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South Asia Earthquake 2005: Learning from previous earthquakes


by Tony Beck
This briefing paper provides a synthesis of key lessons learned from relief responses to past earthquakes. The main intended audiences are operational decision-makers and relief programme managers working in the South Asia earthquake relief operation. As agency personnel have expressed a need for clear and concise guidance, this paper aims to provide this, rather than detailed context on earthquakes or the affected region.

This is the first of two briefing papers prepared for the humanitarian and development community by ALNAP and the ProVention Consortium. The second paper, which will be available in November 2005, will focus on lessons learned on recovery from past earthquake operations.

The current South Asia earthquake presents unique challenges, particularly of scale and logistics, but there are generic lessons to be learned from previous earthquakes, particularly those in Afghanistan in 1998, Turkey in 1999, Gujarat in 2001 and Bam in 2003. This paper aims to provide a distillation of this learning.

LESSON 1 - Needs assessments and working with communities

An effective response requires an understanding of context - particularly the socio-economics of affected communities. Where sound needs assessments are carried out and acted upon, responses are more appropriate and aid is used more effectively. The record from past earthquakes though is poor. OCHA (2004a) comments that only a few organisations involved people from Bam in the assessment and planning phases there. The DEC (2001) evaluation found a disturbing level of dissatisfaction about consultation and transparency after the Gujarat earthquake. In many cases, people felt that they were consulted only about plans that had already been made.

Key pointers for needs assessment include:

- They should be ongoing to the extent possible, ie communities should be asked to prioritise needs as the emergency unfolds, perhaps once a month.

- Joint assessments should be carried out where possible, to make more efficient use of resources, and to ensure that multiple needs assessments by different agencies are not conducted with the same members of the affected population.

- Needs-assessment teams should be multi-disciplinary, and preferably have prior knowledge of local context.

- There should be an adequate number of female team members, to enable the involvement of affected women who might not otherwise have a voice.

For example, after the 1999 Turkey earthquakes the Foundation for the Support of Women's Work in Ankara trained affected women as local researchers to assess needs and capacities, and meet with government officials to discuss the issue of genderdisaggregated needs (Akcar, 2001). After the 2001 earthquakes in El Salvador, single women insisted that the sheeting provided for temporary shelters be opaque and strong. In the past, it had been translucent, making it easy to see when they were alone. Given that it could be easily cut with a machete, many women had been raped (ALNAP, 2003a).

There is accumulated evidence that people affected by disasters want to participate fully in the response, even if this means a slower implementation process. However, disbursement pressure - the need to get money out of the door - has in the past partly determined response mechanisms. DEC noted that after the Gujarat earthquake (2001: 10): 'Managers on the ground began to see their task as spending money within the (DEC) time-scale rather than planning good programmes.' Similar pressures have been widely noted in the response to the 2004 tsunami. Clearly this works against the idea of iterative planning and community participation.

Ensuring good communication with local communities is crucial from perspectives of both ethics and efficiency. One lesson from the response to the 1998 Afghanistan earthquakes is that agencies could set up short-wave radio to broadcast relief objectives to survivors, where local capacity to do this exists (IFRC, 2000).

Two examples among many of community structures for participation are of relevance to the current emergency. World Disasters Report 2004 (IFRC, 2004b) notes the role of traditional neighbourhood networks such as the 'notables' or 'white beards' - five or six men of influence based around the local mosque who organised the response of the local community after the Bam earthquake. Women's groups have also been effective in facilitating community response. For example the Self Employed Women's Association was involved in a number of activities after the 2001 Gujarat earthquake, including identifying high- need households, and directing aid to them, and involving women as monitors of housing reconstruction.

When considering communities, however, it is important to remember:

- not to romanticise the coping capacities and resilience of local people and communities - they often face insurmountable difficulties when responding to major disasters;

- that often 'communities', particularly in areas of high inequality, are made up of different interest groups, and include marginalised groups who may well have difficulty getting their views represented; cultural 'norms' may also, for example, work against women's rights.

Communities and individuals themselves will carry out much relief work, from search and rescue to restoring livelihoods. The role of external agencies then becomes one of supporting indigenous capacity and working with communities to support their efforts and build their capacities. At the very least, interventions should not undermine local capacity.

Useful sources on emergency assessment and community participation in humanitarian action include:

- the draft ALNAP guide Participation by Crisis-Affected Populations in Humanitarian Action. A Handbook for Practitioners (available at:;

- the IFRC Guidelines for Emergency Assessment (available ).

The on-going Listening Project initiative, currently being piloted in the countries affected by the Indian Ocean Tsunami, is supporting a series of community dialogues to improve understanding of how communities analyse and judge disaster assistance. These tools for community dialogue may also have direct relevance for application in assessing community needs, resources and specific ideas and aspirations regarding recovery (

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