Protecting livelihoods - Saving lives

Disaster response and recoveryEmployment

By Joel Hafvenstein  

Although protecting people’s lives in disasters is top priority, protecting their livelihoods is nearly as important. If people lose the ability to feed themselves, their long-term survival is in question, and they will be much more vulnerable to the next disaster.

First we need to understand what people’s livelihoods are – all the ways they produce food, earn an income and secure the necessities of life. Then in discussion with the community, we can look for ways to:


In Bangladesh, people who live on river islands have come up with many ingenious solutions to protect their livelihoods during floods. One is the “floating garden.” Instead of cultivating vegetables on the ground, they grow them on a platform made of water hyacinth plants stacked together and covered in dirt. During a flood, the platform floats on the water and the vegetables survive. You can read more about floating gardens in Footsteps 77.

In Malawi, small farmers are very vulnerable to drought. Tearfund partners have taught them soil and water conservation, including applying manure, composting, water-harvesting, agro-forestry and building contour ridges across the slope to slow down water run-off. These techniques reduce erosion and help the soil hold more water, allowing more crops and farmland to survive dry spells.

Tearfund partner talking to local people in Malawi about farming practices

Tearfund Partner, Eagles, works with local people in Malawi to improve farming practices. Photo: Marcus Perkins/Tearfund


When we discuss disasters with communities, they will often be able to identify a particular livelihood that is less vulnerable to disaster than others. We can then try to help them to make that livelihood more productive.

In northern Afghanistan, two severe droughts in the past four years have hit farmers hard. But there was one important local industry that did not depend on rainfall: carpet weaving. The yarn that goes into Afghan carpets is spun by local women from imported wool. Even in a drought year, wool spinning can provide significant income in these northern villages.

In this case, Tearfund looked for ways to strengthen that disaster-resilient livelihood and successfully introduced foot-pedalled spinning wheels in areas where the women had previously spun wool by hand. The wheels helped women produce four times as much yarn to sell to local vendors.


If people rely completely on one or two ways of making a living, they will be very vulnerable to disasters. It is important to help them experiment with new opportunities so that they will have diverse livelihoods.

In Bangladesh, Tearfund partners have encouraged people in flood-prone areas to start raising ducks (which swim) instead of chickens (which drown).

In Malawi, partners have introduced farmers to new crops that tolerate a wider range of climate and soil conditions: sweet potato, beans, cassava, groundnuts, soya and pigeon pea.

To get ideas for new livelihoods that might be appropriate to suggest to communities in your area, you can contact us at

Joel Hafvenstein is Disaster Risk Reduction and Environment Advisor at Tearfund.