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Decentralisation and participation are both means of bringing a broader section of a given population into public decision-making processes, which is especially important in the context of Disaster Risk Mitigation (DRM). Local population groups themselves often contribute to increasing their risk exposure, for example, through unsafe settlements on steep slopes, unsustainable deforestation leading to soil degradation, etc. This constitutes all the more reason to inform local population groups about the risks they are taking, involving them as responsible actors in disaster prevention activities; a lot depends on people’s perceptions and interpretations of hazard risk, which should be explored. Natural disasters rarely hit whole countries - hazard risks normally vary even from one micro-region to another, and it is therefore essential to use local knowledge for effective prevention measures and to adapt these to local hazards and vulnerabilities. The latter is much more easily achieved at the decentralised, local government level, and below.

The public administration should thus take on a facilitatory role and responsibility in the process, as government can effectively link up knowledge, technology, skills, resources, and the expertise offered by specialist institutions with grass-roots experience, organisational capacity, and participatory management skills. Successful disaster reduction strategies involve careful efforts to combine knowledge, technology, expertise, institutional capacities, management skills, and practical experience for optimum results, which would not be possible without proper collaboration between the two key players: state and civil society. NGOs can be innovative, rooted to the ground, and participatory in their approach while government can replicate best practices for larger impact. To some extent, however, politics tend to militate against preventive DRM: politicians can and do seize opportunities offered by post-disaster rehabilitation programmes to accumulate political capital and buttress their constituency; on the other hand, they may find it difficult to use scarce public funds for the kind of environmental conservation initiatives useful for natural disaster prevention.

The appropriate allocation of the power to act between levels of authority from individual to global is an essential element in the search for a more comprehensive approach to natural hazard risk reduction. The suboptimal or misallocation of the power and the means to make decisions is often the greatest remaining obstacle to the reduction of natural disasters. How natural resources and environment are managed and mismanaged is a key point of access to the processes that can lead to the eventual removal of this obstacle. In the context of natural resources management, it has been recognised that communities should drive NRM changes, and that, in light of the site-specificity of such problems and the need to consider the incentives of local stakeholders and empower them to take action, community driven development holds substantial promise as an approach to implement DRM programmes.

At the macro-level, official development assistance has until recently had at best a mixed impact on the institutionalisation of DRM. Although “pure” natural disasters tend to cause more casualties and damage than man-made or so-called complex emergencies, it is the latter that have dominated humanitarian budget priorities and funding, leaving DRM activities in natural disaster-prone countries largely underfunded. Institutional divisions between humanitarian and development programmes also result in the neglect of prevention activities.

Government post-disaster relief compensation programmes and international assistance may also act as a “two-edged sword” by providing ‘incentives’ for poor people to locate to disaster-prone areas. Legal and regulatory environments differ enormously from country to country, as does the degree to which the necessary norms that would allow to reduce disaster vulnerability are actually applied and enforced. The contribution of laws and regulations to natural disaster response procedures is an empirical question that only case studies can illustrate; alas, the latter do not normally examine this aspect explicitly, and mostly do so in passing. Demand-driven (and often project-confined) processes of participation do not always meet the supply-driven (and often top-down) processes of decentralisation. In China, the establishment of the household responsibility system has contributed to community groups playing important roles in risk management, but these institutions have not yet been reached by the reform launched at higher levels in 1998.

Some of the methodologically most innovative approaches in DRM come from Central America, with projects such as FEMID, which aimed at responding to communities’ interests to participate in jointly analysing natural hazards and proposing actions; to do so in an organised and systemic manner, an approach referred to as Local Risk Management (LRM) was developed, using the inter-related dimensions of Prevention, Mitigation, and Preparedness (PMP) to group and structure activities. Some of the logistically most innovative responses to the challenges of DRM come from South Asia, where several Indian States have in recent years been hit by earthquakes, cyclones, and floods. Inter alia, experience there suggests that technical line agencies and government departments may need the support of intersectoral Ministries with sufficient logistical capacity: amongst the latter, it was the Revenue Department that was to prove crucial in spreading the warnings before the cyclone, and in the planning and coordination of the relief and rehabilitation processes.

Local institutions may come into the DRM cycle at various stages; Micro-Finance Institutions (MFIs) can carry out important functions in preparedness, reduction or mitigation and risk transfer, as well as response (coping) and recovery. It is in the MFI framework that some “best practices” concerning the use of grant money - mixed with loans - in the aftermath of the onslaught of a natural disaster are emerging. Past experiences indicate that, even though debt forgiveness has brought immediate relief to affected MFI borrowers, it undermined years of sectoral work aimed at creating a culture of repayment and financial discipline. Emergency loans, and other demand-based financial services, such as channelling remittances, may be good mechanisms to help distressed households and can be provided to everybody across affected areas. The provision of auxiliary services such as disaster preparedness training tends to be negatively correlated with financial sustainability, which is vital for any MFI to face future disasters and to develop a viable disaster risk management strategy.

Many claim that progress in reducing the impacts of recurrent natural disasters depends on site-specific, targeted support to local capacities and human resource development. Training has often been targeted at male technocrats, whereas DRM at household level is also, if not mainly, a women’s affair. This male bias in training activities can in part be offset by focusing more on the household and farming systems level, to which the Sustainable Livelihoods framework can add important value. An initiative experimented with in the villages of the remote townships in rural China involves setting up demonstration households which can take up an intermediary function by increasing the frequency of communication with poor households, as well as disseminate knowledge, information and jointly improved technologies. Disaster risk reduction is best attained implementing a diverse series of activities that combines more formal development activities and more traditional risk reduction activities.

Even when risks are technically insurable, there might be alternative risk management products that are more adequate, such as savings and emergency funds. It may be feasible to provide disaster insurance services, but given high risk exposure levels, insurance premiums will most likely have to be set at a rate that only few can afford. In countries like Mexico, for instance, low coverage stems in part from the high premium prices that the insurance industry has to charge in zones that are highly prone to earthquakes. In low risk exposure areas, people do not have the incentive to buy insurance coverage, which further reduces the insurer’s scope to bring down costs to a viable level through cross-subsidisation. A promising approach could be area-based index insurance provided through contracts written against specific perils or events such as area yield loss, flood, or others, defined and recorded at a regional level via, for example, local weather stations.

While credit can help reduce risk through “income smoothing”, savings can help mitigate and cope with risk through “consumption smoothing”. Savings groups are important in the aftermath of a disaster, but subject to ‘co-variance’: informal community-based insurance mechanisms, including traditional rotating credit and savings associations, tend to break down when a disaster hits most of their members. Under heightened disaster risk conditions, the intrinsic contradiction by which the larger a group the more effective it may be as a group-based insurance mechanism, but the more difficult it may also be for it to enforce reciprocity rules, becomes even more marked. Among institutions that mobilise savings, experience suggests that those mobilising voluntary savings might face less acute cash constraints in a post-disaster situation than those collecting compulsory savings.

If we take the wider institutional environment to include traditional communities’ believe systems and cosmology, it is important to realise that to differing degrees and in various forms, natural disasters tend to become dissocialised and “assimilated” in reference to the supernatural. In Western culture and epistemology, this is commonly called “fatalism” and “fatalistic” interpretations of such events postulate that they are acts of God. It would thus be useful to even avoid using the term ‘natural disaster’ as it may be misleading and rather draw attention to the human role in catalysing or causing such events.

Other important elements to consider include predictability and geographical circumference: close to an active volcano, for example, it will always be easier to convince people to invest in disaster prevention than further away. Local disaster prevention initiatives should be part of a participatory planning process linked to awareness raising or training activities and a preliminary risk analysis. The latter, together with a common conceptual and informational basis, is necessary since the causes of disaster risk and the possibilities of mitigating it are for the most part unknown. Where risk management is used to reduce existing risk we may refer to corrective or compensatory risk reduction and where it is used to predict and control future risk we may refer to prospective risk management. Prospective risk management is used in the context of development planning and project processes searching to guarantee adequate levels of security or sustainability for new investments.

A problem in this respect is posed by the fact that DRM initiatives are rarely seen as investment but are rather treated as a mere cost; not least, this is due to the absence of scholarly cost-benefit analyses to make the point. Another important constraint is the very short attention spans that natural disaster risks generally command. In the immediate aftermath of a natural disaster strike, with memories of human and material losses vivid, mitigation investment is a very high priority. Events such as remembrance day festivals on the anniversary of the onset of natural disasters are designed to address this issue and reinforce preparedness in people’s minds. More often than not each time a shock or disaster occurs, development gains accrued are wiped out and communities find themselves ‘starting from scratch’. As such, natural disaster mitigation can also be strengthened in rural development projects through greater attention to Operations and Maintenance (O&M) of infrastructural facilities.

DRM should be regarded as an approach to development planning rather than an outcome of a development project in itself. Development activities that are undertaken in marginal disaster-prone areas are usually not specifically linked to preventing disasters or improving the capacity of households to cope with shocks; rather, they tend to have generic poverty alleviation objectives which may or may not help households cope with repeated disasters. Major investment is needed in developing and disseminating productivity-increasing technology to prevent marginal farmers from exploiting ecologically fragile areas such as hillsides, which leads to soil erosion, watershed degradation and increased natural hazard risk. Within the realm of NRM, options abound that can make positive contributions to improve hazard risk from natural disasters, such as, for example, alternatives to deforestation as forests may provide natural buffers to the flooding of human settlements and agricultural plots.

In sum, the picture emerging from the literature is too patchy and thin to allow conjectures about what a “typical” local institution that is successful at DRM looks like. The latter is not a product but a cyclical, dynamic process that requires continuous adjustments, decision-making and interaction at different yet interrelated levels and among a variety of institutions and actors, including individuals, households, communities, non-governmental organisations, market institutions, and echelons of government. Interdisciplinary initiatives tend to until present have been ad hoc and disaster-specific, sometimes remarkably well orchestrated, but, often constrained by formal structural institutional dissonance and a lack of (interest in) coordination. The latter may be diagnosed ahead of time using existing and well-known research tools such as stakeholder analyses, informed by critical assessments of sectoral policies and the legal and regulatory environment.

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