Erin Gray: Preparing for disasters

The future of charity work in the developing world must be "disaster prevention", not just picking up the pieces afterwards, says Erin Gray

Over the last year it's been hard to miss the images of disaster-struck families on TV and in the papers, whether from the earthquake in Haiti or the floods in Pakistan. We all want to help where we can, but in the wake of the recession, rather than just reacting to disasters shouldn't we take a tip from the Scouts and help these communities "be prepared" in the first place?

The cost of launching full-scale humanitarian operations to help communities devastated by earthquakes, floods and tsunamis can be massive, and the rate of disasters is certainly showing no sign of slowing down. At Mercy Corps' European headquarters here in Edinburgh and through our teams around the world, we've seen the number of people affected by natural disasters triple in the last 30 years.

As an international humanitarian charity we respond where our help is needed most, but we know that many of the communities most at risk are trapped in a cycle of disasters, poverty and despair. Communities in parts of Indonesia, Nepal, Sri Lanka and Pakistan, for example, face the constant threat of natural disaster. They live in fear of emergencies that can strike at any time, but often don't have the knowledge or funds to do anything about it. They are left defenceless and are hit again and again with wide-spread devastation. We want to change things around. We don't just want to help after earthquakes hit or floods strike. We want to break the cycle and help communities prepare for disaster, get back on their feet and take control of their own lives.

We can't prevent earthquakes, floods, tsunamis and droughts from happening, but we can make sure that people at risk know what to do when they happen. Like gritting the path from your door before ice hits to avoid a nasty fall here in the UK, there are lots of simple, inexpensive and commonsense measures that can be taken to help communities at risk prepare for inevitable disasters, limit the damage they cause and the amount of outside help needed.

We aren't talking about massive expensive projects or amazing, high-profile innovations - just a bit of prior planning. Things like teaching local people basic first aid and what to do in an emergency, or helping a community find ways to earn income and grow food that is less likely to be destroyed by disasters. They're simple but effective, and can make a real difference.

In tsunami-prone Indonesia, for example, Mercy Corps has handed out thousands of maps showing safe zones for local people to head to when tsunami warnings are issued, as well as signposting evacuation routes and setting up groups of local volunteers to make sure everyone can evacuate safely. In Nepal, where floods hit every year, we've helped the local community learn to monitor river levels and create an early warning system, as well as build natural flood barriers, reclaim flooded land and grow crops that can be replanted and harvested quickly after the floods.

These measures help local people help themselves, and break the cycle of devastation and fear caused by natural disasters. By giving people a hand-up, rather than only a hand-out, we help them build up their own knowledge and capabilities, so that they can regain control of their own lives and communities and need less support from us in future.

In these tough economic times, it's also worth noting that as well as saving lives, this kind of support is much less expensive than responding after emergencies have struck. The UN estimates that every pound spent on what it calls "disaster risk reduction" like this saves seven pounds that otherwise would be spent on aid after emergencies.

Natural disasters are inevitable - and with the effects of climate change, may even get more frequent - but we can't continue to stand by and wait for them to happen before we respond. By thinking ahead and empowering local people we can save lives, money, and make a real difference where it's needed most. We can make sure that when disasters hit, devastation doesn't.

&#149 Erin Gray is a spokeswoman for Edinburgh-based Mercy Corps. For more information on Mercy Corps and its work preparing for natural disasters, visit

Biggest disasters of 21st century so far:

January 2011

&#149 Massive floods hit Queensland in Australia, affecting an area the size of South Africa. More than 6 billion of damage caused.

July-August 2010

&#149 Floods triggered by heavier-than-normal monsoon rains hit north-west Pakistan. By the time the waters began to recede in late August, more than 160,000 square kilometres of land — about one-fifth of the country — was under water. More than 1700 people were killed and 17.2 million people have been affected.

January 12, 2010

&#149 More than 230,000 people were killed when a 7.0-magnitude earthquake struck Haiti. More than 1 million remain homeless.

May 12, 2008

&#149 70,000 people were killed and 18,000 people were reported missing after a 7.9-magnitude earthquake struck Sichuan, China.

May 3, 2008

&#149 Cyclone Nargis, swept along by winds that exceeded 190 km/h and waves six metres high, struck the Burmese peninsula and may have left as many as 100,000 dead.

October 8, 2005

&#149 At least 80,000 people were killed and three million left homeless after a quake struck the mountainous Kashmir district in Pakistan.

December 26, 2004

&#149 A magnitude 9.0 quake struck off the coast of Sumatra, triggering tsunamis that swept through the coastal regions of a dozen countries bordering the Indian Ocean. The death toll has been estimated at between 225,000 and 275,000.

December 26, 2003

&#149 An earthquake devastated the ancient city of Bam, in central Iran, leaving between 31,000 and 43,000 people dead.

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