The second half of 2018 has seen several disasters around the world. India saw two major destructive floods: One in the state of Kerala in South India and the other in North-East Indian states. Ravaged by heavy rains and flooding of rivers, houses were submerged, and livelihoods as well as lives lost. Relief provision was hampered in inaccessible areas, particularly in the politically neglected North-East India, with the poorest of the population being impacted the most. A similar case of inaccessibility to aid is being seen in the famine in Yemen. Yemen has been ravaged by war since 2015, leading to reductions in food imports and resultantly mass starvation and disease, with children at the highest risk. Further displacement this year was caused by earthquakes in Indonesia, which borders the Pacific Ring of Fire, and Haiti. Relief is being provided by NGOs and local disaster management agencies.

In the face of rapid climate change, natural disasters have become commonplace, with vulnerable populations in the global south at the highest risk. Consequently, the significance of national and international organisations has expanded to curb loss of livelihoods. Therefore, on the occasion of the 25th anniversary of The United Nations Disaster Assessment and Coordination (UNDAC), this article appraises disaster mitigation methods in history, both its institutions and practice. Given the increasing importance of relief provision today, it is pertinent to review disaster relief strategies in history. Disaster relief strategies have evolved over time, varying from more localised efforts to the national and international arena. This article attempts to trace relief policies in history and their impact on disaster mitigation today. What are some of the lessons learned and legacies inherited from historical disaster management?

Earthquakes and Floods

Hydraulic Empires, whether the Indus Valley, Mesopotamia, the East Asian or Southern American Civilisations, were all prone to natural disasters, and scholars suggest that they also succumbed to floods. Ancient Chinese civilisations were known to build dams and dykes to contain floods1 caused by the Yellow River2. In addition to embankments, Amenhamet III of Egypt, during severe flooding, commissioned to divert water from the Nile to Lake Moeris using about 200 ‘water wheels’3. Some of these methods have been incorporated by government agencies for relief provision, a case in point being present day China; the Ministry of Water Resources overlooks flood and drought control tasks4.

Disaster relief in Britain, which extended to British colonialism, has influenced current disaster management strategies to a considerable extent. For some, these efforts were not only effective, but also well thought-out5. In India, flood control structures such as embankments continued to be built under the colonial era, involving state intervention6. For earthquakes, relief funds were allotted, but the major development was to map areas prone to earthquakes via the Survey of India7. Study of the soil was also useful in mapping flood-prone areas8.

Similarly, Japan has been highly prone to regular earthquakes; therefore, the use of and research on seismographs can be traced to the 19th Century, with the objective of mapping earthquakes9. The Seismological Society of Japan was set up after the Yokohama earthquake in 1880, which was the predecessor to The Society of Historical Earthquake Studies established in 198410. Many earthquake-prone areas were identified, which aided disaster preparedness. With improvements of techniques over the 20th Century, Japan became one of the best disaster-resilient countries.


In agrarian societies, the most common phenomenon was famines, caused by climatic factors and often accompanied by onset of diseases. Vulnerability of peasant societies to disasters has been assumed as a legacy of colonialism; however, it dates back to the pre-colonial era. Preventive measures for sedentary communities included grain storage, and some local landlords would arrange for digging of irrigation ditches.

Knowledge production in the 19th Century, particularly drawing upon ideas of Thomas Malthus, viewed lack of food as the major cause of famines, resulting from lack of rains, and consequently leading to the formulation of more irrigation based policies. Embankments, specifically, had a protective purpose from famines, as well as a preventive one in irrigation canals. Poor relief in England gave rise to the idea of food for work, a policy also applied in India during famines. However, food for work was not an innovation of the state; landlords in agrarian societies had long provided food or grain to hired labour in times of distress. Under the British, however, work was provided on railways, roads and irrigation canals, that is, infrastructures that were believed to have a preventive and protective feature during famines. A similar policy was applied during the Irish famine of 1845. The major shortcoming of the food for work programme is that it assumes poverty to be correlated with famine vulnerability. This fails to take into account the social barriers that restrict access to food and other resources, a point discussed in detail by Amartya Sen11.

Foreign aid imports in the form of food has been one way of combatting famine. During the Irish famine, Indian maize peel was imported from the United States under the Relief Commission12. However, introduction of food items that the population is not accustomed to meant it was difficult to prepare, and being of little nutritional value, was limited in its impact on mortality13. Food imports were more successful during the WWI famines in Iran and Lebanon. Trade and communication routes were impacted by the war, resulting in shortage of basic grains in both countries. The governments attempted to control the situation by price fixing and barring grain exports, but the situation worsened as food prices sky-rocketed14. Relief in the form of food imports was provided by Egypt to Mount Lebanon, but due to political conditions, the famine claimed lives in thousands. Periods of conflict, in this case as in Russia or more recently in Sudan, preceded and caused these famines, also making relief provision difficult.

The road ahead

Some key issues in modern disaster management and the areas of focus for states and disaster management agencies are discussed below:

Importance of communication networks

Relief provision becomes difficult if there is a lack of communication. Reaching remote areas is significant when disaster strikes; hence investment in maintenance and construction of infrastructures is key for disaster preparedness. Moreover, setting up risk-assessment units within countries allows for the possibility of timely mitigation, or even prevention.

Economic Policies

Countries that lack export commodities that fetch windfall gains find it difficult to purchase food grains or aid commodities during distress15. The USA has been providing ‘food gifts’ to affected countries, the lack of which would require governments of countries prone to famines to commercialise agriculture16. However, the assumption that agricultural commercialisation would solve the problem of food shortage is flawed, because more land devoted to commercial crops for export implies less land for food grain production, making these countries more dependent on food grain import. Modernisation-inspired development programs for global south model policies on the western experience, which can rupture the socio-economic fabric of a society17. Therefore, economic policies regarding allocation of funds and prevention of disasters should be devised with sensitivity to social context.

Better coordination between different actors

Disaster management involves coordination between not only the national and international agencies, but also among local communities, NGOs and local governments18. Conflicts between any of these actors can take a heavy toll on rescue efforts. Disaster management has faced some major hindrances in terms of relief provision, of note being national and international rivalries. The Bhola Cyclone that hit present day Bangladesh (then East Pakistan) in 1970s caused widespread damage to crop and human life. However, the India-Pakistani conflict made it difficult to exchange important meteorological information and provide relief19. The mismanagement of the calamity eventually fed into the Indo-Pakistan war of 1971 which culminated in the creation of Bangladesh20. Another example is of the Kerala floods of August 2018, when local fishermen with boats played a major role in evacuation efforts in remote areas. However, the disdain of higher caste communities for fishermen groups hindered rescue efforts. Therefore, effective planning at all levels and successful coordination between different actors is the key to efficient disaster mitigation.

In conclusion, the research on the impact of, and adaptation to, environmental crises in the past is necessary in preventing and equipping for such events in the future21. Irrigation ditches, embankments, food provision and food for work both by governments have been passed on, and improved through time, as disaster management strategies. Hence, historical analysis provides a long-term perspective that aids the understanding of processes and discourses that ‘facilitate or constrain adaptive responses, both at the community and societal level’22. The lessons learned from calamities in history, as well as thorough analysis of individual societies, has paved way for internationally accepted disaster-management measures that will allow for better mitigation strategies in the future.

Amal Shahid is a PhD Candidate in the Department of International History and a Teaching Assistant for Interdisciplinary Masters Programmes at the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies, Geneva. Her thesis focuses on casual labour in public works in nineteenth- century colonial India. Her broad interests include political economy, social history, development policy, economic anthropology and the sociology of gender and caste.

1H. T. Lambrick, “The Indus Flood-Plain and the ‘Indus’ Civilization,” The Geographical Journal 133, no. 4 (December 1967): 483, See Also: Brian M. Fagan, Floods, Famines, and Emperors: El Niño and the Fate of Civilizations, 1st ed (New York: Basic Books, 1999).

2Gang Chen, The Politics of Disaster Management in China: Institutions, Interest Groups, and Social Participation, Palgrave Pivot (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2016), 12.

3Damon P. Coppola, “The Management of Disasters,” in Introduction to International Disaster Management, Third edition (Amsterdam: Elsevier/Butterworth-Hein, 2015), 3.

4Chen, The Politics of Disaster Management in China, 20.

5Damon P. Coppola, “The Management of Disasters,” in Introduction to International Disaster Management, Third edition (Amsterdam: Elsevier/Butterworth-Hein, 2015), 4.

6Tirthankar Roy, Natural Disasters and Indian History, 2014, 75.

7Roy, 129.

8Roy, 129.

9John Milne, “Important Points in the History of Earthquake Investigation in Japan,” Nature 35 (April 14, 1887): 559,

10Ritsuko S. Matsu’ura, “A Short History of Japanese Historical Seismology: Past and the Present,” Geoscience Letters 4, no. 1 (December 2017),

11Amartya Sen, Poverty and Famines: An Essay on Entitlement and Deprivation (Oxford : New York: Clarendon Press ; Oxford University Press, 1981).

12Keneally, Three Famines, 223.

13Keneally, 225.

14Mohammad Reza Pordeli et al., “A Study of the Causes of Famine in Iran during World War I,” Review of European Studies 9, no. 2 (May 18, 2017): 299,

15Seavoy, Famine in Peasant Societies, 396.

16Seavoy, 397–98.

17For example, see Timothy Mitchell, Rule of Experts: Egypt, Techno-Politics, Modernity (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002).

18Liza Ireni Saban, Disaster Emergency Management: The Emergence of Professional Help Services for Victims of Natural Disasters (Albany: Sunny Press, 2014), 22.

19Ireni Saban, Disaster Emergency Management, 2014, 21.

20Ireni Saban, Disaster Emergency Management, 2014, 21.

21George C.D. Adamson, “Institutional and Community Adaptation from the Archives: A Study of Drought in Western India, 1790–1860,” Geoforum 55 (August 2014): 110,

22Adamson, 110


Adamson, George C.D. “Institutional and Community Adaptation from the Archives: A Study of Drought in Western India, 1790–1860.” Geoforum 55 (August 2014): 110–19.

Chen, Gang. The Politics of Disaster Management in China: Institutions, Interest Groups, and Social Participation. Palgrave Pivot. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2016.

Coppola, Damon P. “The Management of Disasters.” In Introduction to International Disaster Management, Third edition. Amsterdam: Elsevier/Butterworth-Hein, 2015.

Fagan, Brian M. Floods, Famines, and Emperors: El Niño and the Fate of Civilizations. 1st ed. New York: Basic Books, 1999.

Ireni Saban, Liza. Disaster Emergency Management: The Emergence of Professional Help Services for Victims of Natural Disasters. Albany: Sunny Press, 2014.

Keneally, Thomas. Three Famines: Starvation and Politics. 1st ed. New York: PublicAffairs, 2011.

Lambrick, H. T. “The Indus Flood-Plain and the ‘Indus’ Civilization.” The Geographical Journal 133, no. 4 (December 1967): 483.

Matsu’ura, Ritsuko S. “A Short History of Japanese Historical Seismology: Past and the Present.” Geoscience Letters 4, no. 1 (December 2017).

Milne, John. “Important Points in the History of Earthquake Investigation in Japan.” Nature 35 (April 14, 1887): 559.

Mitchell, Timothy. Rule of Experts: Egypt, Techno-Politics, Modernity. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002.

Pordeli, Mohammad Reza, Malihe Abavysany, Maryam Mollashahi, and Doost Ali Sanchooli. “A Study of the Causes of Famine in Iran during World War I.” Review of European Studies 9, no. 2 (May 18, 2017): 296.

Roy, Tirthankar. Natural Disasters and Indian History, 2014.

Seavoy, Ronald E. Famine in Peasant Societies. Contributions in Economics and Economic History, no. 66. New York: Greenwood Press, 1986.

Sen, Amartya. Poverty and Famines: An Essay on Entitlement and Deprivation. Oxford : New York: Clarendon Press ; Oxford University Press, 1981.