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Column: Women, the elderly, and the disabled are disproportionately hit by natural disasters

Surely powerful natural events like cyclones and tsunamis should be indiscriminate in their destruction? The figures tell a different story.

Dom Hunt

IN 1991, A tropical cyclone killed between 138,000 and 150,000 people in Bangladesh; 90% of the casualties were women and children.

The 2004 South-East Asian tsunami killed 220,000 people. Up to four times more women died than men. Why should this be the case? Surely powerful natural events like cyclones and tsunamis should be indiscriminate; claiming the lives of men and women in equal numbers?

To understand these puzzling figures, we must understand the causes of vulnerability, some of which are inequalities in the affected populations. Among the many reasons why women suffer greater impacts than men in disasters are that women are disproportionately burdened with looking after children and livestock, women are less likely to be given early warnings than men, and that women are less likely to be taught how to swim.

Today is International Day for Disaster Reduction (IDDR). To commemorate this day I have put together a short a video in which I explain what Disaster Risk Reduction (DRR) is in simple terms which you can view here:


In this video, I use the analogy of a rock falling off a cliff as a hazard and explain what we could do about it in terms of preparedness, mitigation and advocacy.

I often use this analogy in training courses as I find it helps to explain concepts using scenarios that we can all relate to and understand. This works better than expecting people to understand what it’s like to experience an earthquake or flash flood – which they may not have seen first-hand – but we can all relate to the feeling of danger when passing underneath a precariously balanced rock on a cliff.

The loose rock is only dangerous to people who are underneath it, standing on it, or in the path of a rock fall that may occur. The exposure to a hazard obviously increases the risk someone may be in, and simply moving out of the way of a hazard immediately reduces risk.

This sounds simple, but there’s a lot more to it than that. What if the dangerous rock is above the only place suitable for building houses? What if the people living there have no means of moving somewhere else?

What we find is that even if exposure to a hazard is the same across a population, some people are more susceptible to harm than others. The examples above of the disproportionate impacts that women suffer in mega-disasters illustrate this point very clearly.

Coming back to the scenario of the falling rock, a young fit man may hear or see the rock fall, and quickly run into safety. The mother with young children would be slower, as she’d be getting her kids out of harm’s way simultaneously. Elderly people may struggle to see or hear the rock, or to rapidly get out of the way.

It is obvious that elderly people would be more vulnerable to the falling rock, and we can easily identify why. The fundamental starting point of DRR is risk analysis – we couldn’t hope to know what to do about disaster risk until we understand what the hazards are, who is vulnerable to them, and what the capacities are for addressing risk.

In Concern, we undertake analyses of vulnerability in order to identify which types of people are more likely to sustain damages during disasters and why. Some groups are commonly identified, including the elderly, the disabled, the sick, pregnant and lactating women and the poorest households.

We focus our efforts on these vulnerable groups, and to do so effectively, we need to understand their particular constraints and listen to their priorities. Of course we do this because we see vulnerable people as having the same human rights as everyone else, and recognise that some people need more assistance than others. Elderly people may need some extra assistance to get to a cyclone shelter, or may need food and water being brought to them instead of expecting them to collect it from a public distribution site along with everyone else.

But there are practical reasons for doing this also – vulnerable people have huge amounts to offer to the process of risk reduction. Who better to teach safe behaviour to children than mothers? Who else has a better understanding of the history of disaster events in an area than the elderly? Who can better tell you if an evacuation route is easy to use than a disabled person?

This year’s International Day for Disaster Reduction theme is ‘resilience for life’. This focuses on the importance of including people of all ages, including older people, in reducing risks associated with disasters, and how they contribute to better understanding of and planning to address disaster risk in their communities.

When I facilitate any sort of risk analysis process overseas, I always specifically ask for older people to join the conversation. We need to know their histories so as to determine if hazards are increasing in frequency or not. We all need to hear their stories of how they survived previous disasters, and what the community’s strengths and weaknesses are. We need to tap into the wealth of experience that the elderly have; they are the foundation upon which we can build a more resilient future for our children.

Dom Hunt, Disaster Risk Reduction Adviser, Concern Worldwide.

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Dom Hunt

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