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WORLD VIEW - Needed: An Awakened Response to Disasters

Since the dawn of time, humanity has been at the mercy of natural disasters. Earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, floods, famines, plagues and storms have been an ever-present menace. Even now, with global satellite observations and sophisticated ground-based sensor networks, we are still far from able to predict or control most of these events. But our modern systems of communication and transport do give us one major advantage over the past: our capacity to respond, to repair damage, and, above all, to help the victims, is now much swifter and more comprehensive. However, there are differences in this response from disaster to disaster that are worth pondering.

We can distinguish between two aspects of response, proactive and reactive. Some disasters do not allow for a proactive response because they are unexpected and brief, whereas some, such as famines, epidemic diseases, and some extreme weather events, can be ameliorated if proactive measures are begun as soon as they are detected. This aspect of human activity has also improved in the modern age, as the human mind has grown in power and adaptability, expressing this through advances in forecasting and detection.

A further dimension of response to disaster concerns the root cause. A disaster that is caused only by natural forces elicits universal sympathy and aid. But when an element of human agency is involved, the response becomes more complicated, as there is the natural tendency to ask, “Who is responsible?”, which may distract from focusing on the victims. The recent example of the flood of toxic sludge in Hungary illustrates the difference. At the time of writing (October 2010), it is not yet clear whether negligence contributed to the disaster. But there is no doubt that the responsibility for making the sludge and concentrating it in one place, thus creating the possibility of its disastrous release, is down to human actions. These actions reflect the desire to intervene in nature in order to improve human life. But we are learning, though painful lessons like these, that the cost to nature, of which humanity is an integral part, may often be too high. We need to consider ways to moderate our desires, and to increase our vigilance and care when we do intervene, so that we may become real stewards of the planet. In doing so, in becoming proactive on a planetary scale, we should be able to avert such tragedies with a human component in future.

Another factor which conditions response to disasters is their scale. This refers not only to the number of people and the size of the area affected, but also to the duration of the disaster. It is only natural that disasters on a wide scale will tend to elicit a more global response. Yet it is possible to sense a difference between the response to the Indian Ocean Tsunami of 2004 and the 2010 floods in Pakistan, both of which caused vast devastation (though thankfully, there was very much less loss of life in Pakistan). In the case of the Tsunami, there was a huge global response of giving, both by nations and by citizens. Yet, in spite of a UN estimate that over 21 million people have been affected by the Pakistan floods, and in spite of the UN Secretary-General calling it the worst disaster he had ever seen, the flow of aid has been slow. The UN site reliefweb.int,1 which monitors the degree of fulfilment of requests for international humanitarian assistance, shows that as of mid-October 2010, more than two months after the event, the total aid received for the floods stands at only 34% of aid requested. One possible reason for this weaker response is the fact that this disaster unfolded over a period of time, thus lacking the drama of a sudden event that readily engenders emotional response to human suffering.

This reference to emotional response gets to the heart of the human relationship with disasters. We know that witnessing another’s suffering produces immediate sympathy and the urge to help. Yet we also know that too much exposure to suffering may cause so-called “compassion fatigue” (a misnomer, as we will see later). Both of these facts indicate that the human response to suffering is generally a reactive, emotional response. But is this enough? Can an emotional response help us to respond adequately to the more deep-seated roots of disasters? As UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon remarked on UN Disaster Reduction Day (13 October), “Too many people live on flood plains, others above earthquake fault lines.Some settle downstream from treeless areas, with little buffer against the elements.The risk of disaster quietly accumulates.And, while natural hazards menace everyone, the poor are by far the most vulnerable.” Here he puts his finger on one of the key issues – inequality– that humanity must tackle if it is to seriously mitigate disasters. If individuals and nations have more adequate resources, their ability to plan for, survive, and re-build after disasters will increase. A recent tragic example can be found in the Haitian earthquake of 2010. A stronger earthquake occurred in Chile in the same year, yet the number of victims in Chile was tiny by comparison. A major reason for this is that Chile, unlike Haiti, has strong building codes and also, crucially, the resources to implement them.

Tackling inequality is not a goal that lends itself quite as readily to emotional response as helping victims of a disaster. Yet it has been argued by a number of people that we should think of such issues as malaria, high maternal and child mortality rates, and other problems that are at least partially rooted in poverty and inequality, as disasters, albeit in slow motion and widely dispersed. Indeed, the UN Millennium Development Goals can be regarded as a significant attempt to focus this insight into a series of simple, identifiable targets. The realisation of these goals requires more than just reactive emotional sympathy, but also careful and considered planning – the ‘pro-activity’ or foresight of the mind. And beyond even that, it requires the steady and persistent application of goodwill. Goodwill is compassion made practical, the expression of the purposeful love of the soul, which is tireless. Emotional response to disasters can only get us part of the way; the response characteristic of aid agencies, with their intelligent recognition of priorities, further underpinned by the principle of goodwill, combines mind and heart to greater effect, and is a standard which all people of goodwill can strive to emulate. In the future, as the energies of the soul strengthen within humanity, we can envision a truly intuitive response to disasters – an immediate recognition of the meaning/significance of an event within the global context and a perfectly calibrated response in terms of immediate aid, medium-term reconstruction, and long-term prevention/amelioration of future events. Then all nations and groups of people, less burdened by the fear of disaster, can be uplifted to make their own distinctive contribution to the whole.

1.Reliefweb is part of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, which plays a major role in global disaster relief.