Natural Disasters and their Risk

July 31, 2013 12:17 pm

Natural hazards are termed disasters when they kill and displace humans, damage livelihood and development infrastructure. Families and societies with adequate resources and capacities are able to avoid or limit the disastrous consequences of natural hazards, to an extent, and are able to recover whatever the losses they face. People with inadequate resources are forced to live at the front line of the hazards and are unable to prepare adequately for lives and livelihoods in the event of a disaster. Visual images and powerful narrations of the travails of the disaster affected in one country evoke sympathy and solidarity among fellow humans across the world. The task of raising resources for humanitarian response has become easier, thanks to the global media outreach. The Asian tsunami, 2004, was a major land mark in the history of International humanitarian response, thanks to a tsunami of visuals that spread all over the world in a flash second, through television and mobile networks. The tsunami disaster evoked over US $ 25 Billion of humanitarian aid from all over the world. Major disasters in subsequent years have also prompted massive humanitarian contributions.

Increasing international attention and greater public contributions forced humanitarian systems to become much more professional, transparent, efficient and accountable. The humanitarian actor’s quest and commitment for transparency, accountability, efficiency and equity have resulted in a number of institutions and a plethora of humanitarian assessment, monitoring, impact and evaluation tools and methodologies. A large number of research and training institutions in collaboration with international actors are raising local and global humanitarian knowledge and capacities. According to ALNAP in 2008, there were over 200,000 humanitarian aid workers engaged in short term or long term humanitarian activities in different parts of the world, with the motivation of saving lives, reducing suffering, ensuring nutrition, restoring livelihoods and providing shelter and security. Collective knowledge and experiences of humanitarian workers and institutions have been raising the bar of professionalism, performance and accountability in the system whose impact on the ground has certainly been positive. The key strength of the humanitarian sector to days is its natural habit and ability to continuously ask its self difficult and uncomfortable questions, search for answers, update its knowledge and practices and innovate for greater positive impact in the lives of those it desires to serve.

Here, I want to share some questions that bothered me and experiences and encounters that prompted these questions:

Have you ever been in a desperate need for help?
I was on a visit to a village fishing hamlet in Cuddalore District of Tamil Nadu state of India, to monitor relief operations in the aftermath of Indian Ocean Tsunami of 2004. There were few survivors in that fishing hamlet. I could not talk to many as some of them were still in a deep shock and some of them were too busy clearing the debris. I was lucky to find Kamala (may be fifty years old), not because, I could find someone to talk to, but because conversation with her made me a better person. She was among those who quickly came to terms with the tragedy and was able to talk to me at length, without breaking down under the impact of the tragedy of losing family members and loving neighbours. She however, turned emotional; when I asked her how it feels like seeing massive outpour of support for Tsunami affected people from all over the world (A television set was placed at the community centre where villagers watched the news constantly after Tsunami.). Her eyes turned wet instantly and her voice chocked with emotions, but her communication was absolutely clear and powerful. She said,

“I learnt that millions of rupees in donation are made by people from many countries. I’m deeply touched, not by these donations and their sheer volume, but with the fact that so many people, who don’t even know me want to help me! This is unbelievable. At the same time, I hate my situation of having to take help from people I don’t know, because, I can’t return their favour. If possible, I would like to know individuals whose contributions are helping me survive with basic food, water and shelter. I want to cook for them, feed them and honour them. I want to be able to help them, if ever they face this kind of situation. But I pray god that they should never face this situation, in fact no one should ever be in a situation of needing others help for survival.”!

In my subsequent chat, I learnt that, though she was thankful for the support she was receiving, she hated her situation of being helped, sharing her challenges with scores of NGO workers like me and telling them about her needs! Would I ever want to be in such a situation? Never, of course. My conversation with Kamala told me that, there are other things that many people possibly value more than life and survival with minimum physical requirements. I realized that, before speaking to Kamala, I was carrying certain arrogance of doing charity and basking in the glory of being a noble humanitarian worker. Kamala’s powerful communication helped me shed this arrogance. She helped me become humbler, more sensitive and realize that dignity is as valuable as life, if not more!

Is death more dignified?
Few months later, I was sharing the dais with a Government officer in a meeting in another coastal village in the state of Andhra Pradesh in South India. The meeting was organized by a local NGO to show disaster preparedness skills gained by local people with its help. The Government officer listed out number of measures his administration is planning to help people in disasters. Emboldened by the polite nodding of people, he decided to take liberties. He chided them for not taking early warning from the authorities seriously and not cooperating with his staff when they want to evacuate people after cyclone warning is issued. Government can’t save you, if you don’t cooperate with us, he told them.

A woman got up and said;
“Your staff evacuates us and takes your (meaning Government’s) cyclone shelter. It’s better to die in a cyclone than to rot in that cyclone shelter”.

The local NGO intervened to silence the woman, thus saved further embarrassment for the powerful officer. My subsequent interaction with the community and a visit to the much talked about cyclone shelter helped men understand reason for her extreme statement that she is willing to die, but will not go to the government shelter. The Government administration is motivated by the agenda of not letting people die in a cyclone. More the people die, more shocks for the government and more heads roll in the administration-a lesson for them from previous disasters. Therefore, after a severe cyclone warning is issued, the administration mobilizes local trucks, pushes people in to them and transports them like cattle to a nearby cyclone shelter. They are virtually locked in it until the threat of cyclone is subsided. These cylindrical shaped cyclone shelters are just closed walls devoid of bare minimum facilities. No toilets, no electricity, no water and no facility for cooking. Situation of women would be worst in these shelters as they are forced to share space with men from their villages and other villages for a few days and nights. Their sense of shame doesn’t let them respond to natural urges for long periods and they have no place to hide when they menstruate.
Later on, during a private chat with concerned Government officer, I subtly indicated people’s discontentment on the way they are treated and about the condition of the shelter. He was louder and candid in his response. “We are saving their lives, what else they want? If you give them a chance, they will ask you for the moon”!

We are saving their lives, what else they want? Says the Government, we are trying to ensure minimum standards of food, water, shelter for them in camps, says a bit more responsible NGOs. That’s very good and the progress that humanitarian NGOs and the a number of Government agencies made in securing lives of vulnerable communities and ensuring basic minimum standards in relief should not be under mined. However, we should perhaps also pay an extra attention to the personal and cultural values of people, which they may value more than surviving to eat or eating to survive.

Insuring for Life, ensuring Dignity:

In the early, 2000’s Oxfam initiated micro insurance as part of it’s community based disaster preparedness project in Coastal Andhra Pradesh, a state in the South of India. Oxfam and its partners struggled and adapted several innovative processes in order to overcome community’s distrust over the concept of insurance and insurance company’s reluctance to do business with poor communities. After a local monsoon flood, some of the insured families made successful claims. Learning about this, thousands of families, who are part of the project enrolled for insurance. Many of them made successful claims after a major cyclone it coastal Andhra Pradesh in the last quarter of 2003. As a coordinator of this project, I visited cyclone affected areas to monitor insurance claim processes. I found that communities were extremely pleased with insurance claims and they were profuse in tanking the local NGO and Oxfam for facilitating this process. In my interaction with a number of insures, I realized that:

“Communities valued disaster insurance not because it rewarded them or made them richer after a disaster. They valued insurance because they see it as an instrument of dignity. Financial support to recover from a disaster becomes their right without sacrificing their self respect. It is far more dignified to claim your right for recovery than to find yourself dependent on the ad hoc generosity of donors or the Government.”

Is Dignity as important as it is made out to be?

Some colleagues, told me, we all say “I’m ready to die, but will not compromise on dignity and self respect”. But when we confront a grave threat, saving our life is all what we remember. Valid point. However, there are examples that tell us that may not be true in many cases. In the medieval period, thousands of women form the ruling communities of India self immolated to protect their honour after their kingdoms were defeated by foreign invaders. Similarly, over a quarter million farmers committed suicide between 1995 and 2010 in India, the worst-ever recorded wave of suicides of this kind in human history. All most all of them have the same reason, to escape humiliation in the hands of money lenders, whose loan they can’t repay due crop failure. They found dignity in death instead of losing their face in the community. Money lender would insult them, take their lands away and possibly make them labourers in the lands which they once owned. If staying alive is all that matters, they would have probably accepted the option of becoming wage labourers instead of opting to die.

Chaman Pincha, who conducted a research for Oxfam on Gender issues in Humanitarian Response in the aftermath of Indian Ocean Tsunami, reports the experiences of women who told her that some of their friends preferred to be taken away by the tides.
“The waves were so violent that women were stripped of their cloths. Some women refused to climb naked in to the rescue boats because of an internalized sense of shame and honour”.

Embracing Risk to escape Humiliation:

More recently, as part of a training conducted by United Nations Environment Program (UNEP), Partnership for Environment and disaster risk reduction (PEDRR) and National Institute of Disaster Management (NIDM), I visited and interacted with a poor community in the flood plains of Yamuna River in the suburbs of Indian National capital, New Delhi. The idea was to study risk exposure of the community and their contingency strategy. This small community lives in the flood plain, dangerously exposed to not only flood risk, but also snake bites, winter chill and health hazards. They settled there in huts made out of three piece wooden structures, thin sheets and a muddy floor. They cultivate small patch of lands in the flood plain on a lease and make their living. Large part of our discussion focused on understanding their risk awareness, risk avoidance strategies, contingencies and support they receive from the local administration in the event of a disaster. I was however, more intrigued about who they are, were have they come from and why did they decide to live dangerously in the flood plain?

The community hails from a remote village in a backward district of Uttar Pradesh State of North India. They have a slightly better housing and get two season agricultural work in their village. Yet, they decided to migrate out from and come all they way to the suburbs of Delhi, settle down in a flood plain, accept flood risk to life and expose to daily health and environmental challenges. They have a reason as articulated by an old man, who told me:

“Yes, we have our own houses in the native village that are slightly better than these. We get two season agricultural work and all our relatives are there. We are aware of flood risk and we do have to deal with snakes, rodents, mosquitoes, etc. But we are far happier here. Because, no one is reminding us of our caste and social status. Back in our village, in every step of life, we are humiliated by higher caste people and richer people from our own caste. They treat us worst than the way street dogs are treated. Here, we leased this land from the owner, work hard, earn income and pay his rent. He respects us because he needs our skills and our willingness to work hard. He doesn’t care about our caste. When there is a flood, we go up on to the embankment. Local administration provides us with basic food and water and local police give us the protection. Nobody is asking us about our caste. They do their business and we do ours. If god permits, we will settle down here forever, educate our children and marry them off here. We are at peace here”.

Science and logic of disaster prevention tell us that these communities can’t be allowed to stay there, because, they are in a virtual trap of a potential flood with limited options to escape. Communities do know this risk. But they decided to embrace the risk, because it gives them the option to live with dignity and live without daily humiliation.

What is Dignity and how it can be protected in humanitarian assistance?

The Supreme Court of India has defined the concept of right to life is no different from right to live with dignity;

“We think that the right to life includes the right to live with human dignity and all that goes along with it, namely, the bare necessaries of life such as adequate nutrition, clothing and shelter and facilities for reading, writing and expressing one-self in diverse forms, freely moving about and mixing and commingling with fellow human beings. … it must, in any view of the matter, include the right to the basic necessities of life and also the right to carry on such functions and activities as constitute the bare minimum expression of the human-self”.-The Supreme Court of India

Dignity is all about respect for acceptance of what one is, were one comes from, what one does and in whatever situation may be one is in. Most of us accept our situation in the social, professional and economic hierarchy. However, none of us would like to be looked down for what we are and for what we do by others in our social and professional chain. Similarly, people who are vulnerable to disasters and conflicts can be thankful for intentions and efforts of others to help them, but they don’t necessarily trade their dignity for the help. The goal of humanitarian assistance is justified only when humanitarian aid is given to all who needs it without any discrimination on the basis of religion, ethnicity, nationality, occupation, political affiliation and so on.

The tools for humanitarian needs assessment, humanitarian response and minimum standards should be more knowledgeable and more sensitive to the dignity of the affected. Since the dignity needs are glaring visible or articulated by the affected people, the humanitarian professionals should be trained and oriented enough to be able understand and respond. Similarly, hazard risk and vulnerability assessment tools should consider not only risk to life but also risk to dignity, so as to ensure disaster preparedness plans, policies and practices don’t trample up on the dignity and respect of people in well intended efforts of protecting their lives.

Need for International Law to protect the rights and dignity of the disaster affected:

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) , the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, (1966), the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (1966) and numerous subsequent international human rights treaties recognise that human rights derive from the inherent dignity of the human person and rights cannot be realized without dignity. Similarly, drawing from the four Geneva Conventions of 1949 and two Additional protocols of 1977, the International Humanitarian law controls the Means and methods of warfare and on protection of individuals (civilians and combatants). The National and international human rights and humanitarian laws are never applied in the case of natural disaster affected people. Attempts to bring these laws to ensure just assistance to natural disaster affected people in different countries could not win over local and national legal barriers.

In the absence of an overarching international legal framework for the protections of rights and dignity of disaster affected populations, the fate of millions of affected people is left to the discretion of local authorities, capacities of humanitarian agencies and multi-dimensional objectives of political and religious charities. It is high time that we, humanitarian actors, push for an international legal framework on the lines of human rights law that has the teeth to push for the rights and dignity of natural disaster affected people.

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