Ahead of the three-year anniversary of the Haiti earthquake on January 12, Baroness Valerie Amos, Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator at the United Nations, explains what lessons have been learned from catastrophes of the past. 

What kind of disaster are you most worried about?
It could be something sudden, like the kind of major earthquakes we have seen in Pakistan or Myanmar. Or it could be a disaster that occurs more slowly, like the drought in the Horn of Africa in 2010, or in 2012, when drought in nine countries affected 18 million people in West Africa. Then there are the consequences of a conflict, as we have seen in Syria, which has serious implications both within the country and beyond.

We need to be prepared for what might be the next crisis, the next huge earthquake or typhoon. Even though we have systems that help us prepare, the thing about natural disasters is that they take you by surprise, they overwhelm you.

Which parts of the world are most vulnerable?
It is not just a question of which region, but where exactly these things strike. One of the reasons that the earthquake in Haiti was so devastating was that it happened in a city environment. A disaster could hit a country with chronic vulnerability, or it could hit a robust country in unexpected ways. If you look at what happened in Japan, the earthquake was even stronger than the one in Haiti, but Japan is well prepared for earthquakes and it was the tsunami that caused the most damage.

If something on the scale of the Haiti earthquake were to happen again, how would the situation unfold? What would be different?
First of all, we would get an alert, and then we would immediately try to find out the scale and depth of the problem. Depending on the country affected, we may or may not have the capacity already over there to start responding. If not, we have teams of people ready to be sent out at a moment’s notice.

On the back of the lessons learned from the Haiti earthquake, we have made some changes on an organizational level. We have a roster of senior level people ready to be deployed. The main humanitarian organizations meet within a very short period of time, and if it is what we call a “level three” – a major disaster – we have a rapid response mechanism to get the right people at the right level working with national governments.

How do you prepare for this sort of event?
One example is to use simulations, which we practiced recently, where we were given a specific disaster unfolding in real time and we had to act on the data and then glean lessons from how it went afterwards. We feel it is very important to improve the timeliness and effectiveness of the response. We cannot stop disasters happening, but we can make sure our response is as effective and swift as possible.

What are the most difficult obstacles in your path in terms of making sure aid reaches those who need it?
It entirely depends on where you are. If it is a vulnerable country with weak infrastructure and poor roads, it could be the difficulty of trucking of flying in supplies. Access can be a huge issue. If you have millions of people who are on the move across huge areas, it can be very difficult to help them. Often displaced people are reluctant to move again, as they want to find ways of protecting whatever they have managed to bring with them.

Typically, who feels the impact the most following a disaster?
Ordinary people – men, women and children – are always the most vulnerable, especially when they become targets of violence. In camp situations, women and children face particular difficulties and we need to make sure that we get assistance to these people.

How does it feel to be on the ground in the aftermath of a disaster?
Sometimes people forget that there is not necessarily any electricity or running water, and that our staff are living and working in extremely difficult conditions.

What kind of measures can be put in place to better prepare for disasters?
Depending on the area and the kind of threat, there are various early warning systems, whether it is a tsunami alert or a volcano watch, as well as a whole number of measures to help make households and communities more resilient.

Have you ever felt personally at risk going into a disaster zone?
I am very well looked after in terms of safety, although a couple of times, going into a situation that is particularly vulnerable and difficult does give you pause for thought. What is important to stress is how hard it is for the ordinary people caught up in these things; they have had to leave their homes, they have been separated from their families, they may be sleeping outside. We should not forget what that feels like.

Author: Baroness Valerie Amos is a Member of the World Economic Forum’s Global Agenda Council on Catastrophic Risks.

This week, the Global Risks 2013 report was published.

Image: A woman sits in front of the ruins of the Haiti Cathedral REUTERS/Jorge Silva