What does it take to prepare for a humanitarian emergency?

Here are five ways that UNICEF and the World Food Programme (WFP) are working together to ensure countries are better prepared for the moment when disaster strikes.

1. Keeping life-saving supplies close at hand
Certain parts of the world are prone to floods, droughts, earthquakes and other crises. In these areas, one of the best ways to ensure that life-saving supplies are available as soon as possible after a disaster happens is to pre-position, or stockpile them in advance.

We saw the benefits of this approach in 2014 in Chad, where UNICEF was quickly able to distribute materials such as health supplies, soap, and water purification tablets. This helped to prevent small-scale cholera outbreaks from spreading into a wider epidemic. Read more about our response to the cholera outbreak in Chad.

2. Strengthening systems to respond rapidly in emergencies
When an emergency occurs, it is vital to have the right systems and infrastructure in place and swiftly available. This includes mobilizing personnel and funding, as well as logistical support. A basic requirement is for real time information – both from those people affected by an emergency as well as for them. One way of doing this is through mobile phone-based communication tools such as RapidSMS, an innovative technology used by UNICEF.

Another important element is to ensure that infrastructure – for example an airstrip – is available in areas prone to emergencies, so they can serve as a logistical lifeline when a crisis hits. In eastern Chad, WFP rehabilitated the Tissi airstrip, making it possible for humanitarian flights to land even during the rainy season in one of the country’s most remote areas.

The Tissi airstrip in Chad. (c) UNICEF/Mari Denby

3. Training emergency responders
UNICEF and WFP train staff and partners in emergency preparedness and response, to improve their capacity to respond when the situation arises. This training also includes knowledge on how to build on already-existing coping mechanisms that exist in the affected communities. An example of this kind of training is an emergency simulation, in which participants learn and prepare for emergencies by role-playing and taking part in real-time scenarios. With the backing of UK Aid, UNICEF and WFP organized 14 simulations in 12 countries in 2014.

Tents housing families displaced by Cyclone Fanele stand along a stretch of sand in the city of Morondava, Madagascar. © UNICEF/NYHQ2009-1165/Ramanankoto
Tents housing families displaced by Cyclone Fanele stand along a stretch of sand in the city of Morondava, Madagascar. © UNICEF/NYHQ2009-1165/Ramanankoto

4. Supporting stronger national preparedness systems
In Madagascar, UNICEF has placed technical experts to help government offices manage regular and emergency programmes. In Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, government staff were trained to work effectively together in case of cross-border emergencies. The Government of Myanmar received UNICEF and WFP support to strengthen its logistics and supply procurement. In Pakistan, the government was assisted in developing disaster-awareness materials including storybooks which enable teachers to educate children about the risks they may face.

In Pakistan, a man carrying a young girl walks through floodwaters in Punjab Province. © UNICEF/NYHQ2014-1556/Zaidi
In Pakistan, a man carrying a young girl walks through floodwaters in Punjab Province. © UNICEF/NYHQ2014-1556/Zaidi

5. Building the case that preparedness saves lives, time and money
UNICEF and WFP believe that early preparedness not only saves lives, but also reduces costs and increases the speed of humanitarian response. And we are currently working to demonstrate this, using data from global- and country-level operations. A joint study on the return on investment for humanitarian preparedness is due to be released in early 2015.

The UK Government has contributed ($30 million or about GBP 20 million) to support efforts by UNICEF and WFP to strengthen emergency preparedness.

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