Current Issue
Spring 2014
BMM Current Issue
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Humane Response
An interdisciplinary approach could improve disaster relief.
A funny thing happened on the way to South Sudan last summer. Initially, I had been called out by International Medical Corps to develop a training program for local doctors and nurses at some of the smaller, rural hospitals around the country. En route to Africa, though, I received word that I would be needed in another capacity. They had just been notified that 15,000 South Sudanese were being forcibly repatriated from Khartoum, Sudan, to Juba, South Sudan, and a camp was going to be set up to house them temporarily. International Medical Corps had agreed to manage health and nutrition programs for the returnees, and I was needed to rapidly set up a medical clinic for the camp.

While this particular crisis was an acute one, with nearly a dozen organizations, including my own, scrambling to ensure enough shelter, food, water, sanitation, and medical care for the returnees in the span of just a few days, it was not a new one. Hundreds of thousands of refugees have been pouring back and forth across the border between Sudan and South Sudan since long before the border even officially existed.

In many parts of the world, refugee crises have become protracted events, smoldering for decades without a clear end in sight. Even natural disasters can stretch on for years after the initial event, with the 2010 Haitian earthquake being a prime example: three years on, thousands of people in Port-au-Prince still remain without permanent housing or adequate sanitation. And not only are humanitarian emergencies lasting longer, but the Center for Research on the Epidemiology of Disasters has found that the frequency of disasters and the number of people impacted by them have increased sharply in recent decades, a trend that is only likely to continue given the long-term effects of climate change and global patterns of migration.

All of which is to say that we need to stop treating humanitarian emergencies as one-off events, praying after each one that it never happens again, and instead start preparing for a future in which humanitarian emergencies are commonplace, but where we do everything we can to mitigate their effects on populations, improve the quality of response, and shorten the recovery period.

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