Pre-stored data vital for mitigating natural disasters, UN reports

16 December 2008

With climate change likely to increase both the frequency and severity of natural disasters, the United Nations today launched guidelines to help States pre-emptively amass the data vital for effective relief operations to avoid compounding the original catastrophe.

“So that these natural hazards do not become man-made disasters, we require effective systems to identify needs, manage data, and help calibrate responses,” UN Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs John Holmes and World Bank Vice President Danny Leipziger said in a forward to Data Against Natural Disasters, a book launched jointly by their offices.

“Such systems, if well designed, can help coordinate the influx of aid to ensure timely and efficient delivery of assistance to those who need help most. The emphasis on aid effectiveness is particularly important in the context of disaster response because, as is now clear, vulnerability to natural disasters and inefficiencies in aid distribution may lead to unnecessary economic losses, increased suffering, and greater poverty.”

Based on case studies from the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami in Indonesia and Sri Lanka, recent hurricanes and floods in Guatemala, Haiti and Mozambique and the 2005 earthquake in Pakistan, the book concludes that information management systems are a critical element for effective response based on good technological platforms with the necessary software.

Baseline information must be collected on communities, services and infrastructure, even the names and locations of rural communities in areas where accurate maps, technical capacity and shared languages are in short supply. In Pakistan, for example, different villages often have the same name in public records and the name of an individual village might vary across documents.

“Baseline data should be assembled in advance as part of the process of becoming prepared for disaster. Much of the information will be scattered across separate record and documentation systems at various government agencies. The technical barriers to collecting and consolidating this information are likely to be significant, but they may be more easily surmounted outside the context of an emergency,” the book stresses.

“Ad hoc responses hastily assembled in the aftermath of a disaster are not equal to the task. Major investment is needed to build permanent response capacity in countries and across the world,” it says, citing numerous challenges in information management from tracking displaced and vulnerable people and logging damage to housing, infrastructure and services to dealing with the sudden influx of aid and coordinating the work of a plethora of responding agencies.

Search and rescue operations, evacuations, and care for victims of trauma all must be planned and coordinated. “In emergencies, improvements in efficiency translate quickly into more saved lives,” the book states, underlining the importance of regular investment in national disaster information management systems.

“Perhaps the most important lesson that emerges from the experiences documented in this volume is that investments in disaster information management systems are far more likely to be effective if they are accomplished in advance,” the book stresses in conclusion.

“Most of the systems described in the case studies were developed or deployed in the aftermath of the onset of major disasters. Many of the problems they faced flowed directly from this fact. In the midst of a major disaster, the prospects of anchoring the system on a stable institutional foundation and supporting it through sound operating procedures are diminished.”

 

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