When a rapid response saves lives


The EU has a range of tools in its humanitarian emergency funding to help the timely delivery of short-term relief aid to those affected by natural or man-made hazards,” said Karolina Andrzejewska, the officer responsible for the Emergency Toolbox funding at the EU’s Civil Protection and Humanitarian Aid department. “This is funding that is mobilised quickly so that we can respond to sudden-onset disasters.”

Global coverage of disasters

The IFRC is the world’s largest humanitarian network, comprised of 192 National Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies and almost 14 million volunteers worldwide. In 1985, IFRC established the Disaster Relief Emergency Fund (DREF) to provide immediate financial support to its National Societies, enabling them to carry out their unique role as first responders after a disaster.

On average, DREF supports over 100 responses to small and medium-sized disasters every year, helping respond to people’s needs. The EU is one of the main donors to the DREF, which it has supported with more than €5 million in 2020.

Eszter Matyeka, DREF Senior Officer at the IFRC, said: “Because our millions of volunteers and staff are part of the very communities they serve, Red Cross and Red Crescent teams are often first on scene to provide help when disasters strike. Funding received from the EU and other donors to the DREF gets humanitarian assistance quickly to where it is needed most.”

Through the nature of the events that the DREF responds to, the funding for each operation is not large-scale. However, it is significant enough to provide the much-needed first assistance and prevent both vulnerabilities from aggravating and the erosion of communities’ coping strategies.

In 2020, most of these cases in which the EU provided support to the Disaster Relief Emergency Fund were related to flood responses, mainly in Africa, Asia and Europe.

Other cases included:

  • disasters triggered by cyclones, earthquakes and volcano eruptions
  • epidemic control (for instance, the Lassa fever outbreak in Nigeria)
  • other emergency contexts (such as the immediate response to humanitarian needs on the ground following the Beirut blast in August 2020).

Delivering much-needed assistance

In the second half of 2020, a 20-year record torrential rainfall hit several countries in West and Central Africa. From Senegal to Cameroon, the rainfall caused flash floods and swept away houses, livestock and cropland.

Red Cross Society of Niger distributing sandbags to keep flood waters from entering houses, an action that was supported with EU funds.© Red Cross Society of Niger, 2020.

The situation forced many people to abandon their homes and find temporary alternative shelter. The support provided by EU-funded DREF to Red Cross and Red Crescent societies focused on providing them with shelter and essential items, either in-kind or through cash assistance after an assessment of the situation.

Given the high risk of waterborne diseases brought about by stagnant waters, efforts also focused on enabling access to clean water and sanitation in the targeted communities, as well as community awareness activities aimed at promoting better hygiene and warding off disease outbreaks.

In other contexts, timely assistance takes the shape of disaster preparedness actions and risk reduction.

In Kenya, for instance, rising water levels in the Turkwel dam were raising concerns that the dam would overflow.

For this reason, EU support also went, via the IFRC, to the Kenya Red Cross to raise awareness among the at-risk communities about the anticipated risks and to disseminate early warning messages by well-trained staff and volunteers.

Anticipating disasters

Saving lives when disasters hit means not only delivering emergency aid after the event, but also taking adequate anticipatory action before a crisis, based on scientific information and risk analysis, to reduce the impact. Taking early humanitarian action can reduce human suffering, losses and damage, and allow for a more rapid response.

With this logic in mind, the Disaster Relief Emergency Fund also has a separate instrument called Forecast-based Action (FbA), to which the EU also channels funding. The Forecast-based Action instrument supports the implementation of early action when weather forecasts indicate a high likelihood of an impending extreme weather event having an impact on communities.

In late September 2020, the Sangay volcano in Ecuador was showing high levels of volcanic activity, a warning sign of a potential impending eruption. In light of the data and analyses gathered, preparations were made through the Forecast-based Action for a possible impact scenario of the volcanic ash spewed.

Health and livelihood protection kits – containing, among others, masks and a plastic tarpaulin and tools for families to make a shelter for their animals, harvested crops and animal fodder – were handed out to at-risk communities and awareness raising was carried out on self-protection.

The volcano caused a 6 to 10-km high column of ashes. Falling debris covered vast surrounding areas, also ones that do not have a protected water treatment systems. Complementary DREF funding, which was also supported by the EU, helped guarantee water sanitation interventions in the affected areas, an assessment of the damage to water sources due to the ashes and increase awareness of the health hazards of drinking water contaminated by ashes.

The Forecast-based Action, with contribution from the EU, helped the Ecuadorian Red Cross anticipate the impact of the ashes from the Sangay volcano eruption and deliver aid to almost 1,000 families in the risk-prone province of Chimborazo.

Some of the disaster events mentioned above may not have made global headlines. Nevertheless, taken together, the response actions assisted by the IFRC’s Disaster Relief Emergency Fund with EU support in 2020 have had impact on the lives of many.

The joint EU-IFRC partnership on the Disaster Relief Emergency Fund continues in 2021 as an effective means of being by the side of vulnerable communities in times of need.

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