Bangladesh + 2 more

Culture of prevention takes hold in South Asia

by John Tulloch in New Delhi

The Director of the UN's International Strategy for Disaster Reduction in Geneva recently called for a "culture of prevention" in tackling disasters. Salvano Briceno said flood prevention is not just a technical issue, it is about educating people.

It is exactly this approach that is central to much of the disaster management work being carried out by national Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies in South Asia.

Preparedness of people, particularly via trained volunteers, is a key activity and has been exemplified in the current flood emergency in India, Nepal and Bangladesh.

Emergency response is a necessary and vital element of Red Cross/Red Crescent action. But the months and years of work outside of times of crisis is just as crucial.

People Power

In the current disaster, the Bangladesh Red Crescent has been able to draw upon a pool of 40,000 volunteers in flood-prone districts trained in Community Based Disaster Preparedness (CBDP). There are almost 6,000 community volunteers in cyclone-prone areas.

Not only are these volunteers a major component of the National Society's operational capacity, these are people in the community, helping their community. Their knowledge on how to prepare and deal with disasters such as floods is a powerful resource for the towns and villages in which they live.

Volunteer engagement continues to grow in Bangladesh and there are now CBDP teams established in 35 Branches located in districts frequently subjected to floods, tropical storms etc.

Flooding may be the problem Bangladesh is currently enduring, but cyclones are also an annual threat. The Red Crescent runs the Cyclone Preparedness Programme (CPP) which was established following the devastating cyclone which ravaged the country in 1970.

The backbone of this programme is those 40,000 volunteers. They are part of an early warning system network and disaster response resource. Warning communities and urging them to take evasive action before cyclones hit is challenging traditional mindsets in Bangladesh.

Change of focus

The Indian Red Cross Society embraced the 'culture of prevention' well before Salvano Briceno's plea. It has moved from being a predominantly disaster response organisation to one which places an emphasis on disaster preparedness.

Assam and Bihar, the most badly affected states by the current flooding, were specifically selected along with six other disaster-prone states by the Indian Red Cross for disaster preparedness development.

As devastating as the flooding has been, the Red Cross state branches in Assam and Bihar have been able to respond quickly and effectively because of good preparedness. They were mobilising their own resources well before the launch of the International Federation launched its 'request for assistance'.

In Bihar for example, the state branch has raised the equivalent of 128,000 Swiss francs in cash, and medicines worth 70,000 Swiss francs from local pharmacies.

At the outset of the disaster over a month ago, the Assam state branch was able to mobilise 1,000 volunteers trained in disaster preparedness, as well as branch staff to participate in first aid, rescue and evacuation operations.

The Indian Red Cross dispatched members of its National Disaster Response Team to Bihar early on during the disaster. These team members are highly trained professionals with experience in a wide range of disaster management activities, skilled in the latest assessment techniques for rapid assessment.

The work they did has been crucial in the significant response the National Society is conducing in its relief operation.

No need to wait - help is here

A criticism levelled in some quarters was perceived delays by governments and other actors in assisting those affected by the floods. Having to depend on a centrally-controlled operation can take time.

The beauty of preparedness and volunteers is that assistance is there on the ground and immediate. In Nepal, the national Red Cross Society mobilised volunteers in flood affected districts long before external assistance arrived. The Nepal Red Cross has CBDP programmes in 13 of the 25 currently affected districts.

In Dhanusha district for example, the local community distributed relief stock and used a disaster fund set up under the programme. Trained volunteers also assisted in distributions made in neighbouring villages. First Aid volunteers, apart from addressing basic health needs, have been involved in activities such as raising local resources for food aid.

The 'culture of prevention' is nothing new to the Red Cross/Red Crescent in South Asia and is now an integral part of helping the most vulnerable.