The human cost of flooding

When your home is flooded what are the risks, and why are developing countries hit harder and more often?
30 November 2015

Interview with 

Claire Grisaffi, The British Red Cross


Wherever you live, a flood is devastating, damaging possessions and displacing Floodingyou from your home. But some countries are hit harder than others, which can lead to poor sanitation and threats from disease. The Red Cross are often being deployed to countries affected, but why are some places more at risk from floods than others? Claire Grisaffi, a water, sanitation and hygiene technical advisor for the British Red Cross, explained to Chris Smith... 

Claire - The first thing is lack of infrastructure.  The immediately obvious one being in terms of flood defences, but you're also lacking in transport and communication infrastructure, which means then it's so much more difficult to have good early warning systems in place, evacuation routes much more difficult and much more challenging.

Chris - What about the general geography of where these countries are.  Does that make a difference?

Claire - Oh absolutely.  So one of the reasons why so many lower and middle income countries haven't developed is because they are in disaster prone areas.  So south-east Asia particularly is one of the most affected regions in the world in terms of flooding and typhoons, so you get into this negative cycle. 

So infrastructure is destroyed, your GDP is massively impacted and then you can't afford to build back better and build systems for protection and everything else, so it's kind of like a cyclic problem.  It's a really massive barrier to economic growth. 

You also have issues because it tends to be that in lower and middle income countries your population growth is much higher, so you have more people and then the most vulnerable people tend to be in the most high risk areas, so flood plains, coastal areas, and all that sort of comes together to mean that in low income countries just many more people die from the same kind of extreme event than richer countries.

Chris - I suppose if you have got those sorts of population and space pressures, and also a financial pressure, people don't also tend to build very well.  They'll knock up shanty towns and things like that which are much more vulnerable to exigent weather conditions compared with more robustly build settlement.

Claire - Yes, absolutely.  So your infrastructure, when it is there, tends to be lower quality and the population is also more vulnerable in other ways.  So they don't maybe have the kind of coping strategies, they're lower income, higher rates of malnutrition.  All of that comes together to mean that a flooding event has a much bigger impact.

Chris - And when a flood does happen, apart from obviously people can lose their homes.  How are people impacted?

Claire - Well the big issues, obviously people lose their homes and they're displaced; they also lose all their belongings; they lose access to all the basic services; they don't have access to clean water; no sanitation, which means then have huge public health risks.  The water might be contaminated.  For example, if you are in an area with pit latrines and the pit latrines are flooded, if you have maybe septic tanks; there's massive contamination risks, which means there's an increased risk of things like cholera.  And then you also have stagnant water, which means you've got breeding grounds for mosquitos, you've got risks from malaria and dengue. 

So those are the kind of immediate impacts, so you lose everything, you're in a very high risk environment and you're all kind of clustered into maybe an evacuation centre if you're lucky in a very small area of land.

Chris - What about longer term?  What then?

Claire - You're livelihood is decimated basically.  So at the local level, households lose their crops and you're talking about countries where most people are going to be reliant on subsistence agriculture, so they lose that which then leads to increased security risks.

And then at the national level the economic impacts are huge; infrastructure is destroyed; transport infrastructure, communication, water supply....  In Myanmar recently, millions of dollars of infrastructure was destroyed and I think they've had to massively reduce their rice exports because of the damage to the crops, so the national level economic impact can be really, really huge.

Chris - What can an organisation like the Red Cross do about this?

Claire - So the Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement has an enormous capacity because it has national societies in 189 countries and 70 million volunteers worldwide, so the reach is really, really huge.  And it also works as an auxiliary to governments, so it's quite different to most of the organisations in the humanitarian sector, so it has a mandate to support the government in terms of early warning systems, supporting evacuations and everything else.  So basically the volunteers - I mean they just get out there immediately, out into the communities; they help people evacuate; they do rescue operations.  They would then start distributing relief items.  Most national societies have pre-positioned stocks of things like tarpaulins,  and soap, and buckets, so really basic equipment to get that out immediately to households that have been displaced and affected.  They also do things like providing drinking water and, in some areas, they also do some kind of basic health services.  So that's the really kind of acute response; getting out, supporting people, doing evacuations, doing rescue, and getting out distributions of essential equipment.

Chris - How do you make sure that those essentials go to the people who most need it, because we have seen situations  - there was the Boxing Day tsunami in 2004, for example -  there were people complaining that, while there was no shortage of aid, and equipment, infrastructure turning up, in some countries bureaucracy, and in other cases corruption, were stopping that much needed aid actually getting where it needed to go.

Claire - Absolutely.  That's a critical issue.  I think accountability to beneficiaries  is a massive issue for everyone working in the humanitarian sector, and there's more and more focus on this. 

In the Red Cross, Red Crescent they have a very clear kind of structure already in place before an emergency, down to a local branch and out to volunteers, which helps to have that kind of accountability, because you have an existing local knowledge and existing local networks. 

But yes, I mean it's an issue.  There were 2,000 volunteers out providing emergency relief in Myanmar, and then how do you keep track of everything and make sure it is going to the most vulnerable people is really, really hard.

Chris - How do you decide when your job is done or when you say, look we've done as much as we can here.  Now it's time for someone else to take over and take things forward?  Because, obviously the problems don't go away as soon as the flood waters recede.  Where do you draw the line and then move your efforts elsewhere?

Claire - I think this is another great thing about the Red Cross and the Red Crescent movement is that you don't move elsewhere.  I mean maybe, for example, the British Red Cross would provide some of the funding for an emergency response and some of their recovery but the national society stays they and carry on working.  In Myanmar, they're continuing to work on recovery programmes after the floods - things like livelihoods, agriculture and so they're not going anywhere, they're staying there.


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