Disasters in built-up areas, like the one in Haiti in 2010, pose specific challenges (CREDIT: UN Photo-Logan Abassi)

Experts needed to assist urban disaster relief

Engineers expertise is being put to use helping humanitarian organisations deal with disasters in urban areas.

Disaster relief charity RedR has launched a programme that will draw on technical and engineering expertise from the private sector to help NGOs deal more effectively with the complexities posed by urban areas caught up in natural disasters.

Ready to Respond: Urban Disasters is a three-year project funded by Lloyd’s Charities Trust. It aims to address gaps in the specialist technical knowledge, skills and systems that relief agencies need when dealing with large-scale urban emergencies, especially in the fields of urban water supply and structural damage.

RedR project manager Toby Gould set out the three elements of the programme: reskilling existing humanitarian workers, recruiting senior professionals from business and academia who can provide short-term assistance after a disaster, and strengthening the organisation’s online technical support service.

Events in the last decade, especially the earthquakes in Haiti, Bam and Szechuan and the floods in Pakistan in 2010, have highlighted the difficulties of dealing with an emergency affecting a densely populated, built-up area.

Aid workers are trained to conduct on the spot assessments and improvise solutions to problems, working with community leaders. This approach works well in rural areas, but in a city the needs are different.

Gould explained: “Technology levels are much greater. An NGO worker may be quite happy to set up a small pumped water supply for 20,000 people [in a rural area], but when you get that number in an urban area you’re talking about much larger, more complex systems of water treatment and distribution.”

Providing shelter is equally challenging. “You’re also working a lot more closely with municipal authorities,” he pointed out, “and NGOs typically don’t have people with the skills for working at that kind of level.”

As well as providing additional training for humanitarian workers, RedR plans to recruit people with specific engineering skills in water and sanitation or construction and train them for deployment to cities when disaster hits.

“We’re looking for people who could go in to a water treatment works or look at structural safety of major administrative and health buildings, and to be able to make decisions that can make an impact very quickly - who can work with similarly skilled people from the municipal authorities or private water companies and have the respect that would allow them to direct funds and people into priority areas to get cities back up and running quickly,” Gould explained.

Inevitably, though, these professionals may find themselves faced with unfamiliar technologies, or situations outside their experience. The final strand of Ready to Respond is reinforce its technical support network by recruiting 50 people with expertise in urban disaster to provide advice by phone or email.

Gould says he is talking “at fairly high levels” to companies and academia at present, encouraging them to see this as something useful their organisation can contribute.

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