Wednesday, 7 May 2008

Making Communities Resistant to Disaster

Global change and globalisation are threatening the lives and livelihoods of millions of people. This is especially true with respect to disasters, whose impacts are increasing rapidly in scope, frequency and seriousness. In the world's disaster areas, survivors face increasing socio-economic instability, vulnerability and marginalisation. Yet it need not be so, for there are solutions to these problems.

It is a fundamental principle that disaster preparedness is best organised at the local level. Local people suffer the impact of disasters and, in the phase of isolation that immediately follows such events, only locally generated aid is available. Moreover, resilience, the inverse of vulnerability, is the key to surviving and recovering from disaster and it is best developed from within the community.

The proper degree of outside intervention by national governments and international organisations is the subject of much debate. It is clear, however, that disasters raise serious issues of democracy and empowerment. Development will only succeed if it takes into account the desires of local communities and does not ride roughshod over their traditional coping mechanisms. The world community is finally recognising that, as the cumulative impact of disaster can set back progress or even prevent it entirely, sustainable development, that elusive but attractive concept, must be combined with sustainable mitigation of catastrophes.
The benefit-cost ratios of disaster mitigation are almost always positive and sometimes overwhelmingly so. One dollar spent even only moderately well on avoiding calamity will usually save several dollars--and much unquantifiable misery--in losses that are prevented from occurring. Curiously, this almost universal fact has failed to convince many public administrators, and even some major donors, to invest more in preventing disaster. Moreover, it is not merely a question of money. Much can be achieved at very modest cost by improved organisation.

About 220 million people are directly affected by disasters each year. The world's hazardous places are well known, for disaster tends to strike repeatedly, often cyclically. Vulnerability is also a well-known result of factors such as population density, the fragility of natural and built environments, grinding poverty and the ferocity of hazards. Yet some places are repeatedly struck by disaster but are able to cushion the effects and recover quickly, while others are not. In part this stems from the unequal distribution of wealth, but it is also a question of an apparent reluctance to share technology and expertise with the world's needier communities. The unselective transfer of technology and management techniques from one culture and economy to another may actually increase susceptibility to disaster by inducing a dangerous dependence on unfamiliar and unworkable solutions. But there is ample, untapped scope for transferring technology, knowledge, training and expertise intelligently in such a way as to make communities more resilient and less dependent on the vagaries of nature or the arbitrary decisions of outside forces. The goal is therefore one of increased assistance but decreased dependency.