Rush to Action Before the Disaster


A look at how money spent on costly post-disaster interventions might be better channeled to local capacity building

altThe earthquake in Bam, Iran in late December 2003 brought home, once again, the reality that most international search and rescue teams arrive too late to make a significant difference in terms of saving a number of lives following sudden-impact natural disasters. The myth that the affected population is too shocked and helpless to take responsibility for their own survival is simply that: a myth. Time and time again, the reality emerges that family, neighbors and local citizens are best placed to save victims’ lives.

In an article entitled “All Search, No Rescue” in The Guardian newspaper just a week after the Bam earthquake, Nick Cater, a U.K. journalist and former editor the Red Cross “World Disaster Report,” makes a number of observations about the results of international search and rescue teams. These echo what many international experts and national health authorities say.

Cater reported, “… search and rescue teams arriving back from Iran have successfully proved that flying in people and dogs to scour the rubble and mud of foreign disaster zones for survivors with hi-tech gear or their bare hands is in almost all cases a waste of time, effort and money.”

This story was confirmed by Iranian health experts, “Nearly all the victims buried in the debris were saved by family members, neighbors, friends and ordinary people.”

Cater continues in his report, “This is hardly surprising. While the experts talk of the “golden hours”—usually just the first 24—in which those trapped can expect to be found alive, it is local people who recover the vast majority of survivors, often based on knowing exactly where their families and friends were when the disaster struck.”

“If local people need help, it is from staff and trained volunteers, who speak their language, know the area, require little or no external support and are integrated into the disaster preparedness and response systems of national and local governments, specialised agencies and their country’s Red Cross or Red Crescent society.”

“International search and rescue teams today crowd into every sudden catastrophe from all over the world. [According to OCHA situation reports and witnesses on the scene, there were upwards of 1600 persons from 46 countries in Bam as part of relief, rescue and medical teams.] They sometimes arrive without invitation or local partners, and their needs in terms of food, water, shelter, translators, transport and information put further strain on resources that are already scarce.” Although some teams are quite well prepared, the problem is that logistically, it is impossible for them to arrive in time.

“Of course, Iran is happy to receive aid in terms of equipment, supplies and money,” Cater affirms, “but early in the crisis its health minister was quoted—and presumably ignored—as saying that foreign volunteers were not really needed since large numbers of Iranians were already coming from all over the country.”
“It appears that in everything but ill-enforced building standards, the Iranians have done a superb job, mobilising many thousands of helpers, recovering tens of thousands of bodies and, within the limits of any crisis, efficiently organising evacuation of the injured and burial of the dead.” An expert sent by a Western country, who arrived 26 hours after the impact, concurs: “…the Iranian authorities and the Red Crescent were really amazing…within three days they had treated 30,000 people, evacuated 13,000 stretcher cases to tertiary care (2,000 of them by air) and were well on their way to distributing 98,000 tents, 200,000 blankets, 400,000 food rations…”

“Either way,” Cater concludes, “the best response to disaster is not to head for the airport, but to support local preparedness efforts with hard cash, and to consider how to help the recovery operation that will still be under way long after all those rescue dogs are released from quarantine.”

A senior expert from Iran’s Ministry of Health shares these sentiments. She agrees that international resources would have been better invested in “capacity building, training efforts and the promotion of new and simple technologies related to disaster management such as telecommunications (identified as a weak point in Bam) in developing countries, regardless of political sanctions. Material and financial aid seems to be more useful in reconstruction and rehabilitation phases, for temporary housing or restoration of the primary health care system.”

“Many dead bodies were still warm when pulled from the debris, showing that if local relief and rescue teams had been better trained, or had participated in joint training exercises prior to the disaster with the very international teams who came to Bam, more lives could have been saved.”

The expert from the Ministry of Health concluded, “When you compare the fiscally conservative way in which authorities, both nationally and internationally, look to save money by not sending people to training courses, and contrast that with the amount of money spent on transporting international teams to Iran, I tend to conclude that decision makers should review their approach and policies on the issue of how they invest resources. It was a pity that some experts who came to Bam following the earthquake could have contributed so much more in terms of training and organising Iranian teams before the disaster.”

“I believe it is imperative that national and international bodies carefully monitor aid spent on reconstruction efforts in Bam to ensure sustainable and earthquake-resistant reconstruction, especially for buildings like hospitals. Devastating disasters such as the Bam earthquake reveal many realities, including the fact that individuals and communities must become the constant targets of disaster risk management programmes, from prevention, mitigation, preparedness and response to recovery and reconstruction.”

Nick Cater’s article appeared in the Society Online section of The Guardian newspaper at:

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