What Happens When A Disaster Unfolds In Slow Motion

Jan 1, 2016
Originally published on January 1, 2016 12:04 pm

When a poor country is hit with a sudden catastrophe — say, an earthquake or a tsunami — the world is quick to send aid.

But a slow-moving disaster, the kind that unfolds over weeks or even months, is another story. There are no immediate, dramatic TV images, no screaming headlines.

And that means it's really tough for aid groups to raise the money needed.

Just ask John Graham. He's the head of the aid group Save the Children, and he's watching a slow-moving disaster unfold in Ethiopia as the world remains largely oblivious.

It started with last year's winter rains – or rather, the lack thereof. They were barely a trickle. Then came spring.

"[Spring rains are] not terribly reliable, you see them fail fairly frequently," says Graham. "But this year they failed quite spectacularly."

Everyone hoped the summer rains would make up for it. But they were almost as disappointing due to this year's El Nino, a periodic warming in the Pacific Ocean that plays havoc with weather systems worldwide.

Pastoral regions where people raise cattle were among the worst hit. "Animals died," recalls Graham. "People by tens of thousands had to trek into places where they could get water, get food. A lot of the children were severely malnourished."

By August, it had become official: Ethiopia is in the midst of its worst drought in decades. That's devastating in a country where at least 80 percent of people live off the land. Graham didn't need to wait for the harvest to know people were going to start running out of food pretty quickly.

"I began to think my goodness, 'The scale of this thing is going to be enormous,'" recalls Graham. "How are all of us going to handle it?"

So Graham's group joined an effort led by the Ethiopian government and the United Nations to assess the need. In August they released a detailed plan for delivering emergency food assistance to 4.5 million people. And they called on major donors such as the United States to help fund it. In October, as the situation worsened, they expanded the plan to cover more than 8 million people. Earlier this month they issued the latest appeal: for $1.4 billion to feed and otherwise assist more than 10 million people through next June.

Yet each time the donors have only come through with a portion of the funds. The shortfall in international aid now stands at $1.2 billion. And given the long lead times for purchasing food and getting it to remote areas, says Graham, that money needs to be committed in a matter of weeks.

"We know what's going to unfold here. But this just isn't getting the visibility."

He thinks there's a paradoxical explanation. So far, the relief effort has managed to limp along, in part thanks to an infusion of $200 million from the Ethiopian government. That arrangement can't last, but for now we're not seeing a lot of starving people in Ethiopia. And that, says Graham, makes his fund-raising efforts "a lot harder."

He finds this maddening. "Are we supposed to wait until we have these children suffering and malnourished, before people are going to respond?"

That's what happened during the horrific famine in the mid-1980s that killed hundreds of thousands in Ethiopia. The world didn't really step up until TV screens were filled with images of emaciated kids.

"This time we're saying, 'We can just prevent all of that. But we can't wait,' says Graham.

This type of situation is common in aid work, says Tom Kirsch, director of the Center for Refugee and Disaster Response at the Johns Hopkins University Bloomberg School of Public Health. He says the world is just a lot more responsive to immediate disasters than it is to slower-moving ones.

"Where we have a very dramatic sudden event that causes widespread destruction and death it captures a lot of attention," says Kirsch.

By contrast, he adds, "When you get to the cases where you can actually prevent a crisis like this — where we can intervene early and prevent widespread death — we don't get the media attention. We don't get the politicians falling over themselves to organize funds."

Kirsch says the irony is that slower-onset disasters often have more severe and lasting consequences. Droughts are only one example. There are refugee crises and slow-rising floods — like ones that devastated Pakistan in 2010, displacing millions.

"But because [the floods] were gradual onset over the course of weeks to months, they didn't get the press and [Pakistan] didn't get the recovery [dollars]."

Jan Egeland, a former U.N. Emergency Relief Coordinator who now heads the aid group Norwegian Refugee Council, says there's another urgent reason the world needs to start getting the response to these cases right.

"Climate change will make these kinds of slow, creeping tremendous disasters even more frequent."

As for Save the Children's John Graham, he stresses it's not too late for Ethiopia. He says, this doesn't have to be yet another cautionary tale. "This one, could just be a tremendous success story."

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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Now, the fire in Dubai struck suddenly and captured the world's attention. Same thing happens when an earthquake strikes or a tsunami strikes - the world is often quick to send aid. Other kinds of catastrophes, though, claim their victims gradually, over weeks or even months and it's harder to focus attention on a slow-motion disaster. That is the challenge facing Ethiopia as it grapples with an epic drought. NPR's Nurith Aizenman reports.

NURITH AIZENMAN, BYLINE: John Graham has been feeling a mounting sense of dread. He heads the Ethiopian branch of the aid group Save the Children. It started with last year's winter rains. They were barely a trickle. Then came the spring rains.

JOHN GRAHAM: They're not terribly reliable. You see them fail fairly frequently, but this year they failed quite spectacularly.

AIZENMAN: Everyone hoped the summer rains would make up for it, but they were almost as disappointing.

GRAHAM: Many of the animals died, people by tens of thousands had to trek into places where they could get water, get food. A lot of the children were severely malnourished.

AIZENMAN: By then it was official. Ethiopia is in the midst of its worst drought in decades. That's devastating in a country where at least 80 percent of people live off the land.

GRAHAM: I have begun to think, my goodness, the scale of this thing is going to be enormous, and so how are all of us going to handle it?

AIZENMAN: So Graham's group teamed up with the Ethiopian government and the United Nations to deliver emergency food to millions of people. They expanded the plan in October and again this month, and each time, they called on major donor nations, like the United States, to pitch in. Yet each time, the donors have only come through with a portion of the funds.

GRAHAM: You know, we know what's going to unfold here, but this just isn't getting the visibility.

AIZENMAN: Graham says there's a paradox at work. Remember that horrific famine in the mid-1980s that killed hundreds of thousands of people in Ethiopia? Well, the world didn't really step up that time until our TV screens were filled with images of emaciated kids. But this time, the government and aid groups have been doing a decent job preventing mass hunger so far. We're not seeing a lot of starving people in Ethiopia, and that complicates Graham's fundraising effort.

GRAHAM: It makes it a lot harder.

AIZENMAN: Now, while the Ethiopian government has managed to make up for the gap in international aid, this setup is not sustainable. Within weeks, the U.N. says, Ethiopia will need $1 billion in additional food aid or more than 10 million people could starve over the next six months. Graham is beyond frustrated.

GRAHAM: You know, are we supposed to wait until we have these children suffering and malnourished before people are going to respond? This time we're saying we can just prevent all that - but we can't wait.

AIZENMAN: This type of situation is common in aid work, says Tom Kirsch. He directs the Center for Refugee and Disaster Response at the Johns Hopkins University, and he says the world is just a lot more responsive to immediate disasters than it is to slower-moving ones, it's a product of our media-driven age.

TOM KIRSCH: Where we have a very dramatic, sudden event that causes very dramatic and widespread destruction and death, it captures a lot of attention from people.

AIZENMAN: By contrast...

KIRSCH: When you get to the cases where you can actually prevent a crisis like this where we can intervene early and we can prevent widespread death, you know, we don't get the media attention. We don't get the politicians falling over themselves to organize funds.

AIZENMAN: Kirsch says the irony is that slower-onset disasters often have more severe and lasting consequences. Droughts are only one example. There's catastrophic soil erosion, refugee crises. Then there are slow-rising floods like ones that devastated Pakistan in 2010. They displaced millions of people.

KIRSCH: But because they were gradual onset over the course of weeks to months, they didn't get the press and they didn't get the recovery.

AIZENMAN: Jan Egeland, a former U.N. emergency relief coordinator who now heads the aid group Norwegian Refugee Counsel, says there's another urgent reason the world needs to start getting their response to these cases right.

JAN EGELAND: The worse thing of it is that climate change will make these kind of slow, creeping, tremendous disasters even more frequent.

AIZENMAN: As for Save the Children's John Graham, he stresses it's not too late for Ethiopia. He says this doesn't have to be yet another cautionary tale - this one could be the success story. Nurith Aizenman, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.