Disaster Risk Reduction is a cost-effective way to minimize the impact of a disaster and help people respond.
By Julia Kayser*
October 3, 2013—October 13 marks the International Day for Disaster Risk Reduction. Although disaster risk reduction may get less press than emergency relief efforts, these two strategies address the same problem.
“When you’re doing emergency response, you’re acting as a paramedic,” explains Francesco Paganini, of the United Methodist Committee on Relief (UMCOR). “But the smart and cost-effective way of doing things is not to go to the emergency room but to do preventative care.” Disaster risk reduction is the preventative care of humanitarian relief.
“We’re facing a world where we have roughly more than one disaster a day, and yet the cash available for emergency response is diminishing,” says Paganini, executive secretary of UMCOR’s International Disaster Response unit.
Disaster Risk Reduction is the most cost-effective way to help people, because it strikes at the root causes of risk: Risk = Vulnerability x Hazard / Capacity
Hazard (for example, flooding) is a variable we can’t control. So, relief agencies like UMCOR work to decrease communities’ vulnerability and increase their capacity to respond. In the case of flooding, reducing vulnerability might mean re-foresting the surrounding hills so that communities are less likely to be buried in mudslides after heavy rains. Increasing capacity might mean training locals in basic first aid or helping them develop evacuation routes.
Disaster risk reduction can look like anything from durable construction to advanced warning systems. Whatever its form, in order to be sustainable, it must empower the local community and it can never be “imposed.” For the International Day for Disaster Reduction, the United Nations encourages communities to draft strategic plans about what happens when disaster strikes. This year, a special emphasis is placed on plans that include and account for people with disabilities.
People with disabilities are some of the most vulnerable community members in a disaster. For example, in the case of a tsunami evacuation: how would a deaf person hear the warning sirens? How would someone in a wheelchair quickly and easily move to higher ground in a wooded area? To truly reduce risk, we must address vulnerabilities of both communities in general and particular groups within the communities who face additional risks.
A natural event becomes a disaster when it overwhelms a community’s ability to respond. So, successful disaster risk reduction can stop disasters altogether, not by eliminating the natural events, but by empowering communities to withstand them.
This year, UMCOR has worked to reduce the risk of disasters in Zimbabwe. In six different wards across three districts, community leaders, church staff, doctors, and first responders gathered. UMCOR staff, including Paganini, facilitated a discussion to identify each community’s vulnerabilities. “We don’t have to hire outside experts,” says Paganini. “The community is the expert.”
One of these meetings reached a turning point during a discussion of cyclones. An elected official, who had persisted in calling the cyclones “acts of God,” recognized that the impact of each cyclone was not an act of God but a variable that the community could control. By building double-layer brick homes, the community could reduce its risk. “We can’t stop cyclones,” the official said, “but we can stop them from being a disaster.”
Help UMCOR reduce the risk of disasters with a donation to Advance #982450, International Disaster Response.
*Julia Kayser is a writer and a regular contributor to www.umcor.org