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15. Contribution of the Natural Sciences to DRM and Interdisciplinarity in NRM

Because of progress achieved in the natural sciences, the indirect contribution of environmental services to DRM could be proven and is now beyond all reasonable doubt. Carbon dioxide sequestration, biodiversity conservation and water flow regulation, in addition to the sustainable use of forest resources, timber and non-timber products, may provide alternatives to deforestation that make sense in both economic and environmental terms. Natural resources and environmental management can have a significant influence on natural hazard risks. For instance, the degradation of mangroves, reefs and natural beaches affects storm surge and wave risk, and deforestation and unsustainable agricultural practices on mountain slopes lead to increases in flood and landslide risk, locally and downstream. Interactions between geological, atmospheric, biological, and human systems are very complicated, and highly location-dependent. Possibly, not much up-to-date literature exists containing more detailed general discussions of the interactions between the natural environment and hazard risk - a recent World Bank document, for example (World Bank 2002), quotes work from 1991 as a reference (OAS 1991).

Natural resource management (NRM) is important for natural hazard risk reduction, at least in some places and for some hazards, and is more than just another piece of the disaster risk mitigation jigsaw. Improvements in the management of soils, forests, coastal zones, and other natural systems cannot be treated as another distinct domain or area of expertise that can be partitioned off and dealt with separately in the way that this is being done with hazard forecasting and warning, or land use planning and structural (engineering) design. Even more than in those domains, risk reduction must be integrated into day-to-day management (World Bank 2002). The natural sciences have much value to add to the way this may occur by continuing to improve upon best NRM practices, which must above all be cost-effective and lead to improved livelihood outcomes, as well as easy to integrate into the farm and off-farm strategies of rural households and their communities. Of course, the contribution of the natural sciences to increasing the role of local institutions in disaster risk mitigation and management depends on the type of natural disaster we are talking about.

For the past half-century, the state system of NRM has been penetrating the traditional or indigenous environmental cognisance system through projects. “The state system of knowledge is based on a scientific accumulation, organization, and interpretation of data, and management problems are resolved in a technical, ahistorical framework. This system of management is bureaucratic, (...), hierarchically organized and vertically compartmentalized. The environment is reduced to conceptually discreet components which are managed separately. (...) As these separate management units take on a life of their own, management objectives diverge and become focused on specialized objectives” (Usher, 1986: 71). Yet, DRM objectives are not “specialised” but cross-cutting, as hazard risk results from the complex interaction of many different elements within ecosystems.

The outcome of a given DRM project is also the consequence of a negotiation process, visible and, mostly, invisible, engaging the technical-scientific reasoning of development professionals, with an urban-based educational background, and the “holistic” reasoning of the project “beneficiaries”. Redclift (1992, in Campbell and Salagrama 2000) reminds us that although sold as being ‘people-centred’, “sustainable development is usually discussed without reference to epistemological issues. It is assumed that the system of acquiring knowledge in the North, through the application of scientific principles, is a universal epistemology. Anything less than the ‘scientific knowledge’ hardly deserves our attention. Such a view, rooted as it is in ignorance of the way we ourselves think, as well as of other cultures’ epistemology, is less than fruitful” (34).

‘Culturally-sensitive’ and interdisciplinary initiatives tend to until present have been ad hoc and disaster-specific, sometimes remarkably well orchestrated, but, often highly localised and constrained by structural institutional dissonance and a lack of (interest in) coordination. Of course, the mechanisms set up to coordinate inter-disciplinary work, such as inter-organisational networks of disaster prevention and reduction, have only been as good as the actual response they have been able to bring about, and these are best illustrated through concrete examples (see the box in this Section). Possibly because of the need to tackle the much higher physical and human capital losses in urban environments, the ‘DRM discipline’ appears to be dominated by experts with urban planning backgrounds.

14.1 SEWA (see also Section 6 above)

Some large organisations have been able to tackle the challenge of interdisciplinary reactions to disaster very well. Many members of SEWA were affected when a devastating earthquake hit the Indian state of Gujarat in January 26, 2001. Even before the earthquake relief effort ended, SEWA had already prepared a long-term disaster rehabilitation programme. Since the earthquake-affected districts were experiencing a second consecutive drought year when the earthquake hit, the challenge for SEWA was to ensure that the rehabilitation programme had a multi-hazard perspective covering seismic and cyclone resistant measures as well as drought mitigation measures, while continuing to provide drought relief. Similar to the earthquake relief operation, the rehabilitation programme has been implemented through SEWA’s family of network organisations: district associations and federations have been in charge of the livelihood security programme, the Mahila Housing Trust has implemented the shelter restoration programme, and the Health and Child Care Cooperatives and the SEWA Academy have provided the necessary social protection services. The disaster rehabilitation programme has managed to take advantage of several opportunities to integrate drought and earthquake mitigation measures into the reconstruction and rural development process. For example, increased availability of water has been provided by adding roof rain water harvesting structures to the new housing constructed through the shelter restoration programme. SEWA architects and engineers designed the 5,000 liter water tanks to ensure that adequate seismic-resistant standards were followed. Simultaneously, to provide drought relief, a fodder security programme including dry fodder and cattle feed has also been established, and a housing shelter restoration programme following a participatory, owner-driven approach, was implemented. Moreover, the programme was developed in close partnership with the State government, and within the framework of the state’s housing policy established for the earthquake reconstruction period. Given the magnitude of the task at hand - SEWA estimated that approximately 28,000 families in 161 villages required its assistance in housing restoration - the programme was designed in phases.

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