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From Victims to Managers: South Asian communities coping with disaster
1 January 2005

Websites for further information – Asian Disaster Preparedness Centre (ADPC) - Disaster Mitigation Institute, India

In this feature, adapted from TVE Asia Pacific’s book accompanying the Truth Talking film package, Nalaka Gunawardene looks at how South Asians are turning disasters into opportunities.

Disasters used to be local events that concerned only those directly affected. But in this era of trans-boundary satellite television, instantaneous telecommunications and the Internet, that has completely changed.

Disasters used to be local events that concerned only those directly affected. But in this era of trans-boundary satellite television, instantaneous telecommunications and the Internet, that has completely changed.

Photo Credit: www.kroworks.comThe Asian tsunami has been called the first truly globalised disaster of our time. Certainly, the tremors from the bottom of the Indian Ocean reverberated well beyond the dozen countries that were directly impacted. Inspired by television coverage, people all over the world donated in cash, kind, skills or time.

Television images -- of starving children with swollen bellies, a family of flood victims seeking refuge on a rooftop, an elderly woman standing amidst the ruins of her home in the calm after a cyclone – evoke a range of emotions, from sympathy to empathy, and sometimes even outrage. Soon after the television pictures come the emergency appeals, fund raising and donations. Those disasters that achieve a higher media profile tend to receive more aid.

However, aid and assistance can sometimes do more harm than good. The urge to help is commendable, but all too often the recipients of such help are reduced to mere statistics: their opinions ignored, their knowledge unused as outside experts come in and take over the relief efforts. But it’s the affected communities who are most knowledgeable about their needs and local conditions. Instead of sitting back and watching on passively at this outside assistance, disaster affected people are now getting involved in managing the relief efforts in many situations.

There has been much discussion on community participation in development interventions, but it’s a relatively new concept in disaster management. Until recently, affected communities were seen as ‘victims’ who needed external support to recover from a disaster. Today, governments and civil society organisations are belatedly recognising the value of consulting, involving and empowering affected communities as an integral part of rebuilding after a disaster has struck.

Studies of communities living with disaster risks in South Asia have shown how millions of people lead their daily lives under vulnerable conditions. This includes people living on flood plains or on steep hills prone to landslides. “Coping with hazards and disaster risk is part of their regular lives and livelihoods,” says a publication produced by Duryog Nivaran, a network of South Asian individuals and organisations committed to promoting alternative perspectives on disasters. “Thus, they possess an enormous amount of locally relevant knowledge and information accumulated over generations. It is encouraging….that the resourcefulness, knowledge and capacities of communities are increasingly being brought into the limelight.”

Such knowledge, awareness and preparedness are acutely needed in South Asia. Owing to its geographical location, the sub-region is widely exposed to a variety of hazards such as floods, droughts, cyclones and earthquakes. During the past decade alone, there have been a number of major natural disasters which brought about thousands of deaths and massive destruction: the cyclone in Orissa (1999), earthquakes in Latur (1996) and Gujarat (2001), cyclone (1991) and floods (1998) in Bangladesh, and flash floods in Nepal (1993).

Apart from such widely reported large-scale disasters, all seven countries of South Asia – Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka – frequently experience medium and small scale disasters; these do not receive much media publicity or global attention. But given the high population density of this sub-region, even a small scale disaster can affect a large number of people. According to the World Disaster Report 2000, which looked at disasters in South Asia between 1987 and 1996, disasters killed an average of 50,695 people every year in South Asia.

The inherent potential of disasters to cause havoc and destruction has been intensified in recent years by factors such as global climate change, growing urbanisation and misguided development policies. For example, 2002 saw India simultaneously battling floods in the North and drought in the South.

Duryog Nivaran, in its 2002 publication Disaster Communication: A Resource Kit for Media, has identified several trends in the South Asian disaster situation today:

  • There are marked differences in the pattern of occurrence, i.e. frequency, nature and locations affected.
  • More people are affected; there is more death, displacement and property damage.
  • The effects of a single disaster can be felt across political borders.
  • More people are living in high-risk areas prone to natural hazards, and development plans fail to tackle this problem.
  • Spending on relief and rehabilitation has increased substantially.
  • South Asian countries continue to adopt very different attitudes and responses to disaster issues.

Consulting and involving local people in disaster preparedness as well as post-disaster management pose formidable challenges. Common problems include: lack of cohesion within communities, disinterest in mitigation activities that do not bring tangible and personal rewards, excessive dependence on relief and political interference that disrupts long term programmes.

In India, disaster management and relief work has traditionally been carried out through a government-centric, top-down approach. Local demands and sensitivities were sidelined. But now NGOs and government departments are increasingly looking to the Panchayat, the local village council, for advice and information. Until recently, developmental jargon has been all about encouraging the ‘participation’ of local people in a mechanism still controlled by outside elements. Local communities are no longer satisfied at being peripheral participants in processes that affect their futures – they are now being engaged in partnerships.

Throughout South Asia, local communities are realising their own importance in the relief process and are becoming confident enough to take matters into their own hands. Hambantota, in southern Sri Lanka, has been affected by drought for much of the past decade. The delivery of aid has been scattered and infrequent. Many small inaccessible villages were completely missed out by relief efforts. Local communities, working with irrigation officers, realised that trucking thousands of sacks of rice from the capital Colombo was both temporary and unreliable. So they set to work on an alternative way of dealing with the crisis: restoring local reservoirs that would capture and store rainwater. The Mau-ara project involved the diversion of two large rivers to irrigate the villages in between that were suffering from years of poor rainfall. Within a year, reliance on outside aid was replaced by agricultural self-sufficiency.

Post-disaster efforts are only part of the story. More governments, NGOs and communities are realising the importance of working together both before and after disasters. Adequate disaster preparedness is becoming a key element of risk-reduction in South Asia. In Nepal, for example, scientists and the media have warned of the vulnerability of the Kathmandu Valley to a major earthquake. In response, the Nepalese National Society for Earthquake Technology (NSET) has worked with local people to prepare for such a calamity. Residents have made voluntary donations to set up a relief fund in case of disaster, and NSET have organised training workshops to inform people what to do to minimise risk in the floods and fires that often follow earthquakes.

Photo Credit: www.kroworks.comIn the end, such involvement of the community – though vitally important – cannot succeed on its own. The funds raised are a small fraction of the millions of dollars needed for emergency relief, and community briefings cannot replace highly trained professional relief or aid workers. The solution lies in building appropriate partnerships that optimise the skills and resources of both local and external groups. Working together is vital: the few rupees raised by village funds, and the woman who has been taught how to safely evacuate her household, both indicate the psychological benefit of increasing the self-confidence of communities. Teams of aid workers streaming in to ‘save the day’ have the exact opposite effect, undermining confidence and often creating a culture of passive dependency. Schemes such as the Mau-Ara project have been funded by governments, involved foreign expertise, but initiated by local people – a perfect example of what can happen when everyone works together rather than in isolation.

Natural disasters affect millions of people every year, taking countless lives and ruining fragile economies, terrorising local communities. Yet they can also invigorate and challenge those same people, and from tragedy often comes opportunity; the opportunity to move themselves out of the cycle of disasters and emergency relief. Local communities and civil society across South Asia are rising to that challenge.

Turning disaster into opportunity

Disaster relief and rehabilitation can sometimes be an unequal process, one where local communities are left out. Many communities themselves are rooted in inequality, so that efforts to involve them can soon become dominated by its most influential members, usually men. Just as natural disasters can become opportunities for structural development, they can be a catalyst for social change as well.

For many women’s groups, they offer an opportunity to further gender equality. The Indian NGO Kutch Mahila Vikas Sangathan (KMVS), for example, not only did outstanding work in helping communities after the 2001 Gujarat earthquake, but also used the aid process to foster a more liberal atmosphere for women in the affected communities.

Two in three of the persons injured in the earthquake were women. Many women were inside homes attending to household chores when the earth trembled and buildings began to collapse all around them. KMVS’ relief distribution was deliberately carried out by women, giving them visibility and authority. This earned them appreciation from the local men. Women’s participation in rehabilitation meetings and presence at training courses were encouraged. And KMVS ensured that compensation went to the husband and wife jointly, and not just to the man as happened on most other occasions.

As a result of these and other proactive measures adopted by KMVS, quake-affected women have emerged with greater self confidence and higher respect from their male peers. It sometimes takes an earthquake to shake up the traditional gender roles to usher in more equality.