When Disasters Strike...
"Disasters work like a magnifying glass of a society. They magnify what is good and what needs sincere help.
Disasters do not affect everyobe equally. Who you are and what you do determine your fate. The strong and the weak stand out. This is true for gender issues as much as for other issues.
When disasters strike, women and children suffer most
The fateful tsunami of December 26, 2004 – triggered by an earthquake – caused hundreds of thousands of deaths. Millions were affected as it caused massive destruction to livelihoods and infrastructure. Five times as many women as men are believed to have died, high¬lighting the important aspect of gender in disasters.
Similarly, the high magnitude earthquake in Kashmir on October 8, 2005, caused more than 73,000 deaths and affected more than half a million people. The death toll among women and children were un-proportionally high.
When a society or community is affected by a natural hazard, the degree of disaster is determined by the community’s vulnerability to the hazard. Furthermore, it is a fact – though not always recognized – that some groups in society are more at risk than others. These groups including women, elders, the poor, Dalits (so called ‘lower caste’) and the disabled, are considerably more affected by natural disasters than others.
Major disasters often reveal pre-existing social insecurities and vulnerabilities. In fact, the somewhat invisible but ‘real’ disaster is often not the natural hazard itself. It is the increased vulnerability and helplessness of the poor, women, children, elderly and the disabled following the natural hazard.
For example, women’s role as family caregiver is intensified during and after the occurrence of natural disasters thereby increasing their susceptibility to the calamity. They often face over-work, stress, health problems and premature death as they struggle to compensate with the loss of land, livestock and other resources. Simple improvements in the security of the more vulnerable can dramatically reduce losses and increase community resilience.
Cultural norms also often contribute to gender inequities. They may be rules or values that prevent or limit women’s access to food, education, health services and any other resources that are vital before, during and after a disaster. For a socially inclusive, gender sensitive perspective on disaster management, vulnerability assessments need to take into account local knowledge and risk-reducing activities, and disaggregate what is often conceived as a homogenous ‘community’.
Six countries from the Hindu Kush Himalayan (HKH) region (China, India, Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Pakistan and Nepal) fall within the absolute highest position in the world in terms of people exposed to and killed by floods. Among them, Bangladesh and India are rated the most disaster prone countries.
In the HKH region more than 15,000 people lose their lives every year due to natural disasters. Hydro-meteorological hazards, including floods, flash floods, droughts, debris flows and cyclones account by far for the highest number of disasters, as well as casualties and the people affected and cost of damage.
To be prepared
The International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD) recently implemented a project on disaster preparedness in the Himalayan region. The project is financially supported by the European Commission Humanitarian Aid department (ECHO).
Disaster preparedness in existing or developing plans, policies and legal instruments, as well as governing institutions, was investigated in Bangladesh, India, Nepal and Pakistan. The project advocates the research and inclusion of local knowledge in disaster preparedness activities as well as highlights the need to address gender issues and vulnerable groups when disasters strike.
In the past, disaster management in South Asia has mainly been disaster driven. Only when a major disaster has struck, the need to be prepared has been addressed, and that is also when donor funds all of a sudden have been made available. Unfortunately, at such times the funds are often available in large amounts to be utilised in an efficient and well-coordinated manner.
Lately a paradigm shift is occurring in disaster management, from a mainly relief-driven approach to a more preparedness-driven focus. Recent disasters in the region as also general awareness have contributed to putting together in place disaster preparedness tools, instruments and institutions. Most of the countries are well on the way to endorsing policies, strategies, plans and Acts at the national level. However, there is still the need to ensure vulnerable groups are given due attention in this process.
Call for social inclusion in disaster preparedness
India is one of the countries where social inclusion is now projected as the principal agenda. Its efforts and challenges to a certain extent reflect what other countries in the region can undergo as they embark on this relatively new journey. India has of late fostered social engineering to give due share to the socially excluded – from the ministerial level to self-help groups at the grassroots.
However, despite affirmative legal, social and economic measures, discriminations and social exclusion still persist. The mega disasters of the last decade and a half have accentuated the inequities where more women than men have lost lives in disasters. The burden on women has increased as they face more exploitation and violence, resulting in trauma and distress.
Children have suffered serious disruption in critical stages of development and have become vulnerable to trafficking and exploitation. Separation from and experiences of death of their parents have created traumatic conditions on long term mental health.
The disabled too have not been given due priority and were sometimes even left out during evacuation operations. Early warning systems are not disabled friendly. Relief workers are generally insensitive to their needs. Majority of short- and long-term shelters, including latrines, health care, food and water services were not accessible for disabled people.
Regardless of national instruments, a fault line exists – the gap between the policy and its implementation. This discrepancy between paper and action is repeatedly pinpointed by all stakeholders as one of the major reasons for the failure of countries in the region to cope with natural disasters, leading to enormous losses of lives and damages.
At a yet deeper level, the common pattern that emerges is that decision makers and technocrats have constantly failed to respect and consequently see the value of involving local communities, especially the vulnerable and marginalised groups in disaster planning processes. There is need to decentralize and delegate power and resources to the local government to implement local plans. Government officials and politicians are still to a large extent functioning in the relief and response mode.
Oddly enough, recent major disasters have spurred on disaster planning in the region into a dynamic and vital momentum. Considerable initiatives have been taken recently. These efforts need to be firmly guided by national strategies and policies into a mode of sustainable preparedness, resting on empowered communities through the proper inclusion of socially marginalized and vulnerable groups in all phases of the disaster management cycle.