In the past 15 years, climate extremes such as flooding, drought, cyclones and mud slides have caused about 85% of deaths related to natural disasters and over 60% of the financial damage. Extreme weather events unfortunately are becoming more common due to climate change, so we need to be better prepared.

Communities can make plans to reduce the impact of future hazards such as cyclones, flooding or drought. If outside organisations help to lead community discussions, they can share useful ideas from other places and build people’s confidence to make changes. In India, staff of the Discipleship Centre (DC), a Tearfund partner, have carried out participatory disaster risk assessments with many vulnerable communities. They help them to consider likely hazards (such as drought or cyclones), and assess who and what would be affected. Then they help them to plan how to reduce the risks, building largely on the skills, resources and abilities available within the communities.

Community advocacy work in Rajasthan

Rajasthan state in India increasingly suffers from droughts. Local communities struggle to cope with the impact of the droughts. This is because people generally have few reserves. They have small plots of land, use farming practices that depend on fertilisers and irrigation and live in isolated areas with few other work opportunities. Water shortages are becoming more common.

Staff from DC work with five villages near Jodhpur. They help local communities to assess the risks of future droughts and other problems and consider how they could develop their capacity to respond. Through this exercise, a Village Development Committee (VDC) was formed. This committee provides the first opportunity for men and women of different castes to meet together to make decisions.

Discipleship Centre staff help the committee members to gain confidence and share ideas from other parts of India. From these meetings, two ideas have proved very successful in lessening the impact of future droughts.

Rainwater cisterns

Shortages of drinking water are a major concern during times of drought. The Indian government is opposed to the building of more tube wells as ground water levels have fallen considerably. The VDC made the decision to build rainwater cisterns. These are about 3–4 metres wide and 4 metres deep. During the rainy season, rainwater is collected by channels which run into the cistern. Each cistern can store 40,000 litres and is shared by three families. When full, the cistern can provide drinking water for these families all year round. It could also be used to store water brought in by tankers in times of drought.

Discipleship Centre provided training and materials to help the community build one cistern using cement. However, one cistern was not enough to meet village needs. Motivated by their new awareness and understanding, the village committee decided to take their cause to their local government meeting, the Gram Sabha. DC staff helped the committee to make a formal application and provided advice on how to present their case in the meeting. Both male and female members of the committee attended and the women were highly motivated by their new ability to represent their own causes. As a result of this application, the government have promised to build another ten cisterns for the village over the coming months. Five have so far been completed.

Rainwater bunds

Another idea which DC staff shared with committee members was to restore traditional practices that had been abandoned or forgotten. One of these was to conserve water by making bunds. A bund is an earth wall, 1 –2 metres in height, that is built around the field. A large ditch is then dug out in front of the bund. The bunds must follow the contour lines. (See page 8)

The bunds help to prevent soil erosion from wind and rain. They help to hold water in the soil by preventing rainwater from flowing away.

Villagers were mobilised by the VDC to dig a bund around the field of one of the village widows. This widow could not survive on what she could grow and had been forced to find work in a nearby stone quarry. Her children had to go with her as she had no-one to care for them at home. This meant they dropped out of school and began working in the stone quarry as well.

Thirty men worked for 20 days for 60 rupees a day to create a bund and DC paid them on a cash-for-work basis. After the bund was completed, the widow’s yield of millet doubled in the first year, and the field now provides a huge contrast with surrounding fields. Now others in the village also want bunds for their fields. However, although most households are able to build bunds for themselves, they cannot afford the time away from the stone quarry, which is the main source of local income. This is a problem that both the VDC and DC are aware of and they hope to discuss possible solutions over the coming months.

Helping communities to assess the risks they face from natural disasters, and to respond by reducing some of these risks, will save many lives.

This case study was sent in by Oenone Chadburn, Disaster Risk Reduction Project Manager with Tearfund, and Blesson Samuel of Discipleship Centre, New Delhi.

Advocacy with landowners in India

In Bihar the Discipleship Centre advocated to local landlords on behalf of poor rural villagers living on low-lying land that is regularly flooded. Before the advocacy work, villagers had no safe evacuation route when the floodwaters rose, because the safest route meant going across land owned by others. They were not allowed to trespass on this land. The Discipleship Centre was able to gain permission from 47 landowners to build a raised evacuation path across this private land. Relationships between poor villagers and wealthy landowners have improved since this intervention.

These pictures of neighbouring fields were taken at the same time. The field on the left has a rainwater bund built around it, the other does not.