Emergency Typologies

humanitarian emergency is a situation in which affected people no longer have access to the most basic resources for survival or protection but depend on others for their survival or protection.

A humanitarian emergency relates to the concept of acute crisis. An Acute crisis is one of three displacement scenarios presented in DRC’s response framework. In the acute crisis displacement scenario people’s lives and dignity are at risk.

A humanitarian emergency is not defined by a single type of crisis, but rather is defined by its impact on the population and the inability of local communities and national actors to respond without external assistance. On the ground, therefore, an emergency can look very different from one context to the other different types of crises will require different interventions.

The following section provides an overview of some of the key terms used to identify and define humanitarian emergencies.


Types of Emergency:

The emergency situations that DRC might encounter can be broadly divided into three categories:

  • Natural hazards: Naturally occurring extreme events that can lead to loss of life, damage to community infrastructure, property and assets, and disruptions to livelihoods. E.g. Floods, earthquakes, drought.
  • Man-made crises: Emergency situations caused by (often deliberate) human action such as conflict. These are the situations where DRC most commonly responds.
  • Public health emergencies: Outbreaks of infectious diseases and viruses, for example, Ebola. DRC is not a health actor and so while not providing a first-line health response we may be involved in carrying out prevention activities or a complementary protection response.

In many places where DRC works, multiple types of emergency might occur at the same time. A conflict-affected location can additionally experience extreme flooding or suffer from an outbreak of cholera, for example. While these two shocks might be quickly handled in a stable environment, fragile conflict-affected areas with weakened governance structures and limited resources may struggle to respond, leading to a secondary emergency.


Slow- vs. sudden-onset

Sudden-onset crises are what most people associate with the word emergency. They are usually characterised by a large-scale loss of or threat to life, injury, or damage to assets and property. The emergency situation is usually caused by a single sudden shock, for example, an outbreak of violence which prompts large-scale displacement.

A slow-onset crisis, however, does not arise from a distinct event but rather emerges gradually over months, or even years, often resulting from a confluence of different factors or events.

This also makes the early signs of crisis harder to identify. The emergency can be declared when the situation has deteriorated to such a point that it requires humanitarian action. The establishment of early warning systems is critical in these contexts, as it will allow humanitarian actors to closely monitor developments on the ground and ideally respond before to address risks before the crisis escalates.

A good example of a slow-onset crisis is drought. Lack of rainfall does not create an emergency overnight but over time and without intervention it leads to inadequate harvests, death of livestock and water shortages, which in turn can cause a loss of livelihoods and income, hunger, malnutrition and the spread of communicable diseases.

Slow onset crises often receive more limited international attention than sudden-onset ones, and many have the tendency to become hidden or forgotten crises.


Complex emergencies

On top of these general categories, DRC frequently responds in contexts that are referred to complex emergencies.

IASC defines a complex emergency as “a humanitarian crisis in a country, region or society where there is total or considerable breakdown of authority resulting from internal or external conflict and which requires an international response that goes beyond the mandate or capacity of any single agency.”

A complex emergency is a major humanitarian crisis caused by multiple factors, and where social, political and economic systems are attacked or weakened. Complex emergencies require an international humanitarian response at scale.


Protracted emergencies

Although an emergency response is intended to be a time-bound life-saving intervention, in reality, in many contexts, emergency humanitarian assistance is being provided year after year. Protracted emergencies are situations where a significant part of the population is acutely vulnerable and dependent on humanitarian assistance over a prolonged period of time. In many cases, this period becomes so long that the emergency has become the normal situation.



Contact the HQ Emergency Unit: [email protected]