How the Government of Canada Responds to Natural Disasters Abroad

Frequently Asked Questions

  1. How does the Government of Canada respond to major natural disasters abroad?
  2. Who coordinates the Government of Canada response to natural disasters abroad and why?
  3. How does the Government of Canada design its response to a natural disaster abroad?
  4. What tools can the Government of Canada use to respond to major natural disasters abroad?
  5. Which Canadian federal government departments get involved when there is a major natural disaster abroad?
  6. What other partners does the Government of Canada work with?
  7. How does the Government of Canada stay prepared to respond to natural disasters abroad?
  8. Does the Government of Canada respond to all natural disasters abroad?
  9. What are needs assessments?
  10. Why does it matter whether the government of the affected country makes an official request for international assistance? Shouldn't Canada just send aid anyway?
  11. What is the Central Emergency Response Fund (CERF)?
  12. When does the Government of Canada use the Canadian Forces' Disaster Assistance Response Team (DART)?
  13. What are the objectives of Canadian humanitarian action?
  14. What is the difference between relief, rehabilitation and development?
  15. What is the difference between a natural hazard and a natural disaster?
  16. When is a hazard not a disaster?
  17. What is "disaster risk reduction"?
  18. What was the 2005 World Conference on Disaster Reduction?
  19. I want to help out. What can I do?
  20. I am in the private sector. How can my company contribute?
  21. How is gender relevant to humanitarian assistance?
  22. Are survivors of natural disasters helpless and completely dependent on external assistance?
  23. Who coordinates responses to disasters inside Canada?

  1. How does the Government of Canada respond to major natural disasters abroad?
    • Within hours/days

    The Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade (DFAIT) and the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) continuously monitor notifications about natural disasters from scientific observation centers, relief organizations and our network of missions around the world. Within the first hours of a natural disaster abroad of a significant scale, DFAIT convenes and chairs a meeting of an interdepartmental task force to share and assess important information and design an effective and coordinated Government of Canada response.

    Canada makes annual financial contributions ("core contributions"), through CIDA, to key international humanitarian partners, such as the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) and United Nations agencies, to maintain and enhance their disaster response capacities, and to enable them to respond immediately following a disaster. In addition, the United Nations can draw from its Central Emergency Response Fund (CERF). In 2006, Canada provided US$20 million to the CERF. The CERF aims to, inter alia, increase the ability of the international humanitarian system to respond quickly to rapid-onset crises (e.g. earthquakes and armed conflict) by making funds immediately available to United Nations actors involved in emergency relief and to ensure equitable financing across crises.

    Additional initial contributions made by Canada within the first 12 to 24 hours after a disaster strikes allow our humanitarian partners quickly to send out expert teams to assess the damage and identify needs, which they list in needs assessment reports. Needs assessments provide crucial information that helps donor countries, including Canada, to understand the impact of a given disaster, respond to the specific needs of survivors (e.g. how many people affected, made homeless and injured), direct assistance to the areas identified as the highest priorities and coordinate with each other to ensure that there are no duplications or gaps in the global response. Canada immediately looks at needs assessments once they are available (within days of a disaster) in order to determine further funding priorities.

    "Good information is vital to ensure disaster relief is appropriate and well-targeted… Assessing and communicating what is not needed can prove as vital as finding out what is needed - saving precious time, money and resources."

    - Markku Niskala, Secretary General of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (Introduction, World Disasters Report 2005, page 9).

    The Government of Canada has developed a number of tools that can be used within the first days of a response, including cash contributions from the Canadian International Development Agency in response to "Flash Appeals" issued by trusted international partners; pre-identified Canadian technical experts; relief stocks that meet international standards (which guarantees their quality and appropriateness for relief work); and Canadian Forces assets if available and appropriate, such as strategic airlift and personnel.

    • Within weeks

    Within weeks of the end of the emergency phase of a disaster, the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade (DFAIT) invites all of the federal government departments involved in responding to a particular disaster to discuss the lessons they learned from the response. The objective of this discussion is to identify what actions various departments can take to improve the Government of Canada response to future natural disasters abroad.

    • Over the long term

    Year-round, Canada works closely with disaster-prone countries, as well as with the United Nations, the IFRC and other non-governmental partners, to ensure that they have the capacity and tools necessary to respond to disasters in an effective and timely manner and that national and local governments have the support they need to improve their own disaster prevention, preparedness, response and recovery capacities.

    In addition, Canada, through CIDA, makes financial contributions to several standby systems, such as the United Nations Disaster Assessment and Coordination (UNDAC) teams and the Caribbean Disaster Emergency Response Agency (CDERA), and is exploring additional ways to support rapid responses to natural disasters abroad.

    Further, the Government of Canada has worked with a number of countries and international organizations to include disaster risk reduction training, education, capacity building and policy support in their development projects and programmes. For more information on disaster risk reduction, please visit Disaster Response and Risk Reduction.


  2. Who coordinates the Government of Canada response to natural disasters abroad and why?

    The Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade (DFAIT) coordinates the Government of Canada response to major natural disasters abroad. (Public Safety Canada is responsible for coordinating the response to natural disasters inside Canada.)

    The work of DFAIT in response to natural disasters abroad includes, but is not limited to:

    • Helping Canadians in distress in the affected country through our consular affairs programme;
    • Working with key federal departments to ensure a timely, effective, coherent and appropriate Government of Canada response to relief and recovery requirements identified on the ground;
    • Communicating with the government of the affected country(ies) to understand and help to respond to their emergency response needs;
    • Along with CIDA, liaising with other donor governments, international organizations and non-governmental organizations to see how they will respond and to ensure that Canadian assistance will be designed in order not to duplicate other international efforts.

    DFAIT coordinates the Government of Canada response to natural disasters abroad for a number of reasons, including, but not limited to, the fact that:

    • DFAIT has a network of more than 270 embassies, consulates and high commissions around the world that can gather important information in disaster-affected countries, and liaise with other governments and local and international organizations;
    • DFAIT is responsible, through the consular office in Ottawa and its offices abroad, to help Canadians in distress in foreign countries; and
    • DFAIT develops and monitors the implementation of Canadian humanitarian policy.

  3. How does the Government of Canada design its response to a natural disaster abroad?

    Within hours of a natural disaster of a significant scale, the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade (DFAIT) convenes and chairs a meeting of a standing interdepartmental task force to share and assess important information and design an effective and coordinated Government of Canada response. The core members of the task force are the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA), the Privy Council Office (PCO), the Department of National Defense (DND) and Public Safety Canada (PSC).

    In order to design an appropriate Government of Canada response to a given natural disaster, members of the task force bring together information and expertise to answer a number of questions about the humanitarian situation in the affected country. These questions include, but are not limited to:

    1. Are there distressed Canadians in the area and are they in need of assistance?
    2. What is the capacity of the affected government and its civil society to respond to the disaster?
    3. Has the government of the affected country issued an official request for international assistance? Is the affected government requesting any specific items from the international community?
    4. How many people are affected overall? How many are pregnant/nursing women? Infants/children? Elderly?
    5. Have the water sources been affected?
    6. How many people are in need of temporary shelter? What kind of shelter is necessary in the climate/season of the affected area?
    7. Can the affected country supply enough food to feed the survivors?
    8. Have hospitals been affected? Can they function? Is there sufficient medical staff among the survivors? Are there sufficient medical supplies for them to use?
    9. Are there international humanitarian actors present in the affected country? What is their capacity to respond to the disaster? Do Canada's trusted non-governmental humanitarian partners have offices or staff in the affected region? Have they been able to reach the disaster area? How can Canada support them?
    10. Have the UN and the International Federation of Red Cross/Crescent Societies (IFRC) launched for funding?

    The answers to these questions come partly from the Canadian embassies in the affected country or region, as well as international partners in the affected country, and preliminary needs assessments.


  4. What tools can the Government of Canada use to respond to major natural disasters abroad?

    The Government of Canada has developed a number of tools to respond to natural disasters abroad. These include, but are not limited to:

    • Cash contributions: Canada can contribute funds in response to emergency appeals issued by trusted international partners such as the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) or Canadian NGOs working in the disaster-affected area.
    • Deployments of pre-identified Canadian technical experts: Examples of Canadian experts who have been deployed in response to previous disasters include water/sanitation and airport logistics specialists on standby for CIDA, epidemiologists from the Public Health Agency Canada (PHAC), and assessment experts on the roster of the United Nations Disaster Assessment and Coordination Team (UNDAC).
    • Relief stocks: CIDA manages Canada's relief stocks and ensures that they meet international standards, which guarantees their quality and appropriateness for disaster response. Due to pre-existing arrangements with humanitarian partners, these assets are distributed quickly to affected populations once deployed.
    • Canadian Forces assets: As necessary and if available and appropriate, assets of the Canadian Forces can be deployed, such as strategic airlift and personnel.

    The Government of Canada does not necessarily use all of these tools for every disaster.

    Each disaster varies according to region, season, climate, topography, type of disaster, etc. In order to ensure that Canada is sending appropriate assistance, the official Canadian response endeavours to meet the specific needs of survivors and the official requests of the government of the affected country, as well as coordinate with the assistance efforts of the international community in order to ensure that there are no duplications or gaps in the assistance being provided to the affected country.


  5. Which Canadian federal government departments get involved when there is a major natural disaster abroad?

    The following departments are core members of the standing Interdepartmental Task Force on Natural Disasters Abroad:

    Other departments may become involved, depending on the magnitude and nature of the disaster, including but not limited to:


  6. What other partners does the Government of Canada work with?
    • Canadian humanitarian organizations: These organizations often have long-standing experience in the affected country and work on the ground to deliver aid to survivors in the affected region(s).
    • The Canadian public: Citizens can provide cash contributions to experienced humanitarian organizations (see How Canadians Can Help for further details).
    • Canadian provincial, territorial and municipal governments: Like the Canadian public, they can provide cash contributions to Canadian humanitarian organizations and sometimes contribute to recovery and reconstruction efforts.
    • Canadian businesses: They can provide in-kind or technical resources or cash to humanitarian organizations.

  7. How does the Government of Canada stay prepared to respond to natural disasters abroad?

    At the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade (DFAIT), the Humanitarian Affairs and Disaster Response Group coordinates, inter alia, Canada's response to natural disasters abroad and Canadian policy on international disaster risk reduction. There is an officer from this group on call 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

    DFAIT's Humanitarian Affairs and Disaster Response Group and CIDA's Natural Disaster Response and NGO Relations Group monitor notifications about natural disasters abroad from scientific observation centres, relief organizations and our network of embassies abroad.

    When a natural disaster is of a significant scale and requires an official Canadian response, the Humanitarian Affairs and Disaster Response Group convenes a meeting of an interdepartmental task force within 12-24 hours of learning of the event. Task force meetings serve to enable all implicated federal departments to share and assess important information and design the Government of Canada response.

    Throughout the emergency, the Humanitarian Affairs and Disaster Response Group contributes important humanitarian analysis to the overall Canadian response, and works to ensure that all of the federal departments involved in the response are coordinating their efforts so that the official Canadian response is timely, appropriate and based on the needs of survivors.

    Once the emergency phase of a major natural disaster is over, the Humanitarian Affairs and Disaster Response Group organizes an interdepartmental after-action review to enable all implicated federal departments to exchange views on which aspects of the official Canadian response worked well and which need improvement, and to identify actions to take in order to ensure that the Government of Canada is always improving how it responds to natural disasters abroad.

    In terms of training, the Humanitarian Affairs and Disaster Response Group, in partnership with colleagues at CIDA and in the DFAIT Consular Affairs Bureau, organizes a course every spring on natural disasters. Participants include political, consular and trade officers who work both at headquarters and who are going on posting to our missions, as well as colleagues from other government departments. The principal aims of the course are:

    • To explain the disaster response roles of various people working at headquarters in Ottawa and at Canadian missions in disaster-prone countries; and
    • To provide people likely to be involved in an official Canadian response a picture of how the international humanitarian response system functions.

    In addition to this annual training course, training is provided on an ongoing basis to colleagues who may become involved in an aspect of disaster response.

    Read an article about the Humanitarian Affairs and Disaster Response Group in the Spring 2006 issue of Canada World View (Issue 29).


  8. Does the Government of Canada respond to all natural disasters abroad?

    Not directly. Every year, there are millions of natural hazards around the world and hundreds of natural disasters.

    Year-round, Canada works closely with disaster-prone countries, as well as with the United Nations, the International Federation of Red Cross/Crescent Societies (IFRC) and other non-governmental partners, to ensure that they have the capacity and tools necessary to respond themselves to disasters in an effective and timely manner, and that national and local governments have the assistance they need to reduce their vulnerability to hazards and improve their own disaster prevention and preparedness capacities.

    In addition, Canada, through CIDA, makes financial contributions to several standby systems, such as the United Nations Disaster Assessment and Coordination (UNDAC) teams and the Caribbean Disaster Emergency Response Agency (CDERA), and is exploring additional ways to support rapid responses.


  9. What are needs assessments?

    Needs assessments are documents that list crucial information (e.g. how many people affected, made homeless, injured; what kind of assistance the government of the affected country can provide on its own and what it will need from the international community in order to address the needs of survivors; etc.) that helps donor countries, including Canada, to understand the impact of a given disaster, respond to the specific needs of survivors (e.g. emergency shelter and food), direct assistance to the areas identified as the highest priorities and coordinate with each other to ensure that there are no duplications or gaps in the global response.

    The United Nations Disaster Assessment and Coordination (UNDAC) team is a stand-by team of disaster management professionals nominated and funded by member governments (including Canada), the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and operational humanitarian United Nations agencies, such as the World Food Programme (WFP), UNICEF and the World Health Organization (WHO).

    Upon the request of a disaster-affected country, the UNDAC team can be deployed within hours to carry out a rapid assessment of priority needs and to support national authorities and the United Nations Resident Coordinator to coordinate international relief on-site.


  10. Why does it matter whether the government of the affected country makes an official request for international assistance? Shouldn't Canada just send aid anyway?

    Sending aid that may not be required does not necessarily help the affected country. It is also inconsistent with good practice discerned from years of international emergency management experience of donor countries and international humanitarian actors. It may also violate a state's sovereignty.

    In accordance with UN General Assembly Resolution 46/182 (1991) on the coordination of humanitarian emergency assistance, the government of the affected country(ies) must make an official appeal to the international community indicating that the impact of the natural disaster exceeds its capacity to respond with its own resources alone. In such cases, the affected government and humanitarian actors will conduct needs assessments to determine the exact needs of survivors. The UN and/or the International Federation of the Red Cross/Crescent Societies (IFRC) and/or humanitarian NGOs will then issue appeals for emergency funding. These partners are trusted and cost-effective, and have built considerable international disaster response experience and expertise.

    Consistent with the principles of Good Humanitarian Donorship, Canada endeavours to tailor its official response based on needs assessments, which take into account the coping capacities of and the official requests for assistance by the affected government, as well as the needs of survivors. Canada also coordinates our official response with the international community to ensure both that there are no duplications or gaps in the global response effort, and that the global response is proportionate vis-à-vis crises elsewhere in the world.

    It should be noted that CIDA cannot fund relief to countries that are not identified by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) as eligible recipients of Official Development Assistance (ODA).


  11. What is the Central Emergency Response Fund (CERF)?

    Significant humanitarian crises in recent years have generated momentum to further improve international crisis management, in particular through United Nations humanitarian action. The crisis in Darfur and the Indian Ocean tsunami underlined the need to increase humanitarian capacity to meet the demands of concurrent crises and to improve the timeliness of UN response capacities. Both crises also highlighted the risk that high profile emergencies can draw funds away from more protracted situations.

    In this context, the Humanitarian Response Review was conducted in 2005 to identify recommendations to improve capacity at the global level. In response to the review, the UN General Assembly upgraded the former Central Emergency Revolving Fund to the Central Emergency Response Fund (CERF) in December 2005.

    The CERF aims to, inter alia, increase the ability of the international humanitarian system to respond quickly to rapid-onset crises by making funds immediately available to UN actors involved in crisis relief and to ensure equitable financing across emergencies. The goal of the UN is to have the CERF be a US$500 million fund. Over US$298 million were committed in its first year (2006). In 2006, Canada provided US$20 million to the CERF.


  12. When does the Government of Canada use the Canadian Forces' Disaster Assistance Response Team (DART)?

    The Disaster Assistance Response Team (DART) is a team of over 200 Canadian Forces personnel that can provide basic non-surgical medical assistance and clean water through its water purification units. The DART is deployed as a stabilization tool that provides a bridge following the first week of a disaster to meet medium term needs until the affected government or humanitarian agencies can restore the essential services that the DART provides. The DART is not designed to provide first response services (e.g. search and rescue or emergency trauma care), which would take place during the first few days of a disaster. The DART can be a useful tool in the Canadian response in situations where the capabilities of local governments and humanitarian agencies to provide primary health care and potable water are overstretched in the first few weeks after a disaster.

    The decision to deploy the DART is taken by the Government based on a joint recommendation from DFAIT, the Department of National Defence and CIDA. Such a decision is based on a specific request from the affected government for the services that the DART can provide, needs assessments conducted by experts in the days after a catastrophic natural disaster, and advice from our humanitarian partners and Canadian personnel at our embassies abroad. A DART deployment can only be considered when there has been a formal request from the government of the affected country.


  13. What are the objectives of Canadian humanitarian action?

    The Government of Canada response to a major natural disaster abroad endeavours to meet the actual needs of survivors based on needs assessments, which provide crucial information (e.g. how many people affected, made homeless and injured) to donor countries to understand the impact of a given disaster, respond to needs (e.g. emergency shelter and food), direct assistance to the areas identified as the highest priorities and coordinate with each other to ensure that there are no duplications or gaps in the global response.

    Canada has been recognized as an international leader in providing humanitarian assistance. A number of donor countries, including Canada, as well as humanitarian relief organizations, commissioned a third party evaluation of the work they did to respond to the December 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami. The evaluation looked at how needs assessments influenced the actions of donor governments. A preliminary edition of the evaluation, released in December 2005, singled out Canada for praise for allocating relief funds based on the actual needs of the people affected by the disaster.

    "We looked at CIDA and how they handled the tsunami aid, and we said that they had done a good job and responded rapidly."

    - Sheila Fraser, Auditor General of Canada (CTV interview with Mike Duffy, 22 November 2005).


  14. What is the difference between relief, rehabilitation and development?

    The following are indicative definitions

    Relief: An intervention that saves lives and relieves human suffering. It focuses on the short-term and includes provisions to meet basic immediate needs such as health care, clean water, sanitation, shelter and psychological assistance (given the context of conflict in some of affected areas), and mine action.

    Recovery and rehabilitation: The restoration of local services related to immediate needs that can be re-established to acceptable levels within a reasonably short period of time. The services cover those that are related to the basic needs noted above; social infrastructure, such as schools and health centers; peace-building and livelihood restoration activities to help individuals and communities regain their economic independence; disaster preparedness; and social programmes that begin to address the trauma inflicted on populations.

    Reconstruction: The longer-term strengthening or establishment of local capacity to help people in the affected areas rebuild their lives and meet their own needs. The nature of the disaster will determine the types of activities funded, as well as their scope and location.


  15. What is the difference between a natural hazard and a natural disaster?

    A natural hazard is a geological, meteorological, hydrological, volcanic or seismic phenomenon, or other process in the natural environment. Meteorological (weather-related) phenomena include hurricanes or other tropical storms, tornados, floods, wildfires and droughts. Geological phenomena include earthquakes or volcanic activity.

    A natural disaster occurs when a natural hazard has an impact on a human population, infrastructure and/or economic assets.


  16. When is a hazard not a disaster?

    The magnitude 9.0 earthquake that hit Banda Aceh, Indonesia is not the only significant earthquake (magnitude 8.0 or higher) that occurred in the region in December 2004. A magnitude 8.1 earthquake hit north of Macquarie Island (about one thousand miles southwest of New Zealand) three days before the Indian Ocean quake and tsunami, but because so few people live in proximity to the epicenter, no deaths or damage were reported.


  17. What is "disaster risk reduction"?

    Disaster risk reduction is the spectrum of activities that help to prevent, prepare for, mitigate, respond to and recover from natural disasters. In other words, the main objective of disaster risk reduction is to limit the damage and human suffering caused by natural disasters. Some examples of disaster risk reduction activities include the establishment of early warning systems (e.g. the new Indian Ocean tsunami warning system), the strengthening of buildings (e.g. retrofitting buildings in quake-prone areas), and integrating risk awareness into school curricula (i.e. creating a culture of risk awareness).

    The Government of Canada has worked with a number of countries and international organizations to include disaster risk reduction training, education, capacity building and policy support in their development projects and programmes.

    For more information on disaster risk reduction efforts around the world.


  18. What was the 2005 World Conference on Disaster Reduction?

    At the invitation of the Government of Japan, the United Nations organized the January 2005 World Conference on Disaster Reduction (WCDR) in Kobe, Japan so that the international community could come together to: 1) take stock of the progress made on disaster risk reduction across the world since the World Conference on Natural Disaster Reduction held in Yokohama in 1994; and 2) make plans for the next ten years. The WCDR also marked the 10th anniversary of the devastating Kobe earthquake.

    The magnitude of the Indian Ocean Tsunami provided important momentum for the adoption of a key outcome document at the WCDR: the Hyogo Framework for Action (2005-2015): Building the Resilience of Communities and Nations to Disasters (PDF Version, 410 KB). This document represents a strong commitment by the international community to address disaster risk reduction by taking specific progressive actions over the next ten years. Canada was actively involved in the meetings and negotiations leading up to the WCDR, and was represented at the conference by a strong interdepartmental delegation.


  19. I want to help out. What can I do?

    The best way to help is to donate cash - not clothing or food - to experienced humanitarian organizations.

    For more information on what you can do to contribute when there is a natural disaster abroad, please visit How Canadians Can Help.


  20. I am in the private sector. How can my company contribute?

    For more information on what your company can do to contribute when there is a natural disaster abroad, please visit How Canadian Companies Can Help.


  21. How is gender relevant to humanitarian assistance?

    It is very important to think about the different impacts a natural disaster can have on women, men, girls and boys when we are providing survivors with humanitarian assistance.

    To learn more about gender and natural disasters, view the Pan-American Health Organization document (PDF Version, 75 KB) and of the Inter-Agency Standing Committee website.


  22. Are survivors of natural disasters helpless and completely dependent on external assistance?

    Not necessarily. In fact, survivors of natural disasters and community service providers are the most critical first responders. They rescue many people before international search and rescue teams have time to travel to a disaster area. Further, survivors can work together, as well as with local and humanitarian organizations, to respond to the immediate needs of their neighbors and to rebuild their communities.

    "Donors can be excused for believing that in a disaster, everything is needed, but what really counts is what is actually needed and what can be used realistically and in a sustained manner. Local technical support, training and maintenance are key."

    - Andy Warnes and contributors ("Tracking Disaster Relief Efforts", Water Conditioning and Purification Magazine, March 2006).

    Read an interesting article on myths about natural disasters.


  23. Who coordinates responses to disasters inside Canada?

    Public Safety Canada (PSC) is responsible for coordinating the "whole-of-Canada" response to natural disasters inside Canada.

    The Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade (DFAIT) coordinates the Government of Canada response to major natural disasters abroad for a number of reasons, including, but not limited to, the fact that DFAIT:

    • Has a network of more than 270 embassies, high commissions and consulates around the world that can gather important information in disaster-affected countries, and liaise with other governments and international organizations;
    • Is responsible, through the 24/7 consular operations centre in Ottawa and our missions abroad, for helping Canadians in distress in foreign countries; and
    • Develops and monitors the implementation of Canadian humanitarian policy.

    The work of the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade in response to natural disasters abroad includes, but is not limited to:

    • Helping Canadians in distress in the affected country through our consular affairs programme;
    • Working with key federal departments and other actors to ensure a timely, effective, coherent and appropriate Government of Canada response to relief, recovery and reconstruction needs identified on the ground;
    • Communicating with the government(s) of the affected country(ies) to understand and help to respond to their emergency response needs; and
    • Liaising with other donor governments, international organizations and non-governmental organizations to see how they will respond and to ensure that Canadian assistance will be designed in order to fill gaps, rather than duplicate other international efforts.
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