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​Air transportation – the critical infrastructure when disaster strikes

Charles E. Schlumberger's picture
Relief supplies being unloaded from a New Zealand C-130 at the airport in
Tuvalu after Cyclone Pam struck some outer islands. Photo: Nora Weisskopf

When disaster strikes, air transport is often the only feasible mode of transportation for first responders and urgently needed relief supplies. Following an earthquake, tsunami or hurricane, most roads, rail tracks and even ports become unusable, as they are blocked for days by debris. Airports, on the other hand, are remarkably sustainable and, within hours, usually become operational again.  

Kathmandu Airport: Already crowded
before the earthquake. 
​Photo: Charles Schlumberger
The main reason of this sustainability is that runways are on open space where debris of a disaster can be removed quickly. Furthermore, a runway usually suffers remarkable little damage even by a strong earthquake, such as experienced last week in Nepal or in Haiti in 2010. And even if there are cracks and holes in the runway, modern relief aircraft like C-130s can operate safely for some time.
However, the challenges of operating relief flights can quickly become overwhelming, especially for airports in developing countries that usually experience only moderate traffic. In Haiti, for example, more than 74 aircraft landed on a single day following the earthquake to unload supplies. Such traffic poses risks in the air; air traffic control, often hampered by inadequate or damaged surveillance installations, can’t cope managing all arriving aircraft. On the ground, where tarmac and taxiways are small, congestion quickly reigns which prevents the arrival of more flights.

Managing Disaster Risk in South Asia

Marc Forni's picture

Losses due to disasters to human and physical capital are on the rise across the world.  Over the past 30 years, total losses have tripled, amounting to $3.5 trillion. While the majority of these losses were experienced in OECD countries, the trend is increasingly moving towards losses in rapidly growing states. 
In a sense, increasing risk and losses caused by disaster are the byproduct of a positive trend - strong development gains and economic growth. This is because disaster loss is a function of the amount of human and physical assets exposed to seismic or hydrometeorological hazards, and the level of vulnerability of the assets. The richer a country gets, the more assets it builds or acquires, and therefore the more losses it potentially faces.
Rapid development across South Asia signals the need to commit greater efforts to increase resilience to disaster and climate risk. It also requires governments to develop a strategy to both protect against events today and to develop strategies to address the losses of the future.  This is a challenge somewhat unique to South Asia. The losses of today, predominantly rural flooding that impacts wide swaths of vulnerable populations, will begin to diminish in relative importance to the losses of the future.

So-called natural disasters are not unpredictable

Niels Holm-Nielsen's picture

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No two earthquakes in the world cause equal damage, according to scientists. This is particularly true in Latin America, a land of contrasts.

Whereas in 2010, an earthquake measuring 7 on the Richter scale ravaged Haiti, claiming nearly a quarter of a million lives, a few weeks ago in Mexico, an earthquake of similar magnitude (7.4) caused only a few cracks and minor injuries.

The earthquake that changed the world forever

Abhas Jha's picture

The Japanese phrase “Shikata ga nai (仕方がない)  -loosely translated as "it can't be helped" -captures the essence of the resilience and sense of duty towards one’s community that the Japanese people displayed in the aftermath of the Great East Japan Earthquake and Tsunami.

Saving lives one building at a time: Post-disaster urban search and rescue in China

Abhas Jha's picture

We have all probably heard the old adage “Earthquakes don’t kill people, buildings do”. Recent temblors in Haiti and earlier in China have tragically demonstrated the truth of this. Out-of-date building codes and regulations, poor enforcement and badly-planned urbanization have all greatly increased the risk of urban disasters all over the developing world.