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16. Household Level Poverty Constraints to DRM

Experience indicates that disaster risk reduction is best attained implementing a diverse series of activities that combines more formal development activities with more traditional risk reduction activities at the household level. Usually when the former are undertaken in disaster-prone areas they are however not specifically linked to preventing disasters or improving the capacity of households to cope with shocks. Many development projects in marginal areas have generic poverty alleviation objectives, which might or might not help households cope with repeated disasters. More often than not, each time a shock or disaster occurs, development gains accrued are wiped out and households or even whole communities find themselves starting all over again. The link and causal interconnectedness between poverty and vulnerability is well recognised; in Central America, for example, Sánchez del Valle (2000) finds that there are a larger number of human casualties caused by natural disasters not where these strike more often, but where there exists more widespread poverty and marginalisation.

Natural disasters constitute a multifaceted shock to livelihoods, characterised by three interrelated categories of direct and indirect losses and damages that households and local institutions may experience, combined or in isolation (adapted from Charveriat, 2000):

Many of the poor and the near poor suffer from both higher disaster risk exposure and lower risk bearing capacity than other population groups. Poor individuals and households attempt to manage risks in several formal and informal ways. Their capacity to do so and the choice of risk management mechanism will depend on the characteristics of the risks - their sources, correlation, frequency, and intensity, as well as the alternatives at hand. Poverty constraints make individuals unable or unwilling to engage in high risk and/or high return activities, which limits their ability to manage risks and to escape poverty (World Bank 2001).

At the same time, the poor cannot usually avoid disaster risk given their limited choices when deciding where to live and how to sustain themselves there. Along with economic crises and civil conflicts, natural disasters are among the main sources of aggregate shocks to society, and often lead to dramatic increases in poverty incidence, further aggravating hazard risk.

Coping with the psychological dimensions of DRM

After the October 1999 cyclone in the Indian state of Orissa, the Voluntary Health Association of India, an apex body of state-level health associations, received funding for rehabilitation work. Their concern for the mental health of cyclone-affected people came early on in the relief work and continued through to rehabilitation. The association focused on providing skills to their staff so they were better aware of local mental health needs. They also provided packets of vegetable seeds with rapid growth rates, which provided both vitamin-rich foods quickly and demonstrated to people that the massive inundation of salt water had not completely destroyed the potential of the soil, and was designed to have the effect of raising spirits in the communities (IMM n.d.). From this and from other experiences, it can be affirmed that concrete support activities such as animal restocking projects are necessary but not sufficient for recovery unless complementary support measures are also put in place to catalyse a local development dynamic by restoring people’s hopes.

In Chad, it has been found that due to the high opportunity cost of time and capital, the poorer population groups of a community cannot participate in local organisations as much as other groups, and must assume risk management mostly on their own, whilst at the same time their limited participation at the community level results in diminished risk managing possibilities such as those acquired through participation in reciprocity mechanisms, voluntary transfers, etc. (Weinberger and Jutting, 2000). Under such circumstances, or else in similar situations, it has been tried to introduce programmes containing risk management funds. These are normally in-kind funds dispatched according to ROSCA principles: households participating in this arrangement earmark animals in their own herds to assist other group members in emergency situations that result in loss of livestock, such as snowfall disasters or epidemics; frequently, NGOs support comparable coping strategies in post-conflict situations.

In sum, though, like for rural development in general, activity portfolio and income diversification are the most promising routes toward equipping households with more resilient livelihood sources. Complementary options to pursue along the same lines are the promotion and consolidation of other existing inter-household cooperation mechanisms; in pastoral North-West China, for example, this may involve encouraging the institution of grassland user rights or short term renting and leasing among affected and non-affected households during the risk recovery period, possibly under the coordination of traditional village leaders. “During the recovery following snow disasters, there are also inter-household cooperative actions, especially within the herders group, i.e. sharing the pasture of the less affected households, providing storage fodder or hay and female yaks for reproduction to those households which were most severely damaged. During such cooperation, herder's group leaders, production team leaders and village leaders can coordinate and accelerate the process of recovery” (Yongong et al., 1999: 16).

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