduced by assisting governments in enhancing their own disaster response capacities and systems, since this will help them respond faster and more effectively. The aim should be to reduce risk by creating:

  • a suitable national policy and legal framework for disaster response;
  • a designated ministry as national focal point for response, with an established system of inter-ministerial coordination;
  • a similar structure at the province/district level;
  • a cadre of well-trained and well-equipped responders at all levels;
  • a good operations room and communications with all provinces and districts; and
  • established systems of coordination with incoming or locally-based international organisations and responders such as donor teams, the UN, the IFRC and NGOs. This should include creating established standard operating procedures to integrate international responders with the local emergency management authority. The importance of this was underlined during the earthquake in Bam in Iran in 2001, which saw approximately 1,300 international responders from 34 countries on the ground in four days – enough to overwhelm the most efficient of national systems.

Risk can also be reduced at the national level by establishing links between international early warning systems such as the Global Disaster Alert and Coordination system (GDACS) and national disaster management agencies, with the aim of speeding up decision-making and factoring early warning systems into contingency planning and public awareness, education and training programmes. Risk can also be reduced by ensuring the participation of disaster-prone countries and responding countries in international response networks such as INSARAG, UNDAC and the Environmental Emergencies network. Enhancing national skills and developing national standards in this way reduces overall risk.

Risk reduction through emergency response preparedness at the community level

Assisting communities in disaster risk reduction should be the bedrock of any risk reduction strategy, since it is communities that are affected by a disaster. This is best done through national authorities and organisations in the community. For risk reduction through emergency response preparedness at this level, an analysis of possible emergencies to which the community is vulnerable, and the corresponding risk to life and structures, is essential. The response to floods is different from the response to earthquakes, so different techniques need to be applied to reduce the risk. Professional, organised and competent emergency response at community level saves the most lives immediately after a disaster has struck.

Emergency response preparedness at community level must involve developing effective community-first response plans based on the community’s needs, as perceived by the community, and with a sense of community ownership. These should include ensuring a professionally competent and practiced fire brigade, police or other NGO or volunteer local response entity. The community government, in conjunction with local Red Cross/Red Crescent societies or other social organisations, should develop early warning and contingency plans for evacuation, especially for communities threatened by floods, utilising local assets.

Risk reduction during the response to a disaster

Decisions taken during the emergency response phase of a disaster often have far-reaching and irreversible implications. This implies that risk reduction must be kept in mind from the very beginning of the response to a disaster. Decisions taken and relief structures established during the initial emergency response phase have a tendency to remain in place long after the response phase is over. For example, during the response to the earthquake in Pakistan in October 2005, the decision to use the terminology and sequencing of the newly designed ‘cluster approach’ for the UN Flash Appeal was taken by the UN Country Team on the second day of the UNDAC mission, for reasons of logic and convenience. However, once the Flash Appeal was written and published, the cluster approach became cast in stone, and was followed by international responders and subsequently by the Pakistan government for the duration of the emergency.


Disasters threaten human beings and their property. We cannot eliminate disasters, and therefore we cannot eliminate disaster risk. Despite the increasing popularity of risk reduction within the development community, good response preparedness and good response are essential ingredients in overall risk reduction because they save lives and restore functioning society as quickly as possible. Actions to reduce risk by efficient response need to be taken at the international, regional, national and community level, and dovetailed into each other. Once this is recognised, disaster response preparedness and disaster response will be accorded their due place in the risk reduction enterprise.

Arjun Katochis Chief, Field Coordination Support Section, UN OCHA. Geneva. The views expressed in this article are the personal views of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations.

References and further reading

Arjun Katoch, ‘International Natural Disaster Response and the United Nations’, International Disaster Response Laws, Principles and Practice: Reflections, Prospects and Challenges(Geneva: International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, 2003).

Arjun Katoch, ‘The Responders Cauldron: The Uniqueness of International Disaster Response’, Journal of International Affairs, Spring/Summer 2006. ( Columbia University)

John Holmes, ‘Let’s Not Follow the Polar Bears’, Strait Times, 6 April 2007. United Nations, International Cooperation on Humanitarian Assistance in the Field of Natural Disasters, From Relief to Development, Report of the Secretary-General to the General Assembly, August 2005.

‘Words into Action: Implementing the Hyogo Framework for Action’ International Strategy for Disaster Reduction, November 2006


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