Managing disaster and building safer communities

Disaster management

By Bob Hansford, Disaster Risk Management Advisor at Tearfund

Disasters are part of everyday life for a large part of the world’s population. Every year, between 600 and 800 natural disasters occur, some small and localized, others affecting several countries and many thousands of people.

According to the World Disasters Report 2010, over 304 million people were affected by natural disasters during that year alone and nearly 300,000 lost their lives. Severe floods in China affected 134 million people, whilst 20 million suffered in flooding in the Indus valley of Pakistan. Natural hazards in themselves may be difficult, if not impossible, to prevent. For example, an earthquake involves massive, uncontrollable underground forces. However, a hazard by itself does not always cause a disaster. If there are weaknesses – or vulnerabilities – in a community, the hazard can cause damage and death; a disaster is then the result. The process of reducing those vulnerabilities is known as Disaster Risk Reduction. Vulnerability is created by a variety of factors, for example:

  • Lack of warnings and preparation for natural hazards.
  • Poor quality housing in exposed locations.
  • Dependency on a single source of income, which may be cut by the hazard.
  • Inadequate or unprotected water supply.

Poverty is also a key factor, forcing many to exist in makeshift houses, located in unsafe places, often with unreliable sources of income, poor services and weak infrastructure.

For this reason, in 2010, 97% of the people affected by disaster and 80% of those killed lived in countries which would be considered middle-income or less developed.

In recent years climate change has increased the frequency and intensity of some weather-related hazards. Faster snow melt, rising sea levels and unpredictable weather patterns have increased flooding and droughts. Communities are being exposed to extreme hazards which are new to them. Human activity, such as forest clearance or farming on steep slopes, can cause degradation of the environment and increase the risk of floods or landslides.

Whilst the situation may appear gloomy, there is much that can be done to reduce risk and create safer, less vulnerable communities. In 2005, the 168 Member States of the UN committed to reduce disaster losses through a plan called the Hyogo Framework for Action. It also suggests best practice for any project which seeks to build safer communities. Good projects should:

  • Give a higher priority to pre-disaster activities, not rely on response alone.
  • Identify, assess and monitor the risks and develop good early warning systems.
  • Develop safer communities through education, awareness and training.
  • Reduce the risk factors which make people more vulnerable – eg improve housing, diversify livelihoods or protect water supplies.
  • Increase preparation for disasters so that response is faster and more effective.

Some progress has been made, especially at a community level. Local Disaster Management Committees have been formed; risk assessments have been carried out; government offices have been lobbied for changed in disaster policy; volunteer teams have been trained and early warning systems set up. In some places, a whole set of activities has been planned, which will be done when there is risk from a specific hazard. This is known as a contingency plan.

There is still a lot which needs to be done to reduce the number of deaths and other losses in natural disasters. It is important to make sure both national and local governments have their own contingency plans. Preparation needs to be flexible to meet new or more extreme hazards, caused by climate change. In 2009, a group of agencies published a resource called Characteristics of a Disaster-Resilient Community. It outlines what we might find if we visited a community that could quickly respond to, and recover from, a disaster. These characteristics include:

  • Good leadership – usually a local committee devoted to building a safer community.
  • Risk assessments – using both traditional knowledge and scientific information.
  • People with good knowledge about disasters who pass it on to young people at school as well as through less formal channels.
  • Good agricultural methods and crops which are strong enough to cope with floods or drought.
  • Suitable structures that have been built to resist hazards eg water-harvesting tanks, flood embankments, grain stores or irrigation channels.
  • People-centred early warning system.
  • Contingency plans for communities and families – including evacuation to safer areas and trained volunteer teams.

With strong community participation and a good combination of activities, it is possible to realise the dream of becoming a safer place. The local church, or other community-based groups, can help to mobilise and equip the community to take action using their own resources. Communities can be built up to resist today’s hazards and prepare for those which climate change may bring in the future.

The disaster cycle

Disasters often recur in the same place – annually or with a gap of some years. Once the immediate needs in a disaster area have been met, the work of reconstruction begins. This is accompanied by learning from the experience of the disaster and planning to reduce the risk of future disasters. This ‘disaster cycle’ is illustrated on the right.

Emergency Response In the first few days and weeks after a disaster, there is a need for search and rescue, medical care, food, water, sanitation and shelter, as well as emotional support.

Rehabilitation As the weeks pass, houses need to be repaired, water supplies restored and livelihoods re-instated. Rehabilitation is often called recovery.

Mitigation These activities help to ‘build back better’, making the community more resistant to future hazards. Mitigation is closely linked to rehabilitation – for example, stronger or raised houses, water pumps on raised platforms, alternative crops to cope better with flood or drought.

Preparation This means preparing for the next storm or flood, for example, by establishing a warning system, setting aside food or water stocks, making ready an evacuation centre or training volunteers.

Characteristics of a Disaster-Resilient Community can be downloaded from TILZ or you can request a copy by writing to the Editor.