International Day of Disaster Reduction

How can we arm communities to build resilience?

How can we arm communities to build resilience?

by Rachael Mcdonnell

Flood Waters and Daily life - lady trying to reach home. Photo: Anil Gulati - India Water Portal
Flood Waters and Daily life – a lady trying to reach home. Photo: Anil Gulati – India Water Portal

Over the last year we have seen the horrendous impacts that droughts and floods have had on people, crops and animals. The Climate Emergency has meant that water disasters are happening with greater frequency and intensity. The key question, asked in the Global Commission’s Report on Adaptation  is ‘How can we better arm communities to manage these impacts and build resilience?’.

We have to accept that in many cases we cannot stop floods or droughts, but we can empower people to limit the damage caused. Options from national governments down to individuals involve approaches that my reduce, transfer or avoid the risk.

Reducing the risk means understanding both who and why people are vulnerable to floods or droughts, and developing warning systems that alert communities to upcoming events. Vulnerability to these disasters often differ considerably between groups of people, with age, gender and ethnicity accounting for some distinctions. All too often the young, the old and the weak suffer most.  If a poor small-holder farmer cannot access water from a well, (a source less impacted by a drought) then his crop or herd of animals may be negatively impacted during a drought. His ability to afford to dig, or invest in a well or piping during water shortage, may make a big positive difference to his survival. In Jordan for example, ongoing work has highlighted the importance of income beyond farming in supporting investments that can help drought resilience through smarter water use systems.

Understanding the social or economic reasons behind a community’s vulnerability is critical to developing plans that reduce the risks of these events. Designing and implementing agriculture and water technology packages that bring increased drought resilience, such as using better adapted crop species and smarter soil water management, can make a real difference to drought impacts. The Virtual Irrigation Academy initiative in southern Africa is already helping farmers better manage their irrigation so that they use water only when it is needed by the crop.

Building resilience can only go so far to reducing the risk, and alerts from early warning systems linked to drought or flood action plans, play a really important role in helping communities and governments both respond to and then recover from events. In Morocco for example, the drought monitoring system developed there with the help of IWMI, supports the government work with agro-pastoralist communities during droughts to find grazing that is still available for their animals. This not only helps to maintain the herds, but also avoids excessive grazing in areas particularly hit hard by droughts that would previously have led to degrading of the lands. These alerting systems harness the latest advances in satellite images and modelling to capture the location and the severity of droughts and floods.

For risk transfer options, various financial options are being increasingly used to help those affected. One important development has been the growing use of insurance as part of this risk transfer. For example, in Bihar in India, the country’s most flood-prone state, IWMI and national partners are developing flood insurance linked to satellite and water modeling to monitor and trigger payouts. The recent pilot is helping over 400 farmers in 11 villages of Bihar’s Muzaffarpur District. In recent further developments they are working on supporting the post-flood recovery by bundling the insurance sharing stress-tolerant crop varieties, so that farmers can diversify their production and thus enhance their resilience.

A canal supplying water onto fields in the upper east region of Pwalugu
A canal supplying water onto fields in the upper east region of Pwalugu. Photo: Hamish John Appleby / IWMI

The third option of risk avoidance, through moving away from areas of affected by droughts and floods, is a universal and widely adopted strategy that has been used for thousands of years. The push and pull factors may be linked to these climate hazards, but are dynamic and political as well as environmental and economic, reflecting ongoing changes in a society. Whilst migration away from drought and floods areas is often viewed as a highly internationalized development issue, most migrants remain within their countries and move to local towns or cities for employment and income. Recent work by IWMI in Ethiopia highlighted the vulnerability of the economy to climate variability there, with its heavy reliance on rainfed agriculture. However, beyond this the education system was found to be a mismatch between needs and output, and youth aspirations were not met by the available and limited employment opportunities. Add in the influence of a cash economy and the presence of a ‘migration industry’ and it is easy to begin to understand how water and food insecurity coupled with these other societal issues can lead to drought risk avoidance through migration.

On this international day of disaster risk reduction, it is important to remember that droughts and floods affect the very essence of many societies and their age-old capacity to recover is being impacted by the increasing severity and frequency of these events. Risk reduction, transfer and avoidance options each bring possibilities that need to be adapted to fit the social, economic and political context of a nation or community. Building resilience to support people through these water-based catastrophes continues to be a major focus of the work of IWMI with the consequences of a changing climate making this an increasing imperative. With the global call to action from this year from the recent United Nations Climate Action Summit, it is important that IWMI and its partners continue to seek solutions both within and beyond the water space.

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