accessibility & help

Technology alone is not the answer to saving lives

30 October 2009

Woman and child in front of wreckageTalia Frenkel/American Red CrossOne month on from a series of disasters which killed thousands in Asia Pacific – the most disaster-prone region in the world – questions are being asked about why more deaths could not have been prevented. Mike Goodhand, British Red Cross head of disaster management, explains how we need to be better prepared:

Over the past few weeks, a massive global emergency response operation was mounted to help those affected by the typhoons, flooding, earthquakes and tsunami that devastated the Asia Pacific region.

But questions remain about why some of the communities affected were not effectively warned. In a world of technological advances – when experts predict tsunamis and typhoons before they occur – why do the messages not reach everyone at risk in time to get them out of harm’s way?

Reducing vulnerability

The International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement has been active for many years in reducing communities’ vulnerability to natural disasters. This was put into practice when the tsunami hit Samoa, as scores of Red Cross volunteers took to the streets to warn people in coastal settlements to stay clear of beaches.

These dedicated, trained, and prepared volunteers helped evacuate people in and around the island of Apia, opening five temporary shelter sites across Samoa. In Vietnam, Red Cross volunteers also sprang into action, helping evacuate more than 160,000 people before Typhoon Ketsana hit.

This approach – ensuring people within communities are trained to respond to impending disaster – was crucial because technology alone will not save lives.

Early warning, early action

In many poverty-stricken areas there is no access to TV or radio to help communicate warning messages. Aid agencies must work with communities to find out which methods of communication work for them at the time of an emergency and run simulation exercises to put this into practice. Often text messages or even sending people out into the streets with megaphones, as was the case in these emergencies, prove most successful.

But despite the progress made the number of lives lost in these disasters underlines that much more needs to be done. Early warning, early action in disaster-prone countries needs to be seen as a mindset, not a mechanism or technology, and works best when it spans timescales, anticipating disaster by days, hours, months, years and even decades.

It must also be firmly linked to early action by decision-makers, and must cover ‘the last mile’ – linking early warning mechanisms not just to the most ‘at risk’ communities, but to the most vulnerable people within those communities.

Saving lives

Strengthening community ability to minimise the impact of disasters is a concrete way to save lives and better protect livelihoods and development within the poorest countries. Early warning and early action is also more cost effective than traditional disaster response. It literally saves more lives per pound spent: public money buys four times as much humanitarian ‘impact’ if spent on preparation and reducing risks, rather than on relief items.

Rightly, we are currently focussed on meeting immediate emergency needs in the aftermath of these disasters. 

But we must take time to reflect and learn. We have made great progress in ensuring early warning and early action is part of our programmes in countries which are vulnerable to emergencies. But we need more support to the Hyogo framework that integrates governments, non-governmental organisations and most importantly, local communities. Sadly, experience has taught us this won’t be the last natural disaster in this part of the world. Next time we must all be better prepared.

Read stories from the people we're helping in Indonesia