Science & Tech

Disasters, and how to cope with them

4 min read

U.N.’s Holmes talks about trouble and action

Nine out of 10 disasters in the world are related to climate change — the consequence of “a new normal of extreme weather,” said Sir John Holmes. He talked about an accelerating pace of floods, drought, heat waves, and catastrophic storms.

Holmes, undersecretary-general for humanitarian affairs at the United Nations, has his eye on disasters of every stripe, both those caused by nature and those (like war) caused by human nature. He was at Harvard last week (March 27) to deliver a keynote address at a three-day conference of 160 aid experts, field workers, and scholars.

The 2009 Humanitarian Action Summit, sponsored by the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative (HHI), was the third dialogue among experts in international aid, a series of conversations that began in 2006 and continued in 2007. (A fourth is planned for 2010.)

Climate change is just one of the meta-challenges likely to grow in the near future, said Holmes, who is the U.N. emergency relief coordinator. Add to that large-scale hunger as agriculture in Asia and Africa is shaken by environmental pressures; resource conflicts over energy, arable land, and fresh water; population growth and rapid urbanization; a continuing global food crisis; and the growing intensity of regional conflicts in which increasing disrespect for international law has made security for both locals and aid workers “increasingly perilous,” said Holmes.

Overlaying all of this, he said, is a drumbeat of health challenges in the developing world: women’s health (largely neglected), national health systems (in disarray), and tropical diseases (still affecting the world’s 1 billion poorest people).

Disaster relief brings the extra challenges of gender-based violence, said Holmes, along with safety for civilians, and infectious diseases — which, in disaster settings, account for two-thirds of all child deaths.

Even in the face of daunting “megatrends” like climate change, drought, disease, and crowded cities, said Holmes, “We’re not helpless.” He pointed to “countertrends” that include technological advances in communication and health care delivery.

Holmes urged the international gathering of aid experts to create their own new trends in humanitarian action. Address chronic problems before they blossom into disasters, he said, and adopt a “new business model” of aid that is less centered on Western response and more focused on prevention and preparedness within developing nations.

“Local answers are usually the best,” said Holmes.

The first humanitarian action summit was in 2006, co-sponsored by Dartmouth Medical School. Since then, the conferences have evolved into family gatherings of a sort, where experts from around the world discuss the gathering challenges of international aid.

This year’s humanitarian action conference, largely at Harvard’s Center for Government and International Studies, was built around seven working groups, which continue collaborations during the year.

The groups represent the multiple challenges of international aid: human resources, health collaboration, data management, civilian protection, mental health, surgical standards, and — new this year — applied technology.

There are 2.2 billion mobile phones in the developing world, said Claire Thwaites, a technology expert with the United Nations Foundation. Why not take advantage of this explosive growth?

In South Africa, she said, a pilot program is under way to broadcast HIV-prevention messages over cell phones — 365 million messages in the last year.

International aid workers also need to fully understand and embrace Geographic Information Systems (GIS) technology, said Firoz Verjee, a geospatial analyst from the George Washington University. It’s a way to visualize and interpret the “vast clouds of data” that any disaster brings, he said.

During emergencies, “information is as important as food,” said HHI Fellow Patrick Meier, a technology blogger at Cell phones, twitter, television, and bush radio stations can all help map — or even predict — a crisis for disaster experts, he said. The same technologies can “crowdfeed” the right information back to the populace that needs it.

Every disaster has “an ecology of information,” said Meier, a Tufts University Ph.D. student and an expert on using technology for early warning systems. “We have to make sense of it.”

Some humanitarian aid of the past has been like a charging elephant — powerful, headlong, and thoughtless, said Tufts University scholar and practitioner of aid Peter Walker. He delivered a March 27 talk on the humanitarian challenge of climate change — the kind of large-scale catastrophe that historically has made regimes more authoritarian and human lives shorter, sicker, and more violent.

But the future of humanitarian aid has to be a creature of new partnerships and skills; of better data than ever; and — most of all — a creature knowledgeable about local context.

“You have got to be,” said Walker to the gathered aid experts, “a dancing elephant.”