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Chapter 17.2 Risk reduction after disaster

Opportunities, issues and challenges

Photo: Jessica Lea/DFID

17.2.1 Windows of opportunity

Disasters can be opportunities for change and renewal. They are sometimes said to present a ‘window of opportunity’ for promoting and implementing risk reduction measures, because the consequences of failing to act are strongly implanted in the minds of those who are affected by disasters, the operational agencies that have to respond to them and the public policymakers who have to manage their effects. This is demonstrated by the number and variety of initiatives introduced at all levels after major disasters. Disasters are an opportunity to change socio-economic relationships that affect vulnerability; they promote the formation of pressure groups; they prompt public debates about vulnerability and how to reduce it (Central America after Hurricane Mitch in 1998 being a notable example);+M. Mowforth, Storm Warnings: Hurricanes Georges and Mitch and the Lessons for Development (London: Catholic Institute for International Relations, 2001). and they stimulate policy changes, new laws and regulations for disaster reduction. Relief and rehabilitation initiatives sometimes lead to longer-term risk reduction projects, especially where the same agencies are involved in both relief and development work in the area concerned.

Characteristics of the ‘window of opportunity’ at a more local level may include: residents and local officials are made to think about the problem of risk, when they do not normally do so; the disaster may already have forced some changes (for example by destroying unsafe buildings and infrastructure); the community has to make decisions about recovery; and technical and expert advice and resources become available from government and non-government sources.+Natural Hazards Center, Holistic Disaster Recovery: Ideas for Building Local Sustainability after a Natural Disaster (Boulder, CO: University of Colorado, 2001), It is hard to tell how long the window will remain open, what types of change might take place (and whether their outcomes will be positive or negative), or what conditions must be met to take advantage of the opportunity. Momentum can easily be lost and lessons are soon forgotten. Chances of success at community level may be improved by acting quickly before fear or the enthusiasm for change created by the disaster have lessened; basing interventions on familiar technologies and local resources as far as possible; concentrating on a small number of important actions, rather than introducing a whole portfolio of changes that dissipate efforts; focusing on what is achievable – communities already hit by a disaster have many urgent problems to attend to, and they will not respond if they believe the proposed mitigation measures are beyond their reach; and encouraging, supporting and involving communities as participants in change.

Post-disaster needs assessments (PDNAs), a key tool in post-disaster response, also have a key role to play in recovery and DRR planning. They collect information on damage losses and recovery priorities, including human development needs, and can be designed or adjusted to determine a range of recovery requirements and priorities, linked to DRR and development objectives. There are formal procedures for conducting PDNAs, particularly at government level, but any assessment of disaster impacts and needs can provide some kind of baseline and inform recovery policies.

Above all, it makes sense to agree on recovery goals and draw up plans before disasters happen, when there is time to think out strategies carefully and engage relevant stakeholders. Even if recovery needs after a disaster cannot be predicted reliably, credible scenarios can be created and the structures and systems to enable recovery can be established well in advance (as in preparedness planning).+International Recovery Platform, Guidance Note on Recovery: Pre-disaster Recovery Planning (Kobe: International Recovery Platform, undated),

Case Study 17.1 A window of opportunity for DRR

Cyclone Nargis, which struck the Ayeyarwady Delta in Myanmar in May 2008, was a devastating disaster: there were more than 140,000 fatalities, 700,000 homes and critical infrastructure were damaged or destroyed, 2.4m people were affected, and the loss of crops and livestock was immense. However, the experience also stimulated improvements in disaster management and a new emphasis on DRR. Nargis made the government of Myanmar realise the limitations of its disaster management capacity, in particular the need to invest more in DRR. Soon afterwards, the Myanmar Action Plan for Disaster Risk Reduction, Preparedness, Relief and Rehabilitation was developed by a task force from government ministries, the Myanmar Red Cross, UN agencies, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and the Asian Disaster Preparedness Center. The action plan was considered a landmark in cooperation between the government, civil society and international agencies in Myanmar. A new national disaster management law and building codes were also drafted and programmes were initiated to mainstream DRR into the health and education sectors. In 2009 international donors set up a trust fund to improve food and livelihood security for the rural poor, who had been the main victims of the disaster, and the government designed a development plan for the Ayeyarwady Delta that sought to use recovery programmes as a platform for longer-term economic regeneration.

Local groups, businesses and religious networks had been active in the emergency response to Nargis: new alliances and partnerships were formed, which bridged ethnic, religious and class divisions. This led to government agencies, communities, local authorities and international aid agencies making new connections between each other, and working together to plan and carry out recovery programmes. A variety of DRR interventions were undertaken, including public education programmes on preparedness and risk reduction, the establishment of village disaster management committees, training in first aid, search and rescue and early warning, and the construction of cyclone shelters. Businesses also began to take risk reduction more seriously. Large construction companies educated smaller counterparts on building codes and seismic resistance, and the construction of schools and hospitals which could also be used as cyclone shelters.

L. Fan, Disaster as Opportunity? Building Back Better in Aceh, Myanmar and Haiti (London: ODI, 2013),

17.2.2 Coordination

Coordination of activities and interventions relies on collaboration between agencies working in relief, development and DRR. Such collaboration can be hard to achieve in the aftermath of major crises, when there may be a massive influx of national and international agencies of all kinds. The UN’s cluster system (which includes early recovery as one of its key themes) is attempting to streamline coordination between agencies. Relief and post-relief initiatives tend to operate on different scales, with mass coverage being more easily achieved in relief operations, and humanitarian agencies must weigh the imperative to assist as many people as possible during an emergency against the need to support them against future emergencies.

Relief funding is likely to cover only short-term, often fixed periods (typically of a few months, except in chronic crises), and the artificial distinction between relief, recovery and development in typical donor budget lines may lead to effort and resources going into activities that are not sustained, and to strict limitations on activities deemed too ‘developmental’ by relief donors. Agencies are often under pressure to spend money quickly in order to meet donor deadlines. Seeking funding from development budget lines may not be a realistic alternative given the length of time donors can take to reach decisions. Another issue is that some agencies divide their humanitarian, development and DRR work institutionally into separate teams that do not necessarily collaborate or share knowledge effectively. Finally, large-scale interventions by international agencies can bypass or marginalise national governments and NGOs, reducing local ownership of post-disaster initiatives, making it harder to achieve coherent and planned recovery and risk reduction and reducing long-term impact. Conversely, the withdrawal of international organisations and support may lead to further fragmentation, especially if it is sudden.

17.2.3 Phasing out

Relief and rehabilitation agencies bear some of the responsibility for ensuring that the underlying causes of vulnerability are addressed and longer-term DRR activities are sustained. Many post-disaster assistance projects come to an end abruptly, with little or no provision for follow-up or ongoing funds, materials and other resources for consolidation and replication. Response organisations talk a great deal about ‘exit strategies’, but what an external agency describes as a phase-out may be seen locally as the agency walking away instead of seeing the job through.

Organisations that work in the short to medium term in a disaster-affected area should plan their withdrawal carefully, recognising that there will be plenty of unfinished work and that community expectations may not have been fulfilled. Phased withdrawal is preferable to sudden departure. There must be a coherent handover to locally based organisations and communities that have been involved in planning the exit strategy and have the appropriate capacity and resources. The process should be planned early; it should be transparent, and agreed and coordinated with partners. The goal of an exit strategy is to ensure the sustainability of impacts after a project or programme ends.

17.2.4 Participation

Community participation (see Chapter 6) is just as important after a disaster as before it. Communities should drive the recovery process: they should as far as possible determine their own needs, making decisions about priorities for recovery and designing, implementing and monitoring interventions. The need for urgent response in a disaster often overrides participatory principles and mechanisms. To some extent this is understandable, but it can easily lead to agencies making too many hasty assumptions about what people need and want. This results in inefficient relief distribution and closes off opportunities for other areas of intervention to increase resilience. Inadequate participation can also reinforce existing local power structures that marginalise certain groups and keep them vulnerable.