From Risk to resilience – Helping communities cope with crisis

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International media tend to portray disaster-affected communities as helpless – saved only by outside aid. Yet beyond the headlines, survivors from Bam to New York have saved people with their bare hands, salvaged what was left and counselled each other. When all seems lost, the capacity of people to pull together and not give up is amazing and humbling.

In the last two decades, ‘resilience’ has become the buzzword to describe the capacity to survive, adapt and bounce back from crisis. Development aid has shifted towards people-centred approaches based on local capacities. What about the disaster community?

There is little analysis of how people survive disasters, and even less programming that builds on their coping strategies. This report advocates putting resilience, rather than just need or vulnerability, at the heart of the aid debate.

Rural development and famine studies of the 1970s and 1980s shifted their analysis from what people lacked towards what actions they took to survive crisis, what their priorities were and how to build on what was already there. In the field of disasters, most emphasis has remained on assessing needs, hazards and vulnerabilities – at the expense of analysing the strengths, skills and resources available within communities.

Despite best intentions, identifying what is missing in a crisis (needs, vulnerabilities) is more tempting and perhaps better rationalizes the intervention than identifying what is already in place (capacities). But why hasn’t disaster management been able to reorient itself over the last 20 years, despite rhetoric and policies to the contrary? The question now is: what is needed for that kind of shift to take place and what are the best examples of building on the strengths of disaster-affected communities?

The emphasis on identifying and building strengths represents a paradigm shift in approaching risk. In development, the sustainable livelihoods (SL) approach is an important framework that analyses the potential, competence and capacities – rather than weaknesses and needs – of communities. SL recognizes a range of assets or ‘capitals’ as essential to sustain a livelihood: natural, financial, human, social and physical.

In the SL approach, disasters – including the capacity to resist their impact and bounce back – are part of a wider development framework. This is a significant change from the traditional risk reduction approach, which starts with hazards and risks, then looks for linkages with development.

Natural capital (water, land, forests, minerals) is essential for survival. Environmental degradation can increase the impact of floods and landslides, while equally, disasters such as wildfires, droughts and floods can cause serious damage to forests, farmland and livestock. Small-scale measures to increase environmental resilience include social forestry, fish-farming, drought-resistant crops and rainwater harvesting.

Financial assets (savings, income, credit) undoubtedly increase people’s resilience to disasters and speed of recovery. Aid organizations are experimenting with post-disaster micro-finance, cash aid and income generation projects, instead of simply distributing relief items. However, cash alone doesn’t protect people if the risks are not understood. Rich and poor alike suffered in the Bam earthquake. Rather than funding and implementing recovery projects themselves, many aid organizations now ensure affected villagers can access government compensation or soft loans to help them rebuild their homes and lives after disaster.

Human capital (knowledge, skills, health, education, physical ability) determine an individual’s resilience more than any other asset. […] In India, local knowledge of indigenous, hardy seeds has helped farmers recover from the loss of cash crops devastated by drought and pests. In Europe last summer, heatwaves killed up to 35,000 people. Yet basic knowledge – such as wrapping up in damp cloths or drinking enough cold water – could greatly boost resilience during heatwaves.

Social capital (reciprocity, affiliations, trust) includes networks that provide informal safety nets during difficult times and help people access resources urgently needed after disaster, such as credit or labour. The most resilient communities are those which work together towards a common aim. Groups of similar class, ethnicity, livelihood or wealth are more likely to cooperate in building resilience than divided communities.

Creating community consensus is as valuable as building physical infrastructure. Elderly people in close social contact with their friends and neighbours are more likely to survive heatwaves, as their vulnerability is recognized earlier, while those people ‘invisible’ to society – often in cities – suffer most.

Physical capital comprises adequate shelter, buildings, water and sanitation, tools, transport, energy and communications. ‘Lifeline’ infrastructure in at-risk areas, such as hospitals, offices, emergency headquarters, schools and cyclone shelters, must be disaster-proof – serving both a protective and symbolic function. […]


2004 World Disasters Report (chapter 1)

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