1. Disasters, irrespective of their origin (natural or man-made) and their type (rapid-onset events like earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, flash floods and hurricanes or slow moving events like droughts or harsh winters) leave their deleterious impact on land and its people. The magnitude of the impact of disasters in terms of loss of life and human suffering undoubtedly depends on the extent and intensity of damage and destruction they cause; but it is the vulnerable and poorest households in the affected population which suffer most, both in theimmediate emergency and the mid and long term recovery phases.
2. The Asia-Pacific Region is prone to natural disasters. Most of Southern Asia and the South Pacific islands lie in the regular path of tropical cyclones and are particularly susceptible to hurricanes and storms. They are also lying along weak areas of the earth's crust and are particularly affected by earthquakes and volcanic activities.
3. Heavy rains and floods regularly inflict severe damage in several countries, especially Bangladesh, Cambodia, China, Vietnam and some parts of India and the Philippines. Thousands of people have been killed while crops and infra-structure have been heavily damaged. In Cambodia drought affected crop production, and in Vietnam a combination of drought and subsequent floods damaged crops and property. Droughts and floods, like in Fiji, often occur in succession.
4. In October 1999, a series of cyclones including the one in India (Orissa) and Bangladesh (Chittagong) devastated the countries, killing over ten thousand people and making at least 15 million others temporarily homeless and 2.25 million dependent on external food aid.
5. The devastating earthquake that struck Gujarat in January 2001 killed at least 19,000 people, injured another 166,000 and made more than a million homeless. Earthquakes and tsunamis also took a heavy toll in the Chinese province of Sechuan, in Taiwan and in several Pacific islands.
6. Further North or in high altitudes, harsh winters wrecked havoc among pastoralists in Mongolia and Afghanistan and aggravated food scarcity in the Democratic People's Republic of Korea.
7. Disasters aggravate pre-existing situations of precariousness and often accentuate conditions of food scarcity. The loss of past development achievement, combined with a diversion of resources from development to disaster management may pose a serious set back to a country development.
8. All disasters have an impact on household food security and nutrition. Nutritional status ultimately results from a combination of factors classically clustered into household food security, health and care aspects, all of which are affected to a greater or lesser degree in a crisis situation and/or its aftermath: crops and food stores may be destroyed, commercial systems and social services may be disrupted, households and community structures break apart, people may have to leave their homes and crowd into unhygienic shelters. As a result affected households are no longer in a position to carry out the productive and reproductive tasks that are essential for a sustainable livelihood. Unless appropriate mitigation measures are put in place, the prevalence of malnutrition among the most vulnerable population groups is likely to rise, often in the weeks or months following the emergency itself, as households spiral down towards destitution.
9. Malnutrition results in increased morbidity and mortality in all age groups and is therefore a key concern in emergency management. Good nutrition is also a prerequisite for effective productive activities and economic development, and should therefore be a priority in rehabilitation. But nutrition is also an intersectoral issue which requires the collaboration of a variety of humanitarian and development institutions, thus leading to much needed improved co-ordination of stakeholders at local, national and international level. Indicators of nutritional status can constitute useful targeting tools, as well as effective monitoring and evaluation tools. It is therefore important that nutrition-related interventions be viewed and undertaken as an integral part of a comprehensive approach to emergency management in affected areas. Nutrition considerations should in particular be incorporated in disaster preparedness.
10. Natural disasters, as well as man-made conflicts in rural areas, commonly affect the agricultural sector and hence the livelihood of people living in rural areas whether they are involved in food production - as farmers or labourers - or in post harvest activities. People may be displaced from their homes and means of making a living. Productive assets may be destroyed (or die or be eaten in the case of livestock), sold or stolen. The labour capacity of the household may decline because people die, are sick or handicapped or are malnourished. Food stores can be destroyed or damaged. Consumers can ultimately be affected through decreased food availability and/or increased prices.
11. Agricultural infra-structure including terraces and irrigation systems may be impaired; roads, bridges and communication systems can be destroyed, as well food processing and storage facilities. The impact in terms of marketing and food distribution systems can be compounded by high levels of speculation. Whole areas may face a long term setback in terms of food production and economic development. In order to survive, people often plunder existing natural resources (for fuelwood or charcoal) and cause irreversible damage to the environment. These compounding effects can be so severe and widespread that food availability at local or even national level is drastically reduced thereby endangering people's access to food.
12. As a result, the availability of staple foods and the variety of foods grown by families is reduced; household incomes decrease while market prices rise; households have to face major expenses for rehabilitation purposes. The lack of adult labour can affect the capacity of families to pursue or engage in agriculture and/or to participate in public work programmes for rebuilding livelihoods. In pastoral populations, disaster and conflict may lead to loss of access to pastures and water, resulting in loss of livestock, income and access to food. As a result household food security can become highly uncertain in disaster or conflict situations.
13. Although natural disasters indiscriminately affect the local population, this impact will clearly depend on people's livelihoods systems, and within those, the most affected households are usually the poorest ones as their ability to cope is more limited.
14. The absence, poor quality or cost of health services, together with high risk of infectious diseases can put people whose living conditions and food consumption are inadequate in a vicious cycle of malnutrition and infections. Overcrowding and lack of adequate sanitation and water supplies can lead to rapid spread of disease in refugee or transit camps. Children face the greatest health risks and suffer the highest death rates.
15. Risks of consumption of contaminated foods increase, because of affected stocks, unhygienic food preparations due to a lack of water, or water contamination and the possible lack of fuel and cooking utensils and facilities.
16. Mental health can also become a major issue in crisis situations, adding extra stress and/or decreasing the productive and caring capacity of the household.
17. Adequate care is vital for protection and well-being of infants and children, as well as the sick and elderly. Disasters have a devastating impact on the caring capacities of households, which may be directly affected by death and injury, as well as the diversion of time from care to basic survival, recovery and reconstruction. Families seek the best way to cope with the crisis and protection of livelihoods might compete with the time devoted to childcare and feeding.
18. Children may die because their families or other caregivers are unable to provide the food and care necessary for their survival. Orphans may be incorporated in other households and suffer discrimination and exploitation as well as bereavement.
19. In times of crisis, food consumption levels are the first to be reduced by the households: there is a decrease in food diversity, as people reorient their diet and give priority to cheap staple foods, all or selected members of the household may reduce the food quantity per meal or reduce the number of meals per day.
20. As a result, all forms of malnutrition can be found in the aftermath of natural disasters. In addition to protein-energy malnutrition, which is the most commonly recognised form of malnutrition, a number of other nutrient deficiency disorders (anaemia, Vitamin A Deficiency (VAD) and Iodine Deficiency Disorders (IDD), scurvy, pellagra and beriberi) are often encountered in populations during the aftermath of disasters, especially among populations that are entirely dependent on food aid for a prolonged period. A high proportion of displaced people are mothers and infants, who are biologically considered the most vulnerable to malnutrition even in non-emergency situation.
21. In order to deal with the crisis, households usually adopt a variety of coping strategies to fulfill their essential needs, and in particular food. Consumption of wild foods increases. Crops are consumed before reaching maturity. The best grains, roots and tubers, which the farmers usually save as "seeds" for future crop, can be consumed. Contaminated food stocks might still be consumed due to lack of alternative. Livestock may be sold or eaten. Adults may leave in search of work. Children may be sent away.
22. In order to mitigate the negative impact of disasters on food security and nutrition, it is important to gain a good understanding of livelihood systems in at-risk areas, in order to strengthen their resilience to prevailing recurring disasters, identify the most vulnerable households, and strengthen the capacity of local and national institutions to assess and address the consequences of disasters in a timely way.
23. As a basis for appropriate planning, it is also important to gain a good understanding of the effects of previous disasters on those factors which affect nutritional status and, eventually, of the food and nutrition impact of previous emergency relief and rehabilitation programmes in the area.
24. Particular attention should be given to prevailing coping mechanisms. Some may well be appropriate and compatible with the protection of food security and nutrition, and should be strengthened and encouraged. Some may however be detrimental in the long term as they may lead to contaminated or toxic, unbalanced and insufficient diets, undermine sustainability of livelihoods, quality of care and lead to a deterioration of the health situation. This should be understood in order to identify and promote alternative strategies.
25. Traditional farming and livelihoods systems commonly focus on minimising risk. The importance of a risk-aversion strategy has not always been appreciated by government policies and extension workers who often have aimed to increase production of specific varieties. This has resulted in a more limited number of crops being planted and an increased vulnerability of the farming system to natural disasters. Multi-cropping systems are both more resilient and conducive to a more diversified diets and should therefore be encouraged. The promotion of home-gardening for improved nutrition has proven in particular to be a cost effective way to improve the diets of households, and specially of those, such as women-headed households, who may face significant time, labour and land constraints.
26. Improved food processing can help prolong shelf-life of foods and therefore increase the duration of their availability at household level. Processed roots and tubers, and smoked fish and fermented dairy products - where they are available - can also be marketed. They will fetch higher prices than cereal grains, contribute income and insure against food insecurity if there are opportunities for marketing. Fruits and vegetables supply essential vitamins and minerals and surpluses can be dried and preserved for the hunger season. The production and sale of local weaning foods can provide income-generating activities for women as well as improve child feeding and timesaving alternatives. Such techniques can thus strengthen resilience of poor households and improve food availability in the event of a disaster.
27. In most situations, it is important to improve care at household level through appropriate information and to promote effective community-based care systems so that households can make a living while ensuring that essential domestic tasks are carried out. Care issues become crucial in disaster situations activities and all efforts should be made to prevent the disintegration of families and social networks during or after the crisis.
28. Community-based organisations should be strengthened to enable them to cope with recurrent natural disasters, minimise their impact on food security, care and health (through prevention, preparedness and appropriate emergency planning) and monitor the situation. Nutrition education and communication will play an essential role in raising awareness and empowering communities to make the best of local foods and opportunities. Surprisingly however, at a time when traditional knowledge is of little help or relevance to people who face major changes in their lifestyles and environments, such activities are given low priority in humanitarian efforts.
29. Local institutions (governments and NGOs) should be jointly trained and encouraged to promote and protect food security and nutrition in at risk areas, with particular attention to the most vulnerable households. The formulation and implementation of local food and nutrition strategies would provide an enabling context for appropriate disaster management. Systematic partnerships between the health, agriculture and education sectors should be encouraged.
30. The provision of food, water, shelter and medical treatment is usually needed to help cover essential needs in the immediate aftermath of a natural disaster. Preparedness planning should ensure that appropriate procedures are set up and rehearsed to ensure that these are provided in a timely and appropriate way to the people who need it. Planning for food should include processing, cooking (e.g. stoves, cooking fuel), preparation and handling aspects in order to ensure appropriate consumption of safe food. Communities and local institutions should play an active role in setting up and implementing such procedures and be given the appropriate information and training.
31. Immediate relief interventions do not provide a sustainable solution to many emergencies. It is important that people become able, as soon as possible, to resume productive activities to again become self-reliant. Assistance should therefore not be limited to simply addressing the needs caused by the latest disaster, but should also aim at strengthening a sustainable development process - by ensuring an appropriate management of the environment and the involvement of all stakeholders in the affected area - and limiting the impact of future disasters. Food-for-work programmes may be useful to assist households during the rehabilitation period and should focus on bridging local food gaps and facilitating activities conducive to increased food security and better nutrition.
32. Information needs cannot be covered by one-time assessments in the aftermath of a natural disaster. Nutrition impacts are generally most acute several months after the event as some households fail to cope with the consequences. At the time, interest in the crisis has shifted to more recent disasters elsewhere and the necessary assistance is no longer available. Simple food and nutrition information and surveillance systems should be systematically set up in disaster-prone areas. These will contribute to improved preparedness and contingency planning, early warning, emergency response and rehabilitation through identification of local-specific constraints and indicators as well as targeting and monitoring of at-risk households. Specific attention should be given to disaster prone areas in national food insecurity and vulnerability information and mapping systems (FIVIMS).
33. In the last years, increasing emphasis has been given in FAO and other institutions to people-centred and integrated approaches. World Food Summit has adopted the goal of food security for all, whether in development or emergency situations. Emphasis is now on ensuring access to appropriate diets and sustainable livelihoods and not only on food production. FAO is developing a broader role in emergencies, in order to assist vulnerable households and complement the activities of other institutions (government, NGOs, UN agencies).
34. Disasters usually have a significant impact on household food security and nutrition of affected populations. In order to improve the impact of agriculture rehabilitation activities increasing attention should therefore being given to household food security and nutrition as a means to improve design, targeting and monitoring of activities. This requires and is therefore conducive to increased co-ordination with the UN system. The protection and promotion of nutrition requires a similar process at all stages of disaster management and will therefore contribute to ensuring a continuum approach.
35. An argument could also be made that the systematic development of local food and nutrition strategies in disaster-prone areas would in itself strengthen the resilience of existing livelihood systems, decrease the vulnerability of at-risk households and strengthen capacity of both communities and local institutions to prevent, prepare for, address and mitigate the negative impact of natural disasters.
36. The basis of such strategies would be community-centred nutrition programmes in which food-based interventions would be integrated with health and care activities for supporting, safeguarding and improving household food security and nutrition.
37. It is therefore recommended that attention to household food security and nutrition issues be systematically incorporated at all stages of disaster management. At present, malnutrition is more often used as a fund-raising argument than as a framework for a sustainable and integrated response to the needs of the affected population.
38. Safeguarding the nutritional status of the population requires a holistic and proactive approach, which implies more than food distribution and health protection. Action is called for in the area of environment, population, economic and human development, land and water management, production and trade, services, human rights, governance, empowerment and growth of civil society.
* Prepared by B.K. Nandi, RAP Senior Food and Nutrition Officer.