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Challenges in humanitarian aid and disaster relief (HADR) missions and Operations and Technology requirements

International reinsurer Munich RE has projected that worldwide losses due to 2017’s string of natural disasters will reach $330 billion, with only $135 billion of those costs insured. Hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria alone, which left behind $215 billion in damages, made 2017 the costliest hurricane season on record. This year’s global losses were almost twice the 10-year, inflation-adjusted average of $170 billion, and insured losses were nearly three times the annual average of $49 billion. U.S. disasters made up 50% of all losses versus its usual 32% share. The devastating wildfire season in California drove insured losses to around $8 billion. And at least five severe thunderstorms across the country, accompanied by tornadoes and hail, caused insured losses of more than $1 billion each

In Asia, heavy monsoon rains that lasted about four weeks longer than usual killed 2,700 people and caused $3.5 billion in total losses. The Terai lowlands in Nepal, home to almost half the Nepalese population, were most severely hit. In Europe, unusually low temperatures in April caused billions of dollars in damage to farmers, shrinking some harvests by 50 percent. The damage was especially costly because crops had already grown robustly in an otherwise warm spring.

In India Bihar floods affected 19 districts of North Bihar causing death of 514 people. Mumbai Flood refers to the flooding that occurred on August 29, 2017 following heavy rain on 29 August 2017 in Mumbai. Transport systems were unavailable through parts of the city as trains and roadways were shut. Power was cut-off from various parts of the city to prevent electrocution. Ockhi was the most intense tropical cyclone in the Arabian Sea since Cyclone Megh in 2015.  More than 245 fatalities were caused by Ockhi, including 218 in India and 27 in Sri Lanka and it left at least 551 people, mainly fishermen, missing.

On 29 September 2017, a stampede broke out at the Elphinstone station in Mumbai, India.  23 people were killed and 39 others were injured in the stampede. A large number of child deaths occurred at the state-run BRD Medical College hospital in Gorakhpur city of Uttar Pradesh, India. As of 2 September 2017, 1,317 children have died at the hospital.

The risk of disasters is accumulating rapidly, with climate change increasing the intensity and frequency of extreme weather events and urbanization exposing greater numbers of people to their impacts. Over the last decade, China, the United States, the Philippines, Indonesia and India constitute together the top 5 countries that are most frequently hit by natural disasters. Each year, natural disasters, compounded by climate change and conflict, cause more than $500 billion in losses.

Disaster Management

Disaster Management can be defined as the organization and management of resources and responsibilities for dealing with all humanitarian aspects of emergencies, in particular preparedness, response and recovery in order to lessen the impact of disasters.

Preparedness  refer to  activities prior to a disaster. Examples: preparedness plans; emergency exercises/training; warning systems. Response  are the activities during a disaster. Examples: public warning systems; emergency operations; search and rescue. Recovery refer to activities following a disaster. Examples: temporary housing; claims processing and grants; long-term medical care and counseling. Finally  Mitigation refer to activities that reduce the effects of disasters. Examples: building codes and zoning; vulnerability analyses; public education.

Disasters like this can cripple any country and erase hard-fought development gains. To prevent such devastation, whether social or economic, an effective framework for recovery must be in place before a disaster strikes, says World Bank. “Put simply, resilience is about people’s capacity to anticipate, prepare for, withstand and recover from a range of shocks and stresses, without compromising their long-term prospects.”

“While technology cannot address all barriers to resilience, it is a powerful enabler in strengthening resilience characteristics and empowering communities.” “Communities and households with access to accurate and timely information, good levels of health care, social support networks and economic opportunities are less susceptible to hazards and faster to recover from shocks and stressors.”


Challenges in humanitarian aid and disaster relief (HADR) Missions

In the destructive aftermath of a natural catastrophe, humanitarian aid and disaster relief (HADR) teams are entrusted with the responsibility of rescuing victims, and providing them with immediate relief. .The severe conditions in a disaster site present many challenges to first responders, aid agencies, local authorities, and victims in terms of  communication, operations, and survival.

a. Physical Destruction

The most apparent effect of any disaster is the massive physical destruction of the site. Depending on the magnitude of the disaster, physical structures such as apartments, buildings, businesses, hospitals, and government buildings might no longer be safe for shelter. Earthquakes might cause structures to be unstable, and flooded locations make buildings inaccessible and uninhabitable. Roads may become impassable, and access to safe locations and aid support becomes a challenge for both the aid provider and the victim. When using physical means of travel such as walking, long distances make it extremely difficult to track aid resources and ensure that people are getting food and guidance (Murphy, 2010).


b. Utilities and Communication Systems

Basic and vital utilities are often severely degraded or completely ruined. Electrical power might be sporadic and telephone landlines might not work if cables and communication towers are destroyed. In the case of floods and tsunamis, the vast quantity of water damages electrical and communication equipment, which need to be replaced completely in order to restore communications. Sometimes, even the most reliable systems, such as the voice radio networks used by police and emergency services, are knocked offline. These systems rely on terrestrial radio repeaters that are vulnerable to sundry disasters, and when they are online, the radio systems of different agencies are often not interoperable, meaning cross-organizational communication is difficult (Meyer, 2011).

Most of the time, different agencies have to swap radios or rely on device or network-dependent methods such as telephone and e-mail. During the Haitian earthquake, the informational infrastructure of the Haitian technological-information network was totally nonexistent. In addition, the only fiber-optic cable connected to Haiti was severed (Morris, 2011). Engineers had to rush to restore land communication to ensure that aid agencies had a reliable communication means. It is important to note that wireless networks might generally be less affected, as base stations are usually farther distributed and satellite networks are not impacted.


c. Hygiene and Sanitation

In floods and tsunamis, sanitary problems become even more pronounced and problematic as waste products and debris are washed through city streets and into buildings. Maintaining a hygienic and safe working and living environment for responders and victims becomes a challenge, as massive cleanup is necessary to decontaminate the area. Sanitary problems begin to manifest themselves in terms of rapid spread of disease and increased medical requirements for both aid workers and victims.


d. Language and Literacy

When disasters happen in nations where English is not the main spoken or written language, simple communication becomes a big obstacle and can slow down HADR operations severely. The situation becomes worse if the literacy rate is low and id agencies have difficulty communicating with the victims. In these instances, translators are urgently required, but they are often scarce in HADR operations. At the same time, because aid agencies come from all parts of the world, there might also be language problems between first responders, too.


e. Limited Time and Resources

HADR operations are extremely time critical and resource intensive. Rescue missions and medical emergencies demand immediate attention from aid agencies, and with limited resources, they are often working under the pressure of time.

Usually, the affected city is unable to cope with the magnitude of the problem after the disaster has crippled its resources, and can only wait for external aid to arrive. The burden is on the affected city to maximize its current aid capacity and on external agencies to deploy rapidly.


f. Lack of Command and Control

An extreme outpouring of aid and support, both internally and externally, often creates a chaotic working environment. Aid agencies often depend on the host nation’s support and guidance in order to conduct their operations effectively. This can
be in the form of area allocations, communications setup, resource management, and direction for the aid effort. However, because there are so many different stakeholders in HADR operations, the command and control of all agencies becomes a challenge, especially if the local government is not resilient and stable in the first place.


Integrated Needs for HADR success

The following needs are deemed to be vital for HADR success, from both the aid organization’s and victim’s perspective.


a. Supplies

Basic survival supplies such as clean water, food, and medical supplies are crucial in ensuring that the victims can overcome their situation and aid workers can sustain their operations in the harsh environment. These essentials are time critical and
must be provided as quickly as possible to the disaster site.


b. Infrastructure

Safe locations that provide shelter and warmth are needed to ensure the safety and survival of victims. At the same time, infrastructure is required for all agencies to organize themselves and conduct their relief efforts efficiently. In a chaotic and uncertain work setting, the identification and organization of safe and suitable infrastructure is paramount.


c. Information

There must be a two-way exchange of information between ground zero and all authorities and agencies in the HADR operation. The timeliness of information is crucial for swift and effectual decision making. Accurate and timely situational updates from both ends ensure that victims, relatives, aid agencies, and authorities share the same correct picture, and this can provide a form of psychological assurance to all affected parties. The control of information is equally significant in preventing information overload and ensuring that only the right, required material is communicated to the appropriate stakeholder. This requires proper organization and transparency in the sharing of information.


d. Communication Links

For information to be transmitted to and from a disaster site, strong communication links must be present in either land or wireless form. Without a robust communication means, information becomes outdated and worthless, since it cannot be shared in time.


e. Services

HADR operations require a wide range of services from various aid agencies, both local and external. These include  firefighting, medical assistance, ambulance transportation, debris removal, supply and logistical transportation, and search and rescue. These services are imperative in a HADR operation and must be provided in a well-timed manner to prevent overcrowding and chaos. More importantly, they must be organized to ensure efficiency in resource allocation and promptness in response.


f. Security

When a disaster happens, the security of the location is often compromised, because security forces are likewise affected and distracted by the disaster. In order for HADR operations to be conducted well, there must be strong security within the disaster location and all other operating environments. Aid operations are hampered when security problems take control of the situation. As such, policing and military action need to be established quickly to contain lawlessness and unrest and must be performed concurrently with aid operations. This will safeguard the victims and aid workers from potential obstacles to restoring normalcy.


References and Resources also include:

  1. Operational Effectiveness of Smartphones and Apps for Humanitarian Aid and Disaster Relief (HADR) Operations, A Systems Engineering Study, Chan, Wen Kai, Monterey, California. Naval Postgraduate School


About Rajesh Uppal

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