The International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement is the largest humanitarian organisation in the world, with almost every country having its own Red Cross or Red Crescent society. Local volunteers are the lifeblood of the organisation, always on the frontline and the first to respond to disasters.
But when vast regions are devastated by disaster – like the earthquake in China which affected eight provinces in 2008 – local Red Cross staff and volunteers will also be affected. Though this may not stop them responding to the needs of the people around them, they may also request international assistance.
The British Red Cross has teams of specially trained people who are ready respond to disasters anywhere in the world at a moment's notice. Our staff specialise in logistics, mass sanitation, livelihoods and psychosocial support, and other Red Cross and Red Crescent National Societies provide teams trained in water and sanitation, hospitals, basic health and IT.
When they arrive in the field, the teams work together in a comprehensive relief effort. After the Haiti earthquake in January 2010, for example, Red Cross and Red Crescent National Societies from around the world sent teams to provide healthcare and distribute relief.
Our logistics emergency response unit (ERU) plays a vital role in getting relief to people who need it. They set up systems and warehouses for the relief supplies coming into a disaster zone, and ensure those items are accounted for and sent out in an organised way. When infrastructure, like airports and sea ports, is damaged, their job becomes even more important.
Having a wealth of logistics experts in the UK means the British Red Cross is also able to respond quickly to emergencies at home. When hundreds of thousands of people in Gloucestershire lost their water supply following floods in July 2007, teams of logisticians worked round the clock for weeks to ensure vulnerable people had ample drinking water.
Reducing the spread of disease after a disaster is key to saving lives, so in early 2007 the British Red Cross began training staff in mass sanitation and hygiene promotion. The mass sanitation ERU was first deployed to Pakistan after floods swept through Sindh and Baluchistan provinces in the summer of 2007. The teams spent two months working with volunteers and staff from the Pakistan Red Crescent, where they provided emergency sanitation facilities for displaced people, promoted hygiene and distributed soap to families.
Since then, the mass sanitation unit has helped displaced families stay healthy after disasters around the world – from the cholera crisis in Zimbabwe to the Haiti earthquake.
Livelihoods and cash grants
After a disaster, people try to cope however they can. Sometimes their coping strategies will make it more difficult for them in the long term. For example, a family may end up selling their cow, which is their main source of livelihood, to pay for a funeral.
We have teams that can support families with the means to stand on their own feet earlier in the recovery process. For example, a cash grant to individuals and groups can help them replace equipment and the animals they depend on. They may invest in a new sewing machine, pay for a funeral, or buy seeds and tools.
It's more than handing out cash, though. Our teams train people in how to manage their resources and improve their economic security.
We also have an agreement with the Foreign & Commonwealth Office (FCO) to provide psychosocial support to British citizens affected by disasters overseas. The FCO, which is responsible for providing consular assistance to Britons overseas, can request that we send delegates abroad to offer practical and emotional support to survivors and bereaved relatives.
Psychosocial support teams have supported Britons abroad on several occasions, such as after the Asian tsunami in 2004, triple bombings in Dahab, Egypt in 2006, and a fatal plane crash in Phuket, Thailand in September 2007.