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close this bookAn Overview of Disaster Management (Department of Humanitarian Affairs/United Nations Disaster Relief Office - United Nations Development Programme , 1992, 136 p.)
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Open this folder and view contentsChapter 1. Introduction to disasters
Open this folder and view contentsChapter 2. Disaster terminology and phases
Open this folder and view contentsChapter 3. Linking disasters and development 1
Open this folder and view contentsChapter 4. Natural hazards
Open this folder and view contentsChapter 5. Compound and complex disasters 1



After reading the material and completing the exercises you should be able to:

define the key terms of disaster management

describe the causes of disaster vulnerability

reproduce the disaster management continuum diagram

identify the most important hazards and how they affect society

distinguish between natural and human made hazards

identify at least two ways that development can lead directly to a disaster

describe at least four ways that disasters disrupt development


Q. How do you define “hazard” and “disaster”?

A. ____________________________________________________________


Before going any further we should establish a common understanding of the terms hazard and disaster.

Definition of hazard

A hazard is a rare or extreme event in the natural or human-made environment that adversely affects human life, property or activity to the extent of causing a disaster.

Definition of disaster

A disaster is a serious disruption of the functioning of a society, causing widespread human, material, or environmental losses which exceed the ability of affected society to copy using only its own resources. Disasters are often classified according to their speed of onset (sudden or slow), or according to their cause (natural or man-made).

Definition of natural phenomena

This part of the module will focus on the above two terms but we need to examine them in relation to another term: natural phenomena. Natural phenomena are extreme climatological, hydrological, or geological processes that do not pose any threat to persons or property. A massive earthquake in an unpopulated area, for example, is a natural phenomena, not a hazard. So is the annual flood along the Nile, an essential element to the well being of its neighboring inhabitants.

Definition of emergency

Another term closely related to disaster and used throughout this module is emergency. A disaster might be regarded as a particular type (or sub-set) of an emergency. “Disaster” suggests an intense time period and level of urgency. Whereas a disaster is bound by a specific period in which lives and essential property are immediately at risk, an emergency can encompass a more general period in which

there is a clear and marked deterioration in the coping abilities of a group or community, or

coping abilities are only sustained by unusual initiatives by the group or community or by external intervention.

The disaster problem

This section will describe certain phenomena leading to disasters and emergencies: disaster trends, where they occur and who is most affected by them.

From the outset it is worth reminding ourselves that disasters and emergencies are all too often regarded as aberrant events, divorced from “normal life.” In reality, however, the opposite is true. Disasters and emergencies are fundamental reflections of normal life. They are consequences of the ways societies structure themselves, economically and socially; the ways that societies and states interact; and the ways that relationships between the decision makers are sustained. Hence a flood or an earthquake is not a disaster in and of itself.

The disaster stems from the fact that certain communities or groups are forced to settle in areas susceptible to the impact of a raging river or a volcanic eruption. It is essential to make a distinction between hazards and disasters, and to recognize that the effect of the former upon the latter is essentially a measure of the society’s vulnerability.

The following diagram illustrates this combination of opposing forces. Vulnerability is seen as the progression of three stages:

1. Underlying causes: a deep-rooted set of factors within a society that together form and maintain vulnerability.

2. Dynamic pressures: a translating process that channels the effects of a negative cause into unsafe conditions; this process may be due to a lack of basic services or provisionor it may result from a series of macro-forces

3. Unsafe conditions: the vulnerable context where people and property are exposed to the risk of disaster; the fragile physical environment is one element; other factors include an unstable economy and low income levels.

Figure 1.1 The Disaster Crunch Model

This material has been drawn from the first chapter of the forthcoming book: At Risk - Vulnerability and Disasters, by Piers Blaikie, Terry Cannon, Ian Davis and Ben Wisner (Harper Collins, London and New York).


The magnitude of each disaster, measured in deaths, damage, or costs for a given developing country increases with the increased marginalization of the population. This is caused by a high birthrate, problems of land tenure and economic opportunity, and the lack or misallocation of resources to meet the basic human needs of an expanding population. As the population increases, the best land in both rural and urban areas is taken up and those seeking land for farming or housing are forced to accept inadequate land. These offer less productivity and a smaller measure of physical or economic safety. The following section considers each of these issues.



Photo credit: UNHCR/M. Vanappelghem

The most important single influence on the impact of a disaster is poverty. All other factors could be lessened if the affected population were not also limited by poverty. Virtually all disaster studies show that the wealthiest of the population either survive the disaster unaffected or are able to recover quickly. Across the broad spectrum of disasters, poverty generally makes people vulnerable to the impact of hazards. Poverty explains why people in urban areas are forced to live on hills that are prone to landslides, or why people settle near volcanos or rivers that invariably flood their banks. Poverty explains why droughts claim poor peasant farmers as victims and rarely the wealthy, and why famines more often than not are the result of a lack of purchasing power to buy food rather than an absence of food. Increasingly, poverty also explains why many people are forced to move from their homes to other parts of their countries or even across borders to survive. Such crisis-induced migration poses considerable challenges both in terms of immediate assistance to the displaced and of longer-term development.

Population growth

There is an obvious connection between the increase in losses from a disaster and the increase in population. If there are more people and structures where a disaster strikes, then it is likely there will be more of an impact. The growth of population has been so spectacular that it is inevitable that more people will be affected by disasters because more will be forced to live and work in unsafe areas. Increasing numbers of people will be competing for a limited amount of resources (such as, employment opportunities, and land) which can lead to conflict. This conflict may result in crisis-induced migration. Such growth occurs predominantly in developing countries, resulting in various contributors to disasters.

Figure. 1.2 Population growth, 1750-2100.

Source: Thomas Merrick, et. al., “World Population in Transition,” Population Bulletin, Vol. 42, No. 2 (1986).

Rapid urbanization

Rapid population growth and migration are related to the major phenomenon of rapid urbanization. This process is also accelerated in developing countries. It is characterized by the rural poor or civilians in an area of conflict moving to metropolitan areas in search of economic opportunities and security. These massive numbers of urban poor increasingly find fewer options for availability of safe and desirable places to build their houses. Here again, competition for scarce resources, an inevitable consequence of rapid urbanization, can lead to human-made disasters.

Figure 1.3 Population projections for some disaster-prone cities.

Many landslides or flooding disasters are closely linked to rapid and unchecked urbanization which forces low-income families to settle on the slopes of steep hillsides or ravines, or along the banks of flood-prone rivers. Many earthquake victims in urban areas have been impoverished families whose sites have failed rather than their houses, usually through landslides onto the house or out from under it.

Figure 1.4 As population continues to grow, settlements spread to marginal and even unsafe areas.

Transitions in cultural practices

Many of the inevitable changes that occur in all societies lead to an increase in the societies’ vulnerability to disasters. Obviously, all societies are constantly changing and in a continual state of transition. These transitions are often extremely disruptive and uneven, leaving gaps in social coping mechanisms and technology. These transitions include nomadic populations that become sedentary, rural people who move to urban areas, and both rural and urban people who move from one economic level to another. More broadly, these examples are typical of a shift from non-industrialized to industrializing societies.

One example of the impact of these transitions is the introduction of new construction materials and building designs in a society that is accustomed to traditional materials and designs. This often results in new materials being used incorrectly. In disaster prone areas, inadequate new construction techniques may lead to houses that cannot withstand earthquakes or wind storms (see the following figure).

Figure 1.5 New house badly built using modern materials.

Compounding this problem is the new community where the disaster survivors find themselves may not have a social support system or network to assist in the relief and recovery from the disaster. The traditional coping mechanisms may not exist in the new setting and the population becomes increasingly dependent on outside interveners to help in this process.

Conflicting as well as transitional cultural practices can also lead to civil conflict, for example, as a result of communal violence triggered by religious differences.

Environmental degradation

Many disasters are either caused or exacerbated by environmental degradation. Deforestation leads to rapid rain run off, which contributes to flooding. The destruction of mangrove swamps decreases a coast line’s ability to resist tropical winds and storm surges.

The creation of drought conditions - and the relative severity and length of time the drought lasts - is mainly a natural phenomena. Drought conditions may be exacerbated by: poor cropping patterns, overgrazing, the stripping of topsoil, poor conservation techniques, depletion of both the surface and subsurface water supply, and, to an extent, unchecked urbanization.

Figure 1.6 Deforestation for “development”

Lack of awareness and information

Disasters can also happen because people vulnerable to them simply didn’t know how to get out of harm’s way or to take protective measures. This ignorance may not necessarily be a function of poverty, but a lack of awareness of what measures can be taken to build safe structures on safe locations. Perhaps some people did not know about safe evacuation routes and procedures. Other populations may not know where to turn for assistance in times of acute distress. Nevertheless, this point should not be taken as a justification for ignoring the coping mechanisms of the majority of people affected by disasters. In most disaster-prone societies, there is a wealth of understanding about disaster threats and responses. This understanding should be incorporated into any efforts to provide external assistance.

War and civil strife

In this text war and civil strife are regarded as hazards, that is, extreme events that produce disasters. War and civil strife often result in displaced people, a target population of this training programme. The causal factors of war and civil strife include competition for scarce resources, religious or ethnic intolerance, and ideological differences. Many of these are also byproducts of the preceding six causal factors of disasters.

Q. Of the seven causal factors of disasters discussed above, how would you rank them for the region in which you live?

A. List the most serious contributor first.


Disaster terms

Some terminology of disaster management has already been introduced in this module. A brief glossary follows to highlight some of these working definitions.

This glossary lists the disaster management terms as used in the Third Draft of “A list of Disaster Management related terms with their definitions to be included in an internationally agreed multilingual glossary” prepared by UNDRO, and in the UNDP/UNDRO Disaster Management Manual. However, consensus does not exist among all disaster management practitioners or academicians regarding these definitions. A standardized and universally accepted glossary would obviously be desirable, but is not likely to exist within the next few years. Consequently, the following definitions represent one effort toward developing a consensus. Users of the DMTP training materials are encouraged to adopt these working definitions for the sake of uniformity and to be tolerant of other groups’ definitions.

Q. Can you think of an example of how to use each of these terms? Write your example in the space below each definition.

Disaster management

Disaster management is the body of policy and administrative decisions and operational activities which pertain to the various stages of a disaster at all levels.

A. ____________________________________________________________

Human-made disasters

Human-made disasters are disasters or emergency situations where the principal, direct cause(s) are identifiable human actions, deliberate or otherwise. Apart from “technological” and “ecological” disasters, this mainly involves situations in which civilian populations suffer casualties, losses of property, basic services and means of livelihood as a result of war or civil strife, for example. Human-made disasters/emergencies can be of the rapid or slow onset types, and in the case of internal conflict, can lead to “complex emergencies” as well.

A. ____________________________________________________________

An even broader definition of human-made disaster acknowledges that all disasters are caused by humans because they have chosen, for whatever reason, to be where natural phenomena occurs that result in adverse impacts on people.

A. ____________________________________________________________


Risk is the expected losses (lives lost, persons injured, damage to property and disruption of economic activity) due to a particular hazard. Risk is the product of hazard and vulnerability.

A. ____________________________________________________________


Vulnerability is the degree of loss (for example, from 0 to 100 percent) resulting from a potentially damaging phenomenon.

A. ____________________________________________________________

The following terms are key to understanding slow onset disasters and their impact on populations.

Population displacements

Population displacements are usually associated with crisis-induced mass migration in which large numbers of people are forced to leave their homes to seek alternative means of survival. Such mass movements normally result from the effects of conflict, severe food shortages or collapse of economic support systems.

A. ____________________________________________________________

Complex emergencies

Complex emergencies are a form of human-made emergency in which the cause of the emergency as well as the assistance to the afflicted are bound by intense levels of political considerations. This sort of emergency is normally associated with the problems of displaced people during times of civil conflict or with people in need caught in areas of conflict.

A. ____________________________________________________________


Disasters can be viewed as a series of phases on a time continuum. Identifying and understanding these phases helps to describe disaster related needs and to conceptualize appropriate disaster management activities.

Rapid onset disasters

The definitions below correspond to the time sequence following the occurrence of a rapid onset disaster. See Figure 2.1.

Figure 2.1 Rapid onset disaster management continuum

Relief phase

The relief phase is the period immediately following the occurrence of a sudden disaster (or the late discovery of a neglected/deteriorated slow-onset situation) when exceptional measures have to be taken to search and find the survivors as well as meet their basic needs for shelter, water, food and medical care.

A. ____________________________________________________________


Rehabilitation is the operations and decisions taken after a disaster with a view to restoring a stricken community to its former living conditions, while encouraging and facilitating the necessary adjustments to the changes caused by the disaster.

A. ____________________________________________________________


Reconstruction is the actions taken to reestablish a community after a period of rehabilitation subsequent to a disaster. Actions would include construction of permanent housing, full restoration of all services, and complete resumption of the pre-disaster state.

A. ____________________________________________________________


Mitigation is the collective term used to encompass all actions taken prior to the occurrence of a disaster (pre-disaster measures) including preparedness and long-term risk reduction measures. (Mitigation has been used by some institutions or authors in a narrower sense, excluding preparedness.)

A. ____________________________________________________________


Preparedness consists of activities designed to minimize loss of life and damage, organize the temporary removal of people and property from a threatened location, and facilitate timely and effective rescue, relief and rehabilitation.

A. ____________________________________________________________

Slow onset disasters

The sequence of a disaster continuum for slow onset disasters is similar in framework but has important distinctions. The following terms and definitions reflect those additions or modifications. See Figure 2.2.

Figure 2.2. Slow onset disaster management continuum

Early warning

Early warning is the process of monitoring situations in communities or areas known to be vulnerable to slow onset hazards. For example, famine early warning may be reflected in such indicators as drought, livestock sales, or changes in economic conditions. The purposes of early warning are to enable remedial measures to be initiated and to provide more timely and effective relief including through disaster preparedness actions.

A. ____________________________________________________________

Emergency phase

The emergency phase is the period during which extraordinary measures have to be taken. Special emergency procedures and authorities may be applied to support human needs, sustain livelihoods, and protect property to avoid the onset of disaster. This phase can encompass pre-disaster, disaster alert, disaster relief and recovery periods. An emergency phase may be quite extensive, as in a slow onset disaster such as a famine. It can also be relatively short-lived, as after an earthquake.

A. ____________________________________________________________


Rehabilitation is the action taken after a slow onset disaster where attention must be given to the issues of resettlement or returnee programmes, particularly for people who have been displaced for reasons arising out of conflict or economic collapse.

A. ____________________________________________________________

Q. Test your recall of the two disaster continuum diagrams. Label each circles below with the phases of a rapid onset and slow onset disaster.



1 Sources for this chapter are Disasters and Development, a UNDP/UNDRO training module prepared by R.S. Stephenson and Disasters and Development: a study in institution-building prepared for UNDP by INTERTECT, January 1991.


This training module provides a new conceptualization of the relationship between disasters and development. This new conceptualization has been growing in the development community over the last few years and is a major philosophical underpinning of the United Nations Disaster Management Training Programme. Rarely a week goes by when a major disaster is not reported in the media - a disaster that results in death and destruction - a disaster that frequently wipes out years of development programming and sets the slow course of improvement in third world countries further behind, wasting precious resources.

For a long time the cause and effect relationship between disasters and social and economic development was ignored. Ministries of Planning and Finance and other development planners did not concern themselves with disasters. At best, development planners hoped that disasters would not occur and, if they did, were most effectively handled by relief from donor countries and relief organizations. Development programs were not assessed in the context of disasters, neither from the effect of the disaster on the development program nor from the point of whether the development programs increased either the likelihood of a disaster or increased the potential damaging effects of a disaster.

Disasters were seen in the context of emergency response - not as a part of long term development programming. When a disaster did occur, the response was directed to emergency needs and cleaning up. Communities under disaster distress were seen as unlikely places to institute development. The post-disaster environment was seen as too turbulent to promote institutional changes aimed at promoting long term development.

Figure 3.1 This figure charts aspects of a community’s development and vulnerability to disaster. It shows the various “orientations” with which you may analyze the “field” of development and disaster vulnerability. The field is divided into positive and negative aspects of the disaster/development relationship by the vertical axis. The right half reflects the positive or optimistic side of the relationship and the left side of the diagram deals with the negative aspects of the relationship. The statement in each quadrant sums up the basic concept derived from the overlap of the two realms.

The growing body of knowledge on the relationships between disasters and development indicates four basic themes. The themes presented in the proceeding figure may be expanded as follows:

1. Disasters set back development programming destroying years of development initiatives.

- Infrastructure improvement e.g. transport and utility systems are destroyed by a flood.

2. Rebuilding after a disaster provides significant opportunities to initiate development programs.

- A self-help housing program to rebuild housing destroyed by an earthquake teaches new skills, strengthens community pride and leadership and retains development dollars that otherwise would be exported to large construction companies.

3. Development programs can increase an area’s susceptibility to disasters.

- A major increase in livestock development leads to overgrazing, which contributes to desertification and increases vulnerability to famine.

4. Development programs can be designed to decrease the susceptibility to disasters and their negative consequences.

- Housing projects constructed under building codes designed to withstand high winds result in less destruction during the next tropical storm.

Decision-makers who ignore these relationships between disasters and development do a disservice to the people who place their trust in them. Increasingly, around the world, forward thinking Ministries of Planning and Finance with the support of United Nations and Non-Governmental Organization (NGO) officials are assessing development projects in the context of disaster mitigation and are designing disaster recovery programs with long term development needs in mind.

Disruption of development by disasters

Disasters can seriously disrupt development initiatives in several ways, including:

· Loss of resources
· Interruption of programs
· Impact on investment climate
· Impact on the non-formal sector
· Political destabilization

Loss of resources

Development resources are lost when a disaster wipes out the products of investment - it shortens the life of development investments. The disasters affect development through:

· Impact on capital stock and inventory

· Loss of production and provision of services due to disruption and increased cost of goods and services

· The secondary effects of the disaster include inflation, balance of payment problems, increase in fiscal expenditure, decreases in monetary reserves

· Other indirect losses, for example: the impact on a country’s debt position could be that as the debt service burden increases, the country has less resources available to invest in productive enterprises

· The outcome of these losses of resources include: loss of economic growth, delays to development programs, cancellation of programmes, and disincentives to new investment

· There may also be a shift in skilled human resources toward high visibility recovery activity - a diversion from long-term to short-term needs.

Interruption of programs

Disasters interrupt ongoing programs and divert resources from originally planned uses.

Impact on investment climate

Disasters, especially when they have occurred repeatedly within a short period of time, have a negative impact on the incentive for further investment. Investors need a climate of stability and certainty to be encouraged to risk their money. The disaster further clouds the investment picture when it has caused loss of employment, thereby depressing market demand, and resulting in a stagnation which limits overall growth.

Impact on non-formal sector

Disasters have special negative impacts on the non-formal sector where approximate costs of disasters are often underestimated. Disasters depress the non-formal economy through the direct costs of lost equipment and housing (which often also serves as business sites). The indirect costs of disasters include lost employment, and lost income. Sometimes the importation of relief items creates disincentives to producers.

Political destabilization

The stress to a country caused by a disaster often results in the destabilization of the government. This may occur for several reasons. For example, the government may have mismanaged the disaster relief and recovery, leading to discontent on the part of affected communities. Or the survivors may have had unmet expectations which, for whatever reason, translate into some form of protest. The government could also become the scapegoat for problems beyond its control, again leading to its possible downfall. In fact, it is very common for a government to collapse or be overthrown within two or three years of a major disaster.

Q. Recall the most recent disaster with which you are familiar. Based on that experience, respond to the following.



Identify a facility critical to the local economy that was knocked out of service.


Name one development project that was interrupted.


Identify one case of an investment that was withdrawn or reduced because of the disaster.


Identify one case of non-formal sector employment that was lost because disaster relief displaced the need for it.


Describe an example of how the government may have been destabilized by the disaster.

How development may cause disasters

The side effects of well-meaning development efforts sometimes have disastrous consequences. Development projects implemented without taking into account existing environmental hazards may increase vulnerability to natural disasters. For example, projects designed to increase employment opportunities, and thus income, usually attract additional population growth. Low-income people may then have to seek housing in areas previously avoided, on hillsides or in floodplains. The costs of relief assistance after a landslide or flood can easily outweigh the benefits to the economy of more jobs. Similarly, development projects may lead to negative political consequences that increase the vulnerability to civil conflict.

Some types of development projects commence without fully assessing their impact on the environment. This can occur even in programmes resulting from a disaster, such as reconstruction projects that increase demand for wood to fortify houses. The resulting deforestation can then bring increased vulnerability to mudslides and possibly long-term environmental changes.

Development projects may even consciously force a choice between reducing disaster vulnerability and economic vulnerability. A project’s design may require a trade-off between the two and force a decision between the lesser of two evils.

Q. Can you describe how development can contribute to vulnerability based on the following examples of negative consequences?


Watershed erosion ____________________________________________
Deforestation _________________________________________________
Loss of biological diversity _____________________________________
Lack of soil and land management _______________________________
Air and water pollution _________________________________________
Inadequate urban sanitation and waste disposal ___________________

Marine and coastal zone development ____________________________

See next table for examples of answers to this question.

Table 3.1 Examples of development leading to disasters or increased vulnerability

From Disasters and Development: A Study in Institution Building, Intertect, January, 1991.


Development activity



Construction of chemical plant generating employment

Deaths due to inadvertent release of chemicals, increased health problems, hazardous or toxic waste accidents

Agriculture, forestry and fisheries

Introduction of new species to control pests

Uncontrolled expansion of new species into environment, bringing crop failure

Irrigation schemes

Flooding where canals counter natural water flow

Increase in pesticide or fertiliser use to augment crop yields

Contamination of potable water supplies

Natural resources

Construction of hydroelectric dam

Displacement, salinization

Drilling of water wells in marginal areas

Desertification due to population clustering around wells

Transportation, communications Education

Road building in rain forests

Landslides, deforestation

School construction on earthquake fault line

Deaths/injuries due to structural failure

Development issues, policy and planning

Centralisation of planning process

Famine due to lack of organisation of local governments

Concentration of tourist facilities on vulnerable coastlines, unstable hills

Exposure of large populations to risk of death/injury/loss in storm surge, high wind storms, tsunami, landslides

Development opportunities afforded by disasters

Despite an increasing disaster awareness in the international community, and the recognition of the importance of developing coherent plans for relief activities, it often takes the actual or imminent occurrence of a large-scale destructive event to stimulate individual governments to think about a developmental approach. Thus, a disaster can serve as a catalyst for introducing mitigation activities.

Few development workers realize the opportunities that disasters can provide in the development field. Disasters often create a political and economic atmosphere wherein extensive changes can be made more rapidly than under normal circumstances. For example, in the aftermath of a disaster, there may be major opportunities to execute land reform programmes, to improve the overall housing stock, to create new jobs and job skills, and to expand and modernize the economic base of the community - opportunities that would not otherwise be possible. The collective will to take action is an advantage that should not be wasted.

Disasters can also highlight high-risk areas where action must be taken before another disaster strikes. The realization of vulnerability can motivate policy-makers and the public to participate in mitigation activities. Disasters may also serve to highlight the fact that the country is seriously under-developed. They can thus bring in funding and the attention of donor communities to apply to long-term development needs. (Henderson, 1990)


In earlier chapters, the discussion about disasters and emergencies resulting from natural and human-made hazards has been developed in general terms. However, each hazard has its own characteristics. To understand the significance and implications of a particular type of disaster we must have a basic understanding about the nature, causes and effects of each hazard type.

The list of hazard types is very long. Many occur infrequently or impact a very small population. Other hazards, such as severe snowstorms, often occur in areas that are prepared to deal with them and seldom become disasters. However, from the perspective of a disaster victim it is not particularly useful to distinguish between minor and major disasters. Some disasters are now of limited interest to the international community. These include avalanches, fog, frost, hail, lightning, snowstorms, and tornadoes. The international interest is less for these hazards because their impacts affect relatively few people and the countries in which they normally occur have sufficient resources and systems in place to respond without external assistance.

There are several hazard types for which there is widespread concern. They can be categorized as follows:

Sudden onset hazards - (geological and climatic hazards) earthquakes, tsunamis, floods, tropical storms, volcanic eruptions, landslides

Slow onset hazards - (environmental hazards) drought, famine, environmental degradation, desertification, deforestation, pest infestation

Industrial/technological - system failures/accidents, spillages, explosions, fires

Wars and civil strife - armed agression, insurgency, terrorism, and other actions leading to displaced persons and refugees

Epidemics - water and/or food-borne diseases, person-to-person diseases (contact and respiratory spread), vector-borne diseases and complications from wounds

These hazard types are highlighted in this training material. The international community has an interest in them because they frequently affect large populations and the need for outside assistance is evident. Many disasters are themselves international events and have an impact on entire regions.

A brief description of each hazard type is presented below. It will be your responsibility to determine which hazards are of concern to your country and then to read the material about them.

Q. Which hazards are of concern to your country?

A. List the most important hazards in order of their severity of impact.
1. ___________________________________________________________

2. ___________________________________________________________
3. ___________________________________________________________
4. ___________________________________________________________

Now learn more about each of these hazards in the material that follows.

Geological Hazards



Volcanic eruptions


Climatic Hazards

Tropical cyclones



Environmental Hazards

Environmental pollution



Pest Infestation


Industrial Accidents


1 The following material on hazards and population displacements is drawn from the UNDP/UNDRO Disaster Management Manual.

This section provides an indication of the general characteristics of each of the hazard types listed and the kinds of counter-disaster measures which may be required. You should note that disasters have collateral or indirect effects that may endure even after a particular type of disaster has been directly addressed. The problem of displaced people after a sudden onset disaster, such as a cyclone, may continue well after immediate relief, recovery and even rehabilitation programmes have been implemented. Such collateral impact can turn a seemingly rapid onset disaster into a continuing emergency situation.

A further issue that must be borne in mind concerns the consequence of a sudden onset disaster when relief assistance is stymied because civil conflict makes access impossible. In other words, the perverse permutations are many. Nevertheless, the basic characteristics of certain types of disasters and emergencies and appropriate response measures can be structured as follows:

Causal phenomena

General characteristics


Factors contributing to vulnerability

Typical effects

Possible risk reduction measures

Specific preparedness measures

Typical post-disaster needs

Different types of disasters have characteristic effects while retaining unique aspects. Risk reduction and preparedness measures, and emergency and post-disaster response can all be facilitated by some “rules of thumb” - as outlined in this section - but must also be tailored to the specificity of local conditions.


(a) where different types of disaster occur in combination - e.g. floods accompanying tropical storms - the combined effects must be considered; and where one disaster leads to another (for example a famine leading to civil strife) the compound effects must be anticipated

(b) the severity of the actual impact on the society depends on human and organizational factors as well as natural and topographical ones.

Figure 4.1 World map of selected hazards


Volcanic eruptions

Shorelines exposed to tsunami waves

Seismic belts

Land areas affected by tropical cyclones

Desertification likely or active


Causal phenomena

Slippage of crustal rock along a fault or area of strain and rebound to new alignment.

General characteristics and effects

Shaking of earth caused by waves on and below the earth’s surface causing:

Surface faulting
Tremors, vibrations


Probability of occurrence can be determined but not exact timing. Forecasting is based on monitoring of seismic activity, historical incidence, and observations.

Factors contributing to vulnerability

Location of settlements in seismic areas.
Structures which are not resistant to ground motion.
Dense collections of buildings with high occupancy.
Lack of access to information about earthquake risks.

Typical adverse effects

Physical damage - Damage or loss of structures or infrastructure. Fires, dam failures, landslides, flooding may occur.
Casualties - Often high, particularly near epicenter or in highly populated areas or where buildings not resistant.
Public health - Fracture injuries most widespread problem. Secondary threats due to flooding, contaminated water supply, or breakdown in sanitary conditions.
Water supply - Severe problems likely due to damage of water systems, pollution of open wells and changes in water table.

Possible risk reduction measures

Hazard mapping
Public awareness programs and training
Assessing and reducing structural vulnerability
Land use control or zoning, building codes

Specific preparedness measures

Earthquake warning and preparedness programs

Typical post-disaster needs

Search and rescue
Emergency medical assistance
Damage needs and assessment survey
Relief assistance
Repair and reconstruction
Economic recovery

Impact assessment tools

Earthquake scales (Modified Mercalli, MSK), earthquake damage and usability forms.


Causal phenomena

Fault movement on sea floor, accompanied by an earthquake.
A landslide occurring underwater or above the sea, then plunging into the water.
Volcanic activity either underwater or near the shore.

General characteristics

Tsunami waves are barely perceptible in deep water and may measure 160 km between wave crests
May consist of ten or more wave crests
Move up to 800 km per hour in deep water of ocean, diminishing in speed as the wave approaches shore
May strike shore in crashing waves or may innundate the land
Flooding effect depends on shape of shoreline and tides


Tsunami Warning System in Pacific monitors seismic activity and declares watches and warnings. Waves generated by local earthquakes may strike nearby shores within minutes and warnings to public may not be possible.

Factors contributing to vulnerability

Location of settlements in low lying coastal regions
Lack of tsunami resistant buildings
Lack of timely warning systems and evacuation plans
Unawareness of public to destructive forces of tsunamis

Typical adverse effects

Physical damage - The force of water can raze everything in its path but the majority of damage to structure and infrastructure results from flooding. Withdrawal of the wave from shore scours out sediment and can collapse ports and buildings and batter boats.
Casualties and public health - Deaths occur principally by drowning and injuries from battering by debris.
Water supply - Contamination by salt water and debris or sewage may make clean drinking water unavailable.
Crops and food supplies - Harvests, food stocks, livestock farm implements and fishing boats may be lost. Land may be rendered infertile due to salt water incursion.

Possible risk reduction measures

Protection of buildings along coast, houses on stilts
Building barriers such as breakwaters

Specific preparedness measures

Hazard mapping, planning evacuation routes
Establish warning systems
Community education

Typical post-disaster needs

Warning and evacuation; search and rescue; medical assistance; conduct disaster assessment, provide food, water and shelter

Impact assessment tools

Aerial surveys of coastal areas, damage surveys, evaluation of warning systems and evacuation plans.


Causal phenomena

Magma pushed upward through volcanic vent by pressure and effervescence of dissolved gases.

General characteristics

Types of volcanoes are cindercones, shield volcanoes, composite volcanoes and lava domes.
Magma flowing out onto surface is lava and all solid particles ejected are tephra.
Damage results from type of material ejected such as ash, pyroclastic flows (blasts of gas containing ash and fragments), mud, debris, and lava flows.


Study of the geological history of volcanoes mainly located in a clearly defined volcanic belt, along with seismic activity and other observations, may indicate an impending volcano. No reliable indicator has been discovered and precursory signs do not always occur.

Factors contributing to vulnerability

Settlements on the flanks of volcanoes
Settlements in the historical paths of mud or lava flows
Structures with roof designs not resistant to ash accumulation
Presence of combustible materials
Lack of evacuation plan or warning systems

Typical adverse effects

Casualties and health - Death from pyroclastic flows, mud flows and possibly lava flows and toxic gases. Injuries from falling rock, bums; respiratory difficulties from gas and ash.
Settlements, infrastructure and agriculture - Complete destruction of everything in the path of pyroclastic, mud or lava flows; collapse of structures under weight of wet ash, flooding, blockage of roads or communication systems
Crops and food supplies - Destruction of crops in path of flows, ash may break tree branches, livestock may inhale toxic gas or ash; grazing lands may be contaminated.

Possible risk reduction measures

Land use planning for settlements around volcanoes
Protective structural measures

Specific preparedness measures

National volcanic emergency plans
Volcano monitoring and warning system
Training for government officials and community participation in search and rescue, fire fighting

Typical post-disaster needs

Warning and evacuation; medical assistance, search and rescue; provide food, water and shelter; relocate victims; provide financial assistance

Impact assessment tools

Aerial and ground surveys to assess damage; evaluation of evacuation plan and emergency response


Causal phenomena

Downslope transport of soil and rock resulting from naturally occurring vibrations, changes in direct water content, removal of lateral support, loading with weight, and weathering, or human manipulation of water courses and slope composition.

General characteristics

Landslides vary in types of movement (falls, slides, topples, lateral spread, flows), and may be secondary effects of heavy storms, earthquakes, and volcanic eruptions. Landslides are more widespread than any other geological event.


Frequency of occurrence, extent and consequences of landslides may be estimated and areas of high risk determined by use of information on area geology, geomorphology, hydrology and climatology and vegetation.

Factors contributing to vulnerability

Settlements built on steep slopes, softer soils, cliff tops
Settlements built at the base of steep slopes, on mouths of streams from mountain valleys
Roads, communication lines in mountain areas
Buildings with weak foundations
Buried pipelines, brittle pipes
Lack of understanding of landslide hazard

Typical adverse effects

Physical damage - Anything on top of or in path of landslide will suffer damage. Rubble may block roads, lines of communication or waterways. Indirect effects may include loss of productivity of agricultural or forest lands, flooding, reduced property values.
Casualties - Fatalities have occurred due to slope failure. Catastrophic debris slides or mudflows have killed many thousands.

Possible risk reduction measures

Hazard mapping
Legislation and land use regulation

Specific preparedness measures

Community education
Monitoring, warning and evacuation systems

Typical post-disaster needs

Search and rescue (use of earth removal equipment); medical assistance; emergency shelter for homeless

Impact assessment tools

Damage assessment forms

Tropical cyclones

Causal phenomena

Mixture of heat and moisture forms a low pressure center over oceans in tropical latitudes where water temperatures are over 26 degrees C.
Wind currents spin and organize around deepening low pressure over accelerating toward the center and moving along track pushed by trade winds
Depression becomes a tropical cyclone when winds reach gale force or 117 km per hour

General characteristics

When the cyclone strikes land, high winds, exceptional rainfall and storm surges cause damage with secondary flooding and landslides.


Tropical cyclones can be tracked from their development but accurate landfall forecasts are usually possible only a few hours before as unpredictable changes in course can occur.

Factors contributing to vulnerability

Settlements located in low lying coastal areas (direct impact)
Settlements in adjacent areas (heavy rains, floods)
Poor communications or warning systems
Lightweight structures, older construction, poor quality masonry
Infrastructural elements, fishing boats and maritime industries

Typical adverse effects

Physical damage - Structures lost and damaged by wind force, flooding, storm surge and landslides.
Casualties and public health - May be caused by flying debris, or flooding. Contamination of water supplies may lead to viral outbreaks and malaria.
Water supplies - Ground water may be contaminated by flood waters.
Crops and food supplies - High winds and rains can ruin standing crops, tree plantations and food stocks.
Communications and logistics - Severe disruption is possible as wind brings down telephone lines, antennas and satellite disks. Transport may be curtailed.

Possible risk reduction measures

Risk assessment and hazard mapping
Land use control and flood plain management
Reduction of structural vulnerability
Improvement of vegetation cover

Specific preparedness measures

Public warning systems
Evacuation plans
Training and community participation

Typical post-disaster needs

Evacuation and emergency shelter; search and rescue; medical assistance; water purification; reestablish logistical and communication networks; disaster assessment; provision of seeds for planting.

Impact assessment tools

Damage assessment forms, aerial surveys


Causal phenomena

Naturally occurring flash, river and coastal flooding from intense rainfall or innundation associated with seasonal weather patterns
Human manipulation of watersheds, drainage basins and floodplains

General characteristics

Flash floods - Accelerated runoff, dam failure, breakup of ice jam
River floods - Slow buildup, usually seasonal in river systems
Coastal floods - Associated with tropical cyclones, tsunami waves, storm surges
Factors affecting degree of danger: depth of water, duration, velocity, rate of rise, frequency of occurrence, seasonality


Flood forecasting depends on seasonal patterns, capacity of drainage basin, flood plain mapping, surveys by air and land. Warning possible well in advance for seasonal floods, but only minutes before in case of storm surge, flash flood, or tsunami.

Factors contributing to vulnerability

Location of settlements on floodplains
Lack of awareness of flooding hazard
Reduction of absorptive capacity of land (erosion, concrete)
Non-resistant buildings and foundations
High risk infrastructural elements
Unprotected food stocks and standing crops, livestock
Fishing boats and maritime industries

Typical adverse effects

Physical damage - Structures damaged by washing away, becoming inundated, collapsing, impact of floating debris. Landslides from saturated soils. Damage greater in valleys than open areas.
Casualties and public health - Deaths from drowning but few serious injuries. Possible outbreaks of malaria, diarrhea and viral infections.
Water supplies - Contamination of wells and groundwater possible. Clean water may be unavailable.
Crops and food supplies - Harvests and food stocks may be lost to innundation. Animals, farm tools and seeds might be lost. Floodplain mapping. Land use control

Possible risk reduction measures

Flood control (channels, dikes, dams, flood-proofing, erosion control)

Specific preparedness measures

Flood detection and warning systems
Community participation and education
Development of master plan for floodplain management

Typical post-disaster needs

Search and rescue; medical assistance; disaster assessment; short term food and water supplies; water purification; epidemiological surveillance; temporary shelter

Impact assessment tools

Damage survey forms; aerial surveys


Causal phenomena

Immediate cause - Rainfall deficit
Possible underlying causes - El Niincursion of warm surface waters into the normally colder waters of South American Pacific); human induced changes in ground surface and soil; higher sea surface temperatures; increase of atmospheric carbon dioxide and greenhouse gases.

General characteristics

The reduction of water or moisture availability is temporary and significant in relation to the norm.
Meteorological drought is the reduction in rainfall and hydrological drought is the reduction in water resources.
Agricultural drought is the impact of drought on human activity influenced by various factors: the presence of irrigation systems, moisture retention capacity of the soil, the timing of the rainfall and adaptive behavior of the farmers.


Periods of unusual dryness are normal in all weather systems. Rainfall and hydrology data must be carefully analyzed with influencing factors in predicting drought, however, advance warning is usually possible.

Factors contributing to vulnerability

Location in an arid area where dry conditions are increased by drought
Farming on marginal lands, subsistence farming
Lack of agricultural inputs to improve yields
Lack of seed reserves
Areas dependent on other weather systems for water resources
Areas of low soil moisture retention
Lack of recognition and allocation of resources to drought hazard

Typical adverse effects

Reduced income for farmers; reduction of spending from agricultural sector; increase in price of staple foods, increased inflation rates, deterioration of nutritional status, famine, illness, death, reduction of drinking water sources, migration, breakup of communities, loss of livestock.

Possible risk reduction measures

Drought and famine early warning systems

Specific preparedness measures

Development of inter-institutional response plan

Typical post-disaster needs

Measures to maintain food security: price stabilization, food subsidies, employment creation programs, general food distribution, supplementary feeding programs, special programs for livestock and pastoralists, complementary water and health programs; rehabilitation

Impact assessment tools

Nutritional surveys, socioeconomic surveys, monitoring of rainfall and hydrological data, satellite imagery.

Environmental pollution

Causal phenomena

Air pollution - pollutants such as sulphur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, particulates, carbon monoxide, and lead from industry and transport.
Marine pollution - Sewage, industrial effluents, marine litter, petroleum spills and dumped radioactive substances.
Fresh water pollution - Discharge of human waste and domestic wastewaters into lakes and rivers, industrial effluents, use of irrigation and pesticides, runoff of nitrogen from fertilizers. Increased runoff from deforestation causing sedimentation.
Possible global warming - Accumulation of Carbon dioxide from combustion of fossil fuels, deforestation, and methane from livestock.
Ozone depletion - Chloroflorocarbons (CFCs) released into the atmosphere deplete ozone shield against ultraviolet light.


Pollution is related to per capita consumption so, as countries develop, pollution will also tend to increase. Deforestation is increasing in some countries.

Factors contributing to vulnerability

High levels of industrialization and per capita consumption
Lack of regulation of pollutants
Insufficient resources to counter the impact of pollution

Typical adverse effects

Air pollution - Damages agricultural crops, forests, aquatic systems, structural materials and human health.
Water pollution - Spread of pathogens, injury to marine animals, spread of chemicals to the environment effecting the health of humans, animals and sealife.
Global warming - Sea level rise, climate change, temperature rise
Ozone depletion - Increase in skin cancer, cataracts, reduction in immune system functions, damage to marine life.

Possible risk reduction measures

Set ambient air quality standards
Set emission limits for every pollutant
Establish protection policies for water supplies
Reduce the use of pesticides by integrated management
Reduce the rate of deforestation and increase planting of trees
Promote energy efficiency
Regulate use of aerosols and disposal of refrigeration units
Prohibit manufacture and use of CFCs

Specific preparedness measures

Establish a national environmental safety and protection plan
Create education programs for environmental awareness
Training of government personnel as part of development programs

Impact assessment tools

Aerial, remote sensing and ground surveys
Air, water and soils testing
Comparison of climatic data
Socioeconomic surveys


Causal phenomena

The spread of farming and grazing
Firewood collection
Timber harvesting

General characteristics

Contributes to other hazards by
- removing root systems which stabilize soil, acting as a filter and buffer, allowing percolation of water into soil and retaining moisture in soil.
- removal of leaf biomass and forest products
- burning and decay of dead wood.


An increase in global focus on the hazard is expanding data base leading to an increased awareness of the problem and to identifying where the problem exists. Overall, the global trend is decreasing as conservation measures are enacted but destruction of forests is rising at alarming rates in some countries.

Factors contributing to vulnerability

Dependence on wood for fuel and income
Unregulated logging and land clearance
Rapid population growth
Rapid expansion of settled or industrialized areas

Typical adverse effects

Deforestation results in loss of free products from the forest such as fruits and medicines, and decline in traditional cultures. It stresses economies which import forest products and are dependent on wood products. It contributes to other hazards, such as:

Flooding - Deforestation of watersheds can increase severity of flooding, reduce streamflows, dry up springs in dry seasons and increase sediment entering waterways.
Drought - Removal of roots and leaf canopy can alter moisture levels drying soil and decreasing precipitation.
Famine - Decrease in agricultural production due to erosion of topsoil and collapse of hillsides may lead to food shortages.
Desertification - Deforestation and removal of vegetation lead to soil compaction and reduction of land productivity.
Environmental pollution - Increases contamination of soil and water and reduces carbon dioxide absorption capacity. Burning of forests and decay of trees releases carbon dioxide to the air, possibly contributing to global warming.

Possible risk reduction measures

Protection of forests through management, legislation, conservancies

Specific preparedness measures

Education of the communities
Promoting alternatives to fuelwood
Soil conservation measures

Impact assessment tools

Forest mapping by use of aerial or remote sensing or ground surveys. Monitoring of reforestation programs.


Causal phenomena

Basic conducive climatic conditions such as low or uncertain rainfall and higher temperatures as found in dryland areas.
Poor land use management practices particularly overcultivation, overgrazing, deforestation and poor irrigation practices.

General characteristics

Soil degradation by water erosion, wind erosion, soil compaction and waterlogging (salinization and alkalinization)
Degradation of vegetation initially by reduction in density of biomass and then by change of vegetation types to less productive forms.


Global surveillance of drylands can be achieved through remote sensing and aerial surveys. As land use increases without measures to conserve soil and vegetation, desertification will likely increase. One estimate claims 202,000 square km are desertified each year.

Factors contributing to vulnerability

Low rainfall and high temperatures
Heavy land use
Deforested areas
Poor irrigation management
Lack of conservation measures
Poverty and lack of appropriate agricultural technologies

Typical adverse effects

Desertification contributes to other hazards by reducing the productivity of the land. These include drought and famine. Reduced productivity has socioeconomic impacts and may reduce standards of living.

Possible risk reduction measures

Establish community programs to meet needs and improve practices and institutions.
Increase monitoring of desertification
Develop policies for sustainable agricultural systems
Develop agricultural institutions and train personnel

Specific preparedness measures

Promote projects to improve agricultural and livestock production
Promote soil and water conservation

Impact assessment tools

Socioeconomic surveys are needed to ascertain needs of people and for agricultural development. Aerial and remote sensing surveys will help determine the rate and scope of desertification.

Pest infestations

Causal phenomena

Increase in pest numbers due to one or a combination of ecological factors including temperature, monoculture of crops, introduction of plants to new locations, introduction of pest species, overcoming genetic resistance in host, overcoming pesticide effects, conducive weather patterns, migration.

General characteristics

Plants can be damaged in various ways such as consumption of parts, tunnelling in stems, attack of root systems, injection of toxins.


Pest forecasting determines whether application of a pesticide will be cost effective, by examining the stages of development of the crop and the pest and by determining the economic threshold.

Factors contributing to vulnerability

Large numbers and varieties of pests
Lack of controls on imported plant products
Constraints on resources to predict and treat pest infestations
Insufficient crop yields in normal times
Areas inaccessible to surveillance for pests
Underdevelopment of agricultural technologies

Typical adverse effects

Crop losses could lead to food shortages, even famine, and stress economic systems.

Possible risk reduction measures

Integrated pest management employing appropriate methods of physical control, cultural control, crop plant resistance, biological control, legislation, chemical control and possibly eradication.

Specific preparedness measures

Establishing a national plan for pest control
Training for government personnel and extension to farmers

Typical post-disaster needs

National or international control efforts
Provide needed food supplies

Impact assessment tools

Assessment of incidence and severity of infestation
Aerial and ground surveys of damage to crops


Definition: Exposure to a toxin resulting in pronounced rise in number of cases of parasitic or infectious origin.

Causal phenomena

Unsanitary conditions, crowding, poverty
Ecological changes that favor breeding of vector
Non-immune persons migrate to endemic disease area
Decline in nutritional status
Contamination of water or food supply

General characteristics

Risk of introduction or spread of the disease
Possible large number of cases
Severe disease leading to disability or death
Risk of social or economic disruption
Lack of adequate professional personnel, needed supplies
Danger of international transmission


Epidemics may increase due to rise in travel or migration and long-term dormant symptoms of sexually transmitted diseases. Reports of epidemics may increase due to better medical coverage. Prediction is assisted by epidemiological studies but may be constrained in newly formed settlements or emergency camps.

Factors contributing to vulnerability

Lack of immunity (or vaccination) to diseases
Poor nutrition, poor sanitation, poor water quality, crowding
Poorly organized health care delivery
Drug resistant diseases

Typical adverse effects

Illness and death
Social and political disruption, economic loss
Increased trauma in emergency settlements

Possible risk reduction measures

Structuring an emergency health service
Preparing a contingency plan with inventory of required resources
Establishing an early warning system through routine surveillance
Training of national staff in emergency operations

Specific preparedness measures

Intervention measures - Verify and confirm diagnosis; identify cases; find source of epidemic; treat cases and control spread; write report.
Community health education

Typical post-disaster needs

Emergency medical assistance; international aid, if outbreak uncontained

Impact assessment tools

Epidemiological surveys; evaluation of health care systems and emergency response

Chemical and industrial accidents

Causal phenomena

Disaster/explosion in a plant or storage facilities handling toxic substances
Accidents during the transportation of chemicals
Contamination of food or the environment by misuse of chemicals
Improper waste management of toxic chemicals
Technological system failures
Failures of plant safety design or components
Natural hazards such as fire, earthquake or landslides
Arson or sabotage


Incidences of chemical and industrial accidents are expected to increase as industrialization increases in developing countries.

Factors contributing to vulnerability

Those persons, structures, livestock, crops, and environment closest to the scene of an accident are most vulnerable, however, large scale releases of airborne pollutants may spread for hundreds of kilometers.
Lack of safety features or lack of evacuation plan.
Unawareness by vulnerable persons of the potential danger.

Typical adverse effects

Physical damage - Damage or destruction may occur to structures and infrastructure. Transportation accidents damage vehicles and other objects on impact. Industrial fires may reach high temperatures and affect large areas.
Casualties - Many people may be killed or injured and require medical treatment.
Environmental - Contamination of air, water supply, land, and animal life may occur. Areas may become uninhabitable for humans and animals. Ecological systems may be disrupted even on a global scale.

Possible risk reduction measures

Development of a plan, such as the APELL (Awareness and Preparedness for Emergencies at the Local Level) process, to assist decision makers and technical personnel to improve community awareness of hazardous installations and aid them in preparing disaster response plans.

Specific preparedness measures

Hazard mapping
Hazardous materials identification
Inspection of chemical plants and storage facilities
Monitoring toxic waste disposal procedures
Improve fire fighting capacity
Monitoring pollution levels
Prepare and practice evacuation plans
Test warning sirens

Typical post-disaster needs

Evacuation from area; search and rescue; alternative sources of water; cleanup; monitor environmental effects.

Impact assessment tools

APELL process forms for emergency response plan evaluation, CHEMTREC (Chemical Transportation Emergency Center) information systems.


1 The material from this chapter is drawn from the DMTP special topic module Displaced Persons in Civil Conflict by Frederick Cuny; General Assembly Resolution 46/182: The Executive Summary of the 1992 Consolidated Appeal for the Horn of Africa: and the Themes of Emergencies stated in the First SEPHA Situation Report.

Socio/political forces

Increasingly throughout many parts of the world one type of hazard can trigger a disaster which in turn triggers another hazard and subsequent disaster. For example, a drought may lead to a famine which in turn leads to a civil conflict that results in the mass displacement of people. A flood may force people to seek refuge across an international border where conflicts ensue between refugees and local communities.

Such compound hazards and disasters need not happen sequentially; they can also occur simultaneously. Thus, people caught between contending forces in a civil war find that in the midst of a major drought they have no means either to grow food or to receive outside assistance.

In a growing number of countries, complex disasters are also becoming more evident. Essentially a complex disaster is a form of human-made emergency in which the cause of the emergency as well as the assistance to the afflicted are bound by intense levels of political considerations. The single most prevalent political condition of a complex emergency is civil conflict, resulting in a collapse of political authority in all or part of a country. In such cases, at least one of three situations arise:

1. The government’s ability to assist the disaster-afflicted becomes severely constrained.

2. The government becomes extremely suspicious of or uninterested in afflicted people who have fled from non-government to government held areas.

3. The government or opposition groups actually create or compound a disaster through actions that generate refugees and the mass displacement of people.

In fact, many affected people live in areas outside of government control. They are often the persons who are most in need and they are often the most difficult to reach with aid.

The disaster becomes “complex” because either the collapse or diffusion of political control makes assistance highly problematic. Solutions ultimately depend upon agreements with all parties involved in the conflict to permit assistance to be provided to recognize civilian noncombatants. These solutions may be agreements that are seen essentially as compromising fundamental aspects of sovereignty for what have been labelled as “new mechanisms of humanitarian assistance” (for example, corridors of tranquility).

An acute example of a situation illustrating the characteristics of both compound and complex emergencies is the Horn of Africa. For the past several years the situation in the Horn of Africa has been characterized by internal conflicts in Ethiopia, Sudan, and Somalia. These conflicts have been exacerbated by recurrent droughts and have resulted in famines on a massive scale and the flight of large numbers of people across national borders. After years of drought in some parts of the region, by 1991 food shortages were widespread. It became apparent that the crisis in the region was less the result of inadequate rainfall than that of a human-made emergency.

During the last half of 1991, the situation in many parts of the Horn remained highly volatile and fragile, largely due to conflict and a break down of law and order. This resulted in further population displacement and in intense misery for millions of people.

Displaced persons

One of the most serious consequences of compound and complex emergencies is the creation of populations of displaced persons. The example of the Horn of Africa refers to many of the displaced populations but there are millions more in other parts of the world.

The term “displaced person” applies in several contexts. These include people who are:

forced to leave their homes as a result of drought, famine, or other disaster, usually in search of food

non-combatant individuals and families forced to leave their homes because of the direct or indirect consequences of conflict but who remain inside their country

forcibly resettled by their government if the resettlement is ethnically, tribally or racially motivated

expelled from a country, especially as an ethnic or national group, forced out for economic or political reasons.

Reasons for concern

The international humanitarian relief system is just now beginning to meet the challenge of working with the displaced. There are three principle reasons for concern by relief agencies. One is that displaced persons are often ineligible to receive relief and assistance available to refugees (individuals who have crossed an international border seeking protection). A second reason is that the displaced are often insecure about relying on their own government for protection. A third reason is the obstacle of national sovereignty that limits outside agencies to assist this population.

Consequences and effects

The variety of possible situations generating displaced persons makes generalizations difficult, but the following may be experienced in varying degrees.

loss of means of livelihood

communities becoming separated from any services previously provided

loss of normal sources of food

lack of shelter and household necessities

lack of fuel for cooking

lack of potable water

communicable diseases and over-crowding

additional burdens particularly for women heads of households

possibly large numbers of unaccompanied children

loss of land tenure

possible communication and logistics problems

insecurity due to tensions and military activities

Not to be forgotten is the population that may remain at home and, even though they are not “trapped in combat areas,” they nonetheless are in places that are hard to reach because of political, logistical and/or security obstacles. They may suffer many of the above problems and be isolated from international humanitarian relief.

The role of the UN in complex emergencies

In light of the issues created by complex emergencies and the special needs of displaced populations, the United Nations has determined to strengthen and make more effective the collective efforts of the international community, in particular the UN system, in providing humanitarian assistance. This determination is reflected in the implementation of General Assembly resolution 46/182, passed in December of 1991.

This resolution affirms that humanitarian assistance must be provided in accordance with the principles of humanity, neutrality and impartiality. Accordingly the UN has a central and unique role to play in providing leadership and coordinating the efforts of the international community to support the affected countries.

The implementation of resolution 46/182 includes the creation of a contingency funding arrangement, that is, a central emergency revolving fund of US $50 million as a cash-flow mechanism to ensure the rapid and coordinated response of the organizations of the system. The UN will also establish a central register of specialized personnel and teams of technical specialists, supplies and other resources that can be called upon at short notice by the UN.

The leadership of this UN initiative will be provided by a high level official, the emergency relief coordinator, designated by the Secretary-General, to work with the entities of the UN system dealing with humanitarian assistance. This position combines the functions previously carried out in the coordination of UN response by representatives of the Secretary-General for major and complex emergencies, as well as by the United Nations Disaster Relief Coordinator.

This emergency relief coordinator, among other duties, is charged with facilitating the access by the operational organizations to emergency areas for the rapid provision of emergency assistance. In cases of complex emergencies this may require negotiation with all parties concerned to obtain their consent and, where needed, the establishment of temporary relief corridors, days and zones of tranquility and other forms.

Safety of relief teams in conflict zones

There are many operational considerations in complex emergencies. One of the most crucial is that of the safety of relief teams in conflict zones. As coordinators of assistance for the displaced, the UN staff bears a special responsibility for ensuring that all personnel operating in or adjacent to conflict zones work in conditions of minimum risk and maximum security. Guidelines and procedures for personnel should be established in conjunction with the host government and, where possible, with insurgent groups. The UN is often charged with the responsibility of notifying relief workers and other organizations about the risks they may face from military operations in or near their relief activities. In this regard, the UN is often able to obtain clearances for special flights into contested areas on airplanes bearing United Nations markings, to arrange for safe transport through the front lines in specially-marked UN vehicles, and to establish special relief corridors whereby food and relief supplies can be delivered under flags of truce or through designated corridors, without undue restraint. It is important for the UN to carefully assess the risks before encouraging relief organizations to commit personnel and resources to operations in non-secure areas. A UN assurance that an area or means of transport is safe carries much weight - and responsibility.

Two of the most important aspects of working in remote and insecure areas are communications and stand-by evacuation support. To the greatest extent possible, UN coordinators should ensure that relief personnel have immediate and 24-hour access to telecommunications facilities and that suitable means are immediately available to evacuate personnel in case of an emergency. This may entail the assignment of light aircraft to be available on short notice to evacuate staff.