Laurel Stone, Young Voices Blogger

In the past month, international media compiled devastating pictures from the Philippines in the aftermath of Typhoon Haiyan. Humanitarian aid agencies and even the US military are scrambling to help the country stabilize by delivering much needed rescue services. Despite international preparation for these types of disasters, the unfolding chaos on the ground illuminates a need to create more efficient systems for disaster preparedness and response, especially in regards to global health security.

Natural disasters provide a perfect breeding ground for global health risks. Demolished infrastructure, absence of local governance, and limited access for humanitarian aid workers create a barrage of health concerns. The Haiti earthquake in 2010 demonstrated just how difficult a cholera outbreak can be to contain once released, a hazard the Philippines could also face in coming months. As climate change increases these potential environmental threats, global health implications should be taken into deeper consideration as prevention and risk reduction strategies are created.

Finding a strategy for handling emergency preparedness is not a new idea. Multiple agencies have attempted to understand how to best respond when a natural disaster occurs. The Hyogo Framework for Action, initiated by the United Nations in 2005, began to set the standard for a multifaceted approach in disaster risk reduction. The framework highlighted the intersection between climate change and socio-economic development indicators, like health capacity, as key factors in risk prevention. It prioritizes the institutionalization of development policies at local, national, and international levels in order to create the infrastructure necessary to best prepare for natural disasters. Yet many national governments do not have the authoritative capacity for ensuring accountability to the guidelines. Furthermore, the Mid-Term Review of the framework found that Hyogo has not been applied holistically, with difficulties arising in the coordination of this resource-intensive plan.

Other international organizations also address the health-specific factors in disaster preparedness. The World Health Organization (WHO) released a new Risk Reduction and Emergency Preparedness Strategy this past spring, which outlines national capacity-building of health systems to encourage the creation of preparedness plans. Objectives of this strategy include advocating for changes in disaster response, developing training resources for local and national authorities, and monitoring progress in WHO’s member states. However, this new framework could easily fall prey to the same weaknesses as Hyogo, particularly since it appropriates a development mandate that other UN agencies also seek to control.

Both frameworks offer policy guidance for better handling natural disasters; however, continued problems arise from the inability to holistically implement them at all levels of governance. The national level particularly creates difficulties in countries with weak infrastructures because governments must implement capacity building strategies that target both health systems and other vital socio-economic infrastructures. The ultimate weakness arises in the international level as organizations cannot ensure that capacity building is actually occurring. Prevention and preparation for natural disasters is an important goal but unachievable without the crucial components of coordination, accountability, and holistic implementation.

In the case of Typhoon Haiyan, the US had a boots-on-the-ground response that will not always happen in other regions of the world. The typhoon is a reminder to the international community that natural disasters can occur at any time. In order to keep improving the response to such events, continued investment in more efficient prevention frameworks of capacity building will be crucial in keeping health risks caused by natural disasters at a minimum.