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Chapter 9.3 Livelihoods and DRR

Types of intervention

Photo: ODI

DRR work with livelihoods is sometimes divided into three main areas of intervention: livelihood protection, livelihood promotion and livelihood recovery. There is also growing interest in what has been called livelihood ‘transformation’, which means changing social relations by challenging the policies, legislation, institutions, social practices and cultural attitudes that keep people vulnerable and restrict their livelihood opportunities.

Livelihood protection seeks to reinforce existing household coping and livelihood management strategies. It often focuses on conventional initiatives, such as hazard mitigation and disaster preparedness, but it can also comprise other support, such as food or cash transfers, providing seeds and tools and public works programmes. Typical physical measures include embankments to protect land, houses, grain stores and workshops from river flooding, and improved land use, slope stabilisation and forest management to reduce the threat of flash floods and landslides. Since many poor people’s livelihoods are home-based, improving domestic buildings and homesteads can also strengthen physical and economic resilience. Early warning systems give households time to move or defend their assets, as well as evacuate themselves. In the case of regular hazards such as seasonal floods, poor people often have well-established methods for protecting material assets. Ideally livelihood assets should not be too concentrated geographically, to reduce the risk of everything being destroyed by a single hazard event. This is often impossible for individual households, but the dispersal of key assets may be feasible in community-level projects.

While it is usually true that possession of assets automatically reduces vulnerability, this is not always the case. For example, if a household takes out a loan to set up a small income-generating enterprise, this may increase its earnings and enable it to acquire other assets that will make it more resilient. However, if that enterprise and its assets (such as buildings, equipment and raw materials) are in a hazard-prone location or not protected adequately, and as a result are destroyed by a hazard event, the household could find itself in a worse position than if it had not set the business up because it would still have to pay off the loans it had taken out. Valuable livelihood assets may also be seized or stolen: for instance, there is a history of cattle raiding in parts of East Africa.

Livelihood promotion is a developmental approach aimed at building adaptive capacity. It is less hazard-focused than livelihood protection and more likely to address risks in the broad sense, and to build household and community capacities that deliver multiple benefits. Evidence from DRR projects suggests that there is no standard approach to livelihood promotion – it has to fit local contexts and needs – but it tends to concentrate on improving existing livelihood practices and diversification into new areas of economic activity. This might include skills and vocational training, providing technical support and information, improving access to markets and services and supporting local institutions. Much of the livelihood programming in DRR to date has been in rural communities, with an emphasis on promoting off-farm activities to reduce dependence on agriculture, together with better management of crops, livestock and natural resources such as water and forests. Financial support through savings and credit schemes, micro-finance and micro-insurance (see Chapter 12) also has an important role to play in livelihood promotion.

Livelihood diversification plays a key role in promoting economic resilience and reducing vulnerability. Households diversify as a deliberate strategy. Individual household members often perform several different livelihood activities (e.g. farming, labouring and trading); farmers plant a variety of crops with different tolerances to weather extremes, to improve their chances of being able to produce some food for consumption and sale; smallholders who farm their own land will often work for pay on someone else’s land some distance away, in the expectation that a hazard event will only affect one of these locations. In many societies there are customary arrangements for sharing labour. However, diversification can also be a sign of desperation and poverty. Households may concentrate deliberately on a range of lower-risk activities, but this can mean that their production and financial returns are also relatively low. Faced with acute problems and scarcity, they may be forced to adopt damaging coping strategies, such as overgrazing and deforestation.

Case Study 9.1 Beekeeping and DRR

A beekeeping project begun in 2007 with villages in Nawalparasi District, Nepal, sought to boost household earnings and discourage families from engaging in environmentally damaging slash and burn farming activities that had removed ground cover, causing slope instability, erosion and rapid water run-off, increasing the risk of landslides. Some households kept bees to make honey for sale, but traditional methods, using hollow logs as hives, were not very productive, the quality of the honey was poor and it did not keep for long.

The project organised group meetings to explain the benefits of improved beekeeping in terms of earnings, agriculture and the environment. Training courses in beekeeping techniques were arranged for farmers who showed interest. The project provided funding towards the cost of improved hives, which produced considerably more honey than traditional ones, and of much higher quality, which led to a growth in demand. Farmers earned more than twice as much for their honey as they had in the past. All the trainees received follow-up technical support and a beekeeping group was formed. Higher earnings from improved beekeeping methods, together with environmental awareness-raising meetings organised by the project, led families to turn away from slash and burn agriculture.

D. Bhandari and Y. Malakar, Strengthening Livelihood Capacities to [sic] Disaster Risk Reduction in Nepal: Compilation of Change Studies (Kathmandu: Practical Action Nepal, 2011),, pp. 36–41.

After a disaster, restoring livelihoods and earning income quickly is a priority for poor people. During a damaging crisis, it may be necessary to give direct material support (livelihoods provisioning) by supplying food, water and shelter to meet urgent needs, together with essential livelihood assets such as seeds, tools, fertiliser and livestock to replace losses. Increasingly, cash transfers are used to enable disaster-affected people to make their own choices about what they need to rebuild their livelihoods, and remittances from family members can play an important role in stimulating self-recovery.

Case Study 9.2 Livestock, livelihoods and disasters

Livestock plays a significant role in the livelihoods of farmers and herders around the world. Loss of livestock due to hazard events damages or undermines the livelihoods of farmers and herders. Drought can be particularly devastating: the 1999–2001 drought in Kenya is estimated to have killed more than two million sheep and goats, 900,000 cattle and 14,000 camels.

The Livestock Emergency Guidelines and Standards (LEGS) project is a response to the need to protect this valuable livelihoods asset. LEGS seeks to integrate developmental, livelihoods approaches into disaster planning, response and recovery, and so break through the boundaries that traditionally separate relief and development programming. The LEGS Handbook, a companion volume to the Sphere handbook,+See focuses on protecting and rebuilding livestock assets during and after disasters. Based on best practice, it contains participatory tools and guidance on technical interventions to support livestock-keepers affected by crisis, including the provision of veterinary services, animal feed, water, shelter and restocking, all of which can and in most cases should be linked to longer-term development and resilience-building programmes.

Livestock Emergency Guidelines and Standards (Rugby: LEGS & Practical Action Publishing, 2014),; LEGS and Resilience: Linking Livestock, Livelihoods and Drought Management in the Horn of Africa,, 2012.