Natural disasters are part and parcel of living in a dynamic system like the planet Earth. But there are some things individuals and nations can do to help prevent unnecessary loss of life from them.
Here we briefly examine some things you can do in the event of a natural disaster. We also look at some of the strategies nations are taking help to predict and protect against them.
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Can natural disasters be avoided?
Natural disasters are, unfortunately, something of an occupational hazard on our planet. While many are completely out of our control, e.g. earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, etc, we have slowly been able to develop methods of attempting to predict them.
Many others from droughts to floods can also wreak havoc in many vulnerable communities around the world.
But it should be noted that natural disasters are probably something of a misnomer. After all, if a hurricane hits a piece of uninhabited land we wouldn't call it a disaster - it would just be considered the weather.
But we digress.
Today, partly thanks to the internet, traditional media, and social media ensure that the latest news of a natural disaster is broadcast almost in real-time.
The United Nations created a report on just this subject a couple of years ago. Called the WorldRiskReport 2011, it compared various countries around the world and ranked them by their relative ability to cope with extreme natural events.
"The WorldRiskIndex, developed by UNU-EHS, is the core feature of the report. The index calculates and compares risk values for 173 countries worldwide, and shows regions and countries that face a high disaster risk.
Countries are ranked based on four key components that take both natural hazards and social factors into account: exposure (to natural hazards and potential risks), susceptibility (likeliness of suffering harm, susceptibility as a function of public infrastructure), coping capacities (governance and capacity to reduce negative consequences of hazards) and adaptive capacities (capacity for long-term social change)." - United Nations University.
This report makes it clear that disasters are not a case of meteorological or geological phenomena. They can be perturbed by a country's social structures and processes.
“Extreme natural events do not necessarily cause disasters, because risk not only depends on the hazard but is very much determined by social and economic factors,” explained the Scientific Head of the WorldRiskIndex project at UNU-EHS, Dr. Joern Birkmann.
It also highlights that while natural disasters are a real challenge to humans around the world, they don't necessarily need to be disastrous. Better information provision, early warning systems, and well thought out disaster/rescue plans can really help avoid some of the worst outcomes of extreme natural events.
What is the problem with natural disasters?
Apart from the initial shock, deathtoll, and physical damage from a natural disaster (especially things like tsunamis, earthquakes, etc), there are some compounding issues that can elevate the death toll unnecessarily.
Serious "acts of God" can cripple vital services like utility supply, food supplies and other trappings of an established community. This can lead to further loss of life from disease, thirst, hunger and other secondary hazards from natural disasters.
For example, events like earthquakes can lead to the outbreaks of fires as gas lines and electrical lines are ruptured. This can be more dangerous than the initial event in question.
But there are other problems that can arise from serious natural disasters.
According to sites like restorationmasterfinder.com, here are some common additional issues communities will likely face in the aftermath of a natural disaster.
1. Mental health issues - Loss of loved ones, possessions, one's home, etc, can seriously affect survivors mental health. This can lead to confusion, grief and even depression that will badly affect sufferer's ability to think and plan clearly.
2. The spread of diseases - Epidemics of communicable diseases is a common secondary hazard from natural disasters. Disruption of food supplies, clean water, medical services, etc can seriously rout communities.
If serious enough, large amounts of unburied dead bodies can quickly further devastate a community from pathogens.
3. Other safety issues - People returning to their homes is another highly risky time after a natural disaster. Unsanitary conditions, pest infestation, chemical and gas leaks, structural weakness, etc of their previous homes can rack up death tolls unnecessarily.
4. They can seriously affect the local economy - Natural disasters can seriously disrupt local economies. So much so, that some can cost billions of dollars.
How can we prevent natural disasters in the future?
It is highly unlikely mankind will ever be able to prevent natural disasters in the future. But we can improve our odds of survival through better prediction and mitigation strategies.
Earthquake and volcano eruption prediction systems are already commonplace and are improving with each passing year. Following the devastating tsunami in Japan, for example, the country has managed to develop a highly robust and effective prediction system that they hope will prevent the loss of life from similar events in the future.
Another strategy a country can employ is to build defenses against certain natural disasters. The Netherlands, for example, has spent billions of dollars on an impressive sea wall to help prevent disastrous flooding of any land below sea level.
Countries that have been prone to natural disaster events, like Japan, have also developed building construction standards to help protect buildings from things like earthquakes.
But ultimately, disasters can strike at any time and place. We will likely never be able to prevent them in the future but can develop methods of reducing the loss of life, and assets, in an event's aftermath.
Well thought out and tested disaster relief strategies can help save thousands of lives in the event of serious natural events.
What should you do in natural disasters?
If you find yourself unlucky enough to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, there are some basic things you can do to prevent further harm to you and your loved ones.
Do not return home until told to do so by the authorities;
If you smell gas don't enter a space. If it is in your home, ventilate by opening windows and doors as a matter of urgency. This will also help remove any additional moisture in your home that can lead to toxic mold growth;
Wear protective gear when cleaning up after a disaster;
Only ever use a torch if you must return home. No naked flames!
Never touch any exposed cables or electrical wires (obviously);
Do not turn on the lights or any electrical equipment until you’re sure that there has been no damage to the electrical system in the home
Never use wet electrical appliances! Have household appliances and electrical devices serviced and sanitized before using them. Heating and cooling systems should also be carefully inspected and cleaned before being put back into service;
Rinse all hard surfaces with a garden hose, then scrub them with a heavy-duty cleaner and hot water. Use a solution of chlorine bleach and water for better disinfection. But never mix bleach and ammonia, it will produce toxic fumes;
Chuck away any upholstery or furniture that has been contaminated by sewage or stagnant water for more than 24 hours;
Clean all household items before using them;
Trust your gut - Throw away food and beverages that have been in contact with floodwater or smells or looks bad;
Always boil drinking water;
Keep children/pets away from stagnant water or areas not yet sanitized;
Use insect repellents to avoid vector-borne illnesses and stay away from wild or stray animals!