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3. Conceptual Background and Working Definitions

The conceptual and methodological underpinning (see FAO, n.d.) of this report recognises that the effectiveness of any risk mitigation strategy will depend on the nature of the risks, household, population group and institutional characteristics, and the availability and range of risk management alternatives. In reference to local institutions, risk strategies are assessed considering the type of instruments used by the poor and near poor, the degree of formality or informality of these instruments, and the type of actors and institutions that have typically supplied or supported these instruments. The issues (listed in the six bullet points in the next section) below are thus approached with a clear commitment towards improving rural livelihoods by better understanding and supporting people’s organisations.

The International Strategy for Disaster Reduction (Geneva 2001) defines a ‘disaster’ as ‘a serious disruption of the functioning of society, causing widespread human, material or environmental losses which exceed the ability of affected society to cope using only its own resources’.

Disaster risk is usually conceptualised as being made up of two elements, hazard and vulnerability, which can be expressed in an equation: disaster risk = hazard x vulnerability. Risk is therefore dependent on the existence of a household’s vulnerability to a natural event.

Disaster Risk Mitigation (DRM) strategies refer to a household’s or local institution’s preparedness to reduce the impact of a risk event, either one that has already occurred or one that may occur in future. Mitigation includes prevention and preparedness (WFP, 1998: 4).

The concept of Disaster risk management implies a notion of household vulnerability, which is often said to contain a ‘risk chain’: the risk itself, the options for managing risk and the outcome - in terms of welfare loss, in the case of households, and of financial loss and adverse consequences for sustainability in the case of local institutions (Alwang et al. 2001).

A paper by the WFP (1998) claims that:

“A review of donor practices and the literature reveals that there are no universally accepted definitions of the terms [...] mitigation, prevention and preparedness. Moreover, the distinction of terms is often blurred. In one situation an activity may be considered to be an act of preparedness, and in another it is prevention. For this reason, many of the definitions found in the literature are vague and all-encompassing” (p3).

For lack of space, readers are referred to the literature (e.g., FAO 2003, IFAD 2002, Uphoff 1997) for a definition of the term ‘local institution’, as both ‘local’ and ‘institution’ are concepts that are difficult to unpack[2].

The usage of the latter conforms, in the broad sense of the term, to the widely accepted definition of ‘the rules, organisations and social norms that facilitate the coordination of human action’. The fact that to some large extent they are context-specific helps us fend off the unappealing prospect of getting embroiled in long-winding conceptualisations: for the intents and purposes of this review we may unworriedly hope to get away with employing the term loosely to refer to ‘an organisation of local actors’. For lack of space (see the next Section below), the emphasis in this endeavour is on their displaying some degree of “formality” (read as: “visibility”, for a proxy) and on their containing some element of collective (i.e., supra-household) action.

The Disaster Management Cycle (FAO n.d.)

The Disaster Management Cycle is illustrated in the below diagram. It consists of a number of phases, each requiring a different range of response activities. The different phases, however, are often grouped together under three main categories: the pre-emergency phase, the emergency phase and the post-emergency phase. In the course of this paper, the activities of UN entities in the disaster management cycle will be examined under these three broad categories.


Pre-Emergency Phase

The emphasis in the pre-emergency phase is on reducing the vulnerability of communities to suffer from the impact of natural phenomena. Measures to achieve this objective include risk-mapping, application of building codes, land zoning as well as structural measures such as the construction of dams against flooding. They are grouped under the heading risk reduction, comprising prevention, mitigation and preparedness.


® Prevention

Includes all measures aimed at avoiding that natural phenomena turn into disasters for settlements, economies and the infrastructures of communities.

® Mitigation

Involves measures taken to limit the adverse impact of natural hazards and related environmental and technological disasters. Examples of mitigation are the retrofitting of buildings or the installation of flood-control dams, and specific legislation.


® Preparedness

Involves measures taken to ensure effective response to the impact of disasters. Preparedness measures include, for example, evacuation plans, early warning systems, pre-stocking of relief items - all being part of a national disaster relief plan.


® Emergency Phase

In the emergency phase of a natural disaster, response mechanisms are automated. This phase is normally short-lived and may be over within days or weeks.

® Response

Involves measures taken immediately prior to and following the disaster impact. Response measures are directed towards saving life and protecting property. They deal with the immediate disruption caused by the disaster. They include search and rescue, and the provision of emergency food, shelter, medical assistance. The effectiveness of responding to disasters largely depends on the level of preparedness.


Post-Emergency Phase

The transition from relief to rehabilitation is rarely clear-cut. On the one hand, the foundations of recovery and reconstruction are usually laid in the immediate aftermath of a major disaster, while emergency response activities are still ongoing. On the other hand, there is often, in the aftermath of a natural disaster, a phase when basic needs must still be met as the long-term benefits of rehabilitation and reconstruction projects have not yet been fully realised. As a result, the phasing-out of relief assistance must be managed carefully.

® Recovery

Is the process by which communities are assisted in returning to their proper level of functioning. The recovery process can be very protracted, in some cases up to a decade or more. Typical activities undertaken under this phase include: restoration of essential services and installations, and long-term measures of reconstruction, including the replacement of buildings and infrastructure that have been destroyed by the disaster.


® Development

Its inclusion in the disaster cycle is intended to ensure that following the natural disaster, countries factor hazard and vulnerability considerations into their development policies and plans, in the interest of national progress.

The rationale behind the use of the expression ‘disaster management cycle’ is that disaster and its management is a continuum of inter-linked activities. Yet, the expression is slightly deceiving in that it suggests that the periodic occurrence of natural disasters is something inevitable, always requiring the same response. On the contrary, if effective prevention and preparedness measures are implemented, natural disasters may be avoided by limiting the adverse impact of inevitable natural phenomena[3].

[2] An often used definition of ‘local’ - particularly by FAO - is that provided in the 1980s by N. Uphoff, who postulates that the term includes three levels of society: 1) the locality level, which is a set of communities having cooperative/commercial relations; 2) the community level, which is a relatively self-contained, socio-economic-residential unit; and 3) the group level, which is a self-identified set of persons having some common interest; maybe a small residential group like a hamlet, or neighbourhood, an occupational group, or some ethnic, caste, age, sex or other grouping (1986).
[3 ]To illustrate progress in reducing a country’s vulnerability to the impact of natural phenomena through the implementtation of risk-reduction measures, the series of events applying to disaster management should be represented as a spiral. In a spiral, disaster-related activities are linked as a continuum, but not in a cyclical manner. At the beginning of the spiral, the country’s vulnerability to natural disasters is high since inadequate focus is placed on risk-reduction and more efforts are correspondingly required during the emergency phase of a disaster. An upward movement along the spiral indicates that prevention and preparedness measures are gradually put into place, thereby reducing the country’s vulnerability to natural disasters and the need for emergency assistance in the event of a disaster.

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