Why A Stitch In Time Can Be A Hard Sell: Fostering A Culture Of Disaster Reduction

Submitted by Nahid Bhadelia on July 23, 2003 - 12:00am.

How can we shift from investing only in disaster relief to focusing on disaster reduction and preparedness?

The investment in risk management makes up only a fraction of the portion spent on relief efforts worldwide every year. By only focusing on relief, we are becoming a society that lives from one disaster to another.

Given the increasing complexity of disasters, the rise in their frequency and the associated astronomical costs, this approach can no longer be sustainable in the long-term. Even more insidiously, the present attitude draws attention away from the current human activities that put our collective future at risk. However, there are some basic challenges that make prevention a hard sell to communities, leaders and planners.

First, disaster reduction is a hard concept to grasp. Often, the distinction between hazard and disasters is not clearly drawn. Hazards are naturally occurring risks inherent to a particular place and time. Not every hazard turns into a disaster, and the extent to which a disaster affects a community is a function of that community's vulnerability.

Second, where communities have been convinced to address their vulnerabilities, budgetary problems often loom on the horizon. Funds for these programs are weighted on the same scale as relief or development work and often the abstract nature of the risk management concept makes it an unlikely recipient. This is especially true since disaster reduction is a field where successes can be hard to prove because of the very nature of the work.

Additionally, to compete for funding, programs need to show results. How do you prove the success of a program based on a disaster that never occurred? In areas where hazards are periodical, the answer is clear. Any reduction in disaster can be compared to previous experiences. However, hazard trends are changing due to both man made and natural processes.

Lastly, how do you institute risk reduction behavior which is clearly at odds with immediate economic and survival activities at the micro level. The examples below provide some ideas.

How-to disaster proof your community

In 2002, UN/International Strategy for Disaster Reduction compiled a global review of disaster reduction initiatives entitled, "Living With Risk." The thoughts below are drawn from this compilation and various other stories gathered by the ISDR Secretariat.

1) Community Assessment Leads to Community Solutions. Risk assessment requires research which pulls together scientific data with knowledge about present gaps in service. For example, in a retrospective analysis of the floods of 2000 and 2001, the Vietnamese government discovered that majority of the casualties in the past flood disasters were children. Many children were separated and lost in the floods while parents struggled to save houses and livelihoods.

The government instituted the idea of 'flood kindergartens' where parents can drop off their children to someone else's supervision while they turned their attention to other matters. Over 900 emergency kindergartens were set up, which hosted around twenty thousand children in flood prone areas. Information was widely distributed about these centers and child mortality decreased drastically.

In 2002, the number of children lost in floods was half that of 2001 and one-third the number in 2000.

Vietnam's experience shows that hazards are unavoidable, but vulnerability to disaster is man made. Disaster reduction aims at building greater coping mechanisms against hazards. By recognizing key trigger interventions, the impact of disasters can be significantly reduced.

2) Recognizing the Links between Development and Disaster Reduction. In the Sironko region of Uganda, landslides have been frequent and devastating, and deforestation on the slopes increases the risk of future landslides. However, the Ugandan government discovered that it was hard to convince farmers to plant large trees as barriers on cultivatable slopes, because the force of economic reality is stronger than that of future possibility. Among other things, mitigation efforts have centered around raising awareness among farmers about the future economic value of planting non-commercial trees on cultivatable slope land.

The Ugandan case reveals the intricate connection between development and disaster reduction. Disaster reduction cannot be addressed outside the framework of development and the latter is futile without the former. If development is building communities, then risk management is making sure that the foundations are strong.

At the community level, this means recognizing the reasons behind risk-augmenting behavior and presenting greater economic opportunities for those living on the borderline. Most development practitioners speak of 'economic' and 'social' safety nets which can expand the buffer zone for families affected by extreme weather events. The same solutions which decrease poverty and increase economic stability can also mitigate disaster occurrence.

At the regional and national level, innovative financial and economic tools can bring together the public, the private and the non-profit sectors to foster development combined with risk reduction. For example, the United Insurance Company Limited provides insurance incentives and premium discounts to its private sector clients on various Carribean islands, vulnerable to flood events, who invest in hazard resistant structures.

3) The Power of Information. Early warning systems have played a critical role in most discussions on disaster mitigation. Successful warning systems are a reflection of not only national investment in technology but also critical partnerships between scientific, political and aid communities.

Aside from scientific accuracy, the appropriateness of culture, language and medium is critical for disseminating early warning information. A study conducted by the Forum for Development, Journalism and Communication Studies (FOCUS) in Bangladesh revealed that a lack of public understanding of the early warning system may increase casualties during typhoon season. The study, conducted in 2000, reported that 60 per cent of the population had problems understanding the signals or announcements due to complicated and technical language. Respondents utilized the number of signals as an indication of the severity of the storm. The greater the frequency of signals, the greater the apparent danger. Most warning signals were transmitted in urban Bangla rather than in dialects appropriate to regions at risk. FOCUS also stated that almost 80 per cent of those interviewed revealed their preference to receive warning signals in their native language.

Additionally, information needs to be aimed that those most vulnerable during disasters. European Center for Training of Rescuers (ECTR), based in Armenia, has developed training programs for children living in communities close to dams and other sources of hydrometeorological risks. ECTR highlights the example of the village of Landjazat in the Ararat region of Armenia, which is situated in direct proximity and under the dike of the Azat reservoir. If the dam were to burst, 33 settlements, including Landjazat village, would be washed away by the flood water. The water would reach Landjzat within the time of a minute. By instituting survival tactics and protocols in the local school system, ECTR increased the chances that children of this village would are better equipped at dealing with disaster.

A larger, more integrated view

Aside from problems raised above, the lack of political commitment and funding mechanism underlie many communities vulnerable to hazards. Advocacy and public awareness of risk are necessary additional components to disaster reduction. By highlighting the importance of disaster reduction, we can draw public and international resources to these causes.

We can also ensure that communities are better prepared by sharing stories of success and innovations in programming.

How are you addressing these challenges in your work?


Nahid Bhadelia is collecting articles, stories and photos for the 2003 World Disaster Reduction Campaign. This year's theme "Living with risk - Turning the tide on disasters towards sustainable development" looks at water related hazards. International Disaster Reduction Day is October 8, 2003. For further information visit www.unisdr.org


Have your say...

Do you have a story that proves the worth of disaster reduction? What are your experiences in dealing with water related disasters (such as floods, droughts, landslides, tropical cyclones, hurricanes and typhoons) and disaster reduction projects?

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