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Coping with disasters

Summary

This article argues that disaster relief and rehabilitation work must complement the longer-term development priorities of people who are affected by a disastrous event. All too often, relief efforts, though well-meaning, undermine development efforts.

In some circumstances, assistance with rebuilding houses is needed, but frequently help in rebuilding livelihoods - a capacity to earn a living - is more appropriate.

The article reviews the conclusions of a study from Bangladesh which considered how housing-related development work could be designed so that it produces buildings which are less vulnerable to destruction by disasters.

Introduction

In recent years the view that disasters are entirely caused by natural events has largely been discarded. It is now recognized that though many hazards are natural, disasters, in general, are not.

Meanwhile, poverty levels, particularly in many Southern countries, are increasing. Thus, though poverty and vulnerability to hazard are not synonymous, it is not surprising that hazardous events are claiming more lives and destroying more livelihoods than was the case 20 years ago. Furthermore, poverty drives people to precarious and unsustainable means of survival. People who suffer also find it less easy to recover.

An obvious example of this is settlement and farming on riverbanks prone to flooding. Increasing numbers of poor farmers have no option but to live on land they know to be unstable. However, not only is their home in a potentially dangerous position, but merely trying to work this land makes flooding more probable. A similar cycle of poverty leading to hazard is evident in urban slums. These are frequently located on steep hillsides where housing is difficult and dangerous to build. Building work itself makes landslip even more likely and this is an increasingly common hazard in many cities.

Preparedness Planning and Vulnerability

Disaster preparedness planning is informed by analysis of hazards and their potential impacts. It is also based on knowledge of the impact of previous disasters.

There are many different types of hazard. Until very recently, most effort has gone into studying the hazard. The result is a wealth of data about, for example, the frequency, strength and duration of cyclones in the Bay of Bengal, or about the seismic profile of the Los Angeles area. In contrast the characteristics of a particular community’s vulnerability is rarely given the same level of attention.

Households vulnerable to one type of hazard may not be vulnerable in the same way or to the same extent to another type. For example, the situation of someone’s house and the way it is built are very relevant in the event of an earthquake, but not very important in the event of a calamity such as the Bhopal disaster where thousands were affected by lethally poisonous fumes. Similarly, a person’s livelihood, whether they be farmer, fisherman, builder or labourer, will affect their vulnerability.

An example from India which looks at two neighbouring farmers in Andhra Pradesh compares their vulnerability and the very different impact of a cyclone on their lives. It is based on studies in 1986 and 1992, before and after the cyclone.

“The wealthy household has six members, with a brick house, six draught cattle, and 1.2 ha of prime paddy land. The (male) head of household owns a small grain business for which he runs a truck. The poor family has a thatch and pole house, one draught ox and a calf, 0.2 ha of poor unirrigated land, and sharecropping rights for another 0.1 ha. The family consists of husband and wife, both of whom have to work as agricultural labourers for part of the year, and two children aged 5 and 2. The cyclone strikes, but the wealthy farmer has received a warning on his radio and leaves the area with his family and valuables in the truck. The storm surge partly destroys their house and the roof is taken off by the wind. Three cattle are drowned and his fields are flooded with their crops destroyed. The youngest child of the poor family is drowned, and they lose their house completely. Both animals also drown, and their fields are flooded and the crops ruined.”

“The wealthy family return and use their savings from agriculture and trade to rebuild the house within a week. They replace the cattle and are able to plough and replant their fields after the flood has receded. The poor family, although having lost less in monetary and resource terms, cannot find savings to replace their house. They have to borrow money for essential shelter from a private money-lender at exorbitant rates of interest. They cannot afford to replace the ox but eventually manage to buy a calf. In the meantime they have to hire bullocks for ploughing their field, which is too late since many others are in the same position and draught animals are in short supply. As a result, the family suffers a hungry period eight months after the cyclone.”

The question for those involved with disaster relief is what type of help do these families most need? The richer farmer is clearly able to cope alone. The poorer farmer has lost a child, livestock and the family house. In the short term, shelter is important, and this is what most aid agencies traditionally provide. But the farmer and his family are best judge of their long-term needs; in this case a low-cost cash loan to help rebuild their livelihood.

Another example, this time with a flood hazard perspective, shows how measures designed to prevent flooding in Bangladesh had the opposite effect for many families. The Chandpur Irrigation Project in Bangladesh was completed in 1980. It was designed to protect rich agricultural land from flooding and to allow controlled management of river water for irrigation; in other words, to combine disaster prevention with development.

Surveys carried out in 1987 showed that the project had benefitted some households through increased agricultural production, but less than pre-project feasibility studies had forecast. They suggest that about half this increase appears to have come through irrigation rather than flood protection. These gains are not available to marginal farmers who are unable to afford access to irrigation, and certainly not to landless labourers. Evidence indicates that if flood does breach the embankment then agricultural losses are likely to be greater than without the project.

The difference in agricultural productivity between those who can get access to irrigation opportunities and those who cannot is compounded when projects such as this begin to fail, (which they eventually do - one only needs refer to the massive engineering which has failed to hold back the Mississippi river). It is clear that household vulnerability was not reduced by this flood protection scheme. And when flood barriers are breached, the poorer farmers are likely to suffer most. Post-disaster support that they most need is assistance that helps them to re-establish their livelihoods.

Disaster Resistant Housing.

This part of the paper presents the recommendations of a study of work of development agencies in Bangladesh, where the majority of the population is affected by flooding and many millions live in a high risk cyclone belt. The lessons of this study may be applied in almost any similar context.

Many agencies have developed alternative types of low-income housing; most were created in response to a disaster, some within longer-term development programmes. Two general conclusions applied in almost every example that was studied:

- All too often a particular new house type was seen as an answer across the whole country, overlooking the important regional differences in Bangladesh - for instance, the difference between coastal and inland areas, or between different kinds of soil.

- Another problem is that the actual design of relief housing was often seen as the least important aspect; speed and ease of construction and the perceived capacity to withstand the effects of subsequent cyclones or floods was of paramount importance.

Unfortunately, of the houses designed for poorer people throughout Bangladesh, there was not one example that is really flood- or cyclone-resistant. This is not surprising, as non-technical factors such as location of the house on high ground are usually more important that the innate strength of the structure. The rare exception was where houses were built on top of earth excavated to make fish ponds, putting them above the normal flood level.


badly designed and disused cyclone shelter

Recommendations from the Bangladesh Study

The primary recommendation supposes a change in attitude by those involved in disaster relief. A disastrous event should be taken as an opportunity to promote new practices. Several areas were singled out for possible consideration by individual development agencies or perhaps by a consortium of agencies. Most lean towards self-help housing and using local materials and skills, but there is also scope to link these to job creation and the introduction of new materials and building techniques.

House types

These should be based on local materials, indigenous construction methods and already available skills. It is clearly neither possible nor desirable to attempt to promote a single construction style based on identical materials that will be applicable throughout the country. Local variations are inevitable, although house types would all be roughly similar. They would be of a similar size (4.5m x 3m; 12 to 15 square metres) and consist of a single room.

Householders should be able to maintain these homes using materials that are readily available in the local markets. Bamboo poles and rice straw for thatch are the predominant local materials and corrugated iron sheeting is the preferred roofing option for those who can afford it. Techniques should preferably not require specialist tools (the average householder should have access to a machete and possible a knife; a hand-drill, hammer and pliers will usually be available within the local community). With the same materials and tools, householders should also be able to extend their homes as required.

Materials

The development of raw material supplies, preferably through local small-scale enterprise, the improvement of those materials, and the development of components manufactured from them are all suitable fields for development agency involvement.

Many of the materials required for repair or reconstruction are familiar to most people. It is vital to identify those materials likely to be in demand after a disaster and then to set up teams that could respond to disasters by supplying or manufacturing them. In Bangladesh, NGOs working in hazard-prone areas have started to do this. Stockpiles of bamboos and iron roof sheets are held at strategic locations for emergency use. However, carefully managed distribution is vital to ensure that local markets are not de-stabilized by this relief.

House-building techniques

Building techniques using available materials in new and innovative ways could be developed to improve current housing.

For example, termite invasion can be prevented by applying lime wash (chunna) to wooden or bamboo poles, and soaking the underground section of poles in used sump-oil helps them to resist decay and fungal attack. Both techniques could extend the life of housing stock considerably if adopted widely.

Techniques for making houses more wind- and flood-resistant have been devised and documented by building specialists around the world. Many of these tend to rely on costly features such as deep pile concrete foundations or technically elaborate roofing systems, and steel frame construction. In the Bangladesh context they are, almost invariably, even more expensive than the most common permanent (or pukka) housing.

However, there is also a wealth of technical knowledge about simple and inexpensive ways to make otherwise flimsy structures more robust. Much of it could well be adapted to traditional Bangladeshi housing. For example, innovative bamboo construction methods have been tested and refined in central America. And techniques developed in the Solomon Islands could also be relevant in Bangladesh. What is needed is for NGOs to tap into systems of information exchange that already exist, and then to adapt this information to local needs and local capacity.

Training

The teaching of building skills is desirable in both relief and development work. There is a need to train NGO fieldworkers, existing builders, representatives of community groups and housing co-operatives. Training in the production and treatment of raw materials, the manufacture and marketing of building components, and construction skills are complementary activities.

There does not appear to be an existing pool of expertise in these fields in Bangladesh. The majority of fieldworkers involved in relief and reconstruction efforts, for instance, have inadequate access to training in appropriate building skills. Suitable groups for training could be identified by NGOs.

Teams of trained local people could be employed to help with post-disaster repair and reconstruction. Materials and tools could be provided from a loan fund made available to the labour teams or to households through Grameen Bank type schemes.

Dissemination of information

Technical knowledge is best spread through extension workers who are supported by appropriate literature. A range of illustrated instruction sheets, manuals and ‘do-it-yourself’ books on a variety of simple, self-help construction methods is needed. The process of producing this information for different audiences has started in Bangladesh, but a great deal more could be done. The potential of new media such as video and TV is being realized in some countries. In Vietnam, where cyclones strike the coast almost every year, it was found that the most effective way of raising awareness about disaster prevention was through street theatre performed during festivals and holidays.

Conclusion

Immediately after a disaster the most tangible problems for the poor are usually hunger, disease and homelessness. Short- term emergency aid is generally effective at this level; in the medium term, aid is often concentrated on rebuilding houses. But the long-term help that poor people who survive a disaster most need is aid that gives them a chance to recover their livelihoods. Occasionally, housing support is needed to help people recover their capacity to earn a living, but only if it is appropriately delivered.

However, more often than not, a cash loan is the most welcome assistance, and it gives the disaster victim the choice of how to best spend the money.

References:

Blaikie. P, Cannon. T, Davis. I, & Wisner. B. ‘At Risk’. Routledge, London. 1994.

Thompson. P & Penning-Rowsell. E. ‘Socio-economic Impacts of Floods and Flood Protection: A Bangladesh Case Study’. in Varley. A. "Disasters, Development and Environment" John Wiley, Chichester, 1994

Anderson. M & Woodrow. P. ‘A Framework for Analysing Capacities and Vulnerabilities’, Westview Press, Boulder, Colorado. 1989.

by Nick Hall, ITDG