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What is disaster risk reduction (and why does it matter)?

Daniel Gray | 12 November 2015 | 1 Comment

When you think about humanitarian action, extreme images probably spring to mind: food distributions in famine-stricken areas, or camps of temporary shelters built in the wake of some catastrophic natural disaster, for example. But a significant amount of Concern Worldwide’s work is ensuring that these extreme responses aren’t needed in the first place

In this blog, Concern’s Dom Hunt introduces us to the concept of Disaster Risk Reduction (DRR), and more generally, to how climate change is affecting the way Concern has to work.

Two volunteer divers trained by Concern Worldwide participate in installing coral fragments on jackstones on a destroyed reef near Concepcion, Philippines. Trying to rehabilitate the coral reefs is essential to maintain healthy fishstocks for future generations. Photograph taken by Steve De Neef/Concern Worldwide.

What is Disaster Risk Reduction?

DRR – disaster risk reduction – is the process of protecting the livelihoods and assets of communities and individuals from the impact of hazards. The hazards can be natural or human derived, and include earthquakes, floods, cyclones, droughts, price spikes, conflict and contagious diseases. DRR limits the negative impacts of these events by working to reduce their size, strength or how often they occur, and building the capacity of the people exposed to these hazards to anticipate, survive, and recover from them.

What does it look like?

Disasters come in all shapes and sizes, and so the tools we use to reduce risk are just as varied. DRR can include: 

  • infrastructure designed to reduce risk (like retaining walls, check dams, embankments and terraces)
  • natural resource management (for example, reforestation)
  • agricultural interventions (introducing crop varieties)
  • behaviour change (e.g., peacebuilding processes and addressing some of the inequalities that make some people more vulnerable than others)
  • evacuation procedures and safe shelters
  • early warning systems and preparedness planning for improving response to these events when they happen.

A community group discuss the results of the vote on impact and frequency of hazards in order to prioritise the most important ones in Tcharow, Chad. Photograph taken by Dom Hunt/Concern Worldwide.

The first steps

DRR always starts with a risk analysis – and the projects that Concern runs under the disaster risk reduction banner are always context specific, and address particular hazards in particular places. Different communities deal with risk in different ways, and are exposed to different hazards in different ways.

Hazards are influenced by lots of factors such as policies, population demographics and climate change, and these risks can change through time. This complexity must be understood before any meaningful intervention is made, and this is the role of a risk analysis

Concern and Disaster Risk Reduction

In most countries where we work, we can’t expect any greater depth of analysis other than on a broad national, or sometimes regional, level. We know, for example, which areas of Kenyaare likely to suffer from drought or flash floods – but this doesn’t tell us the site-specific details we need – such as how well the borehole operates in drought years, or exactly when a certain river is likely to flood and to what degree.

DRR doesn’t focus on just natural disasters. In the urban context, for instance, price fluctuations can lead to food crises in cities like Nairobi. Photo taken by Phil Moore/Concern Worldwide.

We tackle this problem by performing community-level risk analysis. Here, we look into hazard dynamics at the community level, starting with an identification of all hazards that may happen, and then understanding them in greater detail.

We also analyse vulnerability: who is most impacted by hazards and what the reasons are for the differing impacts on different people. We also look at capacity: what the community, government, other institutions and Concern can or are doing to limit these risks.

Listening to communities

Understanding risk from the community perspective is critically important. Here are some examples:

  • On a field trip to Haiti after the 2010 earthquake, I was reviewing some of the infrastructure work we had done which, as one would expect, had been earthquake-proofed. In a discussion with an elderly gentleman on La Gonave island, he complained to me that Concern and other NGOs were always talking about earthquakes, but they may not happen again for many years. However, hurricanes and grinding chronic poverty are annual or daily features of their lives, and could Concern focus on those issues instead? I cross-checked with a larger community group and indeed, their prioritisation of which hazards are important to them was not the same as ours. This realisation fundamentally shapes our work – and while we have not stopped earthquake-proofing on infrastructural projects, we have also begun to place a greater emphasis on hurricanes and livelihoods in general.
  • In Lebanon, while checking some of the informal tented settlements that Syrian refugees are living in, I saw that some tents were situated near a small gully. I asked our staff if it flooded. They said no, and indeed, with a visual inspection, it didn’t look like it did. However, we were wrong: after asking some local people, they said that the gully could actually flood, and the tents immediately next to the gully were at risk.

Local knowledge

Indigenous perspectives and knowledge are doubtlessly important shapers of the way we work, and ultimately, the people who live in risk should have the last word on how risk is addressed and reduced.

Indigenous knowledge can also be used for early warnings. For example, I was told of a type of snail in Montería, Colombia, that tends to congregate in groups on the side of houses prior to the onset of the flood season. Local people have noticed that they’ll appear higher up the sides of buildings in some years than others – which corresponds to years with higher floods.

In Zambia, farmers have noticed that the times that certain trees flower, or when certain birds migrate, also gives them advanced warning of season change and whether the year will be a ‘good’ or a ‘bad’ one.

The impact of climate change

Two boats travel across the Haor flood plains of North East Bangladesh. For half the year this area is flooded and for the other half the waters recede allowing the islanders to grow crops on land. Photo taken by Gideon Mendel/Concern Worldwide.

With climate change, however, these indigenous signals derived from generations of observation may be changing; but this uncertainty can also be captured and analysed in a risk analysis, and still used for planning.

In the Haor region of Bangladesh seasonal floods can destroy harvests if they happen earlier than expected, when the crops are still in the ground. The onset of seasonal floods is increasingly unpredictable, so one solution is to introduce fast maturing rice, which will come to maturity before the point when there is a risk of flooding – then our inability to accurately predict a flood matters less.

The increasing unpredictability of the natural world, as a result of climate change, environmental degradation and so on, does not render indigenous knowledge redundant, but it does place an extra responsibility on us to ensure that additional information is brought into the community, boosting their awareness of some hazards that may not have happened in living memory or increasing the understanding of complicated issues like climate change.

Armed with better information communities will still be in the position to make informed decisions, and help to guide our work in reducing disaster risk.

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