Disaster Risk Reduction: anticipating emergencies, strengthening resilience

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During an emergency, quick and effective action is required. However, this action often depends on having plans in place before a disaster strikes. If appropriate reaction is not taken or if the response is delayed, lives, resources, houses and livelihoods will be needlessly lost. Disaster risk reduction refers to measures taken to prevent, prepare for and reduce the effects of disasters. That is, to predict, prevent or mitigate their impact on vulnerable populations, and respond to and effectively cope with their consequences.

“Disasters often follow natural hazards. A disaster’s severity depends on how much impact a hazard has on society and the environment. The scale of the impact in turn depends on the choices we make for our lives and for our environment. These choices relate to how we grow our food, where and how we build our homes, what kind of government we have, how our financial system works and even what we teach in schools. Each decision and action makes us more vulnerable to disasters - or more resilient to them.”
-- United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction (UNISDR)

According to the United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction (UNISDR), “there is no such thing as a ‘natural’ disaster, only natural hazards.” Though it may seem common sense, this phrase says a lot about the perception of disasters by many populations. Natural hazards exist and are not always avoidable, but disasters can be avoided. ACTED believes Disaster Risk Reduction (DRR) is an efficient way to go.

In recent years, ACTED has increasingly included DRR in its interventions in disaster prone areas, or in areas with little response capacity, in order to raise awareness on the potentially disastrous consequences of poor preparedness. This involvement in DRR is part of ACTED’s will to support communities in their recovery from disasters and in their prevention, which in time helps with their economic development. ACTED’s past experience in DRR, namely since the 2004 tsunami in the Indian Ocean, has proven that DRR is not so much a strategy, but more of a responsibility towards the supported communities.

ACTED’s strategy is to set up the best DRR practices whenever they are relevant, mainly in disaster prone areas, vulnerable communities with limited capacities for risk monitoring and response. National and local authorities are provided with training to identify, plan, alert and prepare for potential disasters, and supported in their response capacities. Certain countries, such as Kyrgyzstan, have since set up a single Ministry for disaster preparedness, thus showing the importance of the topic at national level.

ACTED’s approach in disaster risk reduction and crisis management is twofold: we support the prevention capacities, and develop local preparedness.

Better safe than sorry

ACTED has angled an aspect of its programming on prevention and mitigation. Prevention is first and foremost better information and alert mechanisms, such as early warning systems (EWS). EWS is setting up a monitoring mechanism to identify the occurrence of a crisis, to alert relevant stakeholders as to either prevent the crisis or mitigate its impact. Communities in disaster prone areas can therefore prevent a catastrophe by mapping past occurrences of disasters and identifying the likely occurrence of future disasters and adapting communication patterns, housing or community infrastructure location and the location of livelihoods. This also includes the construction or rehabilitation of disaster resilient facilities such as dams to prevent flooding, draining facilities such as canals, the setup of high points for flood-affected people to evacuate to an area less affected, where they can find shelter, necessary living items, and where they can harbour cattle, etc.

In the Horn of Africa or the Sahel Belt, for instance, ACTED supports local drought early warning systems, operated by the communities (for greater sustainability), with the provision of tools and training, to help fight the tangible effects of climate change in a given region and to contribute to populations’ resilience. The communities are empowered with tools and skills to detect the indicators of drought (receding pasture lands, lower water source levels, animal health, etc.), and are given the means to report such indicators to higher levels of decision making, but also prepare themselves for the effects of drought, e.g. save their harvest for longer periods, produce bulking and post-harvest treatment to create added value, therefore selling their harvest at higher prices, etc.

DRR: planning upstream

With the aim of avoiding disasters due to limited capacities in terms of prevention mechanisms, preparedness and availability of response tools such as infrastructure and emergency kits, part of DRR is dedicated to logistical preparation within the communities, with the establishment of contingency stocks (tarp sheets, shelter kits and other non-food items (NFIs), food rations, etc.) and planning (shelters, life and rescue training, water, hygiene and sanitation awareness raising, the establishment of evacuation points to regroup, etc.) and other community based preparedness mechanisms.

ACTED has proven its ability to set up stocks in contexts of chronic climatic crises such as Haiti, and has also successfully designed preparedness mechanisms in other crisis prone areas such as Indonesia or Nicaragua, where response drills were taken out with great success, through the setup of community committees or by teaching preparedness in schools. By teaching DRR as early as school, ACTED intends to contribute to these communities’ sustainable development.

In Indonesia for example, ACTED built evacuation points and shelters, and trained local disaster management structures in villages, initiated school disaster preparedness curricula, simulation drills for teachers and students, as well as community based mitigation measures. These efforts served their purpose during a massive earthquake in 2011. Fishermen who participated in business and livelihoods training implemented by ACTED reported suspending their fishing activities due to higher high water levels and fear of further tsunami alerts. Although the quake caused neither a tsunami, nor major destruction, it was a potent reminder that Indonesians, especially those along the coasts, live in a context of high disaster risk and that preparedness and mitigation programs are effective and necessary. Frequent drills and training programs helped residents avoid complacency during emergencies, and facilitated fast, independent action by communities themselves during the earthquake.

Sustainable development

DRR is unfortunately an invisible part of programming; the effects of prevention mechanisms are not as tangible as emergency relief in the wake of a crisis, so it is therefore uneasy to convince the international community to invest in prevention. However, beyond its primary objective, which is to save lives, DRR is a powerful tool for sustainable development; one of the reasons being that it prevents otherwise avoidable deaths and it limits public spending on emergency relief and disaster recovery. Building the resilience of individuals, households and communities, i.e. to prevent and recover from disasters themselves, while enhancing their own long term development, is another way of reducing disaster risks. ACTED has therefore been concentrating efforts of trying to convince humanitarian and development donors and stakeholders of the long term benefits of DRR. Mobilising public funding upstream and investing in DRR mechanisms are potential ways to not only avoid disasters or to limit their impact, but also to reduce spending on emergency responses. One way to do so is to work on impact indicators, that will help measure the benefits gained or disaster effects mitigated or prevented by DRR programmes.