Emergency and Humanitarian Action

Fact sheet
3 January 2005

Of the six WHO regions, the Western Pacific experiences the most number of natural hazards.


A hazard is any phenomenon that has the potential to cause disruption or damage to the community.

An emergency is a state in which normal procedures are suspended and extraordinary measures are taken in order to avert the impact of a hazard on the community.

Examples of natural disasters:

  • typhoon
  • flood
  • earthquake
  • landslide

Examples of human-generated disasters:

  • industrial fire
  • coal mine explosion

Unless communities and provincial and central authorities are adequately prepared for and respond effectively to an emergency, normal conditions of existence may be disrupted and the level of suffering may exceed the capacity of the hazard-affected community to respond to it. This leads to a disaster. Thus some emergencies become disasters when they are not properly managed. Disasters are often classified according to their cause (natural or human-generated).

A complex emergency refers to a humanitarian crisis in a country, region or society where there is a total or considerable breakdown of authority resulting from civil conflict and/or foreign aggression; which requires an international response that goes beyond the mandate or capacity of any single agency and/or the ongoing United Nations country programme. A complex emergency is characterized by large numbers of civilian casualties, populations who are besieged or displaced quickly and in large numbers, and human suffering of major proportion. This is a situation that requires a high degree of external political support to enable humanitarian response, including negotiated access to affected populations. Humanitarian assistance is seriously impeded, delayed or prevented by politically or conflict motivated constraints, and there are high security risks for relief workers attempting to provide humanitarian assistance (Inter-Agency Standing Committee, December 1994).

Disasters and development

The development of a society, region or country is closely intertwined with the occurrence of, and vulnerability to disasters. Vulnerabilities can exist in the country’s population, environment, infrastructure, governance, economy, culture, and sense of community. Emergency response during disasters therefore must consider these aspects of the society. Gathering information about these underlying causes is important for disaster prevention, preparedness, planning, early warning, response, recovery and rehabilitation.

Vulnerability and capacity

Vulnerability is a dynamic process, rather than a static condition. Vulnerability can be a progressive "loss of well-being, i.e., health": first as psychological and economic insecurity then as increasing physical suffering.

During disasters, especially vulnerable are children, the elderly, pregnant women, the disabled and the chronically ill. In situations of distress, all those who haven't the means to cope with fast changes are vulnerable.

Vulnerability and capacity can be assessed along three parameters:

  • Physical/material: degrees of poverty and/or well-being
  • Social/organizational: how society is organized, internal conflicts and how they are managed
  • Motivational/attitudinal: how people and society perceive themselves and their ability to affect the environment

There are many points where public health action can complement the individual's and the community's caring and coping strategies, thereby reducing vulnerability. These actions include training of health personnel to be able to deal with emergency situations, development of regional and hospital disaster preparedness plans, development of skills in forensic medicine, and mass casualty management.

Disaster reduction

Disaster reduction involves intervention in these key points:

To reduce immediate and long-term avoidable mortality, morbidity and disability related to emergencies and disasters caused by natural and technological hazards, WHO collaborates with Member States to strengthen national and community capacity for emergency preparedness, response, recovery and rehabilitation. WHO also provides health emergency support to Member States whose communities are seriously affected in an emergency.

WHO focuses its work on four main issues in the Region:

  • inadequate preparation for recurring natural hazards and the increasing numbers of technological hazards, leading to emergencies or disasters in vulnerable and inadequately prepared communities;
  • weak institutional capacity for emergency management in the health sector, leading to ineffective or inappropriate emergency support;
  • inadequate collaboration among partner agencies, hindering the appropriate use of limited resources and collective efforts in emergency management; and
  • shortages of systematic and reliable public health information on emergencies, making it difficult to measure their impact, develop sound policies and monitor activities.
  • weak institutional capacity for emergency management in the health sector, leading to ineffective or inappropriate emergency support;
  • inadequate collaboration among partner agencies, hindering the appropriate use of limited resources and collective efforts in emergency management; and
  • shortages of systematic and reliable public health information on emergencies, making it difficult to measure their impact, develop sound policies and monitor activities.

Myths and realities

Myths Reality
Foreign medical volunteers with any kind of medical background are needed. The local population almost always covers immediate lifesaving needs. Only medical personnel with skills that are not available in the affected country may be needed.
Any kind of international assistance is needed, and it's needed now! A hasty response that is not based on an impartial evaluation only contributes to the chaos. It is better to wait until genuine needs have been assessed.
Epidemics and plagues are inevitable after every disaster. Epidemics do not spontaneously occur after a disaster and dead bodies will not lead to catastrophic outbreaks of exotic diseases. The key to preventing disease is to improve sanitary conditions and educate the public.
Disasters bring out the worst in human behavior. Although isolated cases of antisocial behavior exist, the majority of people respond spontaneously and generously.
The affected population is too shocked and helpless to take responsibility for their own survival. On the contrary, many find new strength during an emergency, as evidenced by the thousands of volunteers who spontaneously unite to assist in search and rescue operations.
Disasters are random killers. Disasters strike hardest at the most vulnerable group, the poor – especially women, children and the elderly.
Locating disaster victims in temporary settlements is the best alternative. It should be the last alternative. Many agencies use funds normally spent for tents to purchase building materials, tools, and other construction-related support in the affected country.
Things are back to normal within a few weeks. The effects of a disaster last a long time. Disaster-affected countries deplete much of their financial and material resources in the immediate post-impact phase. Successful relief programmes gear their operations to the fact that international interest wanes as needs and shortages become more pressing.


In 2001, the WHO Regional Offices for the Western Pacific and South-East Asia collaborated with the Asian Disaster Preparedness Center (ADPC) and the Japan International Corporation for Welfare Services to develop an international training programme designed for government policy-makers and managers. The programme was called Public Health and Emergency Management in Asia and the Pacific (PHEMAP).

PHEMAP is a series of integrated courses covering the technical, managerial, and policy aspects of emergency management in the health sector. The programme offers customized courses targeting the needs of different levels of health sector managers, from national (policy and guidelines) to provincial (programme management) and local (implementation) levels, as well as at the needs of directors of institutions such as major hospitals and academic institutions (training and education).

Using evidence-based criteria, the training curriculum focuses on:

  • mass accidents, floods, storms, and earthquakes;
  • long-term post-disaster public health needs and the public health needs of displaced peoples;
  • policies and guidelines for mass casualty management and hospital planning; and
  • pre-hospital knowledge and skills.

Since its inception, four training programmes have been implemented with participants from Cambodia, China, Fiji, Japan, the Lao People’s Democratic Republic, Malaysia, Papua New Guinea, the Philippines, Samoa, Vanuatu, and Viet Nam. One of the objectives of the interregional PHEMAP courses is for the participants to develop national level training courses for their respective countries. The Philippines offered its first national PHEMAP course in January 2003, Viet Nam in May, and Papua New Guinea in August. In 2004, the WHO supported two national PHEMAP courses in Viet Nam. Two subnational PHEMAP courses were also held in the Philippines.

For more information about PHEMAP and the work of Emergency and Humanitarian Action, WHO Western Pacific Regional Office:

Telephone: (632) 5289810, (632) 5289809
Facsimile: (632) 5289072

To view PDF file of this fact sheet, click on EHAfactsheets.pdf