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February 2005
updated December 2006

The role of local level institutions in reducing vulnerability to natural disasters and in sustainable livelihood development

Disaster Risk Management: A dimension of Sustainable Development

Poverty alleviation, development and disaster risk reduction are strongly interdependent. Disasters are more destructive in developing countries and disaster risk often accumulates historically through inappropriate development interventions or shortcomings of development policies. Furthermore disasters hold back development and progress towards achieving the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). The Rural Institutions and Participation Service, SDAR, supports the view that “effective integration of disaster risk reduction into development, notably through strengthening the role and performance of rural institutions, will help transform ‘vicious’ spirals of failed development risk accumulation and disaster losses into ‘virtuous’ spirals of development risk reduction and effective disaster response” 1.

The Context: Impact and frequency of natural disasters is increasing

Global data indicate that in the last decade natural hazards occurred more frequently than in the past and were more destructive. Weather-related hazards continue to increase (from an annual average of 200 per year between 1993-1997, to 331 per year between 1998-2002) as do the number of people reported affected (608 million people affected in 2002 compared with the annual average of 200 million in the previous decade) . Although compared to the 1990’s, reported global deaths from natural disasters had fallen (24,500 people reported killed in 2002 against a yearly average of 62,000 in the previous decade) events such as the recent Tsunami add another dimension to the above figures.

However, disaster risk reduction has thus far received insufficient attention and support as a facet of sustainable development. Too often it is rather looked upon as a new, independent discipline, yet still classically treated as a response mechanism to spontaneous eruptive events. The 2004 IFRC World Disasters Report has highlighted that while the face of disasters is changing, and old ways of coping are proving inadequate, people at risk must find new ways to respond on their own initiative. The report highlights that the disaster community is still too much focused on needs and vulnerabilitiesand that there is little analysis of how people survive and recover from disasters (and even less programming that builds on their coping strategies) and limited advocacy for putting “resilience” rather than “vulnerability” at the heart of the aid debate.

FAO has a crucial contribution to make. The vast majority of natural disasters occur in rural areas and are threatening agricultural production, fisheries and food security, in particular, as well as environmental sustainability overall.

The 1996 World Food Summit Plan (WFS) of Action stresses the need to develop efficient emergency response mechanisms and recommends to governments to involve communities, local authorities and institutions in implementing emergency operations to better identify and reach populations and areas at greatest risk (Objective 5.3). In the same spirit, the WFS Plan of Action recommends to governments to “strengthen linkages between relief operations and development programmes…so that they are mutually supportive and facilitate the transition from relief to development” (Objective 5.4).

FAO is committed to strengthening its technical activities and policy advisory services in countries that are especially prone to natural disasters, with a view to ensuring that disaster management is a key consideration within agricultural development policies and programs in such countries and that post-emergency support is more effectively integrated with long-term disaster risk management (DRM) and rural development (RD) strategies 2.

Within the above context, the Rural Institutions and Participation Service of FAO has initiated in 2003/04 a programme on “The role of local level institutions in reducing vulnerability to natural disasters”.

Objectives and scope of the SDAR programme

The Rural Institutions and Participation Service tackles the topic of disaster risk management and its link to development from an institutional perspective, and more specifically within the context of ongoing decentralization processes. The working approach is built on the premises that the sound understanding of existing institutional capacities and possible gaps and the comparative strengths of different actors in DRM, particularly at decentralized levels, are key entry points for a successful shift from reactive emergency relief operations towards long-term disaster risk prevention and preparedness, as well as for the integration of disaster risk management into regular development planning. Over the last years SDAR has been and is implementing a range of field projects and normative activities in the areas of risk management and disaster preparedness.3

The programme on the “The role of local level institutions in reducing vulnerability to natural disasters” builds on the lessons learned from field projects field and expands the scope of analysis and learning to compare between countries and regions and projects as well as between different types of hazards threats and livelihood systems . It is being implemented in collaboration with a range of partners including the Asian Disaster Preparedness Centre (ADPC), University of Cape Town (UCT), The World Food Programme (WFP), and NGOs including CENESTA, GREFCO, LASDEL, as well as local government representatives. The specific objectives of the programme are to:

  1. gather and compare field-based evidence about the role of local organizations and what and how they contribute to disaster risk management; assess how they could be further empowered as key actors in Disaster Risk Management;

  2. elaborate strategies for incorporating disaster prevention and response activities into long-term sustainable rural development strategies.

Greatest emphasis is therefore given to the question who acts on what. As well, importance is given to analysing how local actors have achieved desired results, including what have been common barriers preventing effective performance. For example, capturing the less apparent but nonetheless critical socio-political dynamics existing in rural areas confronted by disasters has enormous potential and offers lessons learned for others. This particular perspective on the roles of different actors and stakeholders has not been given sufficient attention or has been neglected in most past programmes, particularly at the local level. In most cases the focus had rather been limited to what to do.

Activities under the SDAR programme in 2003-04 included a comprehensive analysis of secondary material and nine case studies in different regions (Argentina, Burkina Faso, Honduras, Iran, Mozambique, Niger, Philippines, South Africa, Vietnam) focusing on practical lessons learned and good practice examples of local initiatives/action before, during and after natural hazards. An interregional workshop was held in Rome 31 March to 2 April 2004 for analysis and comparison, and for identifying areas for follow-up.

Interim results

The case studies, undertaken from the bottom-up perspective of communities, confirmed that even though significant and relevant knowledge and know how has been accumulated in the past on what should be done to reduce disaster risks, local capacities to actually implement effective and comprehensive DRM systems are in critically short supply. A particular related challenge is how to assist governments and development agencies in promoting local capacities and mobilizing local organizations to participate actively in the design and implementation of locally adapted disaster risk prevention and management strategies, according to their comparative strengths. They further highlighted that:

  1. Even when they are in place, formal DRM systems often do not reach out to the most vulnerable communities which, to a large extent, are forced to respond to hazards on the basis of their own strengths in an adaptive but often effective manner;
  2. DRM requires a combination of “top-down” and “bottom-up” approaches to reduce risk and make disaster response and rehabilitation more effective. Effective coordination systems benefit from decentralized governance, once clearly defined roles and capacities of local government are in place;
  3. DRM systems should be perceived as an integral part of regular sustainable development policies and programs. In order to get there a set of key framework conditions are necessary (see box below)

Framework Conditions to better Integrate DRM with Long-Term Development Planning

  • Inclusion of disaster prevention and mitigation components in rural development plans (retrofitting of rural sector development plans with DRM components), and planning tools such as CCAs and UNDAF;
  • Disaster preparedness and contingency planning at district and community levels;
  • Vertical and horizontal communication and coordination mechanisms;
  • Social capital formation, and enhancing social safety nets;
  • Integrated land use and watershed management strategies;
  • Management of conflict over access to natural resources;
  • Improved vulnerability assessments and vulnerability monitoring;
  • Targeting vulnerable groups;
  • Financial services factoring risks associated to natural disasters
  • “Mixed" Early warning systems and outreach out strategies;
  • Community training and public awareness (starting from local perceptions of natural disasters)
  • Recognize and enhance local knowledge, specifically on: risk identification and monitoring, risk mitigation strategies, early warning, conflict resolution,
  • Promote consistency of emergency relief with rural development objectives (monitoring and evaluation, focus on livelihoods, impact on markets, exit strategies)

The more detailed, consolidated results, the literature review and selected case studies are available under the links below.

The FAO rural development section in the Asia and Pacific region has published A handbook for trainers on participatory local development as a practical tool for capacity building of local governments. The Handbook includes a field tested training module on disaster preparedness, control and rehabilitation which is widely utilized by the NIRD, a coordinating national government training centre covering 26 States of India and by PRIA, an expert NGO on local governance in India, to enhance the livelihood security of the rural poor inhabiting the country’s 7,200 km coastline.

The way ahead

As part of this programme SDAR is currently finalizing a concept note to share with potential donors to (i) strengthen the role of local communities in building resilience and self-help capacities to cope with recurrent natural disasters, (ii) better link disaster risk reduction and development policies in member countries chronically vulnerable to recurrent natural disasters, and (iii) strengthen cooperation and learning exchange between countries. This programme is being developed, in collaboration with several partners (in and outside of FAO) in response to recent disasters, including the tsunami, floods and hurricanes, as well as a contribution to the follow-up to the World Conference on Disaster Reduction, Kobe, January 2005.

Reports and Case Studies

Consolidated report on case studies and workshop findings and recommendations

The role of Qashqai nomadic communities in reducing vulnerability to recurrent drought and sustainable livelihoods development in Iran

The role of local institutions in reducing vulnerability to recurrent natural disasters and in sustainable livelihoods development in Ilo-Ilo Province, The Philippines

Assessing the Role of Local Institutions in Reducing the Vulnerability of At-Risk Communities in Búzi, Central Mozambique

The role of local institutions in reducing vulnerability to recurrent natural disasters and in sustainable livelihoods development : Case study Viet Nam

The role of local institutions in reducing vulnerability to recurrent natural disasters and in sustainable livelihoods development: Case study South Africa

The Handbook for trainers on participatory local development

Disaster Risk Management: A Dimension of Sustainable Development. Case Study: Honduras

Strengthening disaster risk management in the agricultural sector in Bangladesh. Study on physical and environmental context, institutional analysis, and vulnerable group profiling in selected project pilot areas in the Northwest of Bangladesh by the Center for Environmental and Geographic Information Services (CEGIS)

Training modules for climate & flood forecast applications in agriculture. Enhancing early warning systems for disaster preparedness and mitigation in the agriculture sector in Bangladesh

Study on livelihood systems assessment, vulnerable groups profiling and livelihood adaptation to climate hazard and long-term climate change in drought-prone areas of Northwestern Bangladesh. Final report

Pastoral risk management in Qinghai Province, China. Strengthening capability of risk management of the animal husbandry sector and promoting sustainable development in the grazing area of Qinghai Province

Developing institutions and options for livelihood adaptation to climate variability and change in drought-prone areas of Bangladesh


1Recently expressed in a scoping study on links between disaster risk reduction, poverty and development study on disaster (Philip White ET. Al. December 2004)
2FAO Programme Committee, Thematic Evaluation of Strategy A3: Preparedness for, and effective and sustainable response to, Food and Agricultural Emergencies, September 2002.
3Such as the projects “Pastoral Risk Management Strategy, Mongolia”, “Strengthening Capacity of Risk Management of the Animal Husbandry Sector and promoting Sustainable Development in the Grazing Area of Qinghai Province”, “Support to the Strengthening of Disaster Preparedness in the Agriculture Sector, Bangladesh”, Livelihood adaptation to Climate Change, Bangladesh, the “Lempira Sur Project” in Honduras, and “Support to the Development of a Strategy for Territorial Organization and Sustainable Land Management in Areas with High Natural Risk, Hungary”.


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