Emergency Relief Overview

Disasters are all too frequent, and the material and human costs of such events vary widely.  Though disaster strikes both wealthy and poor regions of the world, such events cause especially high levels of death and destruction in developing countries where emergency response is limited. Alongside natural disasters such as earthquakes, hurricanes and floods, man-made disasters such as nuclear accidents and oil spills also present great danger to human and animal life. Humanitarian relief is aid to victims of a natural or man-made disaster.


One of the most difficult aspects of providing disaster relief is the management of the deceased. Because disasters can cause a large number of deaths, the need for burial often overwhelms the local systems in place. The most urgent priority of disaster relief is to save lives, but appropriate handling of those killed in a disaster is an important step in the recovery of a community. As bodies of the deceased generally do not pose a public health risk, the main purpose of fatality management is to identify and properly bury the bodies in a way that minimizes distress among survivors.

Clean Water & Sanitation

Availability of clean water is essential for public health, and so one of the most pressing issues after a disaster is the lack of clean drinking water and sanitation. Disruptions in water supplies and sewage systems can pose serious health risks.  People can’t survive much longer than 3 days without drinking water, and difficulty in the disposal of sewage can cause the rampant spread of waterborne bacterial diseases.  Developing nations are at highest risk of an sanitation-related epidemic after a disaster, due to population density and inadequate coordination of urban settlements.

Disaster Preparedness

plan of action and emergency supplies can prove invaluable when disaster strikes. Adequate response might take several days or even weeks, so individuals who identify and prepare for disaster are at a marked advantage.  So too are locations with established and practiced disaster plans at an advantage, resulting in saved lives and saved financial resources.The United Nations estimates that every one dollar invested inpreparedness strategies saves seven dollars in post-disaster rebuilding and reconstruction costs.  Still, advocates of increased disaster preparedness say that national leaders in developing countries are slow to prioritize preventive measures, given their budgetary and infrastructural constraints.


Shelter is often needed when people lose their homes to a natural or manmade disaster. Displacement forces victims to take refuge in makeshift shelters or in locations unprepared for a suddenly larger population. In 2010, the earthquake in Haiti moved people to form tent cities on public property, taking up space and creating unsanitary and insecure conditions. That same year, natural disasters displaced 42 million people total around the world.  Migration as a result of emergency conditions can also produce political conflict and environmental degradation, adding to the harm caused by the disaster.

Emergency Provisions

Because disasters often force people to leave their homes and communities, many are no longer able to provide for themselves. Though relief agencies urge those living in disaster-prone areas to be prepared with emergency supplies, victims almost always need additional aid to recover from a disaster. Nothing is more important than providing emergency food and other essential household items such as blankets, clothing and soap when people find themselves in need. As in-kind gifts can be difficult to coordinate and use effectively, relief organizations agree that the most effective way to provide for disaster victims is through monetary donation.

Medical Relief

Today’s complex disasters, especially those involving terrorism or weapons of mass destruction, result in an unpredictable number of victims that can overwhelm local healthcare providers. In some disasters, local hospitals may be destroyed, transportation to medical facilities may not be feasible, or the environment may be contaminated. Under the best of circumstances, organized response and delivery of necessary supplies typically does not occur for a minimum of 96 hours, even within countries with advanced disaster preparedness planning, such as the United States. In regions frequently affected by natural disaster, such as China, ongoing medical relief training may be necessary.

Psychological Support

After a disaster, victims may sustain psychological trauma as a result of the sudden loss of their homes, loved ones and/or livelihoods. They may experience grief, bereavement and even post-traumatic stress disorder -- an intense, recurring post-disaster condition. Victims benefit from psychological support, especially when provided by professional counselors. Because disasters affect so many people at once, it’s sometimes necessary to employ a group intervention approach, which makes meeting individual needs much more difficult. Post-disaster recovery unfolds over time, offering longer-term opportunities for therapy.

Relief Funding

Directly after a disaster, it’s difficult for local authorities to clearly and cohesively communicate what items are needed.  That’s why financial gifts are so important. With monetary donations, professional relief organizations can streamline emergency shelter, food, medical care, volunteers, post-disaster counseling services, and other supplies such as blankets. Financial contributions also support mobilization, training, and compensation for workers. The challenge for many disaster responders is that some relief appeals are more successful than others. In particular, disasters perceived to be caused mainly by natural factors, such as a tsunami or earthquake, tend to be more popularly supported than those caused by human factors, such as war or corruption. Nevertheless, the cause of a disaster -- natural or manmade – is often blurred and can contribute to donor apprehensiveness.

Search & Rescue

In the event of a disaster, resources used to aid missing or injured people can save many lives. Rapid and effective emergency response requires communication and training. As a coordinated discipline, search and rescue relies on large disaster relief organizations, local emergency professionals (such as firemen and medics) as well as trained community first-responders. The task of relief can be emotionally traumatic for first-responders, making a strong support system important. Due to the unpredictability and urgency of emergencies, the resources and techniques necessary for effective response are often not locally available. Quickly procuring special equipment, all-terrain vehicles, aircraft, and other aids such as working dogs generates additional need for emergency relief funding.