DRR: Better engagement through better programing
Disaster Risk Reduction (DRR) receives less attention, less funding and less commitment than disaster response. After disasters, governments send money, organizations implement projects, communities increase their awareness and involvement in projects. However, the best results in terms of lives saved are not achieved when human and material resources are deployed in the immediate aftermath of a disaster, but when all those efforts are applied in mitigation, preparedness and prevention projects. DRR should receive widespread support in order to save lives when disasters happen. However, how can stakeholders in DRR (NGOs, local authorities, international development and humanitarian agencies, local organizations) involve communities and Civil Society in DRR projects? A simple answer would be, among many other measures, to improve DRR projects. Let’s see some suggestions in order to achieve a greater involvement of communities and Civil Society in DRR projects.
DRR projects are usually designed and implemented by technical experts. While acknowledging the validity of most projects, measures suggested and technical advice, many projects have a top-down approach, and do not generate community involvement. A radical top-down approach means “I know what is good for you; you have to do what you are told”. It is patronizing and ignores local knowledge. It will hardly engage communities.
A completely opposite approach, addressing DRR without any intervention at all from external experts and based exclusively on local risk perception may produce more involvement in the community, but it may not address hazards with long recurrence intervals. Some earthquake prone areas have not suffered a strong seism for several decades; tsunamis were pretty unknown for many communities until the massive 2004 one hit unaware villages. A balanced approach, slightly on the side of the communities, will always produce better results than extreme positions.
Focus on solutions, not only on problems
Many risk analysis are undertaken in disaster prone areas. The results highlight vulnerable areas, unsafe conditions, as well as customs and traditions that increase vulnerability. For example, in many earthquake prone areas, people put a variety of heavy objects on the rooftops of their homes. It could be a water tank, to have running water and avoid pumping every time they need it; it could be large rocks to avoid the metal roof being taken away by strong winds. Those customs increase the chance of collapse in case an earthquake strikes. So, communities are informed that they should withdraw any heavy weight to increase the resistance of the house to seismic tremors. That is indeed correct, but those risky activities solve daily problems. Strong winds are more frequent that earthquakes and people want to use water in their homes every day reducing the manual pumping to the minimum. Addressing the problem of earthquakes (less frequent) will create new problems (more frequent). So DRR projects would be more successful and generate more involvement if they provide solutions to those newly generated inconveniences. How should people attach their roofs to their homes? How should people enjoy having water out of the tap without the daily manual pumping? Linked to the previous topic, DRR managers should work together with the community to solve problems, not only pointing out the risks (what not to do) but working also on the solutions (what to do).
A common disaster preparedness project component over the last decades has been the construction of warehouses stocked with relief supplies, ready to be distributed in case of disaster, e.g., blankets, tarpaulins, dry rations, etc. To invest in this type of programs in low income countries, where the daily need for such items is far from covered, will obviously find reluctancy. People will reject the idea of being wet, hungry or thirsty on a daily basis while there are available supplies to be used in case of disaster, which may happen tomorrow, in decades or perhaps never. This is an example of a DRR approach focused on features or activities that will reveal its positive effected only in case of disaster. Years or decades may pass before those supplies are used, before this approach produces any positive effects on the society, on the communities. This type of approach may end up not being very engaging for the community. However, if a DRR program produces positive effects on a more frequent basis, if benefits within communities can be observed and perceived in their daily lives, the chances of success are far greater. An example of this would be the cyclone shelters built in Bangladesh over the last decades. They are not only used when cyclones and floods hit the communities; they are used as community centers and schools; they produce positive effects in the communities on a daily basis. The chances of involvement and engaging communities and civil society in these types of DRR programs will increase significantly.
These simple steps will need many others afterwards to complete the pathway to creating a safety culture, improving DRR and reducing human suffering. Simple does not mean easy, but the results are measured in lives saved; it is worth the effort.