When Disaster Strikes.The United Nations Response to Natural Disasters

UN Chronicle, September 1985 | Go to article overview
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When Disaster Strikes.The United Nations Response to Natural Disasters


When disaster strikes . . .

In the early hours of Sunday, 30 October 1983, an earthquake measuring 7.1 on the Richter scale hit the mountainous Erzurum region of eastern Turkey. Whole villages were demolished, more than 1,346 people were killed--nearly twice as many as in the well-known 1906 San Francisco earthquake--33,000 were left homeless, and roads and communications were disrupted, cutting off the entire region from the outside world.

Within hours of the first reports of the earthquake reaching the outside world, an official from the Office of the United Nations Disaster Relief Co-ordinator in Geneva was on his way. His mission: to assess the damage and estimate the relief requirements of the victims. His reports from Turkey formed the basis both of the United Nations Disaster Relief Co-ordinator's appeal and of the subsequent situation reports which were sent out to all major relief donors of the world. These reports gave a graphic picture of the destruction in the region and the changing relief requirements of the victims. Contributions received in response to that appeal amounted to over $21 million, and covered all relief needs within one month of the earthquake.

This is but one example of how the Office of the United Nations Disaster Relief Co-ordinator, known as UNDRO, answers the distressingly frequent number of disasters in the world.

Natural disasters have been called the greatest destroyer of lives, goods and property after war. On an average, 20 major disasters of various types occur in the world each year. In the dozen years from 1970 to 1982 alone, according to United Nations estimates, over 1 million persons were killed and property worth $46 billion was destroyed in cyclones, hurricanes and tornadoes, earthquakes, floods and other disasters. In that period, windstorms took 354,000 lives and caused $12.7 billion in material damage; earthquakes killed 442,000 persons and did $18.6 billion in damage; floods killed 64,000 and destroyed $9 billion in property.

By its mandate, the Office of the United Nations Disaster Relief Co-ordinator is the focal point, within the United Nations system of organizations, for disaster relief matters. In a computerized Co-ordination Centre at its Geneva headquarters, UNDRO's staff receive and quickly process data on large-scale emergency situations of all kinds--natural or man-made. Often this work is being done even while disasters threaten, for one of UNDRO's functions is to try to take advantage of the information provided by early warning systems. Its staff of 50 people co-ordinates the relief activities of United Nations agencies with those of other intergovernmental, governmental and voluntary agency efforts, so as to try to ensure that the right relief items reach the right place, in the right quantity, at the right time.

Unlike many other United Nations bodies, UNDRO itself is not a supplier of goods and services. Its main concern is information: supplying urgently needed assessments of emergency requirements and proposing solutions to problems. Processing data for large, extremely complex emergencies where a variety of factors and tangled logistics, and often more than one country, are involved, it relays this information to those concerned--the actual and potential donors, officials and the international community in general--letting them know how much aid is needed and what kind. Thus it helps to expedite delivery of aid, prevents waste, and tries to ensure that no essential relief item is overlooked.

HISTORY AND MANDATE OF UNDRO

The history of disaster relief efforts by the community of nations goes back to 1927, when the International Relief Union was established under the aegis of the League of Nations. After the Second World War, several relief agencies were established by the United Nations, including the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration which ceased activities in 1947, the International Refugee Organization and its successor, the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) and the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF).

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