Issue 25 - Article 13

Facing up to the storm: how local communities can cope with disaster

February 2, 2004
Tom Palakudiyil and Mary Todd, Christian Aid

Of all regions of the world, Asia is the most vulnerable to natural hazards. India is among those countries most at risk, with an estimated 25 million people a year affected by disaster. Given the scale of this risk, it might be assumed that the government, both at national and state levels, would recognise the priority need for comprehensive disaster management planning. Yet even in states such as Orissa and Gujarat, which are vulnerable to multiple natural hazards, this is far from the case. As elsewhere, there is a top-down approach to disaster management, with a lack of planning and preparedness by governments, not to mention ineffective coordination and communication at all levels. There is no recognition of the value of utilising the skills and knowledge of communities, which do much to address the immediate devastation in the initial hours after a disaster. Typically, relief stocks are distributed without any overall coordination, resulting in remote villages being completely ignored and roadside communities receiving multiple supplies. In the process, self-reliant communities are forced into dependency. An equally negative impact is the destruction of many years of development gains.

Between 1991 and 2000, the total number of reported disasters rose dramatically. There were more disasters in 2000 (759) and 2001 (712) than in the whole of the previous decade. In the ten years to 2001, 95.6% of those affected lived in countries of low and medium human development. As the number of disasters facing the world mounts, is it inevitable that they leave behind a trail of helpless victims dependent on the generosity of a benevolent state or aid agency? Can disaster management be integrated with development? Will governments, donors and aid agencies realise the importance of a community-based approach to disaster management?

This article explores these questions by reviewing experiences from India’s two most recent major disasters, the Orissa supercyclone of October 1999 and the Gujarat earthquake of January 2001. It is based on the Christian Aid book Facing Up to the Storm: How Local Communities Can Cope with Disaster. Facing Up to the Storm argues that when communities, including poor ones, are placed at the centre of disaster management initiatives, and their traditional knowledge and skills are valued and utilised, their ability to survive and recover faster is increased. After all, in the vital first 48 hours following disasters, it is communities that save most lives and that support each other. There is therefore an obligation to further strengthen their self-reliance.

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Preconditions for a community-based approach

Facing Up to the Storm examined some of the preconditions for making community-based disaster management effective.

1. Make disaster management part of development

It is crucial that comprehensive hazard mapping and risk assessment is undertaken by governments, in consultation with all stakeholders. This is an essential prerequisite for comprehensive disaster management planning. An equally important part of a comprehensive strategy is the need to address the underlying causes of disasters. This can begin with incorporating risk reduction into rehabilitation and recovery measures. Livelihood support is central to this. However, it also requires long-term approaches. What could make a difference? Recognising how crucial it is to integrate comprehensive disaster management within all development initiatives can and does produce different outcomes. How often are years of development gains destroyed by a single disaster? Yet by building community participation into all development as well as disaster management planning, the perceptions of poor communities, which are often the beneficiaries, are taken into account.

2. Make people ‘disaster aware’

Education and awareness-raising about natural hazards and their likely impact can be just as valuable as ensuring the provision of hardware such as satellite phones. These activities form an essential part of disaster preparedness.

3. Strengthen communities to withstand disaster

By respecting traditional skills and knowledge, and ensuring community participation in assessing vulnerabilities and capacities, it becomes clear where valuable external expertise can be introduced. In the recovery and rehabilitation phase, livelihood support initiatives are increasingly prioritised. Strengthening and diversifying livelihood options forms an important part of many development programmes.

Promoting community-based disaster management

There are three key elements in promoting community-based disaster management.

1. Help communities work alongside local government

Building an effective community-based approach is time-consuming, and needs to be sustainable. To provide additional support, it is necessary to utilise structures that already exist. Raising people’s awareness is crucial so that they can demand that their institutions perform the roles for which they were established.

2. Introduce methods of communication

Orissa and Gujarat are clear examples of the vital need for disaster-resilient means of communication, such as satellite phones. In addition, early-warning systems need to be comprehensible to all, in order that evacuation, for example, can be initiated before catastrophe strikes.

3. Create structures for coordination

Unless full state-led coordination plans exist before a disaster, it is extremely difficult to coordinate effectively afterwards. Duplication and many parallel structures often result, causing much confusion. Effective coordination encompasses government, civil society and the private sector, all of whom need to be drawn in on a consultative basis.

Examples on the ground

The case studies presented here and in the book show how a commitment by agencies to a community-based approach can lessen the impact of disasters. In some cases, people were able to resume their livelihoods within a matter of days. In villages where agencies using a community-based approach undertook response and later recovery and rehabilitation, from the outset they included the community in decision-making and implementation, respecting their skills and knowledge. The community prioritised its most vulnerable members, and identified which livelihood schemes should be taken up. This way of working is not, however, easy. Personalities, power relationships, the marginalisation of women and minorities – all these factors have to be addressed. In order to build strong community organisation, agencies need to allow significant time and commitment.

Each of the case studies illustrates a different approach. Thus, micro planning was the core of the Voluntary Health Association of India (VHAI) initiative in Orissa. Micro planning involves planning with, and within, the community, and respects and draws on people’s knowledge and ability to cope. Through careful and lengthy discussions, the community identified what it wanted to achieve, took control of the entire process and prioritised livelihood options. These included forming self-help groups, fisherfolk rehabilitation and the creation of a village-level health system. The Church’s Auxiliary for Social Action (CASA)’s Orissa relief programme involved community members taking on distribution tasks. With the focus on building a community perspective, defined by CASA as a recognition of a group’s resources, strengths and weaknesses, they worked with communities to identify what rehabilitation support they would prioritise, and who the beneficiaries would be. In one village with its own community organisation, the roads and village were clean within a week, damaged houses repaired within a month, and within two months fields were prepared for the next crop. In the work of both of these agencies, local knowledge, skills and leadership structures were respected.

The experience of Gram Vikas, a long-established Orissa NGO, has been in working with tribal people. Gram Vikas is committed to building community consensus as the prerequisite for all its initiatives, and this is central to its long-term approach to preparing for disaster. Its Rural Health and Environment Programme (RHEP), premised on community ownership of processes and outputs, focuses on shelter, sanitation and drinking water. Its approach in the wake of the Orissa supercyclone created a community able to resume its day-to-day life within days of the cyclone impact. Earlier work on drought proofing and water harvesting was similarly rooted in gaining community consensus, which better ensured the sustainability of these initiatives.

In Gujarat, the Delhi-based NGO Sustainable Environment and Ecology Development Society (SEEDS) started with traditional building skills. Earthquake-resistant components were incorporated into low-cost housing reconstruction, and communities gained a valuable asset in the upgraded skills of its masons, from which other communities can also benefit. In this case, as in the others cited, communities contributed with materials, labour and other inputs.

Conclusion: widening the scope

These community-based principles work elsewhere as well. The Bangladesh Red Crescent has some 32,000 village-based volunteers in coastal districts trained in preparedness skills, such as warning, rescue and evacuation. These volunteers are equipped with radios to monitor weather bulletins, and with megaphones to issue warnings. Similarly, in Mozambique following floods in 2001, primary-school teachers worked as flood monitors. With further community training, volunteers undertook data collection, risk mapping and planning. In the Solomon Islands just last year, communities using traditional responses survived a uniquely devastating cyclone – they fled to mountain caves just as their ancestors had done.

There is no ‘one-size-fits-all’ answer to emergencies. However, what should be understood is that effective overall disaster management must be rooted in the community. From prevention and preparedness through to response and rehabilitation, it is essential that not only the planning but also the implementation of the entire process, including how resources are used, must be controlled by the community. This can transform how communities face future disasters.

Tom Palakudiyil is Christian Aid’s country representative in India. He coordinated the organisation’s response to the Orissa supercyclone and the Gujarat earthquake. Mary Todd is a freelance consultant. She was formerly a capacity-building officer in Christian Aid’s emergencies unit, specialising in disaster mitigation and preparedness. She has worked in South Asia, Africa and the Caribbean.

Facing Up to the Storm: How Local Communities Can Cope with Disaster, by Tom Palakudiyil and Mary Todd, was published by Christian Aid in July 2003. The book can be downloaded entire or in parts from Christian Aid’s website:


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