After disaster people don't give up, but bounce back

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D. Murali

IN MUMBAI, a woman rents out her comfortable apartment and moves out to a shack beneath a bridge, despite the risk of flooding and fire in the new place. Why so? "That way, she can pay for her daughter's education," reads the introduction to Word Disasters Report 2004, from International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (

That's okay, but your `why' hasn't disappeared, so Markku Niskala, Secretary General of the Federation explains: "She's decided the family's long-term resilience depends on investing in her daughter rather than living somewhere safer."

Another woman in Sudan did something similarly strange during the 1985 famine: "She preserved her millet seed for planting by mixing it with sand, to prevent her hungry children from eating it." A coping strategy that was, and people left food-aid centres "to return home in time for planting."

Yes, that's the focus of the book: resilience, "people's ability to cope with crisis and bounce back stronger than before".

Do you know that in Swaziland, they'd be happier to have irrigation and seeds, rather than food aid, "so they can grow crops, craft their own recovery and retain their dignity"? After tsunami, fishermen were happier with repaired boats, rather than clothes and vessels.

Not all disasters are `sudden-impact' and `high-profile' such as the recent calamity. There are slower killers too, but most aid institutions are geared to the former, and that shows as foreign help that pours into disaster-struck areas, with formula-precision.

Aren't they effective? Niskala has some statistics on what happened after the Bam quake that took 12 seconds to kill about 40,000 people and destroy 85 per cent of the city's buildings: "34 search-and-rescue teams from 27 countries flew to the city and saved 22 lives. Meanwhile, local Red Crescent teams pulled 157 people alive from the rubble, using far fewer `sniffer' dogs."

The inference, therefore, is that investing in local response capacities saves time, money and, most importantly, lives. Television clips show how people are hit and helpless, not what the survivors do "saving others, salvaging what is left, and counselling each other". Just when it seems everything is lost, those struck by the mishap are not giving up; beyond the ken of TV cameras, they pull together amazingly, adapt and bounce back, as the book records.

Let us dispel "the myth of the helpless victim and the infallible humanitarian," it exhorts, therefore. "Instead of imposing definitions and solutions on people we consider vulnerable, we should ask them what they define as a disaster." Because, what's disaster for one may be a routine for another.

It is usual that after a disaster, top-notch professionals involve themselves in `needs assessment' and `risk analysis', to identify, record, map and rank "hazard characteristics, vulnerability indicators, and risk factors". Intentions are noble, but what can justify intervention is an analysis of "the strengths, skills and resources available within communities to build resilience in the face of hazards."

A powerful defence is `sustainable livelihood' or SL that recognises `a range of strengths', also called capitals. These are five: Natural, financial, human, social, and physical. This complex web of assets provide `layers of resistance' to deal with `waves of adversity'.

Should you distribute relief items or give `post-disaster micro-finance and cash aid'?

The book opines that cash has an advantage: "Disaster-affected people can direct it towards their own highest recovery priorities."

A few examples: in Gujarat, members of SEWA, or Self-Employed Women's Association, accessed credit "to buy raw materials for their embroidery and tarpaulin covers under which to work".

In the Philippines, when rural farming communities are hit by floods, agricultural labour takes a beating too; so, women from households "often seek paid employment in the cities or even abroad, sometimes for years at a time, to enable their families to recover."

Human capital includes knowledge, and this is essential not only in the developing countries but the affluent ones too. In 2003, heat waves killed 35,000 people, across Europe, and most of them were elderly. Basic knowledge such as wrapping with damp clothes or drinking enough cold water could have boosted their resilience.

Too many bad things have happened in Kabul. Yet, it may seem odd that parents there teach their children to be happy through "playing, joking, picnicking, going to school, and being with friends."

Reason: "Afghans understand that if children have happiness in their live, they are much more able to cope with sadness."

Kids are also taught courage to overcome fear; faith to mutter prayers when scared; gratitude for being alive after an attack; and morality to know right from wrong.

With these qualities, the new generation may be affected by violence, "but not permanently scarred by it."

A book to help you bounce back after nature takes its cut!

(This article was published in the Business Line print edition dated January 22, 2005)
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