Churches go deeper in response to disasters

DisastersWorking through the local church

Natural disasters are predicted to rise and cause more suffering in vulnerable communities, but that’s exactly where the church can help.  ​

In Bangladesh more than a quarter of the country could be underwater by the end of the century. Photo: Peter Caton/Tearfund
In Bangladesh more than a quarter of the country could be underwater by the end of the century. Photo: Peter Caton/Tearfund

According to the United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction, in 2016, 445 million people were adversely affected by natural disasters around the world. In Latin America alone, in October 2016, Hurricane Matthew caused more than 600 deaths and left more than $2.7 trillion in economic losses. A little further south, news about the impact of the rains has not stopped since December 2016. In Peru and Ecuador, the El Niño Costero phenomenon, which brought unusually high amounts of rain, has left behind more than 120 people dead, 141,000 people homeless and almost one million people affected. Similarly, in Colombia, earlier this year, a landslide caused by heavy rains claimed the lives of almost 300 people in the town of Mocoa. 

Although these disasters are commonly categorised as 'natural', experts say that human intervention has magnified their impact and devastation. For example, in Mocoa, in 2015, 90 square kilometres of forest were destroyed and converted into land for agricultural production. When the trees disappear, the natural mechanism to retain and slow rainwater also disappears, which makes the land more prone to landslides. 

Deforestation is not the only human-induced phenomena that is closely related to the impact of natural disasters on a locality. Here are some others: 

  • Land erosion 
  • Environmental degradation 
  • Climate change 
  • Poverty that forces vulnerable populations to build their homes in risk areas 
  • Poor urban planning and a limited capacity for prevention and response by governments 

This helps to explain why, in the same year, an earthquake measuring 7.3 on the Richter Scale claimed the lives of more than 316,000 people in Haiti, while an earthquake of 8.3 magnitude caused 450 fatalities in Chile. The huge difference between the number of casualties in the two countries is not as a result of the earthquake’s magnitude — after all, the earthquake in Chile was actually stronger — it is because of the vulnerable living conditions of the Haitian population. 

Unfortunately, it is predicted that because of global warming the number and intensity of natural disasters is only going to worsen. As a consequence, a wide range of scientists, environmental activists and international organisations warn that in future the number of refugees will increase significantly due to climate change. Rising sea levels will leave millions of communities around the world without land to live on and rob them of livelihoods. In Bangladesh, for example, where most of the land lies less than 20 feet above the sea level, more than a quarter of the country could be underwater by the end of the century. 

Faced with this real and urgent reality, we must ask ourselves if there is something we, as a community of followers of Jesus, can do.

The church has a special responsibility to go beyond food and shelter to create room for hope in vulnerable times. Photo: Layton Thompson/Tearfund
The church has a special responsibility to go beyond food and shelter to create room for hope in vulnerable times. Photo: Layton Thompson/Tearfund

A few years ago, in 2009, I had the privilege of accompanying my local church in response to the 6.2-magnitude earthquake that struck an agricultural area of Costa Rica, leaving dozens of people dead and costing millions of dollars in losses to services and infrastructure. 

Thanks to the voluntary work of some church members, together with the community, several houses were rebuilt, cultivated areas were restored and people recovered hope. Understanding that a disaster of this type generates losses and deep traumas, our church made sure to respond holistically. It met material needs but it also provided psycho-social and spiritual support to help people restore themselves in the most complete way possible. 

Today, when I look back, I reflect on two aspects. The first is that God manifests himself in the midst of loss and pain; as such, we must be attentive to the ‘unexpected effects of God’. In Costa Rica, the destruction caused by the earthquake generated an outpouring of solidarity and created an opportunity for many churches to 'roll up their sleeves' and act on behalf of the most vulnerable. The alternative — to stand by with their arms crossed in the face of so much need — was unthinkable. 

The second thing I recall is that the church can play a role that no other institution, individual or organisation can. This gives it a special responsibility to go beyond shelter and food to strengthen people’s spirituality and create room for healing and hope at a very vulnerable time. Indeed, in international organisations and among academics, there is growing recognition of the unique contribution churches and faith-based organisations can make to disaster response, rehabilitation, mitigation and prevention. 

So the church is called to be 'salt and light' in her own context (Matthew 5: 13-16) and, when she does, others notice it. The ways in which churches can influence the impact of natural disasters are many and we will explore them in the second part of this article.

Live webinar 

What or who causes natural disasters and how can the church respond? 

Join our free webinar this Friday, 2 June, at 19.​​30 (Peru time), and interact with experts and field practitioners around this interesting and urgent topic. 

The link to the webinar will be posted by @TearfundLearn and @BiblicaVirtual 15 minutes before its start.

Maria Andrade
Maria Andrade Is Theology and Network Engagement Manager for Tearfund in Latin America and the Caribbean. Email: maria.andrade@tearfund.org