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Disasters

'Silent disasters' rage under the radar

The International Red Cross/Red Crescent says nine in 10 catastrophes go completely unnoticed in the wider world. Calamities like Hurricane Sandy in the US get full coverage as the world overlooks "silent disasters."

Waves, brought by Hurricane Sandy, crash on a house in the Caribbean Terrace neighborhood (photo: AP Photo/Collin Reid)

Jamaika Sturm Hurrikane Sandy

As 91 percent of the disasters the Red Cross and Red Crescent respond to are not reported on by media, the public is unaware of the vast amount of people suffering from small- and medium-scale catastrophes. The International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent societies (IFRC) has teamed up with the European Commission's Humanitarian Aid and Civil Protection and other partners in Europe to shed light on the plight of forgotten calamities. The IFRC has launched a campaign to raise the volume on "silent disasters."

DW: How is it that nine out of 10 disasters worldwide go unnoticed and unreported?

Elizabeth Soulie: There can be a number of reasons why disasters go unnoticed or are forgotten. Some disasters are very small, and they go under the radar of the media and even under the radar of some of the humanitarian partners who support response to major disasters. They are just not big enough for people to notice. But it can also be that disasters are taking place in countries where the public and donors have fatigue - where they often hear of violence and poverty and terrible stories from these countries, but they don't really interest people.

One of these countries at the moment is the Central African Republic. We are seeing an influx of refugees from the Central African Republic fleeing violence into Democratic Republic of Congo, where there is nothing for them. They are in a very isolated area. These sort of disasters, even if they are reported, don't necessarily interest donors and the public.

A major earthquake or a tsunami will hit the headlines immediately and raise the interest of donors and the public alike. Other major disasters - take the example of food insecurity, which is a complex disaster. It doesn't have a sudden onset. There are many reasons - structural and geographical - why there is a drought and food insecurity, but they don't attract media and public attention in the same way as sudden disasters.

Refugees arrive at the Gendrassa camp in Maban, Upper Nile State, South Sudan, (photo: REUTERS/Margaret Aguirre/International Medical Corps/Handout

Complex disasters and conflicts usually don't make international news headlines

How is it that the media gave heavy coverage to Hurricane Sandy's devastation in the US last October, which killed 130 people, but virtually ignored a thunderstorm in the Philippines that killed more than 1,000 people two months later?

The media presents stories that are interesting to people. A lot of people want to know what's happening to New York City when Hurricane Sandy threatens the city. So that's where the attention was turned. People are less interested to know that at the same time, Sandy had hit the Caribbean - Haiti, Cuba, Jamaica were all quite badly hit. There were a number of casualties in those countries as well, but they didn't make headlines. And I think the fact the Philippines is hit by several cyclones and storms a year, the fact that the media do not cover this all the time - you get used to the disasters.

You are trying to raise awareness for these silent disasters and the many people who suffer from them. For instance, in Uganda people have been fighting Ebola, one of the most lethal viruses for which there's no cure.

When responding to Ebola the speed of action [is vital]; We can't sit around for two or three weeks looking for funding. It is very important that immediate action is taken where there is an outbreak, to stop its spreading and to treat the people who are affected, but also to raise awareness of how the disease spreads.

The outbreak in Uganda was contained. At the moment, we are carrying out an evaluation. One of the things we are looking at is how we can protect the volunteers who put themselves in danger to respond in the case of an outbreak of highly contagious diseases. One of the outcomes of the evaluation will be guidelines to other national societies in Africa who respond to outbreaks of diseases like Ebola or Marburg disease, which is similar, so that they will have the necessary systems in place for protecting volunteers.

Women react as they flee from their flooded area in Jakarta (photo: REUTERS/Enny Nuraheni (INDONESIA)

Major disasters like floods, hurricanes and cyclones are more likely to catch people's attention

What determines which of the few disasters the public will learn of?

It can be the scale of the disaster, but it can also be its sudden-onset nature. Media and the public tend to hear about earthquakes, very widespread floods or hurricanes and cyclones. They are spectacular, they are sudden onset, they have a big impact. And these are the ones that do get picked up. [It's the same with] the cyclone at the moment in Madagascar: The latest figures we have are that about 22,000 people are affected and 13 people dead. But we have not heard a lot about that cyclone in the European media.

How does the Red Cross/Red Crescent draw attention to these forgotten topics?

We work with our partners, like the EU, to ensure that response is fast through their support to the Disaster Relief Emergency Fund. At the same time, we use our knowledge of these disasters, of these most disaster-prone and disaster-risk communities, to invest in preparedness and resilience building. And there they also partner with us. To reduce the effects of disaster it's very good to invest in reducing the risks. There are some very simple things we can do to ensure that floods and cyclones have less impact on the people who are affected by them.

It's two-fold: It's ensuring that we don't forget them, that we respond fast, but also that we use our knowledge of these disasters to build the capacity of the communities to respond themselves and to reduce their risks to these disasters.

Elizabeth Soulie manages the Disaster Relief Emergency Fund of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent societies.

Interview: Sarah Steffen

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