Are we prepared?

A devastating tsunami spawned by one of the worst earthquakes ever recorded slammed into Japan this Friday, killing hundreds and decimating dozens of coastal cities and villages. The effects of the magnitude 8.9 offshore quake were felt across the entire Pacific Ocean, including on our own West Coast.

Even for a country accustomed to dealing with earthquakes―Japan has one of the most sophisticated and coordinated response mechanisms in the world―the scale of the devastation is horrific. Hundreds are dead and nearly 90,000 people are missing. As Japan scrambles to respond to this catastrophe, people around the world are asking: what can the international community do to mitigate the effects of future natural disasters and save lives?

Despite the frequency with which natural disasters strike―it was barely two weeks ago that the worst quake in New Zealand’s history killed more than 100 people and injured hundreds―the international community’s response continues lacks between governments, NGOs, and other international bodies. The continued suffering caused by the aftermath of the earthquake in Haiti, and the flooding in Pakistan, is a constant reminder of these poorly coordinated relief efforts and the need to do something else.

It seems that each time disaster strikes, the international community must relearn the same logistical lessons and recommence the same process of identifying, acquiring, and deploying urgently needed humanitarian goods and equipment. While this happens, people on the ground continue to wait, suffer, and die.

So what can be done to rectify this problem? We can learn from what we do on a much smaller scale when responding to emergencies here at home. In North America, communities have a 24-hour, 911 command-and-control system that connects the appropriate professional capabilities and assets with particular emergencies. Using this system as a model, we could expand this to a significantly larger scale to create a robust, coordinated, and effective global emergency response mechanism.

Such an international 911 system should have a command-and-control centre under the auspices of the United Nations Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), which has the mandate to respond to natural disasters. The centre should develop a database that pre-identifies the assets routinely needed in an emergency, such as: heavy lift capacity (on land, sea, and air), emergency response personnel, water-purification equipment, non-perishable foods, extraction machinery, temporary shelters, field hospitals, medical teams, rescue dogs, etc.

This database should also have information about the emergency-response capabilities of nations and non-governmental organizations (i.e., the Red Cross, Doctors Without Borders, etc.). Some emergency assets should also be pre-deployed to three regions that are frequently affected by natural disasters: Central America, Asia Minor, and Southeast Asia. The Red Cross already does some pre-deployment, which makes it significantly easier for them to rapidly send life-saving supplies wherever they are needed.

It is only logical that Canada could lead this multinational effort to create an international rapid response system. There is a compelling reason to do this.

There is a 100 per cent certainty that, as the Pacific and North American tectonic plates grind against each other, a catastrophic earthquake will one day hit the west coast of North America. The quake off the coast of Japan is a terrifyingly stark reminder of the sheer destructive power Mother Nature can unleash. We must dramatically improve our rapid response systems so that we can reduce damage and save lives.

Humanitarian agencies and nations cannot deal with these calamities alone. When disaster strikes, an international 911 system will save lives and reduce harm. As the devastation in Pakistan and continued strife in Haiti (even more than a year after the earthquake hit) makes clear, we simply cannot continue to plod, struggle, and stumble in the face of nature’s wrath. There are too many lives at stake.

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