Reducing disaster risks

Reducing disaster risks

According to the International Disaster Database, Brussels, Asia is the most disaster-risk vulnerable continent. Asia is also the most vibrant disaster-risk reduction continent in terms of diversity of public and private initiatives. The report of the office of the special envoy for tsunami (Bill Clinton) noted in 2005 that more than one-third of the $15 billion pledged for recovery after the December 2004 earthquake and tsunami in Asia is committed to local NGOs directly or through international NGOs.

Thus, the Second Asian Ministers’ Conference to be held in New Delhi this week must set its own agenda, not follow global trends that average out Asia’s vulnerabilities and capacities. To set the agenda, Asian agencies must find ways to reinstill the full trust of disaster victims in their governments. These victims, often poor and low income, running microenterprise or small businesses, are the engines of recovery when they find opportunities to work with the government.

In 2001 after the Gujarat earthquake in India, and in 2004 after the tsunami in India, Sri Lanka, Indonesia and Thailand, recovery was invariably faster when individual enterprise was matched with an enabling environment. Over the years, this trust has been eroded by the poor, delayed and inadequate performance of the relief and rehabilitation administration.

Loss assessments often ignore the loss of informal sector housing of the poor as well as lost livelihoods and income. Compensation takes too long and is notoriously below market rates. Coordination is agency-centric and top-down. Most significantly, relief measures leave out risk reduction, exposing the affected citizens to repeated disasters, as seen in the July 2007 floods in India, Nepal and Bangladesh.

Next, disaster risk reduction institutions need to be made more democratic by serving the efforts of local civil society bodies without taking over their mandate. The newly established National Disaster Management Authority in India, Earthquake Reconstruction and Rehabilitation Authority in Pakistan, and Disaster Management Centre in Sri Lanka are examples of such institutions.

Asia’s local organizations are the first to respond and the last to remain in the field when international agencies have left. With direct links to local communities, they are apt for identifying potential threats and vulnerabilities, assessing damage, and mobilizing people’s capacities between two disasters. They have demonstrated, expanded and mainstreamed risk reduction measures, and challenged development that they believe to induce risk. Asia must make these efforts a priority for governmental and multilateral authorities and agencies.

Asia must also rapidly raise its spending on disaster-risk reduction operations over the next five years. These are critical to making the ongoing tsunami, earthquake and other recoveries safer. These are also critical in context of the fact that Asian countries are driving global economic growth in some areas. The risks of floods, droughts, cyclones and earthquakes can slow the pace of growth and negate past gains.

Further, Asian agencies must initiate civil society oversight for each national and international humanitarian response situation to ensure that the response is inclusive and sustainable. Repeatedly, women, tribals, Dalits, minorities and casual labour are the first to be adversely affected by disasters and last to receive relief or compensation. Such exclusion —also seen in relief operations in developed countries, such as for the Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans—must be eliminated.

Multi-agency efforts to promote these goals are getting under way. The National Alliance for Disaster Risk Reduction (launched by SEEDS in New Delhi, All India Disaster Mitigation Institute (AIDMI) in Ahmedabad, and Swayan Shiksha Prayog in Mumbai), comprising more than 80 civil society bodies, is one example. The South Asia Forum on Innovation, a partnership led by the Sungi Foundation of Pakistan, Brac of Bangladesh, and the ministry of plan implementation in Sri Lanka, has emphasized that Asia must continuously innovate in its efforts to reduce disaster risks.

Asia has long struggled to contextualize and meet the international standards for disaster response; it is now time for it to take the lead in setting an agenda for global disaster-risk reduction.

Mihir R. Bhatt, director, AIDMI, is working on disaster-risk reduction issues in South Asia. Comment at

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