Disaster risk reduction

The age-old adage “an ounce of prevention beats a pound of cure” is acutely relevant to climate change adaptation programming as well as disaster risk reduction (DRR) activities. A wide range of evidence supports the cost effectiveness of DRR activities and it is commonly stated that one dollar of DRR support will prevent seven dollars in subsequent losses in the event of a natural disaster.

A challenge in this area is that resources are more easily mobilized after a disaster as opposed to prior to an event. This is due to a variety of factors including, among others, the role of the international media and the outpouring of support from individuals, governments and the private sector. Unfortunately, the scale required in a large humanitarian response means that international responses often take precedence over local knowledge and experience. Changing this reality, particularly with regard to individual and private sector engagement, may not be realistic. The goal should be to incentivize development partners that traditionally support humanitarian response to provide equally robust support to programmes related to mitigation and adaptation as to those that provide support after disasters.

There is value in locally prioritized and driven initiatives as they tend to be “locally appropriate, flexible and usually socially or environmentally responsible” (Pender 2010, p. 51). How do we categorize the mosaic of these climate-change related interventions undertaken by civil society? What measurements and tools must be established or applied in order to systemically assess impact and relative value? A growing assumption among development professionals is that numerous smaller scale interventions have a greater cumulative impact than ‘mega-projects’ but more research is required to validate this assumption.

For example, DRR programming initiated prior to the Pakistan floods in 2010 helped decrease the severity of the impact communities felt due to the flooding. Some of these communities engaged in DRR programming monitored flood levels, which gave them more time to prepare and depart. These communities “had invested in materials to help protect their homes and belongings, thereby minimizing damage, and had sound evacuation plans in place” (Refugees International 2010, p. 10).

The International Organization for Migration (IOM) also confirms this assumption in Pakistan based upon interviews conducted with community members from Jhang, Punjab who participated in a community-based DDR management pre-flood programme. One of the key points conveyed was that although a community-based response mechanism is by its very definition a loose structure made up of volunteers, the fact that its existence was known to government officials meant that coordination increased and information was more easily shared. The relatively low fatality rate for a disaster which affected 20 million people can also be partially attributed to the use of cell phones and SMS networks in Pakistan (IOM 2009a). The impact DRR had on catalyzing the recovery process requires more research.

The response to the floods in Pakistan has created an opportunity to incorporate low cost and effective DRR techniques into the reconstruction process. Simple techniques such as plastering exterior walls up to one metre or ensuring adequate roof drainage can make a difference between a home remaining after rainstorms and floods or being destroyed. The issue of ‘standing rubble’ in the floods zones of Pakistan is a significant one and is due to water eroding the mud mortar between bricks, rendering the entire house unfit for living. Preventing this would have been inexpensive, low-tech and feasible.

Previously completed larger-scale DRR activities need to be reviewed to “take new climate-change risks into account because otherwise, mal-adaption can be the result” (Pender 2010). Seawalls created decades ago may not be the appropriate size or design to address the anticipated need. “Flood defenses [in Bangladesh] had been designed for lower levels of flooding and were then poorly maintained, so that they were inadequate for the higher flood levels of recent years, becoming counter-productive; trapping and prolonging the floods of 1999” (Stern 2006). A cost-benefit analysis of this type of ‘mega-project’ versus the smaller scale community-level interventions should be undertaken.

Each year tens of thousands of people in Bangladesh are internally displaced through riverbank erosion, particularly in the north-west region. Satellite imagery and population studies have shown that between 1982 and 1992, 730,000 people were displaced and 0.6 per cent of the country’s land was lost to river bank erosion (RMMRU 2007). Case studies of communities affected by river bank erosion suggest that people initially try to relocate themselves within their own village or neighbouring villages, but as local population pressure rises and income opportunities shrink, many are pushed to urban areas (Black and others 2008).

A study presented in 2009 of two villages in Bangladesh vulnerable to river bank erosion shows that communities developed a number of preventive strategies to combat ongoing erosion. These measures included building bamboo fences along river banks to protect cultivated land and homes and collecting sand and using sandbags to contain rising water. Unfortunately these methods were proven ineffective. As a result residents have resorted to constructing houses made of moveable materials to enable them to relocate easily. Also of note, as a result of the erosion, community land investment patterns have shifted, with more families anticipating displacement and investing in land farther away from rivers (Ilias 2010).

The Asian Development Bank (ADB) has provided funding to local non-governmental organizations (NGOs) along the Jamuna and Meghna rivers engaged in a project to implement erosion prevention programmes. According to the project description, it “aims to sustain the incomes of people in the affected areas through reliable, cost-effective, and sustainable riverbank erosion mitigation measures” (ADB 2008). In addition, a local organization with strong connections to the community is responsible for the implementation, monitoring, management, and evaluation of the resettlement action plan of the project.

Livelihood protection is an example of community-based adaptation projects. Growing in popularity, this type of intervention can only be successful when there is a comprehensive understanding of the local social, cultural and physical environment. Issues such as the nature of the environmental risk, context of the country and particular region, homogeneity of the population, distribution of wealth, and the relative flexibility of societal hierarchies must be accounted for to ensure that the intervention is designed correctly (Adger 2003). Migration itself, especially though remittances which increase livelihood options for those who stay, is a form of adaptation for households.

As an example, an international NGO worked through local partners to increase the capacity of communities in south-west Bangladesh to adapt to the adverse effects of climate change. Communities were facing sea-level rise, increasing salinity of the soil, more extreme rainfall variability and more intense cyclones (Mitchell and Tanner 2006). It was found that these environmental issues were contributing factors to the rural to urban migration patterns increasingly common throughout the world and very visible in Bangladesh.

After a thorough vulnerability, knowledge, and behavior assessment, the livelihood diversity project resulted in 270 families growing vegetables on floating gardens in waterlogged areas. This timely assistance had an immediate impact of stabilizing the direct beneficiaries in their place of origin and a secondary impact of sharing new knowledge to the broader community (Mitchell and Tanner 2006).

If adaptation techniques are not successful, support should be made available to stabilize environmental migrants in new locations. However, it is more difficult to protect this population group due to two factors. These are the lack of formal recognition of environmental migrants and the fact that climate change-related displacement generally occurs gradually over an extended period of time, making it more difficult to identify the population movement as compared to one that occurs during a short time span.

There are a number of community-based interventions aimed at protecting migrants who have already been forced to leave their homes due to environmental change. Aside from the initial disaster relief programmes (providing immediate needs such as food, water, shelter and health care), there is a need for programmes that address the longer-term needs of these populations, such as in the areas of education, infrastructure and livelihood development.

In Bangladesh, while erosion and flooding cause land loss, sedimentation causes land to appear in new places in the form of ‘char lands’, midstream or coastal islands in a constant state of formation and erosion (Helen Keller Worldwide 2004). These ‘char lands’ often become the new homes of people displaced by environmental events in other areas. Since these parcels of land have never existed before, they have no established basic services, such as water, sanitation and education facilities and land tenure is unclear. One organization is establishing schools in the ‘char lands’ to try and provide educational continuity to displaced children (Island Development Association 2010). This complex project is successful because the organization understands the local context and can work within local norms.

Because of the tentative nature of life in the ‘char lands’, many residents find it difficult to re-establish means of food production. Some organizations have worked with local communities to provide education on ‘char land relevant’ agricultural strategies, hand out seeds and seedlings, promote small-scale animal husbandry and establish links between newly formed ‘char communities’ and previously existing agricultural extension programs (Helen Keller Worldwide 2004).