The Water Side of Disaster

by | Jul 8, 2009

bjorn-mug22As summer begins, so too does disaster season. In the five months from June to November, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association (NOAA) predicts that there will be at least 14 storms, with seven named hurricanes and The Laboratory for Atmospheric Research at the City University of Hong Kong predicts that there will be around 31 storms with at least 18 typhoons.

At the 2009 World Water Forum, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) reminded us that climate-related disturbances, like hurricanes, earthquakes, drought, floods and heat waves, are on the rise and global warming, population growth and water scarcity are exacerbating the effects of these catastrophes.

Damage caused by disasters often also destroys natural habitats and ecosystems. For example, many of the mangroves, aquifers, wetlands, and vegetation in Southeast Asia that were hit by the 2005 tsunami, may take decades to recover. And of course, the impact on people can be devastating. More than 200,000 people were estimated to have been killed by the tsunami, nearly 2,000 by Hurricane Katrina and nearly 10,000 from the earthquake in the Sichuan province in China.

And when natural disasters strike, it is most often water that kills.

In the immediate aftermath of a disaster, water delivery systems – pumps, wells, and other critical infrastructure – are often destroyed. The resulting lack of clean, potable water, combined with poor living conditions, exacerbates the threat of disease – and the impact of the disaster. Populations in the developing world are particularly vulnerable to water-borne diseases, and the ability to provide large quantities of safe water and provide adequate sanitation quickly is therefore even more crucial.

Preparation = Mitigation

While disasters are inevitable, death and destruction are not. And here, as in many other things, business has something to contribute: the Myanmar cyclone, the earthquake that hit the Sichuan province of China, the floods in Honduras and other recent disasters have demonstrated the effectiveness of public-private partnerships in emergency response.

Effective response and recovery goes hand-in-hand with proper preparation. Without the necessary tools, plans and funds in place before a disaster, the response effort could be delayed for days, weeks or even non-existent. This concept is central to a program underway at Mercy Corps, with which ITT Corp. is partnering.

The “Rapid Response Reserve Fund for Emergency Management” is designed to provide quick access to seed capital to begin aiding the international relief effort. For example, after the massive flooding in 2008 in Honduras and Nepal, which displaced hundreds of thousands of people, Mercy Corps was able to tap into the Rapid Response Reserve Fund to repair the water systems, restore sanitation facilities and create safe drinking water for communities. By restoring the water systems quickly, families were able to return to their homes and start the recovery and rebuilding process.

Through its vast resources, expertise and distribution channels, businesses are a powerful resource that must be tapped to help prepare and respond to catastrophic disasters.

As we continue to tackle emergency response, global warming, water scarcity and other major environmental issues we need to ensure we have the best experts – across the private and nonprofit sectors – working together. Understanding the linkages between these issues and improving our coordination across sectors is how we will effectively solve these major problems.

Bjorn Von Euler is the director of corporate philanthropy for ITT Corp. He is a regular columnist writing on water issues for Environmental Leader.

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