The risk of, and coping with, a humanitarian crisis

The terrible earthquake with a magnitude 7.8 that occurred in Nepal on April 25, resulting in a huge death toll and UN estimates that 6.6 million people have been affected, begs the unthinkable: how would Portugal cope with a major national disaster leading to a humanitarian crisis? How at risk are we, what are the hazards and how would we cope?

This is not exactly light reading if you are sitting up in bed drinking a cup of tea reading this article – but in the context of safe communities is one I believe that is important. After all, this is where we chose to live, invest and do business.

Certainly I am no expert on this subject, but my interest has been prompted recently by research undertaken by INFORM, which is the first global, objective and transparent tool for understanding the risk of humanitarian crises. INFORM is a collaboration of the Inter-Agency Standing Committee Task Team for Preparedness and Resilience and the European Commission (EC).

The INFORM initiative began in 2012 as a convergence of interests of UN agencies, donors, NGOs and research institutions to establish a common evidence-base for global humanitarian risk analysis. INFORM identifies the countries at a high risk of humanitarian crisis that are more likely to require international assistance.

Around the globe, hundreds of millions of people are exposed to natural and man-made hazards. According to the Centre for Research on the Epidemiology of Disasters (CRED), at least 96 million people in 115 countries were affected by natural disasters in 2013. While the economic costs of these disasters are concentrated in the industrialised world, the impact on people is predominantly felt in developing countries, including the vast majority of those killed, injured and made homeless.

2013 also saw over 200 violent conflicts underway around the world, according to the Heidelberg Institute for International Conflict Research (HIIK). These and previous emergencies, both natural and man-made, have created over 16 million refugees and more than 41 million internally displaced people (IDPs).

While the lead role in disaster management lies with communities and national governments (in the case of Portugal, the ANPC Civil Protection Agency), the international community also plays an important supporting role both in responding to emergencies, as well as working with communities, national governments and civil societies on prevention, mitigation and preparedness.

In their recently released 2015 report covering 191 countries, INFORM identifies the countries at a high risk of humanitarian crisis that are more likely to require international assistance. The INFORM model is based on risk concepts published in scientific literature and envisages three dimensions of risk: Hazards & Exposure, Vulnerability and Lack of Coping Capacity. The INFORM model is split into different levels to provide a quick overview of the underlying factors leading to humanitarian risk.

Under this model, a “hazard” is: a dangerous phenomenon, substance, human activity or condition that may cause loss of life, injury or other health impacts, property damage, loss of livelihoods and services, social and economic disruption, or environmental damage.

“Vulnerability”: The characteristics and circumstances of a community, system or asset that make it susceptible to the damaging effects of a hazard. And “coping capacity”: The ability of people, organisations and systems, using available skills and resources, to face and manage adverse conditions, emergencies or disasters.

Each of these three groups is rated one to 10. The higher the rating, the greater the risk, the vulnerability and lack of coping ability.

In this context, it is interesting to note that Nepal was rated a massive 9.89 out of 10 in terms of risk of earthquakes, only surpassed by Japan.

How is Portugal rated?
In terms of overall risk (1 being the highest and 191 the lowest risk), Portugal is placed in the low group at 167th out of 191 countries. By comparison, Somalia is rated the highest risk in first place; Afghanistan 3rd; the UK 150th; the USA 103rd and Spain 152nd. Singapore is rated the lowest risk at 191st. This shows Portugal in a very good position globally.

More specifically, Portugal was placed 141st in terms of hazards; 183rd in terms of vulnerability and 158th in terms of lack of coping ability. These findings are on par with countries such as Uruguay, Austria and the Czech Republic.

If we look at the hazards, in this case 0 being the lowest and 10 the highest, Portugal’s rating is 1.6 (low). However, in terms of physical exposure to earthquakes, Portugal was rated 6.4 (high); to floods 3.5 (high); to tsunami 0.0 (low); to tropical cyclone 0.9 (low); and droughts 1.8 (low). The projected conflict risk is rated at 0.1 (low) and for currently highly violent content intensity (0.0).

The interesting ratings are under the category of the lack of capacity of the country to cope in a humanitarian crisis – 10 being the worst rating in terms of lack of ability to cope and 0 as having the greatest ability to cope. Overall, Portugal is rated 2.9 which is medium; in terms of governance 3.2 (medium); communication 3.0 (medium); physical infrastructure 2.8 (medium) and access to health care 1.3 (low). By comparison, the UK has an overall higher risk, a higher risk to the hazards and an ability to cope at 2.8, the latter which is roughly in line with Portugal.

So what can be gleaned from this rather than a lot of figures? Basically, my analysis is that Portugal compares very well indeed with the overall majority of countries in terms of its overall risk of a humanitarian crisis and its coping capacity. Certainly, there is nothing to lose sleep about!

For those who may wish to study this subject in more depth, the Civil Protection contingency plans in the case of a natural disaster in the Algarve and the municipalities can be found through links in the Civil Protection page on the Safe Communities Algarve website. The INFORM project can be accessed at – it is an extremely interesting report.

Interestingly, in the latest Global Peace Index by the Institute of Economic Research, which is based on 22 factors (including conflict), Portugal is currently rated 18th best out of 162 countries to live. This compares with 47th for the UK and 20th for the Netherlands.

The INFORM report is certainly a useful reference if you are spending a great deal of time in another country or are moving there to live!

Conclusion – I am glad I am living here!

By David Thomas
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David Thomas is a former Assistant Commissioner of the Hong Kong Police, consultant to INTERPOL and the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime. In October 2011 he founded Safe Communities Algarve an on-line platform here in the Algarve to help the authorities and the community prevent crime. It is now registered as Associação Safe Communities Algarve, the first association of its type in Portugal. 913 045 093