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Abbie Trayler-Smith / Panos Pictures / Department for International Development

Chapter 8.4 Communities and technology: choice and innovation

Community infrastructure and lifelines

Photo: Abbie Trayler-Smith / Panos Pictures / Department for International Development

Because of the scale and cost involved, protection of public infrastructure and lifeline facilities (e.g. hospitals, power and water supplies) is mostly a matter for national governments and international aid agencies rather than NGOs and local organisations. The Pan-American Health Organization (PAHO), for instance, has a long-running programme to make hospitals in Latin America and the Caribbean more resilient, and UNISDR has run international campaigns to improve hospital and school safety.+See;; Governments also have an important role in setting, monitoring and enforcing design standards, building codes and performance specifications for buildings and engineered constructions.

Owing to their scale, cost and complexity, major structural interventions are usually seen as a government responsibility. In many societies, this means that vulnerable communities have little say when it comes to planning and implementing such projects. Where other actors such as NGOs do become involved, this is often in opposition to large-scale schemes on the grounds that they are ineffective or have adverse social and environmental consequences. There is considerable scope for a more collaborative approach in which communities and civil society organisations advocate and partner with official agencies to identify and choose appropriate technologies and develop partnerships for implementation.

Smaller and local organisations can become involved in their own or other projects to protect local infrastructure. One of the most obvious areas of intervention is local water supplies – dams, wells, irrigation channels and water pipes – which in rural areas at least are usually managed by community organisations. Larger-scale community projects, such as flood protection and dams, are likely to require some form of community financing for construction, together with the skills and organisation for operation and maintenance. Many projects fail in the long term because they focus on the technological construction and hardware elements, without paying enough attention to building the community capacities needed to manage technological systems.

Case Study 8.3 Collaborating on community infrastructure

For many years, flooding from the Mthumba River had destroyed crops and buildings in Chikwawa District in Southern Malawi. In 2005–2006 a local NGO called Eagles consulted villagers and local government officials with a view to establishing a collaborative approach to the problem. A community task force was set up to provide project inputs and negotiate with local government agencies and private sector organisations. An earth dike was built to restore the river to its original course; this, added to other water management interventions (a storm drain, and a woodlot to reduce rainfall run-off), greatly reduce flooding. The collaboration of communities and local government, with NGO facilitation, was key to the project.

Tearfund, ‘Small and Medium-Scale Initiatives To Control River Flow’, in Building Disaster Resilient Communities: Good Practices and Lessons Learned (Geneva: UNISDR, 2007),, pp. 36–39.

Schools and other community buildings are in great need of protection: there may be high numbers of casualties if they fail, and they can be used as evacuation or relief shelters at times of disaster. Programmes to strengthen school buildings to withstand hazards have been undertaken in many parts of the world. This approach helps children in two ways. First, it gives them, and sometimes their families too, a place of safety during a disaster. Second, it ensures that educational facilities are left intact and schooling can resume more rapidly once the emergency is over.

Time and skills are needed to carry out vulnerability assessments of buildings, although methods for rapid visual screening do exist. However, the main obstacle for local organisations is the high cost of retrofitting what are often large buildings. Such expenditure is often well beyond the resources of local governments and NGOs, and so funding by national governments or international agencies is likely to be needed.

It is commonly assumed that measures to protect transport infrastructure are also purely large-scale, to be taken on by government. This is true for the main lines of transportation, but in rural areas most journeys are off-road on tracks and paths.+J. Dawson and I. Barwell, Roads Are Not Enough: New Perspectives on Rural Transport Planning in Developing Countries (London: IT Publications, 1993). See also the work of the International Forum for Rural Transport and Development: Women in particular spend many hours daily fetching and carrying fuel and water. Small hazard events can have a disastrous impact on rural tracks and bridges. The importance of local-level transport infrastructure in disaster mitigation is largely overlooked. Villages may be several hours’ or even several days’ walk from the nearest road, which is a major obstacle to disaster response as well as economic development. Relatively simple techniques to protect hill and mountain paths can make them resilient to severe rainfall. In urban areas, it is common to see raised footpaths that ensure that people can move around during the rainy season.

Such local-level infrastructure can be improved and protected by local institutions, including communities, although external agencies may need to provide funds, materials, machinery and technical support. After a disaster, external agencies can also play a valuable role in the rapid restoration of key infrastructure such as transport links, public buildings and markets. Lack of skills, capacity and resources within the community for ongoing management and maintenance is often a major contributory factor in the deterioration or even abandonment of introduced technologies, so systems need to be put in place to prevent this. Community ownership or joint ownership of infrastructure increases the likelihood of long-term community engagement.