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close this bookDisasters Preparedness and Mitigation - Issue No. 06 - January, 1981 (PAHO)
View the documentFood and nutrition in the wake of disaster
View the documentNews from PAHO and WHO
View the documentNotes from other agencies
View the documentMember countries
View the documentMyths and reality: Communicable disease following natural disasters
View the documentCountry disaster preparedness programs
View the documentReview of publications
View the documentSelected bibliography

Food and nutrition in the wake of disaster

Acute disasters do not always produce food shortages severe enough to alter the nutritional status of a population. To determine what kind of food relief is needed, and when, national health authorities should be familiar with the expected outcomes of the types of disasters to which their countries are prone.

if a food relief program is warranted after a disaster strikes, steps should be taken to maximize the efficient use of resources. These include assessing the food supplies accessible after disaster, gauging nutritional needs, calculating daily food rations and bulk supplies for large population groups, and monitoring the nutritional status of the affected population.

Likely Outcomes

Disasters of any type can cause the disruption of transportation and communications systems, and of routine social and economic activities. Even when food stocks exist, they may be temporarily inaccessible. if livestock, crops and stocks are lost, the short-term problem can produce a more severe, long-term crisis. When communities are evacuated and resettled, nearly all of their food supplies will have to be provided for the duration of the encampment. Hospitals and other service facilities may also need emergency food supplies.

Long and short-term effects will vary according to the type of disaster. Earthquakes generally have little direct impact on total food availability. Standing crops are unaffected and food stocks can often be salvaged, although temporary problems may be faced due to the breakdown of the transportation and marketing systems. If the earthquake strikes during a labor-intensive period such as harvest, the loss of labor from death or its diversion from agriculture may cause similar short-term scarcities.

Hurricanes, floods and sea surges affect food availability directly. Standing crops are often completely destroyed, and especially if there is no warning period, seed stores and family food stocks may also be lost.

Setting Priorities

The decision to initiate food relief should be made at the highest level. Food distribution requires transport and personnel that may be better employed in other ways, and relief supplies may depress market prices, creating hardship for small farmers. Moreover, if essentials - such as seeds and tools - needed to restart the local economy are not provided, maintaining a population by free food distribution may hinder recovery by creating a dependence of relief.

Relief efforts should be guided by the following priorities: (1) supply food immediately where there appears to be urgent need; (2) make an initial estimate of likely food needs so that steps can be taken toward procurement, transport, storage and distribution; (3) locate stocks of food and assess their fitness for consumption; (4) monitor incoming data on changing needs so that the relief program can be modified.

Immediate Relief

For very short term need - a week or so-an emergency ration averaging 1700 kcal per capita will prevent severe nutritional deterioration and mass starvation. As an immediate relief step, available food should be distributed to groups that are at high risk, or appear to be wanting, in sufficient quantity (3 or 4 kg per person) to ensure survival for one week. Food should be included automatically, for instance, in supplies sent to communities isolated by earthquake or displaced by flooding. Where fuel shortages are likely, it may be better to distribute cooked food such as boiled rice or bread.

Estimating Food Requirements

Food stocks can often be salvaged after earthquakes.

A rough estimate should be made immediately of likely bulk food item needs to facilitate the procurement of stocks, storage and transport. The estimate should consider: (1) the probable effect of the disaster on food availability; (2) the size of the population infected; (3) normal food supply and variations within the area (e.g., the percentage of the population made up of subsistence farmers, and of those who depend wholly on purchased food), and (4) the impact of seasonal factors.

When estimating the composition of daily rations, keep them simple; facilitate storage and distribution by choosing non-perishable, nonbulky foods, and allow for substition of items within food groups. The ration should be based on three groups of foods: a staple (preferably cereal); a concentrate source of energy (a fat); a concentrated source of protein (dry meat or fish). If possible, vulnerable groups should receive a food supplement in addition to the basic ration. Children under 5 years may suffer permanent damage if malnourished, and pregnant and lactating women require more nutrients than others.


When the amount of food required exceeds immediate local availability and it has to be distributed for several months, supplies will have to be obtained from elsewhere. Procurement and shipping may require several months, so approaches to suitable agencies should be made at the earliest possible date. Apprising donors strictly of the volume of food required is not enough. A rough estimate of local transport and storage requirements should be made, and donors should be advised of national eating habits. Food not eaten will provide no nutritional benefit.

Well-meaning donors often dispatch large amounts of "baby foods" into a disaster stricken country where hygiene standards are low and gastroenteritis is highly prevalent. Improving maternal nutrition is a more effective and nutritionally safe measure. Nor should health relief coordinators allow the emergency situation to serve as an opportunity for flooding the country with infant formulas. Multivitamin preparations, another frequent request and donation, are of no demonstrated use during the acute emergency phase and should not be requested as a separate relief item.


Health officials should monitor the nutritional status of the affected community if it seems that food shortages will be a long-term problem, as in areas with subsistence agriculture and temporary settlements. Taking regular physical measurements of young children, who are the most sensitive to nutritional changes, is a good emergency indicator, especially if weight for height is used.

With the results of the first survey of need, preliminary estimates of long-term distribution needs can be adjusted. As soon as an area is able to return to normal consumption patterns, distribution should be phased out.

Frequently observed: Short term health effects of major natural disaster
















POTENTIAL PROBLEM IN ALL MAJOR DISASTERS rises with overcrowding and deteriorating (Probability sanitation)






(May occur due to factors other than shortage of food)






(May occur in heavily damaged urban areas)