Overcoming a cycle of misery: Bahraich recreates the magic of the monsoons

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In a decade long partnership between UNDP and the Government of India, communities and local administration has been empowered to respond to disasters better. Years later, the people of Bahraich show the impact of this empowerment. They have been awarded with the 2011 Times of India Social Impact Award in Health for innovations that ensure clean drinking water and resilient sanitation facilities even during heavy monsoon floods.

For the people of Bahraich district, located in the north Indian state of Uttar Pradesh, floods had become almost a way of life. Each monsoon brought with it excessive flooding and misery for thousands located in one of India’s poorest states. With no disaster planning and mitigation systems in place, flood waters would contaminate drinking water, damage sanitation facilities and submerge hand pumps. It had become an all too familiar cycle of misery.

But it’s a reality that today the people of Bahraich have overcome and on their own – with support from the district administration. Nearly 800 locally designed and elevated hand pumps installed in 2010 across the district have provided 200 villages in the flood-prone area with access to clean drinking water. Installed at about two to four metres above ground level, the handpumps remain clear of rising floodwaters. Community toilets with a locally -designed septic tank specifically for women and children who are the most vulnerable during a disaster are new features that dot all flood relief camps in the area. The importance of this cannot be underscored. According to the India Human Development Report 2011, close to 75 percent of rural households do not have access to sanitation facilities.

Building resilience in districts like Bahraich through empowering communities has been supported by the Government of India-UNDP Disaster Risk Management Programme launched in 2002. Reaching out to 176 districts in 17 states, it has evolved into the largest community based disaster management initiative in the world. The programme has been supporting large-scale behavioural change and awareness building initiatives to tackle vulnerabilities and manage risk in 150,000 villages across the country. The Disaster Risk Reduction Programme launched in 2009 takes one step further by focusing on developing capacities for disaster risk reduction by strengthening the government’s disaster management institutions at state, district and urban levels.

The unique partnership between the district administration and the local community has been strengthened by capacity building programmes organized for the communities, local governance institutions (Panchayati Raj), district level functionaries and local workers. District disaster management plans have included the active involvement of community members. These have helped build awareness, capacities and resolve to reduce disaster risk in the district. According to J Radhakrishnan, Assistant Country Director and Head, Disaster Risk Reduction Unit at UNDP, Bahraich is an important example of the significance of empowering local communities to better prepare for and manage disasters. “For a country like India which is highly vulnerable to disasters with over 40 million hectares or 12 per cent of land is prone to floods and erosion, empowering communities to build resilience against risk can bridge the gap between emergency relief and long term development.”

The people of Bahraich earned recognition earlier this year with the Times of India Social Impact Award but perhaps even more important - it has empowered villagers to not only live, but also dream, once again, about the resplendence of monsoons.