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What Is a Humanitarian Emergency?

Humanitarian emergency for East Africa Drought victim


A humanitarian emergency is an event or series of events that represents a critical threat to the health, safety, security or wellbeing of a community or other large group of people, usually over a wide area.




A humanitarian emergency arises when such an event affects vulnerable populations who are unable to withstand the negative consequences by themselves. “Vulnerability” refers to a reduced capacity of individuals or groups to resist and recover from life-threatening hazards, and is most often connected to poverty. That is, poor populations are more likely to be more vulnerable to man-made or natural disasters. Within affected communities, typically vulnerable groups include children, pregnant and nursing women, migrants, and displaced people.

Types of Crises

Armed conflicts, epidemics, famine, natural disasters and other major emergencies may all involve or lead to a humanitarian disaster that extends beyond the mandate or capacity of any single agency. Regardless of the type of disaster, survivors are left in urgent of need of life-saving assistance such as shelter, food, water and health care.

Humanitarian crises can be grouped under the following headings:

- Natural disasters, which can be geophysical (e.g. earthquakes, tsunamis and volcanic eruptions), hydrological (e.g. floods, avalanches), climatological (e.g. droughts), meteorological (e.g. storms, cyclones), or biological (e.g. epidemics, plagues).

- Man-made emergencies, such as armed conflicts, plane and train crashes, fires and industrial accidents.

- Complex emergencies, which often have a combination of natural and man-made elements, and different causes of vulnerability and a combination of factors leads to a humanitarian crisis. Examples include food insecurity, armed conflicts, and displaced populations.

Complex emergencies are typically characterized by:

- Extensive violence and loss of life

- Displacements of populations

- Widespread damage to societies and economies

- The need for large-scale, multi-faceted humanitarian assistance

- The hindrance or prevention of humanitarian assistance by political and military constraints

- Significant security risks for humanitarian relief workers in some areas

Humanitarian emergency for East Africa Drought victim

It is not always easy categorizing a humanitarian disaster. However, the priority in any humanitarian response, regardless of the kind of disaster, is to save lives and reduce suffering through meeting humanitarian needs. How such needs are met depends on the specific emergency. For example, in armed conflicts more effort is taken to protect the lives of humanitarian workers. In floods and tsunamis, access to affected populations might sometimes be challenging.

Each humanitarian disaster has its own set of challenges, and must be responded to accordingly. Phenomena such as unplanned urbanization, under-development, poverty and climate change are all factors that can make humanitarian emergencies more complex, frequent and/or severe.

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More Information

- ReliefWeb: an information portal on emergencies, hosted by the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA)

- IRIN News - News and analysis of humanitarian crises from around the world

- How to help - Humanitarian Coalition resource