Resilience is all about balance

In this blog post, IMC’s disaster risk management and sustainability expert Rumana Kabir shares her views on how development practitioners and states should build systems that increase communities’ resilience to disasters.

Thursday 01 February 2018, Rumana Kabir

When I think of community-based disaster risk reduction (CBDRR), two issues whirl in my mind like the wheels of a bike. Firstly, ‘what makes us resilient?’ and secondly, ‘what support do we need from the state to make ourselves and our communities resilient?’

If we can find an answer and these issues are well balanced like the wheels of a bike, then we made it!


The reason why I thought of a bike is because it reminds me of the story of my former colleague Noni and how she survived the tsunami.

Noni is a skilled surfer who lived near the beautiful coastline of Aceh, in Indonesia. She was relaxing on her hammock on a lazy Saturday morning when she saw the tsunami wave approaching. It was a no-brainer for her. Being a surfer, Noni knew that wave did not look normal. She instantly rode her bike to a higher ground while the tsunami was chasing her.

Not only did she manage to save herself, she also braved dark water and dead bodies to find her sister, few hours after the tsunami calmed down. And she did find her alive as she was away from home. They were among the lucky ones who survived.

This is what I call ‘resilience’, an important skill in all aspects of our lives. Resilience should be part of CBDRR programmes, also known as community-based disaster risk management (CBDRM) programmes. Noni might have been lucky, but most women during a disaster are not and do not possess basic lifesaving skills. In places like Aceh, coastal Bangladesh or Myanmar, they often do not survive to disasters because they cannot swim or their clothes get tangled.

So what is community-based disaster risk management?

According to the United Nations, through CBDRM, potentially affected communities are involved in disaster risk management at the local level. ‘This includes community assessments of hazards, vulnerabilities and capacities, and their involvement in planning, implementation, monitoring and evaluation of local action for disaster risk reduction.’

Generally, local governments, NGOs and the Red Cross engage communities in disaster risk management. These activities often start after a big disaster hits and money starts flowing into the country, but end when funds dry up.

In disaster-prone countries like Bangladesh, Thailand, the Philippines and India, disaster risk management processes and systems continue to go through trial and error as disasters strike frequently. Despite this, the challenges posed by, among others, climate change, urbanisation, chronic poverty and migration force governments to prioritise these burning issues and sideline preparedness and risk management.

There is a long way to go to improving our skills, systems and processes. NGOs or local government officials can only do so much to enhance their community’s preparedness and response to disasters, unless the state is also committed.

Therefore, I see CBDRM not as a project but as a continuous activity to improve people’s resilience to shocks and stresses. It needs to go beyond the project funding mentality that persists among humanitarian and development organisations and their donors. It should be well integrated in the country’s systems and procedures to manage future risks and disasters.

And that is when the second wheel of the bike needs to keep on rolling – state support to citizens. As outside actors in the international development or humanitarian arena, we must ensure we support states and link them with their communities to make the bike wheels move together.

What is the state of play?

To continue with the bike metaphor, international policies and thinking have indeed moved a long way over the last ten years.

Back in 2005, when former US President Bill Clinton visited the countries hit by the Indian Ocean tsunami, he advocated for ‘building back better’. This concept was understood as meaning disaster risk reduction. The phrase ‘build back better’ became very popular as it expresses a promising long-term vision to build back lives and livelihood.

However, did we the international community manage to ‘build back better’ and create ‘safer’ communities in the long run? I wonder if Bill Clinton asked himself the same question when he visited the post-2010 Haiti earthquake recovery site where international humanitarian aid had been mostly spent on quick-fix solutions.

Back in 2010, the urban context was new for humanitarians like myself, who used to operate mainly in rural areas with fewer space restrictions.

In the densely populated capital city Port-au-Prince, there was not enough space for permanent reconstruction. Much of it was taken up by transitional shelters, which were built in haste to put a roof over people’s heads. To build earthquake-resistant houses, locals should have been trained at an early stage to ‘build back better’ and ‘safer’ with cement blocks and iron bars. These were the materials they were using, which led to much death and destruction due to unsafe construction practices. Moreover, much of the funding went to the US economy, including the purchase of timber.

The poorest of the poor, who had no land title and were renting or squatting, could not build without permits, while those living in public open spaces received rental subsidies to find their own solutions. Consequently, the most vulnerable landless people were displaced in tents or plastic-wrapped timber shelters until long after the earthquake, which provided little protection.

Transitional shelters built in the aftermath of the 2010 Haiti earthquake. Photo courtesy of PWRDF via Flickr under a Creative Commons Licence.
Shelters built in the aftermath of the 2010 Haiti earthquake. Photo courtesy of PWRDF via Flickr under a Creative Commons Licence.

Lessons from Haiti and the increased number of disasters that hit cities over the last few years opened our eyes to the importance of long-term planning before a disaster strikes, which is crucial in urban contexts. It also made us aware of the danger of letting states or development actors fix the situation after humanitarians leave without any collaboration or handover.

If today I see light at the end of the tunnel is precisely because the concept of disaster risk reduction has bridged the gap between humanitarian/relief and development interventions. Today professionals from both sectors understand the importance of stepping out of their silos and the urban and sustainable development agenda is integrated into humanitarian practice.

Recently, I have visited Odisha state, in eastern India, to learn what disaster recovery best practices emerged following Cyclone Phailin in 2013. Local governments and communities are working in parallel to ensure that the latter are better prepared. Governments are making an effort to build cyclone-resistant houses for the high-risk coastal populations so that if disasters strike in future they will not need to take refuge in shelters and can rebuild their lives.

Globally, over the past decade, we have progressed on the policy and institutional front. In 2005, the Hyogo Framework of Action (HFA) introduced DRR into the national and international agenda. Now, the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction (SFDRR) 2015-2030 recognises that countries need to cooperate and devise policies and institutions that prioritise DRR. The most important achievement is that SFDRR integrates climate change and sustainable development agendas together.

So there are reasons to feel optimistic, as I think that we international development practitioners are finding the right balance. All we need to do now is to keep on playing our balancing act to help governments and people become more resilient, just like Noni.

On Wednesday 25 October 2017, Rumana gave a presentation on community-based reconstruction as part of the Humanitarian Speaker Series on DRR which was organised by the international NGO RedR UK and hosted by XL Catlin.

Cover photo: Community-based reconstruction in Odisha, eastern India, after Cyclone Phailin in 2013. Local men and women received masons training and were employed to build cyclone-resistant houses, which provided them with wages and skills.

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