Over the last 25 years, the world has seen a rise in the frequency of natural disasters in rich and poor countries alike. Today, more people than ever are at risk from natural hazards, with those in developing countries particularly at risk. This essay series is intended to explore measures that have been taken, and could be taken, in order to improve responses to the threat or occurrence of natural disasters in the MENA and Indo-Pacific regions. Read more ...
Floods have become a growing concern throughout the world. Fueling this concern is the prediction that climate change will increase the intensity and severity of flooding.There are also growing concerns that climate change will dramatically increase the health risks associated with contaminated water and dangerous substances that are released during floods.These concerns need to be addressed in order to reduce the negative impact of floods upon communities worldwide.
Coping with floods is a major challenge for many communities, especially those in developing nations, which generally have to manage the responses to and recovery from them mostly on their own. Governments, NGOs and other organizations provide aid during a natural disaster when, where and how they can. However, their extent of their contributions sometimes fail to meet the needs of local communities, especially immediately following the disaster but also in the longer term, due to their limited financial capabilities, inadequate access to affected areas, lack of awareness or political constraints under which they operate.
This essay focuses on the role of local communities during the recovery stage from floods. By drawing on a case study of rural communities in Laos, the essay highlights the potential benefits of equipping local communities with long-term practices that will assist them in recovery efforts. The essay concludes with a discussion of the lessons and insights gained from this case and that they could be applied in other countries to improve flood resiliency.
The Importance of a Community-Centered Approach
This essay discusses floods from the perspective of long-term recovery since the latter contributes to resiliency, which is defined as “the ability to recover readily.” The recovery stage—encompassing the process and outcome—is crucial because it covers everything that is required for the affected community to return to conditions of normality. Floods are almost impossible to prevent and the scale of adverse consequences from floods is exceedingly difficult to gauge. Therefore, mitigating the consequences of floods is often quite challenging, especially in rural villages in developing countries, where technology and finances are in short supply. This overall magnifies the importance of the recovery stage.
Local communities are directly affected by floods and thus are the primary risk-bearers in such situations. They are the first on the scene and generally carry out the initial response. It is thus important to focus particularly on local communities during their recovery. Floods can inflict enormous damage, especially upon those who are the most vulnerable community members. The damage affects property, finances, job security, emotional and health status, and livelihoods. Therefore, the community affected has an investment and a strong motive to recover and to return to normal life as quickly as possible. Compared to others, such as aid organizations, supporters and governments, the community itself will prioritize the recovery process the most. Therefore, a community-centered approach to improve flood resiliency is recommended. The Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction supports this by emphasizing that there should be a people-centered approach when preventing disaster risk. To do so, during the recovery stage of a flood it is important for people to be both reflective and pro-active so that they can improve the management of future flooding.
Another reason why a community-centered approach is recommended is because with the increase of natural disasters throughout the world, aid response will not be enough on its own. Resilient development is, therefore, more important now than ever before. Developing the community to be resilient will not only enhance the efficiency of the recovery, but will assist with building a stronger system that can better manage all types of risks while improving the chances of maintaining the progress made by the community. Overall it will strengthen the current links between aid organizations and the communities’ development work, which allows for a lasting change.
A community-centered approach can be highly efficient since communities know and understand their own situations best. Some would argue that experts possess greater expertise, theoretical knowledge and specific skills than the communities they seek to assist. Nonetheless, the local public has more everyday knowledge regarding their own surroundings and how their community members are likely to respond to certain recovery actions, which may be crucial to recover efficiently. Additionally, when preparing for a potential flood disaster, the community is the only party that has a clear emotional investment regarding the potential impacts and risks. In any event, it is imperative that all relevant stakeholders are included and participate to have a successful recovery process and outcome. Community participation will enable more effective and long-term flood practices, improve the overall flood management process in place and allow for safer and quicker decisions to be made.
Helping to equip local communities, including their most vulnerable members, with recovery practices will enable them in the long-term to augment their own resilience to floods, which will be especially useful in case the prediction that climate change will produce more intense and severe flooding is correct. As illustrated in the case of Laos’ rural communities, local communities, specifically those that are prone to flooding, tend to already have several recovery practices in place that could, and should be bolstered through the contributions of experts, government authorities and aid.
Recovery Practices in Laos
While numerous flood recovery practices are used throughout the world, local communities in Laos have their own practices, especially since they often experience flooding due to the annual rainy season. Flooding is Laos’ main hazard that affects communities all across the county and often develops into a disaster. Therefore, Laos’ coping practices have developed over many generations. They include traditional practices such as constructing houses on stilts; setting up community banks of rice; using traditional medicines; seeking shelter in temples and/or schools; creating dug-out drainage systems for paddy fields; and removing water from houses with baskets. These practices do indeed help with recovery, though they are predominantly needs-based coping strategies. However, NGOs and United Nations staff are teaching and/or sharing with rural communities other, more advanced flood resilience practices, such as using pumps to remove water; creating official village disaster committees and disaster preparedness plans; employing sturdier home building and repair techniques (e.g. using concrete or stronger wood); and implementing food and drinking storage systems.
In Laos, the management of flooding, which is challenging due to unpredictable flash floods, is primarily conducted at local levels and appears to be effective due to enhanced focus on villages’ own disaster management committees. Owing to the country’s financial situation, flood management is mostly conducted by the individual village, which has its own village chief and elder. Often when a flood occurs, it is not possible for outsiders, including government officials, to enter/reach the villages affected. Therefore, it is important to focus particularly on local communities’ own coping mechanisms during recovery. In such a situation, Laos’ citizens currently manage and work together as a community to manage floods. So far, this has been working satisfactorily. However, with the building of houses in floodplains, logging trees and signs that changing climate is increasing the severity of floods and droughts, existing local coping mechanisms might not be enough. Yet, whether their current practices are adequate to meet these immediate challenges or not, equipping Laos’ citizens with additional recovery practices would be highly beneficial, as it would allow the communities to better manage the (current and future) physical, emotional and secondary damage created by flooding disasters by strengthening their resilience. Additionally, it would allow them to handle the floods better in the long-term, especially if flooding worsens.
Laos’ villagers could learn from other recovery practices used in other countries. For instance, in Khammouane Province (Laos) the main concern during the recovery stage is health since floods spread disease and drinking and washing water become contaminated. This issue could be mitigated by chemically treating the water, as is done in Tanzania or by using water purification tablets, as is done in Bangladesh. Furthermore, another recovery practice that the majority of communities throughout Laos would benefit from would be the introduction of a rice variety that can withstand flooding because currently during floods the loss of rice, the main source of their livelihood, is reducing their capability to recover. This practice has been effective in India, Bangladesh and Nepal, and research is being conducted on how this would work in Laos. There are many other practices that may be helpful, such as in Thailand, where communities are involved with hazard mapping to enhance education, and in Vietnam, where they use schools to hold flood safety campaigns. The idea that building on current practices while introducing new ones to enhance communities’ resilience is gathering momentum.
Nevertheless, it is important that communities are supported in selecting the most beneficial and realistic recovery practices. Additionally, it is crucial that the practices are manageable and accessible by the communities over the long term, thereby ensuring that they are sustainable. As a result, the communities would be empowered and capable of recovering from floods better and quicker, as well as potentially recovering from other natural disasters because some of these practices are transferable.
Some of Laos’ citizens may be content with the way floods are currently managed; however, most are open to learning and to trying out new practices and/or enhancing their current recovery practices. Moreover, villages, such as those in Laos, where residents have learned to cope with disasters on their own and thus, a community-centered approach is already in place, are likely to be more open to strengthening and building on their current approach than to acceding to outsiders’ management of the recovery stage. In fact, Laos’ government, in apparent recognition of this, supports village disaster management committees. Several aid organizations, including the Global Facility for Disaster Reduction and Recovery and the United Nations also promote sustainable assistance to ensure that long-term resilience is strengthened in such a manner that the country and its communities will be better able to manage disasters and ‘build back better’ without them.
Equipping local communities with long-term recovery practices, some of which may be learned from other countries and adapted to country-specific circumstances could contribute to more effective disaster recovery, a better flood management process, and safer and quicker decisions. The main lesson learned from the case study of rural communities in Laos is that in countries where aid is not always readily accessible and where a community-centered management approach has been forming over the years, it is important to focus on and enhance the community-centered approach during the flood recovery stage. Given that the incidence of flooding has increased and is predicted to worsen in countries, including Laos, special attention should be devoted to strengthening long-term local recovery practices, which is part of resilient development. In particular, as also illustrated by this case study, it is crucial to consider sustainability when improving flood resilience at local levels.
Undeniably government agencies and aid organizations play a vital role in disaster management. Nevertheless, they should focus on enhancing the communities’ resilient development so that, in the future, communities can manage floods better on their own and conduct the recovery process with greater efficiency. Particularly during the recovery stage, the risk-bearers should be principally in charge of managing their situation, as it is they who know best what is required to return the community to a state of ‘normality’ as quickly as possible. Where possible, the risk-bearers should be supported in their efforts to guide ‘building back better’ initiatives. In sum, attention should be focused more sharply upon, and more support and resources should be invested in local communities to improve their flood resilience by enhancing their current recovery practices and introducing new ones.
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