from The Internationalist and International Institutions and Global Governance Program

Natural Disasters and Humanitarian Assistance to 2020

May 23, 2012

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Trends in population growth, urbanization, water scarcity, and climate change, are increasing the vulnerability of large populations to storms, droughts, earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, and pandemics. In an era of globalization, shocks in one place can now resonate around the world, as demonstrated by the 2007-2008 global food crisis, which was caused (PDF) by spiking oil prices, droughts, and government policies with unforeseen consequences. The 2010 Icelandic volcano disrupted global trade and caused problems ranging from severe economic losses in Kenya to challenges for the U.S. military operations in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Meanwhile, both governments that have financed comprehensive disaster relief efforts, and their private nongovernmental organization counterparts, are facing an era of contracting budgets. In fact, last year, the U.S. Senate refused to fund disaster relief for the first time, after Hurricane Irene swept up the East Coast.

To help understand the threat posed by natural disasters in the near future, and potential policies to mitigate their damage, CFR’s International Institutions and Global Governance (IIGG) program sponsored a workshop on April 12, 2012, in Washington, DC, to gather experts on international cooperation and disaster relief from the U.S. State Department, Defense Department, U.S. Agency for International Development, the U.S. intelligence community, the United Nations, nongovernmental organizations, think tanks, and academia. A full summary of the discussion can be read here. Below are some interesting takeaways.

  • The developed world remains at risk: While natural disasters tend to generate higher numbers of deaths or injuries in less developed countries that often suffer from weaker infrastructure and less robust medical systems, the developed world remains at risk. The tropical storm Katrina in the United States, and the tsunami and earthquake that struck Japan in 2010 served as wakeup calls. The complex infrastructure of developed countries is often extremely fragile, and may be vulnerable to natural disasters we don’t fully comprehend, such as magnetic storms generated by solar flares. One study, for example, concluded that a massive solar storm on the scale of the Carrington Event of 1859 would knock out the U.S. power grid from Canada to Georgia, and from the East Coast to the Mississippi for as long as sixteen months, and incite societal panic.
  • Local capacity is crucial: Local officials and analysts are best positioned to understand the threat and the nature of damage and needed assistance in the wake of a disaster. This contrasts with certain bureaucratic missteps that often occur when decisions are being made at higher levels by officials who don’t really understand the threat on the ground or what resources are needed. A number of promising initiatives, from Australia to Taiwan to Pakistan are helping train local officials and citizens to prepare for, and respond to, disasters.
  • Rising powers are expected to become more involved: Though rising powers are beginning to respond, they are not homogenous, and questions remain about which of them will step up to the plate. For its part, Brazil moved into the ranks of the top ten donors to the World Food Program last year. On the other hand, some nations, like Turkey, India, and to some extent China, resist being labeled “donors”, not wanting to raise expectations. China and Russia have expressed their view that the current aid system is “broken” and they are not interested in supporting it. China and India, however, suffer from high exposure to natural disasters, and thus may participate more in global disaster risk reduction and response efforts. In short, the extent and impact of contributions from rising powers remains to be seen.
  • The U.S. Response Is Overly Militarized: While the U.S. commitment to providing global assistance after natural disasters has been laudable, it relies too heavily on the logistics of the U.S. military and financial strength of the Department of Defense. In a survey of twenty-two disaster prone nations, governments attested that they don’t want boots on the ground, but they do believe they would benefit from innovations and consultations on their own threat assessments and response plans. At the same time, reducing the vulnerability of an area is inextricably linked to development. Properly safeguarding housing, infrastructure, and communications systems so that a disaster does not destroy them is typically less expensive than rebuilding after a disaster strikes. U.S. civilian agencies are best positioned to support such development in a sustainable way, by working with local partners and domestic organizations to bolster their capacity. Especially as the United States seeks to reduce spending, investing locally to build their response capabilities will reduce the costs for the United States.