Feature Address of the Executive Director of the Caribbean Disaster Emergency Management Agency (CDEMA) at the Caribbean Launch of IDDR 2014 in Kingston Jamaica

It is my honour and privilege to give the Feature Address at this Caribbean launch of the International Day of Disaster Reduction for 2014. I wish to commence by commending the partnership between HelpAge Jamaica, the Jamaica Office of Disaster Preparedness and Emergency Management (ODPEM) and the United Nations International Strategy for Disaster Reduction (UNISDR) for the hosting of this commemorative event.

IDDR Day was initiated in 1989 with the approval of the United Nations General Assembly as a way to promote a global culture of disaster reduction through encouraging every citizen and government to take part in building more disaster resilient communities and nations.

This is certainly congruent with the tenets of the Comprehensive Disaster Management (CDM) philosophy which CDEMA promotes. We espouse through CDM that all segments of the society have a role to play in reducing disaster risks and increasing the level of safety.

The focus of IDDR Day 2014 is on older people and disasters under the theme “Resilence for Life”. This follows on from themes since 2011 which have focussed on other important vulnerable groups in our societies.

The United Nations defines an older person as any person 60 years and over. Data sourced from HelpAge International indicates that by 2050, the global number of people over the age of 60 will triple from 650 million to 2 billion. This is an increase from the current 11% of the world’s population to 22%. Further, over 80% of the world's older people will be living in developing countries as compared to 60% today.

The Caribbean is known to have the one of the fastest-ageing populations. The United Nations projects that in the Caribbean, the proportion of the population over the age of 60 will increase from 11.1% in 2005 to 24.6% in 2050, which is higher than the projected global average.

Why should these statistics be of concern to us in the field of disaster risk management? Experiences have shown that older people tend to be among the most vulnerable people impacted by emergency events. Therefore, this increase in the proportion of ageing population means that vulnerability on the higher tier of our population pyramid will rise. Essentially more and more older people will likely be affected.

As we develop new plans and review existing ones we need to factor this trend into our planning processes. We must also factor into our considerations on this topic that we are experiencing new and emerging risks and hazards, particularly, but not limited to those associated with the effects of climate change and climate variability. These heightened risks require our societies in general to be better prepared to respond to and cope with potential disaster effects, but more importantly implement strategies, programmes and plans aimed at reducing the levels of risk exposure to our vulnerable groups in our communities.

Recent global and regional events have served to bring into focus the disproportionate impact of natural disasters and crises on older persons. In its 2004 macro-economic and social assessment of the damage wrought by Hurricane Ivan in Grenada, the Organisation of Eastern Caribbean States noted that 70 percent of all the persons who lost their lives were over 60 years old. Assessment of the impact of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans in the United States in 2005 revealed that 50% of those who lost their lives were in their 70s or 80s. Only 39 people under 40 years of age died, less than 6% of all victims listed. In 2013, Typhoon Haiyan, one of the strongest storms ever to make landfall affected around 1.3 million people over the age of 50 in the Philippines.

There are a number of challenges associated with being an elderly individual in our society during and after an emergency event. According to the Pan American Health Organisation (PAHO), approximately 20-30% of people over 60 have one or more disabilities, whether physical, mental, or sensory. This percentage increases with age to more than 50% in people over 80.

Before an event, the reduced mobility, physical strength, mental challenges and impaired vision and sight that are often associated with older age may make it harder for older persons to maintain their housing and prepare for a potential disaster, particularly if they do not have the support of family or community.

During an event, these challenges may result in these persons being less able to take themselves out of harm’s way, such as taking cover in a safe place or leaving a building quickly during an earthquake event.

Such challenges may also hinder an older person’s capacity to cope in the aftermath of an emergency, for example in rapidly accessing food and/or medical supplies or finding shelter. This may mean the difference between life and death. Additionally, older people may have more specific requirements with regard to dietary requirements or they may require a greater level of assistance when housed in shelters, for example, in using bathroom facilities. These things are often not factored into shelter management preparations. Disasters often tend to exacerbate well-controlled chronic diseases by interfering with treatment cycles and established patient management schedules, particularly when required medication can not be accessed or transportation is disrupted.

During the recovery phase of an emergency, older people can and often do experience challenges in accessing relief assistance, for example in making repairs to their homes. Further, they are at prime risk of being excluded from support provided by governments to revive their livelihoods.

According to best practice guidelines produced by HelpAge International, reducing the vulnerability of older people is not primarily about creating special services for them but rather about ensuring that they have equal access to vital services.

This is particularly important in the Caribbean as we are seeing changes in the traditional constructs of our once very close-knit communities and families. Persons living within the same community tend not to be as involved with each other as would have occurred in the past. Younger persons are moving out of the neighbourhoods in which they were raised and increasingly the move is towards immigration (moving overseas). What this means is that the support system that would traditionally have been available to older persons before, during and after emergencies, are no longer in place.

Having identified the facts regarding older persons and disasters how do we seek to address them in a practical way and within the Caribbean context? There are several key entry points, all of which must be pursued simultaneously.

There is scope for State driven interventions through strengthened institutional mechanisms within the social sector (so laws, policies and capacities). Work must also be done at the Local level through municipalities, if they exist, and at the community level in partnership with established and recognized community actors. For example, the Community Disaster Committees through their Community Based Disaster Risk Management Programmes should collect and include in their plans information on the elderly in their community including their special needs. This information must be further shared with the Local Authorities and the National Disaster Organistions to be incorporated into disaster planning, particularly related to shelter arrangements, food distribution, and ensuring that elderly people have access to required support. This is being done to some extent in some of the CDEMA Participating States but there is a recognised need for it to become institutionalized.

We must also recognize that our elderly should not only be seen as victims, but we must make efforts to recognize and harness their unique capacities and contributions in preparing for and responding to disasters. Older persons often have knowledge and experience about past events which can assist their families in understanding, planning and making decisions regarding potential or impending events. Older persons also commonly have responsibility for caring for young children in the aftermath of an emergency, while parents are out cleaning up and accessing supplies or re-engaging in income generation to meet the family’s needs.

Generally, in the Caribbean, increasing attention is being given to the vulnerability of older persons in disasters. Nevertheless, we acknowledge that there is still much more to be done to meet the needs of this growing segment of society. Further, it must be recognised that the interrelated issues of poverty and gender impact upon vulnerability and must be concurrently addressed.

The regional CDM Strategy 2014-2024 provides the platform for ensuring that the needs of older persons are mainstreamed into disaster planning. We see the focus on needs of Older Persons within the context of our Gender Mainstreaming efforts recognizing that Gender is a cross cutting issue for the CDM Strategy which must be addressed within all four pillars (Institutional Capacity Strengthening, Knowledge Management, Sector Mainstreaming and Community Resilience). In fact, at a recent Gender and Vulnerable Groups Think Tank Session which I hosted in Barbados we examined the issues related to vulnerability and resilience of the elderly and identified key areas of action for CDEMA and its partners within the context of the CDM Strategy 2014-2024. These are:

  1. Capacity Building for Risk Managers and Care Givers
  2. Improved data management and analysis related to vulnerable groups
  3. Standardization and harmonization of data collection mechanisms
  4. Influence and promote policy coherence
  5. Improved protocols for dealing with persons in disaster situation especially those for shelter management.

We must also capitalize on technology and its ability to enhance our planning and decision making towards our vulnerable population. So better and more effective utilization of Geographic Information Systems and Statistics and past, present and future investment in the area of Early Warning Systems. We can leverage these ICT based tools to ensure the safety of our elderly population.

CDEMA is committed to working with its partners to ensure that the needs and concerns of older persons are integrated into all phases of disaster planning to improve their capacities to survive and cope with the effects of emergency events.

In closing I wish to commend the efforts of the NGO Partners, Help Age, The IFRC and others and to acknowledge the role that Professor Denise Eldemire Shearer has played through research, conference presentations regionally and internationally in her role as an advocate for focussed attention in this area.

Thank you.

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