Thursday, May 11, 2006

Strengthening the Camel’s Back: The Role of Emergency and Disaster Preparedness of a Nation

By John A. Akec*
Knutsford, Cheshire, UK

Imagine that Mother Earth as we know it, ceases someday to be kind to humanity, and has let the hell to break loose by allowing all kinds of disasters such disease epidemics, famines, wars, volcanoes, floods, hurricanes, energy shortages, you name it, to inflict our world on unimaginable scale and beyond anything we have ever contemplated. This can possibly be likened to an Armageddonian scene unfolding before our very eyes, as the forces of evil are unleashed on humanity; and men, women, and children run for cover to save their lives. And if you think this is far fetched, recall the 9/11 and the Twin Towers in flames. Also, recall the television images of 1983 famine in Ethiopia, the Sudan’s famine and draught of 1984, Bhar el Ghazal starvation of 1998 in South Sudan, the floods in Mozambique, Goma’s volcano in the Democratic Republic of Congo, the sinking of Titanic, and most recently the outbreak of SARS in Asia etc. etc.

These disasters and catastrophic events tell the tale of great sadness, human vulnerability, and unimaginable pain that can befall on nations and peoples anytime, anywhere. But even more important, the way by which people survive disasters, be they man made or natural, portrays vividly and in unmistakeable terms the "real state" of the nation in which a disaster strikes. It speaks volumes about nation’s wealth, tenacity and adaptability of its people, and above all, its government.

Back to the scene in the Armageddon described above, what is going to happen to you and me? Well, it all depends on where you are at a time when such a thing takes place. Nations and governments ought to be fully prepared for disasters and to expect the unexpected at all time. In industrialised nations, whole ranges of early warning systems are often installed to monitor possible disasters as well as preparing plans of action and making available the necessary resources (trained and skilled workforce, equipment, and communication systems etc). The governments are expected to act quickly and decisively on the first early signs of a looming disaster. This happens at a national, local, departmental, and even at the individual levels. Response procedures are thoroughly rehearsed, and equipment checked routinely to ensure that it is going to work as intended when deployed. Briefs and information prescribing what to do in each specific situation is dispatched to all concerned i! ncluding the authorities, emergency services, and the ordinary citizens. More often than not, inadequate response to disasters has dire consequences on the position of governments, authorities, and individuals in the so-called advanced nations.
As an example, it is seen that in the developed nations most hospitals have emergency electric power supply backup in place. Death of a patient on a life-support machine or in an operating theatre due to power failure can cost the hospital’s governing body and the chief executive their jobs. In fact, nothing can stop nations with modest gross domestic income to install such contingency plans in their major hospitals. Even the richest and most advanced nation on earth, America, had to review and take stock of the quality of response of emergency services in the wake of September 11 attack on the International Trade Centre in New York, and to come out resolved that in future, they [the government] will "do a better job!". Furthermore, how long it takes an ambulance service or police force to get to a scene of accident in is often the problem of fierce debate between the governments and the opposition parties. The Met office provides, on day-to-day basis information about po! ssible wind gales, tornadoes, floods, and snowfalls etc. It is expected that all the stakeholders from fishmongers, to farmers, to tourists, to mountain climbers, and motorists to take heed and organise their activities accordingly!

All governments and companies in the West have contingency plans for a possible major chemical or biological terrorist attack to ensure a smooth operation of their businesses in the wake of such a disaster. Billions of dollars were spent by the governments, institutions, and corporations of all sizes around the world to combat the adverse effects of Millennium Bug (a possible failure of computers when the date turned 00 after mid night on December 31, 1999). It was feared that it could lead loss of data and catastrophic failures of vital utilities that depend increasingly on computers to operate). We can go on and on.

Even near to our own borders, countries like Egypt is believed to have enough water storage capacity in Aswan damp enough to enable the nation to survive more than 50 years of complete draught in the Upper Nile Valley (Ethiopia, Sudan, and Uganda etc). Today, governments in the developed and developing countries are already concerned about climatic changes induced by human economic activity. These include global warming, rise in sea levels, depletion of fossil energy resources, waste reduction, threat to biodiversity, and stress on arable land, and disappearance of rain forests as a consequence of increasing needs of a growing population size in Third World which is projected to outstrip the rate of food production. Their response is to form organisations such as Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change charged with the responsibility of establishing the impact of climatic changes and proposing of measures to mitigate such consequences.
Contrast that with what is happening in the underdeveloped nations, the majority of which are to be found in Africa. While one needs to be realistic about the levels of expected emergency preparedness in such countries, it is sad to note that a great majority of these nations should have done better. Take as an example the famine in Malawi in 2001 and 2002. The government of that country, aided by its corrupt civil servants, and with a push from the World Bank, sold all of its huge maize reserves and allowed the money from the sale to vanish in the pockets. In the year that followed the sale, there was serious draught and as a result there was poor harvest. More than three million people were threatened by starvation and acute food shortages. This was a typical African luck of foresight, prudence, and planning which is played over again and again, year after year across the continent. Another example that comes to mind is that of Goma volcano in the Democratic Republic of! Congo several years ago. Just a day or two after the eruption of the volcano, the un-warned population returned to their homes in Goma, a city which was still in flames. Some of the returnees attempted to vandalise a fuel station with disastrous consequences. The larva which was still burning set the fuel station alight. And as we all know, hundreds were engulfed by the flames and perished as a result. Again, a nation with good system of governance in place could have foreseen such a possibility and took adequate measures to protect the citizens from harming themselves.

Despite technological advances of this century, the gap between the poor and the rich will continue to grow. Not only that, economic activity, rising living standards in the world and the attendant pressure on dwindling earth’s natural resources, and adverse environmental consequences are believed to present the last straw that will ultimately break the camel’s back. It means there is a growing concern that the earth’s ability to sustain life may be terribly undermined, and the livelihood of future generations greatly jeopardised. Only by strengthening the back of the camel through prudent utilisation of resources, the employment of technology, and mobilisation of human intellectual capital to stimulate economic growth, will individual nations be able to withstand disasters and other dangers posed by the last straw.
All this will dwarf the need for governments to be on their guards and on lookout for possible disasters. Bearing in mind that disaster preparedness need not be a high tech, high cost activity. Even low tech and appropriate measures can still do the trick. Here governments of all sizes and shapes will be judged whether or not they have delivered. It may well prove the hypothesis that the underdeveloped equals the under managed.

* First Posted on SSFORUM on 26/04/03