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You don't have to die in a disaster

A Christian Aid partner, SEEDS India, is helping to make vulnerable communities resilient to disasters. Anshu Sharma, a director and a founding member, explains why their work can’t go far enough.

A tidal wave of guilt swept over the world following the tsunami in 2004. Yet, our greed and indifference to the suffering of others is partly responsible for the poor being so vulnerable to natural hazards. What we need to do is reduce the impact of such ‘disasters’ and improve preparations to deal with them.

Hundreds of thousands of men, women and children who died in disasters over the past few years would have been alive today had we, as a society, given them a chance to work and live with dignity. They would have survived had we shared just a little bit of our resources with them. Their lives wouldn’t have been snuffed out in totally predictable disasters had we transferred a little bit of our knowledge to them, something that wouldn’t even have cost us much.

Political will

Of course, national governments must take responsibility for:

  • strengthening and enforcing codes that govern building regulations

  • setting up early warning procedures for natural disasters

  • improving access to information for poor people

  • improved planning that is centred around the needs of the people most at risk

  • eradicating corruption that leads to unsafe development.

Tremendous commitment and political will is also needed from the policy makers, donors, NGOs, the construction sector, academia and the communities themselves.

It is true that the help poured in from the world over for the disaster survivors, particularly after the South Asian Tsunami, and we can take pride in the way helping hands reached out. At the same time, we have to shoulder the guilt for not doing enough before disasters strike. No amount of help to a surviving family can justify the loss of their baby in an avoidable disaster. Something needs to be done now.

SEEDS role

As an organisation, SEEDS would like to see an organized and sustained effort to introduce disaster mitigation for developing areas that are known to be at risk and a greater preparedness to rebuild disaster affected areas.

Mitigation means taking such steps that will reduce the impact of future disasters. Preparedness means taking steps to respond to disasters, assuming that they will strike and will have an impact. Under mitigation actions we need to ensure that construction is safe, and plantation and natural systems are in place to offer protection from disasters. Preparedness actions include setting up disaster response teams and infrastructure, and training people on how to respond in emergency situations. 

Broadly speaking, this would affect three areas:

  • Structural. Any construction that takes place in disaster prone areas must incorporate disaster resistant features. These are usually inexpensive measures that can be incorporated while retaining the local construction materials and techniques. Knowledge on adapting traditional construction technologies and on using modern materials and techniques safely needs to go out to the informal construction sector that operates in poor communities. In cases where disasters have struck, and reconstruction efforts are underway, it is all the more important to incorporate disaster resistant features in all reconstruction, with the highest priority being given to houses and lifeline buildings including schools and health centres.

  • Non-structural. In many disasters such as earthquakes, tsunamis and cyclones, a majority of the injuries are caused not by building collapse, but by falling, floating or flying objects that are non-structural in nature. Early warning alarm systems, strategically placed fire-fighting equipment, correct installation of fixtures and securing of falling hazards can eliminate injuries and deaths due to non-structural elements.

  • Human issues. Lastly, but most importantly, the most effective tool we have to fight future disasters is our human resource. A well-established, informed and trained community is the surest way of doing away with disasters. Reducing poverty and vulnerability will help make poor communities more capable of coping with disasters.

SEEDS is doing some good work but much more needs to be done. The encouraging feeling comes from the fact that there are people who care, and who come forward to contribute and make that difference in the lives of people who desperately need help. Let us keep doing our bit to make this world a better and safer place. For everyone. 

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