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Local Communities Stake Claim in Protecting Disaster-Prone Asia

Survivors of the 2010 eruption of Mount Merapi in Indonesia pick through the rubble. Credit: European Commission DG ECHO/CC-BY-ND-2.0

PAGER JURANG, Indonesia, Dec 25 2012 (IPS) - From her half-built house, Ari Haryani takes a few steps to reach a freshly cemented path that snakes through the narrow, dusty walkways of this resettlement village. The path offers the 36-year-old a route to safety in case the nearby Mount Merapi, Indonesia’s most active volcano, erupts.

“It has given us some security,” says the mother of three, referring to the path, one of the many features taking shape to aid this community of 380 homes. “We know what to do and where to run when there is another eruption. Even my children know.”

Evacuation drills have also become part of Ari’s regular rhythm as she and her family continue to rebuild their life on this sloppy terrain after their former village, closer to the towering Merapi, was buried under the searing heat of pyroclastic flows and ash when the volcano last roared to life in October 2010.

That eruption killed close to 350 people and destroyed nearly 10,000 homes over a 15-kilometre radius from the mountain’s crater.

But these efforts in Pager Jurang and other villages — including building community health centres capable of treating patients for burns and respiratory problems – mark a departure from the usual rehabilitation drives that follow disasters. The customary top-down role asserted by officials in the capital, Jakarta, has given way to planning shaped by local communities and local governments.

“The local people had a central role in determining what their village needs so they own this disaster risk reduction programme,” Rio Rahadi, a civil engineer with a local reconstruction and rehabilitation agency, told IPS. “They requested what they wanted to reduce casualties the next time the volcano erupts.”

Such a shift in this corner of Southeast Asia’s largest archipelago – and one of its most disaster-prone regions – affirms a pattern gaining momentum across Asia: local communities and governments are discovering their voice and weight to build resilience.

“Decentralisation is the trend across Asia and that has led to greater efforts by local communities to organise themselves and demand resources for disaster reduction,” says Vinod Thomas, director general for independent evaluation at the Manila-based Asian Development Bank. “How local communities react makes a big difference in building resiliency.”

Yet government funding remains slow for these bottom-up initiatives for communities exposed to disasters ranging from storms, floods and earthquakes to tsunamis and volcanic eruptions. “Funding communities to reduce vulnerability is not as visible and political as reacting and helping after a disaster,” Thomas told IPS.

New studies are now questioning the top-down approach, since local communities are the most vulnerable to disasters in Asia.

“The impacts of disasters on communities need to be better understood for practical action,” argues Debby Sapir, director of the Centre for Research on the Epidemiology of Disasters (CRED), a Brussels-based think tank.

“(In 2012) some high risk countries in the region have made significant progress in controlling disaster impacts. This means that preparedness and prevention measures can be effective.”

“Actions on the ground by local governments and local communities are huge in reducing vulnerability,” adds Jerry Velasquez, head of the Asia-Pacific division of the United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction (UNISDR). “Governments are steadily becoming more aware of these realities, but there are still gaps.”

New reports exposing the fact the Asia is the “world’s most disaster-prone region” – with floods being the most frequent disaster, having the highest human and economic impact in 2012 – have started to turn the heat up on regional governments.

“(Floods) accounted for 54 percent of the death toll in Asia, 78 percent of people affected and 56 percent of all economic damages in the region,” according to data released this month by UNISDR and CRED.

In southern, southeastern and eastern Asia, 83 disasters caused 3,103 deaths affected a total of 64.5 million people and triggered 15.1 billion dollars in damages in 2012.

“Globally, these three regions accounted for 57 percent of the total deaths, 74 percent of the affected people and 34 percent of the total economic damages caused by disasters in the first 10 months of 2012,” according to the data.

The Asia-Pacific region is the most disaster prone area in the world and it is also the most seriously affected one, states another report released recently by UNISDR and the Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (ESCAP), a Bangkok-based U.N. regional body. “Almost two million people were killed in disasters between 1970 and 2011, representing 75 percent of all disaster fatalities globally.”

The most frequent hazards to torment Asians are “hydro-meteorological”, with more than 1.2 billion people being exposed to such hazards since 2000, through 1,215 disasters, compared to the 355 million people exposed to 394 “climatological, biological and geophysical disaster events during the same period,” according to the 134-page report.

“People and governments alike are still struggling to understand how the various components of risk –hazards, vulnerability and exposure – interact to create recurrent disasters.”

With disasters on the rise, community-led responses – such as those in Pager Jurang – are invaluable.

“Early warning and contingency works only if acted upon by local governments and local communities,” says Velasquez of UNISDR.


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