Make communities the starting point in tsunami risk reduction - experts

by Katherine Baldwin | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Wednesday, 14 October 2009 17:02 GMT

LONDON (AlertNet) - The December 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami triggered its own powerful wave of activity at an international and national level to prepare countries and communities better to avoid a repeat of the tragedy, but five years on, missing links between policy and practice mean many of the most vulnerable people are still at risk, experts say.

There have been major technological advances since the 2004 tsunami smashed into a dozen Asian and African countries, killing almost 230,000 people. The Indian Ocean now has its own early warning system, which was tested in a United Nations-backed simulation exercise on Wednesday.

National tsunami information centres have been set up across the region, buoys on the ocean surface and several deep in the sea detect abnormal wave movements and Thailand and other countries have erected coastal towers that send warnings through sirens. Alerts are also sent out by radio, television, SMS messages and other methods. Hawaii and Japan are still responsible for issuing tsunami notifications to the Indian Ocean but soon a number of regional centres will take over, with a view to providing more immediate and accurate information.

Despite the surge of activity and large investments in recent years, some experts say the warning system is failing the very coastal communities it is designed to help.

"The closer the warning gets to the most vulnerable people, the more it fades out," said Marcus Oxley, chairman of the Global Network of Civil Society Organisations for Disaster Reduction.

"This does make you question the effectiveness of national or international warning systems. Even if you have the best policy at the national level, there is no guarantee that this will bring about changes at the local level where people are at risk, live and work."


In poorer communities and informal settlements, there is often no access to electricity or telecommunications and infrastructure is poor.

For these reasons, experts like Oxley argue that the focus needs to shift to the local community. Local people need to build response capacities that fit their context, and feed these upwards into national policy-making. Information needs to go from the bottom up, rather than top down.

After the December 2004 tsunami, much was written by experts about the 'last mile' -- making sure the tsunami warning gets all the way to the affected people. Oxley and others believe this thinking should be reversed.

Simple examples include the message of "Shake, Drop, Run" which is being taught in schools in some local communities -- when the earth shakes, drop everything and run. Or knowing that a receding sea could mean a tsunami is on the way. Some local people were aware of this in December 2004 while others were bemused by it and wandered out to see what was happening, just before the waves came.

"There's a missing link between policy and practice, particularly in terms of the involvement of local communities in the planning and in activities to reduce risk," said JC Gaillard, a disaster expert at the University of Grenoble in France and a visiting professor at the University of the Philippines.

"In order to close this link, you need the involvement of local communities, you need the sharing of knowledge, the sharing of indigenous knowledge."


While it may be a blessing that tsunamis hit infrequently, this is a problem in terms of preparation. Tsunami warnings often give local people just minutes to act before a wave strikes.

"The lead time is so small that you need to have very well established functional emergency management systems at grassroots level that allow people to evacuate in a matter of minutes. That's the weakest link in the chain," said Bhupinder Tomar, senior officer for disaster preparedness at the IFRC in Geneva. "You need people to be trained, systems to be practised every year."

While investment in technology is necessary, investment in people is more challenging and time consuming, particularly in countries like Indonesia with such a large coastline, Tomar added.

The key area of partnership -- and an area where much work still needs to be done -- is between local government and grassroots organisations, with non-governmental organisations and community based organisations acting as a bridge, said Ben Wisner, a disaster expert at Oberlin College, Ohio and the Aon Benfield Hazard Research Centre, University College London.

Women's grassroots organisations can be particularly effective in mobilising community responses, experts say.

"There is a tremendous potential for partnership between local govenrments and local communities," said Wisner. "But there are many obstacles to this happening.

Local governments are often financially poor, and lack appropriately trained people. There may also be mistrust of government on the part of civil society and local people," he added.


Another barrier is that local people do not have the resources to escape and are often so preoccupied with their livelihoods that they do not have the time or incentive to focus on planning for what is often a once-in-a-lifetime event.

"It isn't so much about how to get the message to the people but about what people do with the message when they get it, a lot of communities don't have roads, transport or places to go, and they are worried about their livestock," Wisner said.

In a report released in June 2009, called Clouds but little rain..." Views from the Frontline, the Global Network chaired by Oxley found that community participation in the decision-making process was one of the lowest scoring indicators and concluded that the emphasis must shift from international and national policy making to policy execution at local levels if lives are to be saved.

In Orissa, India, for example, local people are involved in drawing up maps of vulnerable areas and assessing potential risks, a vital step in building resilient communities, the report said.

Community radio is being established in Bangladesh so that warnings of imminent disasters can be circulated in local languages.

The review spanned 48 countries in Africa, Asia and the Americas and collected the views of over 7000 local government officials, civil society and community representatives mainly through face-to-face interviews.

"The question is how can we design the technology so that it serves the people. The problem with the 'last mile' is that it's trying to design the people to serve the technology," said Ilan Kelman, a senior research fellow at CICERO, the Centre for International Climate and Environmental Research in Oslo.

"The starting point should be with the local community, asking them what they know already and what are their concerns."

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